Discourses in Music: Volume 5 Number 1 (Spring 2004)

In Response to "Freylekhe Felker: Queer Subculture in the Klezmer Revival" by Dana Astmann

Dana Astmann's "Freylekhe Felker: Queer Subculture in the Klezmer Revival" traces the often-remarked but under-researched overlap of queer and klezmer community, performance, and politics. As a lesbian and a clarinetist who has written about issues in klezmer revivalism and performed klezmer for seven years with the Madison, Wisconsin-based band, Yid Vicious, I read her article with special interest. Astmann offers several reasons for the emergence of a strong queer subculture in North American klezmer. She discusses the folk music revival's historic connections to liberal politics, the gay liberation movement's coincidence with the klezmer revival in the 1970s, and the possibility of identifying as Jewish through Yiddish culture and klezmer, rather than through the state of Israel and Israeli folk music and dance. Astmann details the symbiotic relationship during the 1980s between radical AIDS activism and the Klezmatics, a band whose out and proud sexual and Jewish identities provided a model for other bands. Finally, she provides convincing readings of queer klezmer texts, both titles of instrumental pieces, which make up much of the repertory, and song lyrics.

The cultural meanings of klezmer and its ongoing appeal intertwine with its musical qualities: accessible dance rhythms and forms combined with expressive melodies and the potential for virtuosity. My aim here is to amplify Astmann's arguments by exploring klezmer's potential for redefining tradition and its outsider associations. I also want to interrogate more directly lesbian and bisexual women's presence in klezmer.

The Klezmatics are influential, not only because of their out queer identity and great tunes (apparent in Astmann's choice of musical examples), but also because of their approach to the concept of tradition in klezmer. While some revival bands try to reproduce the sounds of a particular time and place, the Klezmatics understand klezmorim of the past to have incorporated new musical ideas into an ever-changing tradition, a practice the band continues with the diversity of musical styles that have influenced its members. For trumpeter Frank London, "to be traditional... means to be informed by the past and to be part of it, but to be moving into the future."1 In a move that resonates with academic investigations of identity and authenticity, London asserts that terms like "tradition" carry real power and are employed politically to advance diverse agendas.2 The Klezmatics choose to understand such terms in a nuanced manner, creating space for their own musical and political maneuvers. In a similar manner, the queer Yiddishist movement has looked to the Yiddish past to open new possibilities for Jewish identity.

As Astmann notes, involvement with the klezmer renaissance and "lost" Yiddish culture offers a queer, anti-assimilationist way to identify as Jewish. The loss of European Yiddish culture was not the result of mere assimilation, of course, but of the Holocaust, which nearly destroyed the Ashkenazim and, in subsequent decades, provoked painful associations with Yiddish culture for North American Jews. In 1988, Astmann asserts, the Klezmatics album, Shvaygn = Toyt (Silence = Death), evoked both the "nearly extinct" Yiddish language and ACT UP's slogan. But the album title also evoked the image associated with the slogan: a pink triangle set over stark white text against a black background.3 During the 1970s, gay activists appropriated the pink triangle from the badges that homosexuals wore in Nazi concentration camps, turning a symbol of oppression into one of pride. Both homosexuals and Jews faced the same fate in the Holocaust; the Klezmatics, with their out Jewish and queer identities, mobilized against the dangers of silence and assimilation in the face of oppression.

For those who resist the mainstream, the Yiddish past also offers the image of the klezmer musician as an outsider. Not only did klezmorim function at the fringes of European Jewish society, but non-Jewish musicians sometimes exchanged ideas and performed with them. As a non-Jewish musician, I think of this past as a traditional precedent for my respectful involvement in klezmer. Elsewhere, I and others have explored the implications for klezmer and Jewish identity when non-Jews become involved with klezmer as performers and audience members.4

Regionalism plays an important role in North America, where bands comprised of both Jewish and non-Jewish musicians have tended to form in areas with relatively small, though historic, Jewish communities. My klezmer band performed (and continues to perform since I left Wisconsin) as part of the eclectic Madison music scene, as a "diversity element" at folk events around the state, and at Jewish celebrations and community events within the city and regionally. Thus, while in New York and other large cities there is critical mass for a queer klezmer subculture to emerge, in other - progressive - communities klezmer functions in a looser multicultural web.

While Astmann seems to prefer the gender-inclusive "queer," most of her interviewees are women. Indeed, the involvement of lesbians and bisexual women in klezmer performance and at gatherings like KlezKamp, the annual Yiddish Folk Arts Program held at the Paramount Hotel in the Catskills, is striking. Klezmer has even found its way into women's culture gatherings like the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, where in 2003 the all-female Isle of Klezbos performed. Women's music festivals began as part of the lesbian-feminist movement of the 1970s and, like klezmer, continue the folk revival's project of linking music, idealism, and political change. I believe there are also deeper musical reasons for queer women's involvement in klezmer: performing klezmer offers the satisfaction of virtuosic performance, the fun of working with other musicians in a band (even now an experience too often gendered as masculine), and the pleasures of interacting with dancers and other physically engaged listeners. For women, the decision to play klezmer is an empowering reinterpretation of a performative past from which women are almost entirely absent.

The notion of redefining tradition for the future resonates these days with that most important role of the klezmer band in Jewish tradition: to do the good deed of bringing joy to a newly married couple. The not-so-radical message of queer klezmer's reinterpretation of tradition, with its out band names and titles like "Kale-Kale Mazl Tov," is that queer identity and gay marriage are not just a matter of civil rights but cause for celebration. Its powerful acts of redefinition, reclamation of the marginal, and compelling performances indeed support Astmann's claim that queer klezmer is "a strong, musical voice."


1. Frank London, "An Insider's View: How We Traveled from Obscurity to the Klezmer Establishment in Twenty Years," in American Klezmer: Its Roots and Offshoots, ed. Mark Slobin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 210.

2. See, for example, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, "Sounds of Sensibility," in American Klezmer, 129-73; and , "Jewzak and Heavy Shtetl: Creating Identity and Asserting Authenticity in the Neo-Klezmer Movement," Monatshefte 90, no. 2 (Summer 1998): 208-19.

3. The image and slogan were originally created and posted around New York by the Silence = Death Project, which subsequently joined ACT UP. Raymond A. Smith, ed., The Encyclopedia of AIDS: A Social, Political, Cultural, and Scientific Record of the HIV Epidemic, (accessed 10 January 2004).

4. See Mark Slobin, Fiddler on the Move: Exploring the Klezmer World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 76-91; and Christina Baade, "Can this White Lutheran Play Klezmer? Reflections on Race, Ethnicity, and Revival," The Sonneck Society for American Music Bulletin 24, no. 2 (Summer 1998): 37-38.