How Klezmer Works

The History of Klezmer

The word "klezmer," which has its roots in the Middle Ages, actually comes from two Hebrew words: "kley" (vessel or tools) and "zmer" (melody). Originally, the word referred to a musical instrument, but it was later broadened to mean Jewish folk musician [source: Strom]. It wasn't until the 19th century that the term became widely used to refer to Jewish folk music.

Since biblical times, both sacred and secular music played an important role in Jewish culture, but when the Jews were dispersed throughout the world in A.D. 70, rabbis banned all instrumental music, deeming it "profane." It wasn't until the 17th century that attitudes towards music began to loosen [source: Strom].

By the late 1700s, large numbers of European Jews migrated east, settling in a designated region known as the Pale of Settlement that now includes parts of Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania. Klezmorim became a vital part of shtetl culture in the Pale, providing music for weddings and private parties, but they were at the fringes of society, occupying a similar cultural role as Gypsies [source: Rogovoy].

As European countries experienced a series of political upheavals in the late 19th century, many Jews, facing increasing intolerance, made the long trip to the United States. From 1880 to 1924, approximately 2.5 million Jewish immigrants arrived in the U.S., bringing with them traditional music. In the new setting, klezmer began a rapid transformation from folk to popular music, as klezmorim brought their talents to movie theaters, vaudeville houses and recording studios.

However, in the mid 1920s, the U.S. government passed the Johnson-Reed Act, severely limiting the number of immigrants from Eastern Europe. With fewer new Jewish immigrants looking to wax nostalgic about life in the Old World with music, klezmer's popularity began to decline. Then, sparked by ethnic pride and a desire among American Jews to explore their roots, a klezmer revival began in the 1970s and '80s, which continues to this day.