Sounding Jewish in Berlin: Klezmer Music and the Contemporary City. Phil Alexander. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2021.

Reviewed by Zeke Levine

For the past two centuries, Berlin has maintained its role as a central crossroads of global politics, culture, and geography. The German capital is the focus of Phil Alexander’s Sounding Jewish in Berlin. Alexander probes the lively, yet complex contemporary Berlin klezmer scene, delving deeply into the ideological and aesthetic issues that shape it. While the klezmer revival has its roots in the United States, Alexander effectively and engagingly transports the reader to Berlin, an important locus for klezmer performance since the 1980s. Berlin, notes Alexander, is a complex setting for klezmer, given the city’s conflicted relationship with Jewish, particularly Eastern European Jewish, communities and folkways. Throughout the text, Alexander highlights thirty musicians and other creatives on the Berlin scene, framing the book around their experiences as well as his own extensive ethnographic experience as both a performer in, and keen observer of, the scene.

Chapter one draws out the unique character of Berlin and identifies the place of klezmer within this environment. Alexander sets out to analyze “a new chapter in the revitalization of traditional Eastern European Jewish wedding music, hundreds of miles away from its place of inception several centuries” (1). He seeks to “explore how music illuminates and articulates certain aspects of urban life, but equally to understand how a city can play an active part in the creation and maintenance of a certain musical discourse” (9). Throughout these opening pages, Alexander convincingly outlines the political, ideological, aesthetic, and historical stakes that undergird the work. In this introduction, Alexander focuses on the relationship between music and the city, zooming in further to consider one particular music scene within one particular setting. Following this more theoretical introduction, he lays out the methodological component, centered around his ethnographic work in Berlin around the year 2014. A chief triumph of the monograph is Alexander’s ability to merge his own observations of the scene with the voices of his interlocutors and with a range of historical secondary sources. He not only offers a retrospective, self-reflexive analysis of his ethnographic accounts, but also includes lengthy passages of his fieldwork, offering a phenomenological glimpse into the liveness of various performance settings.

In chapter two, Alexander discusses several musical communities which make up Berlin’s klezmer scene. His focus, here, is the ways in which individuals as well as groups negotiate the difficult ideological and creative challenges associated with performing klezmer in Berlin. Zeroing in on the Jewish history of the city, he states “where Berlin klezmer has historically been defined in relation to Jewish absence, its contemporary klezmer community is not only home to an increasing number of (largely non-German) Jews but is also now fully tied into international Yiddish networks” (27). He goes on to define several types of groups within the scene, “modernists” “fantasists” and “transformers.”  Alexander’s coinages serve to delineate particular approaches to the musical tradition. For example, he describes the “modernists” as focused on re-animating forgotten historical materials, while “fantasists” perform imagined worlds rooted in a klezmer performance ethos. The “transformers,” on the other hand, root their performance in the tradition, but maintain a commitment to breaking down oppositional binaries that have come to shape the reception of klezmer. Throughout this chapter, Alexander carefully balances ethnography, theory, and musical transcription analysis, shifting deftly between them. This range of modalities not only engages the reader in a variety of ways, but demonstrates a wide scope of lenses through which Berlin klezmer may be understood.

Chapter three concerns physical space: the venues in which klezmer is performed in Berlin, and “the ways in which certain spaces root an internationalized music within a particular urban context, and how that music in turn connects to a certain spatial ideology” (95). Alexander frames this section within the discipline of ethnomusicology, which he describes as “rooted in a careful linking of geography, history, and music” (98). He offers nuance to this model, however, noting the challenges in “rooting” klezmer music to any one locale. He centers the discussion around the idea of “Jewish space,” building on a diversity of scholarship, including the work of Terence Hawkes, Dick Hebdige, and Diana Pinto, to contextualize this thorny label historiographically.  Alexander’s primary case study contrasts two venues: Kaffee Burger and the Gorki Theater. Alexander illustrates Kaffee Burger’s cramped conditions and laissez-faire atmosphere, which have the effect of collapsing the boundary between performers and audiences, creating a “conscious interactivity and fluidity”(116). Crucially, Kaffee Burger contains few visual markers of “Jewishness,” it is the presence of the music that constitutes the venue as a “Jewish space.” The Gorki Theater, on the other hand, maintains more formal markers of a traditional performance space. While performers and audiences do mingle in most cases, Alexander notes that the spatial dynamics of the Gorki Theater create an atmosphere in which ideas around Jewishness in Berlin are explicitly communicated and debated, as opposed to the implicit negotiation of Jewishness in Kaffee Burger performances. Through this discussion, Alexander’s rich descriptions allow the reader not only to imagine the physical characteristics of the spaces, but also come to feel how the non-material conditions of these venues shape the experience of performing and hearing klezmer in them. By linking the two venues through the dynamic figure of the performer and songwriter Daniel Kahn, Alexander emphasizes the power of a given space to influence the way that klezmer is performed within it.

Chapter four moves from the realm of physical space to the idea of symbolic space. Driving towards the central aspects of the book, Alexander highlights the unique character of Berlin and the resulting unique klezmer scene within it. He explains, “in spite of—or perhaps because of—the lack of a distinctive Yiddish musical cultural history, Berlin’s liminality, its historical and contemporary existence as a site of mobility and immigration, of borders and transgression, is fundamental to this narrative of emplacement” (163). In this chapter, Alexander drives at “the complex two-way dialogue of sound and city” (159), by detailing characteristics of Berlin which have influenced the ways klezmer is performed in the city. He describes the band ?Shmaltz! and their brainchild: the imagined city of Malwonia. Rooted in the lived realities of Berlin, the band created Malwonia as an alternative site in which their impressions of Berlin can be expressed. In another example, Phil Alexander again brings Daniel Kahn into frame, detailing Kahn’s compositions rely on the symbolic and physical geography of Berlin. Moving between German, Yiddish, and English, Kahn evokes the spirit of the city within a more universal message.

Chapter five approaches the ideas suggested by the title of the book: what it means to sound Jewish in Berlin. Alexander dives into two case studies, the “Semer Ensemble” and the performer Tania Alon, whose Jewish-German background is ironically underrepresented within the scene.The Semer Ensemble draws its repertoire from a collection of recordings of Jewish music released by the Semer label prior to WWII. The Semer Ensemble interfaces with the historical sounds of Jewish Berlin by bringing to new life recordings of a bygone era. For Tania Alon, sounding Jewish in Berlin takes on a different meaning. Alon grew up Jewish in Berlin, yet her music must constantly confront the complexities of modern klezmer in Berlin that Alexander details throughout the book. In both cases, ideas of sounding Jewish in Berlin must contend with the dynamic developments of the past three decades. Alexander concludes “Hearing history this way produces some unexpected resonances. It is because of the traumatic history that this material has particular significance for modern audiences.” (205) Alexander mobilizes both history and contemporary experience to highlight the conflicts involved with not only being Jewish, but performing Jewish in this scene.

Chapter six concerns the way that this scene is transmitted. It focuses on the educational program Yiddish Summer Weimar, under the direction of Alan Bern. Yiddish Summer Weimar has been an important meeting place for klezmer musicians from around the world, and for those interested in an immersive experience in the world of klezmer. Through the program’s workshops and performances participants engage intimately with the sounds—both old and new—of klezmer. In this chapter, Alexander gives an ethnographic account of his time in the program, while interspersing quotes from Bern and others about how Yiddish Summer Weimar works within the context of the Berlin klezmer scene. He explains, “embracing traditions both clichéd and radical and fully aware of the pitfalls of definition, my scope here concerns processes of uncovering, revitalizing, curating, and living within ‘tradition’” (224). In this section, Alexander again moves deftly between theory, ethnography, and musical analysis, bringing the reader into the intensive pedagogical environment of Yiddish Summer Weimar.

Chapter seven, a self-titled “postlude,” offers a continued interrogation of space. Through a combination of field notes and ideas from the realm of critical theory, Alexander probes the haunted relationship between twenty-first century Berlin and its Jewish past. Drawing on scholars such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Attali, Alexander highlights the sounds of otherness, the echoes of alterity, in the city. This chapter offers reflections about Berlin at large, and urban spaces in general, that bring together the themes presented in the first six chapters. Finally, Alexander concludes the book with chapter eight, book-ending the monograph with references to the theoretical and methodological discussion of the first chapter. He poignantly sums up: “In all these cases, the relationship is dialectic: the music produces the space as much as the space frames the music” (282)

A key triumph of this book is its continual emphasis on its thesis. Not only does the text read clearly start to finish, it consistently hammers out the relationship between space and music that Alexander frames not only as important to this scene, but important to the larger field of ethnomusicology. This book is a valuable contribution to the ethnomusicological study of the klezmer revival. While a great deal has been written about other settings of klezmer across the United States and Europe, over a large span of history, Berlin has not, until now, been well represented. [1] Phil Alexander’s book remedies this in a powerful way. His references demonstrate a well-grounded connection not only to the ethnomusicology of klezmer, but to the critical theory that has shaped thinking in the humanities. [2] The book, however, lacks a thorough connection to the field of Yiddish studies, a notable absence given that a central tenant of the book is the particular relationship of klezmer to the Yiddish language and to Ashkenazi culture. As Alexander makes clear, a primary challenge of klezmer in Berlin is the treatment of this traditional music in a non-native setting. While his bibliography demonstrates a cursory familiarity with the field of Yiddish studies, the text of the book does not necessarily make meaningful connections with the discipline in the way that Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Joel Rubin—two key scholarly role models for Alexander—commit to doing.

A present-day reader may find strange the centrality on the idea of the liveness within the contemporary city. The COVID-19 pandemic put Phil Alexander in the unenviable position of having to frame research that was current as late 2019 within the context of pandemic shut downs. Alexander offers a thoughtful and self-reflexive justification for his choice not to speculate about the impact of the pandemic on the scene he studies. However, the concept of contemporary liveness that he documents has been radically altered; the idea of place that is so central to the work has been indelibly transformed by the conditions of the pandemic. The rupture caused by COVID-19 has forced Alexander’s scene into the past, complicating the way that the reader may come to engage with the material, particularly with regards to Alexander’s continual focus on the relationship between history and the present. Alexander notes, in the final pages, “my book is therefore also a small elegy, a snapshot of a particular slice of time that is already beginning to look different” (283). While Alexander cannot be faulted for this unfortunate situation, one hopes that a follow-up is in the works, which addresses the impact of the pandemic on the scene. Phil Alexander’s gift for description, transcription, and mobilizing scholarship position him well to revisit the material and to consider how liveness—particularly within the Berlin klezmer scene—has been negotiated in the wake of the global pandemic.

Zeke Levine, New York University

[1] While the study of klezmer in Berlin is an important intervention by Phil Alexander, it sits among recent studies both of Berlin and of Klezmer. See, for example, Tina Fruhauf, Transcending Dystopia: Music, Mobility, and the Jewish Community in Germany, 1945-1989. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2021. ; Hankus Netsky,  Klezmer: Music and Community in Twentieth-Century Jewish Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 2015. ; Joel E. Rubin, New York Klezmer in the Ear­ly Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry: The Music of Naf­tule Brandwein and Dave Tar­ras. (Boy­dell & Brew­er, 2020)

[2] Alexander relies on a range of thinkers, including but not limited to, Mikhail Bakhtin, Jacques Attali, Roland Barthes, Homi Bhabha, Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall, and Ferdinand Saussure. The works of these figures feature prominently across the humanities, and particularly in literary studies. Alexander deftly ties this critical theory to an impressive range of ethnomusicological scholarship.