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The hora, the hora! How Jewish wedding music got that way



(JTA) — When my wife and I were planning our wedding, we thought it might be cool to hire a klezmer band. This was during the first wave of the klezmer revival, when groups like The Klezmatics and The Klezmer Conservatory Band were rediscovering the genre of Jewish wedding music popular for centuries in Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europe.

Of course we also wanted to dance to rock ‘n’ roll and needed musicians who could handle Sinatra for our parents’ benefit, so we went with a more typical wedding band. Modernity won out over tradition. 

Or did it? Musician and musicologist Uri Schreter argues that the music heard at American Jewish weddings since the 1950s has become a tradition all its own, especially in the way Old World traditions coexist with contemporary pop. In a dissertation he is writing about the politics of Jewish music in the early postwar period, Schreter argues that American Jewish musical traditions — especially among secularized Conservative and Reform Jews — reflect events happening outside the wedding hall, including the Holocaust, the creation of Israel and the rapid assimilation of American Jews. 

That will be the subject of a talk he’ll be giving Monday for YIVO, titled “Yiddish to the Core: Wedding Music and Jewish Identity in Postwar New York City.” 

Because it’s June — and because I’m busy planning a wedding for one of my kids one year from now — I wanted to speak to Schreter about Jewish weddings and how they got that way. Our Zoom conversation Wednesday touched on the indestructibility of the hora, the role of musicians as “secular clergy” and why my Ashkenazi parents danced the cha-cha-cha.

Born in Tel Aviv, Schreter is pursuing his PhD in historical musicology at Harvard University. He is a composer, pianist and film editor.

Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

I was struck by your research because we’re helping to plan a child’s wedding now. It’s the first wedding we’ve planned since our own, and we’re still asking the same questions, like, you’ve got to make sure the band can handle the hora and the Motown set and, I don’t know, “Uptown Funk.” Your research explores when that began — when American Jewish weddings began to combine the traditional and secular cultures. 

In the period that I’m talking about, post-World War II America, this is already a fact of life for musicians. A lot of my work is based on interviews with musicians from that period, folks now in their 80s and 90s. The oldest one I have started playing professionally in 1947 or ’48. Popular American music was played at Jewish weddings as early as the 1930s, but it’s a question of proportion — how much the wedding would feature foxtrots and swing and Lindy Hop and other popular dance tunes of the day, and how much of it is going to be klezmer music.

In the postwar period, most of the [non-Orthodox] American Jewish weddings would have featured American pop. For musicians who wanted to be in what they called the “club date” business, they needed to be able to do all these things. And some “offices” — a term they used for a business that books wedding bands — would have specialists that they could call on to do a Jewish wedding.

You’re writing about a period when the Conservative movement becomes the dominant American Jewish denomination. They have one foot in tradition, and the other in modernity. What does a wedding look like in 1958 when they’re building the big suburban synagogues? 

The difference is not so much denominational but between the wide spectrum of Orthodoxy and the diverse spectrum of what I describe as “secular.”

Meaning non-Orthodox — Reform, Conservative, etc.?

Right. Only in the sense that they are broadly speaking more secular than the Orthodox. And if so they are going to have, for the most part, one, maybe two sets of Jewish dance music — basically a medley of a few Jewish tunes. You might have a wedding where it could be a quarter of the music or even half would be Jewish music, but this would be for families that have a much stronger degree of attachment to traditional Jewish culture, and primarily Yiddish culture. 

There’s a few interrelated elements that shape this. Class is an important thing. For lower class communities in some areas, and I am talking primarily about New York, you’d have communities that are a little bit more secluded, probably speaking more Yiddish at home and hanging out more with other Jewish people from similar backgrounds. So these kinds of communities might have as much as a third or half of the music be Jewish, even though they consider themselves secular. It’s actually very similar to an Orthodox wedding, where you might also have half and half [Jewish and “American” music].

Jews in the higher socioeconomic class might, in general, be more Americanized, and want to project a more mainstream American identity. They might have as little as five minutes of Jewish music, just to mark it that they did this. Still, it’s very important for almost all of them to have those five minutes — because it’s one of the things that makes the wedding Jewish. I interviewed couples that were getting married in the ’50s, and a lot of them told me, “You need to have Jewish dance music for this to be a Jewish wedding.”

Composer and pianist Uri Schreter is pursuing his PhD in historical musicology at Harvard University. (Nicole Loeb)

When I was growing up in the 1970s at a suburban Reform synagogue on Long Island, klezmer was never spoken about. I don’t know any parents who owned klezmer albums. Then when I got married a decade later, it was in the middle of the klezmer revival. Am I right about that? Were the ’50s and ’60s fallow periods for klezmer?

You’re definitely right. Up until the mid-1920s, you still have waves of immigration coming from Eastern Europe. So you still have new people feeding this desire for the traditional culture. But as immigration stops and people basically tried to become American, the tides shift away from traditional klezmer. 

The other important thing that happens in the period that I’m looking at is both a negative rejection of klezmer and a positive attraction to other new things. Klezmer becomes associated with immigrant culture, so people who are trying to be American don’t want to be associated with it. It also becomes associated with the Holocaust, which is very problematic. Anything sounding Yiddish becomes associated for some people with tragedy. 

At the same time, and very much related to this, there’s the rise of Israeli popular culture, and especially Israeli folk songs. A really strong symbol of this is in the summer of 1950, when the Weavers record a song called “Tzena, Tzena,” a Hebrew Israeli song written in the 1940s which becomes a massive hit in America — it’s like number two in the Billboard charts for about 10 weeks. Israeli culture becomes this symbol of hope and the future and a new society that’s inspiring. This is all in very stark contrast to what klezmer represents for people. And a lot of the composers of Israeli folk song of its first decades had this very clearly stated ideology that they’re moving away from Ashkenazi musical traditions and Yiddish.

So the Jewish set at a wedding becomes an Israeli set.

At a typical Conservative wedding in the 1950s and ’60s, you might hear 10 minutes of Jewish music. The first one would be “Hava Nagila,” then they went to “Tzena, Tzena,” then they would do a song called “Artza Alinu,” which is today not very well known, and then “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem.” They are songs that are perceived to be Israeli folk songs, even though if you actually look at their origins, it’s a lot murkier than that. Like two of the songs I just mentioned are actually Hasidic songs that received Hebrew words in pre-state Palestine. Another probably comes from some sort of German, non-Jewish composer in 1900, but is in Hebrew and is perceived to be a representation of Israeli culture.

But even when the repertoire already represents a shift towards what’s easier to digest for American Jewry, the arrangements and the instruments and the musical ornamentation are essentially klezmer. The musicians I spoke to said they did this because they felt that this is the only way that it would actually sound Jewish. 

That is to say, to be “Jewish” the music had to gesture towards Ashkenazi and Yiddish, even if it were Israeli and Hebrew. As if Jews wanted to distance themselves from Eastern Europe — but only so far. 

Someone like Dave Tarras or the Epstein Brothers, musicians who were really at the forefront of klezmer in New York at the time, were really focused on bringing it closer to Ashkenazi traditions. Ashkenazi Jewish weddings in America are not the totality of Jewish weddings in America, and Israeli music itself is made up of all these different traditions — North African, Middle Eastern, Turkish, Greek — but in effect most of the really popular songs of the time were composed by Ashkenazi composers. Even “Hava Nagila” is based on a melody from the Sadigura Hasidic sect in Eastern Europe. 

Of course, if you’re a klezmer musician you’re allergic to “Hava Nagila.” 

Then-Vice President Joe Biden dances the hora with his daughter Ashley at her wedding to Howard Krein in Wilmington, Delaware on June 2, 2012. (White House/David Lienemann)

You spoke earlier about Latin music, which seemed to become a Jewish thing in the 1950s and ’60s — I know a few scholars have focused on Jews and Latinos and how Latin musical genres like the mambo and cha-cha-cha became popular in the Catskill Mountain resorts and at Jewish weddings. 

Latin music is not exclusively a Jewish thing, but it’s part of American popular culture by the late 40s. But Jews are very eagerly adopting it for sure. In the Catskills, you would often have two separate bands that alternated every evening. One is a Latin band, one is a generic American band playing everything else. And part of that is American Jews wanting to become American. And how do you become American? By doing what Americans do: by appropriating “exotic” cultures, in this case Latin. This is a way of being American.

Jews and Chinese food would be another example.

And by the way, in a similar vein, it also becomes very popular to dance to Israeli folk songs. A lot of people are taking lessons. A lot of people are going to their Jewish Y to learn Israeli folk dance.

I’ve been to Jewish weddings where the “Jewish set” feels very perfunctory — you know, dance a hora or two long enough to lift the couple on chairs and then let’s get to the Motown. Or the Black Eyed Peas because they were smart enough to include the words “Mazel Tov!” in the lyrics to “I Gotta Feeling.”

So that’s why we always hear that song! I will say though, even when the Jewish music appears superficial, it does have this deeper layer of meaning. It’s very interesting how, despite all these changes, and despite the secularization process of American Jewish weddings, the music still connects people to their Jewishness. These pieces of music are so meshed with other religious components. Of course, most people see this as secular. But a lot of people connect to their Jewish identity through elements such as Jewish music, Jewish food, certain Jewish customs that are easier to accommodate in your secular lifestyle, and the music specifically has this kind of flexibility, this fluidity between the sacred and the profane.

That’s beautiful. It sort of makes the musicians secular clergy.

It’s interesting that you say that. In his history of klezmer, Walter Zev Feldman refers to the klezmer — the word itself means “musician” — as a kind of a liminal character, an interstitial character between the secular and the mundane. The music is not liturgical, but when the klezmer or the band is playing, it is an interval woven with all these other religious components and things that have ritual meaning.

The post The hora, the hora! How Jewish wedding music got that way appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.

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Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary



By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”

Raquel Dancho (left), Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St.Paul, and Nikki Spigelman, President, Gwen Secter Centre

Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)

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Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station



This is a developing story.

(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.

An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.

Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.

The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.

The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to  transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.

Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.

The post Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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