“The White House?” I ask, almost incredulous.
“Yes, Hanukkah at the White House,” says Yale Strom. It’s been a week since Strom was one of around 400 honored guests invited to celebrate Hanukkah with Barack and Michelle Obama at the White House, but he is clearly still excited. “It was humbling, kind of surreal, and definitely a thrill to be there,” he says. “And I bumped into my cousin!”
Yale Strom is one of the most prominent names in klezmer music in the United States. A musician who records and performs with his band Hot Pstromi, he is also a composer who has produced a number of string quartets as well as a symphony. He has authored more than a dozen books, most of which are based on his extensive field research into the lives and music of Eastern European Jews. Strom is also a documentary filmmaker and playwright. He has taught at New York University and, for the last eight or nine years, has been an artist-in-residence at San Diego State University.
Strom and his wife, Elizabeth Schwartz, flew into Washington for only a day for the Hanukkah celebration. He says, “I was surprised. Here we were with prominent people in the arts and politics, and there were people who knew who I was. They knew me from my work. One person who works in the Labor Department asked who I was and when I told him he said, ‘You played at my son’s bar mitzvah!’”
I spoke to Strom last month about his life and how his love and dedication to klezmer music has put him at the forefront of this vibrant music’s revival, led to his endeavors in books and film, and even put him in the company of Barack and Michelle Obama.
It’s a crisp December morning, and in the front sitting room of his well-kept craftsman home Strom lounges back on a white couch. The family dog, Olive, a medium-size mixed breed, joins us and takes to sitting on my feet. “She does that to everybody,” Strom says. He wears a dark wine-colored open-collar shirt. Though he has been at his scholarly work for more than 30 years, disqualifying him from ever being considered a spring chicken of any sort, he has a full head of brown hair. This morning it is combed this way and that, and a moppish bang dips over the right side of his forehead. He has brown eyes and a ready smile.
To one side of the room sits a grand piano, a Steinway that is around 100 years old. Strom explains that the instrument had belonged to his mother-in-law. “In all that time it’s only been owned by two other people. No one in the family really plays the piano, but even still…,” he says as he admires the family keepsake.
In the spring of 1981 it looked like Strom’s future was to be something completely different from a life of klezmer and academia. The San Diego State graduate had just completed the LSAT, the first step to going to law school and a life as an attorney. But one night Strom and a friend went to downtown San Diego to enjoy a local band playing klezmer music.
The band was pretty good, but when Strom, a decent fiddler at the time, asked if he could join them for a tune or two, they gave him the cold shoulder. He thought that if he was unable to play with San Diego’s one and only klezmer ensemble, even for a tune or two, he’d start his own klezmer band. “I thought San Diego is big enough for two klezmer bands. I thought also that I would try to play the tunes and songs that nobody else was doing, the klezmer compositions that were possibly about to be forgotten,” he says.
Leaving the possibility of law school behind and with little more than a camera, some recording equipment, his violin, and the ability to speak a little Yiddish, Strom travelled to what were once known as the Soviet Bloc countries behind the Iron Curtain. He had no sponsorship, was not a graduate student, nor did he have the credentials of a college professor. There was no promise that his work would lead to any book deals or contracts for films or recordings. And, as his undergraduate studies were in American studies and furniture design, he had no background in ethnomusicology or any other sort of field research. Strom let none of it hold him back. “I’ve always been very bold,” he confesses.
“I flew from Vienna to Zagreb, which was then in Yugoslavia, and I went to a Jewish old age home. It was a bit of a distance from the airport to the home, but I didn’t want to spend the 25 cents for the bus. I had maybe $500 for the whole trip, and I was trying to hold onto every penny. It started drizzling. It was late, close to 10 o’clock but it was summertime and still light out. When I got there, they were very nice but told me, ‘your grandmother is probably sleeping. Please come back tomorrow,’
“I explained what I was there for, what I was trying to do. They closed the door and I could hear them talking behind the door. They found a woman who could speak English and she told me that they had decided to let me stay the night.”
Strom wound up spending the next week at the home. “The next day at a gathering I asked, ‘Did any of you have a Jewish wedding?’ At a wedding, you may not have food, but you always have music,” he says. Strom’s questions prompted memories with many of the residents recounting freilachs, horas, and waltzes from their youth.
After his stay in Zagreb, the residents sent him along to a contact in the next town, phoning ahead to tell their acquaintances to expect a young American with a violin and a boatload of questions. “So it was all done through connections, families, or others who knew the Jews in the next village. Also Catholic churches. The local priests usually knew the Jews in the community.”
When he wasn’t getting contacts from Jewish communities or churches, Strom did the best he could with the Stalinist government officials. He found that often when a border guard or other official gave him a bit of a hard time that a bribe of a few Marlborough cigarettes could get him over a border or past a checkpoint.
In one case, unable to use his recorder, he asked a klezmer musician to repeat, over and over again, a musical piece so that Strom could play along and memorize the tune, which he then copied out later. “In Bucharest I was at a library and asked to Xerox a piece of music and they looked at me. ‘There is no Xerox machine here,’ they told me. The closest one was miles away. They wouldn’t let me take photographs. Remember, this is the Soviet Union. So I went back over the next several days and copied the music by hand.”
Strom spent a whole year conducting his investigations. What had started out as a desire to form San Diego’s second klezmer band turned into a great deal more. The Jewish communities of Eastern Europe had been decimated by World War II and the Nazi Holocaust. Without Strom’s efforts, much of this music and culture would have disappeared from the earth. His first book, The Last Jews of Eastern Europe, coauthored with Brian Blue and published in 1987, documents in photographs and essays the lives of Jews and their withering communities in Eastern Europe.
The documentation that made up this book was almost lost as well, or at least it may have remained unpublished. Remember, Strom did all of his recording and interviewing without an institution of higher learning or book contract. But after his third trip to Eastern Europe, Spertus Institute in Chicago agreed to have a showing of his photographs. To earn a little extra income while he was there he busked in the streets with his violin. With his violin case yawning for tips, Strom displayed some of the Eastern European photographs. “Well along came a lady she asked a few questions about the photos. She asked if they were published. I said no. And she said, ‘I’m a publisher!’” What ensued on that street corner was possibly one of the quickest book deals ever.
In the years since, Strom has authored or coauthored more than a dozen other books. Among his latest works is a book on Dave Tarras, a virtuoso considered the “King of Klezmer.” The Ukrainian-born clarinetist’s talents were such that even be boppers Charlie Parker and Miles Davis made pilgrimages to the Catskills to hear him. Strom includes the sheet music to 28 of Tarras’ tunes, almost all of which have never been published before.
Another recent book is Shpil, a very concise primer on klezmer and an instructional book on the ins and outs of klezmer performance. For the book Strom wrote a brief history of Jewish music, and each member of Hot Pstromi takes a chapter to introduce performance techniques of klezmer singing, string bass, accordion, drums, clarinet, and violin. “I thought it would be fun to do with the band. The intended audience is university-level academics and other professionals. And it’s gotten great reviews and has been well received by my peers,” he says.
His single offering of a children’s book is The Wedding That Saved a Town. Illustrated by Jenya Prosmitsky, Strom based his story on a folk tale that draws on the old-world Jewish tradition of conducting a wedding in a cemetery to bring an end to a cholera epidemic. Yes, you read the last sentence correctly. It contained the words wedding, cemetery, and cholera and it is a children’s book. Before you start to think that this sort of thing is inappropriate, just remember that those Grimm fairy tales could be pretty grim, with poison apples and a Big Bad Wolf with an appetite for Little Red Riding Hood.
Strom started playing music when he was in the third grade and was introduced to the violin by his grade school music teacher, Mrs. Baker. “It was Mrs. Baker who came into the school and tested our musical ability,” he remembers. “She would play bits of music, ‘Can you hear that? Can you sing that?’ she would ask us.” The eight-year-old Strom demonstrated a fair degree of musical ability. His family rented a violin for $20 a month, which included lessons from Mrs. Baker. Years later in school, he played in the San Diego Civic Youth Orchestra. “There were 32 violins. I was the thirty-second violinist,” he recalls with a smile.
For the last 30 years Strom has led his band, Hot Pstromi, which often includes wife, Elizabeth, as vocalist and San Diego bassist Jeff Pekarak. Strom has delved deeply into klezmer’s history and traditions, but that has not constrained the sound of Hot Pstromi, which incorporates Gypsy and world beat sounds. “Klezmer is always evolving,” Strom says. “Nothing is static. So, okay, we have the recording of klezmer from 1913, and we listen to what those cats were doing back then and we get down the way the fiddle sounds and the way the clarinet sounds and we try to stay true to that. Well, if the musicians from 1813 heard what the music was like in 1913 they’d say no way that’s klezmer! See, it changes, just like everything else. We can’t just let klezmer be a museum piece from one brief time period.”
On some of his CDs Strom does endeavor to recreate the music of Eastern European Jews from 100 years ago, often recording songs and tunes that have never been recorded before. With others he ventures into the avant-garde with experimentation and influences from jazz and 20th century classical music. He will often mix things up, incorporating flamenco rhythms or Afro-Cuban percussion in his performances and recordings.
With his most recent CD, City of the Future: Yiddish Songs From the Former Soviet Union, Strom brings to life the music of Ukrainian-born Yiddish composer Samuel Vladimirovich Polonski. Polonski was active in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, so a number of the songs have such titles as “Factory Song” and “The Song of the Collective Farmer.” Along with Hot Pstromi, Strom assembled some of the most noted Jewish singers of today. Along with wife, Elizabeth, the singers include Judy Bressler, Vira Lozinsky, Michael Alpert, Anthony Russell, Jack Falk, and Daniel Kahn. The arrangements are among the most striking and intriguing that I’ve ever heard, with a strong taste of both tradition and Soviet industrialism. Strom says, “I wanted to make this music for the 21st century yet still keep the music true to what Polonsky was doing. I arranged all the tunes and put together intros and outros. I also changed up the harmonies, too”
Strom has produced a number of documentaries about klezmer music and Jewish life. One, A Great Day on Eldridge Street, took its inspiration from the photograph and documentary A Great Day in Harlem, in which just about all the greatest names in jazz were gathered in front of a Harlem brownstone. In his documentary, Strom exchanged the townhouse for a synagogue and gathered over 100 klezmer singers and musicians to be photographed and celebrated.
He is currently working on a documentary about the life and work of Eugene Debs. The film about the labor leader and five-time Socialist Party of America presidential candidate is Strom’s first film that is not on a Jewish subject. “My father was a socialist,” he says. “I started this project because, back in 2008, I’d hear people say that Barack Obama is a socialist. He’s not a socialist. I wanted to demonstrate to people what socialism really means.” Strom has been raising money and performed some groundwork for the film. Noted film actress Amy Madigan will narrate the documentary.
Schwartz and Strom have been married some 20 years now. “It was something my mother and a couple of her friends worked up,” Schwartz says. Her mother had seen Strom at a showing of one of his documentaries and thought him the right sort of fellow for her daughter. “But us getting together had its difficulties. Yale was living in New York and I was living in Los Angeles at the time.”
The date finally came about in Los Angeles at a vegetarian restaurant “I couldn’t believe how he packed away the food being so skinny,” recalls Schwartz. Afterward at Schwartz’s apartment Strom said that he was leaving for New York the next night but asked if Schwartz would like to see The Madness of King George before he left. “Four months later, he admitted to me that he’d noticed a movie list on my coffee table with titles crossed out and that was the next in line. He hadn’t known what it was, but he figured it was a good way to get me to go out with him again. We fell in love within a week.”
The couple have a daughter, Tallulah. She plays classical guitar and spent her childhood and teen years performing Hungary, Romania, Ohio, Michigan, and lots of other places with her parents.
She plays classical guitar and spent her childhood and teenage years performing in Hungary, Romania, Ohio, Michigan, and lots of other places with her parents. She is currently a science major at UCSD.
The morning has warmed outside, and Olive, the dog, has left her perch on my feet and is now investigating some noises she hears outside. I’ve been glancing at a few copies of Strom’s books and hand them back to him. “All my work, my compositions, my films and books, are about the human condition,” he says. “I want to make things that resonate with most people, people who are open to culture. I’ve wanted my work to be about what makes this world a wonderful place to live in.”
The History of Klezmer
So what is klezmer music? At its most basic, klezmer is the traditional folk music of Eastern European Jews. It resembles the folk traditions of Romania, Hungary, Poland, and other countries where Ashkenazi Jews made their homes. It nonetheless has characteristics unlike its musical neighbors. It’s a music that, once you’ve heard it, is easily recognized and almost impossible not to love.
What distinguishes klezmer from other Eastern European music is its ornamentation and expressiveness. Both the violin and clarinet, the two traditional main lead instruments of klezmer, are performed in a bold manner that is both jaunty and often quite jocular. And, in addition, both instruments imitate the sighs, shouts, and laughter of the human voice.
With the immigration of Ashkenazi Jews to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, klezmer became part of the American musical masala, influencing and being influenced by popular tunes and jazz. Some claim to hear klezmer influences in the performances of swing clarinetists Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. Gershwin incorporated klezmer into the clarinet intro to Rhapsody in Blue. Some Jewish musicians have claimed that, though Porgy and Bess draws from the African-American musical traditions, Gershwin drew on his own Jewish roots as well in composing the American masterpiece. Klezmer themes can be heard in the opera’s minor-keyed “T’aint Necessarily So” and “Summertime.”
In something of an ironic turn, the musician who probably brought more klezmer into the homes of American Jews and Gentiles was comic performer Mickey Katz, who gained a great deal of popularity in the 1940s and 1950s with his parodies of popular tunes. You might think of him as the Weird Al Yankovic of the Eisenhower era, only with lots more borscht. His hits include “Duvid Crockett,” “Sixteen Tons of Latkes,” and “Borscht Riders in the Sky.” Katz incorporated Yiddish into his lyrics. Sometimes the lyrics were all in Yiddish. He always had the best musicians in his band, and I remember hearing his records as a child. Although I couldn’t understand a word of what he was singing about, I thought he was one of the funniest men I’ve ever heard.
In 1980, in Boston, a few enthusiasts formed the Klezmer Conservatory Band and ushered in the beginning of great klezmer revival. Gentiles, such as Don Byron, began playing klezmer, and the audience for this wonderful music started to reach beyond its traditional Jewish homes and communities.
Yale Strom and Hot Pstromi (Duncan Moore, Jeff Pekarek, Fred Benedetti, Tripp Sprague, Elizabeth Schwartz) perform March 13, 5pm, Torrey Pines Christian Church, 8320 La Jolla Scenic Dr N, La Jolla. Phone:(858) 453-3550
Yale Strom and Hot Pstromi perform April 12, (CD release concert for City of the Future) at SDSU (Smith Recital Hall), 7pm with singers and musicians from Israel, Scotland, NYC, Oakland, and SD. Phone: (619) 594-5327