At 22, Chaia Berman-Peters decided she wanted to unite people from across the Jewish diaspora with her own genre of music. For her, “Kleztronica” was more than just a new sound— it has kindled a unique scene of queer young activists who are pushing for radical change.
“We’re our own identity group,” Berman-Peters told me while rehearsing for a show at the Market Hotel. “As an identity group, we have the obligation to stand in solidarity with other marginalized groups.”
The Thursday show, hosted by the local record label Borscht Beat, is set to be a partial benefit concert, promising 30% of all ticket sales to be donated to Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund, a group that supports humanitarian aid in Gaza.
“It’s recognizing that our struggles for freedom are intertwined,” said another performer, the 26-year-old Aani Kisslinger, as Berman-Peters nodded in agreement.
“True Jewish safety comes from envisioning liberation that necessarily includes the freedom of Palestinians,” says Kisslinger, adding: “I feel some amount of responsibility to say that loudly and own that.”
For Kisslinger, Klezmer culture has provided a way for people to interact with Jewish identity in a way that exists outside what they see as the limits of Zionism.
Practicing in a friend’s home in Flatbush, Kisslinger’s group sang a soulful song with lyrics that questioned identity and called for peace. The melody was chilling and beautiful, referencing both walls and divisions. But before long, they sprung into a lively instrumental piece, tapping their feet along to an electronic beat. On Thursday, at the Market Hotel, Kisslinger will perform some of this along with Berman-Peters, Michael Winograd, Allium, Sam Day Harmet, dancer Hadar Ahuvia and more.
Berman-Peters said she chose both a religious and cultural path to finding her own identity, which she closely ties to queerness. Queer people find “joy in the margins,” she says, which has become the foundation for her larger idea of ‘Kleztronica’ as a whole.
“Our audience is primarily from the Klezmer community,” she says. “They are primarily queer, primarily Jewish, but everyone is welcome. And there’s a lot of non-Jews who attend our events, and basically have all sorts of ages and backgrounds.”
“Klezmer” is a Yiddish word combining “klei” or vessel, with “zemer,” or melody. It was a creation of Eastern Europe culture during the 18th century, made in Christian towns that upheld anti-semitic regulations only permitted Jewish musicians to play during predetermined times and places, such as weddings or holiday events, and occasionally for private homes.
But that didn’t stop the music from traveling; during the late 1930s, it had begun to spread to New York and even trickled into the mainstream. Well known figures of this time included clarinetists such like Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras; the idea of “Yiddish swing” would generate hits like Benny Goodman’s 1939 “And the Angels Sing.” But the Holocaust, which killed six million Jewish people, severed ties between budding American Jewish musicians and their cultural heritage. Many musicians and composers lost their lives.
The modern rebirth of Klezmer music dates mostly to the late 1970s, when young performers rediscovered old recordings of Klezmer music, giving way to a new generation of names like Giora Feidman, The Klezmorim, and Andy Statman; and later groups like the Klezmatics, Budowitz, Khevrisa and more.
“[They] were like, ‘we need to revive this genre, because we want to have pride in our culture and pride in who we are as Jews in America,'” said Berman-Peters. “And so they basically talked to these old practitioners, started reviving this music and built this loving and tight-knit community around this revival of the music.”
Growing up, Berman-Peters was drawn to music as much as Jewish culture; her dad, Nathaniel Berman, is a notable professor at Brown University in Jewish scholarship. Throughout her childhood in the Upper West Side, she remembers musicians, rabbis, cantors and academics weaving in and out of the house. She went on to study Klezmer at Harvard and the New England Conservatory.
Inspired by house music, which has deep roots in Black culture, she began sampling sounds and found ways to fuse both genres. In May of last year, she started performing her own pieces and then uploading them on Soundcloud. She emphasized that a key pillar of the Klezmer community has been supporting marginalized groups in liberation.
Berman-Peters’ idea of “Kleztronica” involves overlaying traditional Ashkenazi Klezmer music with techno house music in order to create her own synthesized, computerized, rhythmic sound. She says that other Klezmer artists have welcomed her work: “They’re totally embracing it and participating in it and experimenting with it themselves.”
Shira Solomon, 25, who helped organize Thursday’s show, said they think it’s a music that transcends language barriers: “It kind of bridges that gap between the older generation and the newer generation of Yiddish-speaking Jews.”
Another musician set to perform, the 38-year-old French-American musician Elénore Weill, said that the self-expression underlying Kleztronica was very “needed,” in the current moment, amid mass mourning in the wake Israel’s ongoing counteroffensive in Gaza, following an attack earlier in the month from Hamas, both of which have left thousands in the region dead. In Gaza, civilians are facing an acute humanitarian crisis with little food, water or means to evacuate.
“In a climate of huge crises and disasters and devastating news that relate to us, especially as [American] Jews, it’s very raw,” said Weill. “I feel more than ever, in this kind of moment, that music and art is to… bring support and show there’s many ways to be Jewish. Being Jewish is multifaceted, it’s like a rainbow of different ways to be in the world.”
Weill adds: “Klezmer feels like it’s beyond borders, beyond nationalism. It’s not nationalistic music, it’s just human, and it’s a way to connect with anyone. Jews, non-Jews, Muslims, anyone. That’s very important.”
Performers like Weill, Berman-Peters and Kisslinger say they are committed to founding a community of freedom and hope.
In Kisslinger’s words, “We’re building a movement here.”
Top photo taken by Jess O’Donoghue.
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