The Klezkamp Mitzvah, Sing OUT! Magazine, Winter 2007, Vol. 50 Issue 4

"Reviving and Reconnecting with a Vanishing Culture"  by Mark Rubin

Learning about culture and traditions can be a tricky business in the best of circumstances. If you were interested in, say for the sake of example, traditional Irish fiddling, you could theoretically pack up, grab a flight to Ireland and head off to County Cork. There you could to sit in on any one of the innumerable music sessions that can be found at any number of local Pub, soaking in the tunes created entirely within its element. In the course of your time there, you would hear the Gaelic ballads, taste the beer and pie, see the rolling country side and meet the other people there enjoying the good times that the music created with it’s community. If you were lucky, after all the fun you might even get one of the old lads to show you a bowing trick or two. You would come home to New Mexico or Indiana or wherever you come from, probably with a deeper level of understanding of Irish music. It would most likely inform the way you play the Irish tunes and think about Irish culture. 

For the descendants of E. European Ashkenazic Jews eager for the same experience of connection to one’s traditions, there is however no “old country” to visit. If one were to return to our homelands, outside of overgrown cemeteries and a few disused synagogues, you would hardly find any indication that Jews were ever there, much less find anyone sing us a song or fiddle us a tune. To complicate matters, in the post War years American Jews very successfully assimilated into the greater American culture, shedding their language and great many of their customs in the process. If that wasn’t enough, with the creation of the Jewish State of Israel in 1948, the Hebrew language with it’s attendant “Israeli” music and dance all but effectively replaced what American Jews considered “Jewish” cultural identity, though it is a language and vernacular that our Yiddish and Russian speaking grandparents would hardly recognize. It’s within this conundrum that Living Tradition’s annual “KlezKamp” was born. 

For the last week of the year, a sleepy corner of the Catskill Mountains is transformed into a Yiddish speaking “Brigadoon” of sorts. There you’ll find the greatest practitioners of what was at one time considered a “dead” language and all the aspects of the culture that sprang from it. Originally billed at the Yiddish Folk Arts Program, it’s founder’s informal nickname “KlezKamp” has stuck and for 22 years its dedicated staff have done nearly the impossible. It has over last two decades effectively rescued, revived and nourished what is today a full blown International re-appreciation of Yiddish Music, Dance and Culture. 

It’s an unlikely story but the seeds of this Jewish Culture rebirth start in rural Appalachia. KlezKamp founder Henry Sapoznik, known to many in the old-time country revival community as “Hank,“ is noted five-string banjoist having been among the first waves of Yankees who headed to the hills of rural North Carolina in the early seventies, seeking out hill-billy music as played by the genuine articles. As a student of such notables as Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham, Sapoznik had imbibed their playing styles and then in turn helped present them to an eager new audience of Folk music devotees in NYC and other urban areas. As a banjo instructor he attended various music camps that sprouted up in the wake of the Eastern “Folk Scare” and in that experience became aware of the power of the intensive immersion approach to the transmission of culture. 
Henry "Hank" Sapoznik, Founder and Director


Conversely, it was at Tommy Jarrell’s innocent prompting (“Don’t you Jews have music of your own?”) that led Sapoznik to examine his own musical heritage, and in doing so a whole new yet familiar path. The son of a famous cantor and a native Yiddish speaker, he hadn’t properly realized that growing up he was completely surrounded by a vibrant Jewish environment, rich with it’s own Yiddish “Tommy Jarrells” as it were. It eventually led his to form Kapelye, a seminal group at the forefront of the clumsily titled “klezmer” music revival, and to a job in 1982 as sound archivist at YIVO, the Yiddish Cultural foundation and archive first founded in Vilna Lithuania in 1925 and now located in New York City after WW2.

These converging streams came together into a single idea. “The model was the music camps, having taught at Jay Ungar’s Fiddle and Dance Camp at Ashokan and then attending a Balkan music camp at the same location. I asked myself: What are they doing? They were almost entirely peer-driven events populated with instructors who were not from the communities of which they were teaching, in other words outsiders teaching other outsiders. One positive thing about having that kind of teacher is that they can present a culture to students on their own terms, they can keep the experience at an arm’s length in some ways.” Many of these “outsiders” were in fact like Sapoznik, Jews themselves. At a camp dedicated to southern old time banjo and fiddle music it’s an easy bet there would be little interest in Jewish tunes. But strangely at the Balkan week, where many of the instructors were also Jewish and well versed in all the many East European folk musics, the very place where you might think East European Jewish music would be well understood even celebrated, you couldn’t find it at all. 


Ultimately what Sapoznik felt was missing from these music and instrument themed camps was the greater context of the culture that created this “folk” music in the first place. “It seemed a big departure from the way folk traditions are actually passed on. As much as I liked working with my peers” said Sapoznik “I wanted younger players to have the same experience I had: learning directly from senior musicians so they would get an accurate take on what this music was all about.” Additionally, at these camps there seemed to be little recognition that music, ultimately, is only one small facet of the many sided diamond of a complete culture. What Sapoznik realized early on was that to better transmit the essences of Yiddish dance and music, one so endangered in fact, you must also immerse its participants in all the many arts associated with Yiddish life; the visual arts, theatre, poetry, food, customs and literature. 

His original concept was to have a program of Yiddish cultural events that was the pay-off if you will to be attached to the end of Columbia University’s Six-Week intensive Yiddish Language program. Literally a summer camp, it was envisioned as a week-long event where the contextual framework for the speaking of Yiddish could live in a perfectly natural way. A way that was pretty much in a state overall decline, along with those who spoke it natively. “Our hope was to create this whole cultural environment, a place where the abstract of learning the language could be put into actual practice. The music was the hook, but the bridge was to the language,” said Sapoznik. 


Adrienne Cooper (z"l)
By 1984, YIVO’s then assistant director, and noted Yiddish singer, Adrienne Cooper enthusiastically supported the idea, and Sapoznik started to look for instructors. The first slate of staff included the well-known singer-author Ruth Rubin, Romanian violinist Leon Schwartz, singer-folklorist Bronya Sakina, clarinetist Max Epstein as well as the younger revivalist musicians Michael Alpert, Hankus Netsky and Lauren Brody. A one time secular Yiddish summer camp turned New Age retreat was secured and a date set for August, but ultimately fell through when the camp asked for more money at the last minute. 

Hoping not to loose the momentum, Sapoznik and new KlezKamp coordinator Becky Miller hurriedly retooled for a winter event of the same year, now scheduled for Christmas week in fact. The choice of Christmas week was a novel one, as most Jews were off doing nothing for the Holiday anyway and the resort was wide open for the week. “No other time of the year alienates or marginalizes Jews more” wryly noted Sapoznik. After a long search they located the Paramount Hotel, a faded rose of a Kosher resort in Parksville NY run by an affable man who’s last name “Gasthalter” is actually Yiddish for “Hotel keeper.” The Paramount was an unlikely assemblage of mix-and-match buildings all connected by a labyrinth maze of hallways with low ceilings. Having seen better days, a booking at the slowest week of the year was much appreciated. With its kosher kitchen, mezzuzot on every doorway, an amazing grand ballroom and a Yiddish-speaking Puerto Rican staff, the rural Paramount became the perfect setting for a cultural revival. 

The first year saw 90 registrants and a staff of 30 and the second year nearly 150. The demographic of the attendees at first closely mirrored that of the younger staff, mostly musicians, but that was to change. As the word spread of a Yiddish outpost poking its head up in the old Catskills, more and more older folks started showing up. These were sixty to eighty year olds, people who had grown up in a Yiddish culture and were now able to celebrate its re-appreciation. As few of these kampers were musicians, the curricula were expanded to include more folklore, historical context and the like. Their mere presence added considerably to the available pool of Yiddish experience and more than one young person, instructors included, were put to rights by someone who actually lived in a Yiddish context. 

In 1987 Lorin Sklamberg, singer with the Klezmatics and long time Gay rights activist, was brought on to replace the departing Miller as KlezKamp coordinator. This may have led to another notable, if unanticipated, addition to the demographic of attendees with the presence of openly Homosexual Jews. Long left out of Jewish cultural life in most other venues simply because of their sexual preference, and marginalized in leftist circles when Anti-Zionism often masks Anti-Semitism, Gay and Lesbian Jews found a friendly and open environment focused on Yiddish culture, essentially free of any of the traditional prejudices associated with it. 

As was actually discussed at a KlezKamp lecture one year, the term “klezmer” as it turns out is actually a clumsy one, and not a all accurate. As it turns out, even though it’s Hebrew roots are in the words “Kley” and “Zemir,” meaning literally “vessel of song,” in it’s actual Yiddish context the term would more accurately describe a very poor musician. “Really a bum, you know the kind of guy who can scratch out a tune or two on a fiddle but can’t really play. No real musician would allow himself to be called that,” advised legendary clarinetist Dave Tarras. “I’d pop you one on the nose,” added veteran clarinetist Joe Borrock. The term had been used to describe the re-introduction of a mix of Yiddish music, folk song and theatre music sometime in the 70’s. By then however, the name had been applied to the more appropriately described Yiddish-American music for too long to reel back from the public consciousness. Just one of the many things you pick up from the lectures presented. 
Sidney Beckerman and student, 1996

While the music staff has always been high visibility, it was the contextual staff - folklorists, language instructors and folk artists – which gave the program its solid superstructure, The prime directive that teachers of Yiddish should be native speakers themselves has meant that their lucky students have learned the language not from someone who simply studied it in college, but by someone from that world whose regional dialect is still intact adding immeasurably to the student’s learning experience. In the early 90’s these folklorists developed a "Junior Folklorist" program wherein children in the KlezKids program were sent out to interview and document the senior members of the KlezKamp community. Traditional handcrafts (paper cutting, calligraphy, textiles, ect,) and even culinary skills are passed on by senior members of the community or through KlezKamp Staff apprenticeships were with those great Masters.

There is no greater example of the greater mission of KlezKamp than in it’s “KlezKids” program. Originally set up for the children of adult participants, it celebrated the milestone last year with as large an enrollment as did the whole event in it’s first year. Sapoznik explains, “We took the outmoded, socialist ‘kindershule’ model which celebrated Yiddish culture but which took no note of traditional folk literacy and reintroduced the old time music, song and other elements of the historic culture and created age appropriate kid programming. This not only served the short term function of allowing their parents to take advantage of the full KK programs, but also positioned Yiddish culture to be cool and hip to these kids and, miracle of miracles, set up out own “farm” system from where these kids grew up to be teachers and musicians themselves, not only at KlezKamp but in their home communities.” 
"Ooomchiks," future proud Yidn


It’s been an outstanding success on many levels. “We replaced the eye-rolling ennui of most kids to the culture and values of their parents and hot housed a generation of eager, motivated and culturally equipped young people for whom Yiddish culture is not seen as a burden but a valued birthright,” notes Sapoznik. 

Over the years the musical staff of Klezkamp has acted in a double capacity in first providing a lecture demonstration setting for older master musicians to teach and be appreciated but also to create a workshop environment for younger generation players to foster their creativity. Nearly all the of ‘leading lights’ of modern “klezmer” music got their start there, and almost all began simply as students. Sucessful bands have formed, performing careers started and lifelong musical relationships have cemented in the hallways and classrooms of the Paramount. However true to it’s founding principals the KlezKamp world, like on the bandstand at a dance, is musical mertiocracy first and foremost where there is often little distinction between the teacher and the student. Much like that session in County Cork, the music is for once now created within its natural habitat. It provides a depth of experience and understanding that cannot be replaced in a classroom setting. Thus many gifted young musicians find themselves carted up on the bandstand for the evening dances, playing right along side the greats. And there have been many greats. Clarinetists Max Epstein, Sid Beckerman, Ray Musiker and German Goldenshteyn. Sax giants Howie Lees and Paul Pincus. Drummer Elaine Hoffman and.Pianist/arranger/raconteur Pete Socolow. Many of whom had until they came onto staff, thought their usefulness over and their contributions largely ignored. 

A unique hurdle for the KlezKamp staff to contend with is the “500 pound Gorilla” of Yiddish Cultural context; it’s unavoidable attachment to the Jewish religion. Observant or not, Yiddish culture has always been intertwined with Jewish religious custom and practice. “You can’t have a Jewish event that some Jews can’t go to.” Says Sapoznik. Thus for instance, the meals served are Kosher and there’s no work (or playing of instruments) on the Sabbath in large public spaces. To the non-Jew, and many assimilated Jews as it turns out, it comes as quite a shock when depending on the calendar, the whole event comes to a complete halt to from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday night. But because it is replaced with equally compelling, and culturally compelling programming, even the most music-centric camper has plenty learning available to soak up. 
Tanzmeister Steven Weintraub


You certainly don’t have to be Jewish to attend, but as the old joke goes, it certainly helps. Music and dance fans of all back rounds have made the trek to the Catskills and come away just as affected. “The people who have the biggest paradigm shift are non Jews who are experiencing Jewish culture in possibly a new way. They actually appreciate the fact that it’s Kosher, not “Kosher-style,” its actually as close as they will get,” notes Sapoznik. European klezmer enthusiasts have probably made the most impact by means of diversity over the years. With not just a little bit of irony, a great many of the Europeans who regularly attend KlezKamp are from places where the original culture in fact never existed or, like Germany, where this very culture was all but destroyed. At this year’sKamp you will find classes taught a very fine Jewish clarinetist, well versed in Yiddish performance styles, who just happens be from Germany who just happens to be named “Christian.” Irony hides around every corner. 

This pressure cooker environment, coupled with the claustrophobic confines of the resort setting, has led many participants to what some call a “Klez Kamp Moment.” That moment when all the wheels of the Kamp activities events have been spinning for a few days, and all the dots have been connected, to where the depth of the culture that is being presented finally sinks in. It can create a deeply personal and moving experience for some. An experience made even more bittersweet when you realize how much of that life as disappeared through attrition, anilhilation and assimilation. Much like a “Yiddish Marine Corps,” a successful kamper comes stripped away of his preconceived notions and then is thoughtfully rebuilt ground up seeing themselves as a member of a greater, living world of Yiddish expression. 


Sherry Mayrent, Founding Director of the Mayrent Institute
The “mother ship” of KlezKamp was lost in 1999 when the Paramount Hotel burnt to the ground in an electrical fire. When the owners announced they were not rebuilding, the staff was left with a dilemma. Thanks to the intercession of a veteran KlezKamper, in a bold move the entire event was relocated to Cherry Hill NJ, a traditionally Jewish suburb of Philadelphia. This period also marked the world premiere of Sapoznik’s “Yiddish Radio Project” which went on to air nationwide on NPR, representing the widest audience to ever experience Yiddish language and culture in the United States. A well-received stage version, featuring a stage band made up of both master musicians and their students, toured nationally afterwards. 2001 saw the arrival of Sherry Mayrent as the new Executive Director, as Lorin Sklamberg stepped down to tour his increasingly popular Klezmatics. But like the loss of the "Old World" in favor of the new, many verteran Klezkampers bemoaned the decamping from the Catskills in favor of an industrial strength hotel in a Pennsylvania strip mall. In 2003, the event returned to their ancestral homeland of the old Yiddish Resorts and now resides at the old "Granite" Resort, now known as the Hudson Valley Resort Center in Kerhonsken NY.

Living Traditions, the parent organization of KlezKamp has recently started a record label dedicated to preserving some of the musical moments that have occurred at Kamp over the years. The most recent release may be it’s most important one yet, a collection of the repertoire of Moldavian clarinetist German Goldensteyn. German’s playing brings to a new generation of students the sounds and songs of the Moldavian-Russian Jewish experience. Orphaned by the Nazi’s, and a veteran Red Army Bandsman, German’s music notebooks contained literally hundreds of Jewish tunes heretofore unknown to American audiences. Long time kamper-turned-instructor Alex Kontorovich, a Jewish Russian émigré and clarinetist himself, served as German’s translator and “second” for several years on staff, carefully studying his style and techniques. With Kontorovich as producer and converting an unused bedroom into a makeshift studio, German and members of the KlezKamp staff recorded a scant 20 tunes from his repertoire during lunch and dinner breaks. German Goldenshteyn’s debut recording “A Living Tradition” was released commercially only a few months later. Tragically German died of a heart attack while on a fishing trip only a few days before a European concert tour. He was only 71. Kontorovich is currently overseeing the publishing of a collection German’s music books to insure his rich legacy will be disemminated. His is but one example of just how ephemeral culture can be. Without the living breathing tradition bearers in our midst and available for comment and context, the work of KlezKamp becomes all the more essential. 
The first Klezkamp release


In recent years the growing acknowledgement of interest in things “klezmer,” a situation KlezKamp can rightly be credited with, it has spurred quite a few imitators. If as the poet says, imitation is an expression of flattery, KlezKamp is a very flattered event indeed. Today you will find similarly fashioned events all over the US and the globe from, Canada to England and even points east. (In one notorious example, KlezKamp sing along songbooks were handed out at a copy-cat “Kamp” with only the Living Traditions letterhead clumsily whited out.) With its 22nd anniversary this December, KlezKamp now has come to a place of some sardonic irony. It has actually become so successful, so transparent in its stated goals of reviving and nurturing a living breathing Yiddish culture, than in fact it is now pretty much taken for granted. Taken for granted in many cases even those whose professional musical careers were born and informed there. By remaining true to it’s stated mission: fostering a holistic “ground up” approach to cultural presentation and preservation, and then purposely eschewing a “star personality” policy in their staff hiring, KlezKamp has in some ways made itself passé within it’s own community. 

The “Village,” or “shetl” more properly, that KlezKamp has created continues every year to feed and support what has now become an international re-appreciation of the totality of Yiddish Cultural Arts. After so many years of so successfully creating culturally literate “graduates,” a typical participant is more often not surrounded in class by people who will one day in fact have learned the lessons taught there, expand upon them and then return to give back to a new generation of campers. With the precious few living masters of Yiddish life leaving us every day, German Goldenshteyn our most recent example, the depth of experience that KlezKamp offers becomes all the more poignant and important. “We can only hope that through this process, we have enabled selfless translators of the continuity. If we done our job well then we’ll have that continuance for future generations,” says Sapoznik. 


The final Catskills KlezKamp will be at the Hudson Valley Resort, Kerhonkson NY, December 23-29, 2014 

Visit http://www.klezkamp.org for details.