SHLOMO PESTCOE  שלמה פּסטקאָ

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Please note: This is not a commercial site. I do not sell or appraise musical instruments. Please do not contact me to request that I identify and provide background information on a specific instrument in your possession and/or evaluate its worth. That's a job for an accredited professional appraiser, which I'm not. That said, I'll be glad to answer questions and discuss any subject I present here, so long as that one proviso is respected.  




Copyright 2006 Shlomo Pestcoe. All rights reserved.

Das Mitzvah Tantz'l (The Little Mitzvah Dance). Klezmorim accompanying a mitzvah tantz. Rosh Ha'shanah (Jewish New Year's) postcard, c. 1910. (Collection of Shlomo Pestcoe)  

A mitzvah is a righteous deed as well as a religious commandment. There are 613 specific mitzvot that traditional Jews are obliged to observe. One of the most pleasant ones is dancing before the kallah (bride) at her wedding to entertain her. In traditional Ashkenazic communities, especially among the Chasidim, a mitzvah tantz (Yiddish for "mitzvah dance") is performed in turn by the Rabbi, her father, father-in-law and various other male members of the bride's immediate family. As seen here, the kallah holds one end of a gartel (a large shawl or decorated cloth) and the mitzvah tantzer holds the other: she stands in place while he dances around her. Nowadays, at non-Chassidic weddings, the mitzvah dance is generally performed by all the wedding guests dancing around the seated bride and groom.


KLEZMER is a Yiddish term which comes from the Hebrew k'lei zemer  (literally, "instruments of song," also used to refer to performers of music). It refers to the traditional instrumental music of the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, as well as to the musicians who play it-- klezmer (singular), klezmorim (plural).

In the Old World, klezmorim were the professional musicians who accompanied weddings and other special occasions in the Jewish community. They also played for the neighboring non-Jewish communities. This being the case, a proper klezmer had to know not only the standard Jewish repertoire but also the traditional dance tunes of the local peasants, as well as the light classical and popular music of the day favored by the nobility and the upper classes. As a result, klezmer music evolved into a rich, flavorful cholent (stew) of all these different music forms.

(Interesting to note that non-Jewish musicians, especially those who were Roma [Gypsy], often played in klezmer bands. By the same token, in some parts of Central and Eastern Europe, specifically Jewish tunes were absorbed into the traditional regional repertoire of non-Jewish rural folk.)


Since the 17th century, the principal musical instruments of traditional klezmer music were the fidl (violin), wooden transverse flute and tsimbl (hammer dulcimer). Accompaniment was often provided by cello and/or double bass, supplemented occasionally by a small drum.

Of all the aforementioned, the fidl was perhaps the most emblematic of traditional vernacular music and life in the rural shtetl (small Jewish town). This was the favorite of both klezmorim and non-professional heimish (literally, "home") musicians. An old Yiddish proverb put it best: "If you want to know how many [male] Jews live in a house, just count the fidls on the wall."

In the late 19th century, the clarinet (which would eventually edge out the fidl as klezmer's quintessential lead instrument), brasswinds, and the early chromatic button accordion began to appear in the lineup of a typical klezmer kapelye (ensemble). Meanwhile, modern amateur Jewish musicians who were more "acculturated" into mainstream non-Jewish society-- namely, factory workers, students and middle class Jews-- tended to favor the mandolin, guitar, piano, concertina and other instruments that had become popular throughout the world by the 1890s.


From 1880 to 1924, there were massive waves of emigration from Eastern Europe as Jews fled oppression and poverty. Wherever they went, these Ashkenazi Jews brought their music with them.

Klezmer flourished in the urban immigrant ghettos of the United States, especially New York City. In addition to their traditional role of playing for weddings and other simchas (joyous occasions), klezmorim performed in Jewish restaurants and cafes. Likewise, they filled the orchestra pits of the burgeoning Yiddish theater, the crucibles of modern Jewish popular music.

The Teens and Twenties were the heyday of American klezmer. This was the era of klezmorim recording 78 rpm records for the major labels of the day, the recordings that now constitute the "canon" of repertoire for present-day klezmer revival musicians and scholars. It was also the period that marked the beginning of klezmer's evolution from the traditional music of the shtetl into a modern vernacular music form. Influenced by mainstream popular music, klezmorim patterned their ensembles and musical arrangements after the large pop orchestras of the day. They also picked up more "up-to-date" instruments like the saxophone, piano, tenor banjo, piano accordion and trap drum set. Klezmorim even joined non-Jewish musicians on the bandstand to play jazz and mainstream American pop.

The advent of radio provided klezmorim with a new venue-- local Yiddish-language programs. And the birth of the "Talking Picture" ushered in a new genre in modern cinema-- Yiddish movies. Here too klezmorim managed to find employment scoring and performing on the films' soundtracks.

When the "Big Band Swing" craze swept America in the late 1920s and 1930s, klezmer, together with Yiddish folk and theater songs, were fused with mainstream American pop to create a unique style called "Jewish Swing." This would be the soundtrack for Jewish American life until the 1950s when it was overshadowed by modern Hebrew folk/pop emanating from the new Jewish state of Israel.


The eventual acculturation of Jews in the New World-- taken with the Holocaust, which claimed most of the Yiddish-speaking communities in the Old World, and the birth of Israel in 1948 with its modern Hebrew culture-- seemed to sound the death knell for Yiddishkeit  (Yiddish culture). Klezmer, the music of Yiddishkeit, was seen a quaint relic of a lost world that was doomed to extinction.

However, klezmer was given a new lease on life in the late 1970's when young Jewish American musicians rediscovered the music and its traditions via the old "78s" and the handful of first-generation klezmorim that were still around. The klezmer revival swung into full gear in the 1980s and today the music has thousands of devotees around the globe.

-- Shlomo Pestcoe



* Home * Bio * Shlomo Sez * Shlomo on MySpace * Sufferin' Succotash * Gillygaloo *    

* Yummie * Musical Styles * Instruments * Features * News * Contact * Links *

* Banjo Roots: Banjo Beginnings *

* Banjo Roots: West Africa *

* The Ekonting: A Link to the Banjo's West African Heritage *

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Copyright 2005 Shlomo Pestcoe. All rights reserved.
Last modified: 02/01/09