Welcome To The Isle Of Klezbos, Where Yiddish Meets Queer

Welcome To The Isle Of Klezbos, Where Yiddish Meets Queer

About to get married to the gay love of your life? Consider hiring a klezmer band. The centuries old Yiddish wedding music, so long associated in lay circles with "Fiddler On The Roof" and arranged marriage, is actually in the midst of a queer revival.

One female sextet in New York, The Isle of Klezbos, has as many members who identify as Jewish as they do lesbian. Their music –- pointed enough in spirit to have earned a spot on "The L Word" -– goes beyond the traditional subjects of the kale and khusn, or bride and groom.

All source material is fair game. The band's recently released sophomore album, "Live From Brooklyn," includes a track inspired by an episode of "Gomer Pyle, USMC." The 1960s sitcom entered the marriage rights conversation last year, when its star, Jim Nabors, married his longtime partner, effectively coming out at the age of 82.

The Klezbos track is based on the score to a 1968 episode. Titled "A Little Chicken Soup Wouldn't Hurt," the episode guest stars the legendary Yiddish actress Molly Picon. She plays a Jewish mother who lives to serve... food mostly -- her homemade gefilte fish, kreplach, and of course chicken soup, to any young person who'll eat it.

A former archivist, the band's founder, Eve Sicular, heard Nabor's news and immediately thought of the Picon episode. She dug up the video (found easily on Youtube), thinking she'd post the funny little overlap of Yiddish and queer culture to her Facebook page to celebrate.

Watching it beforehand, she noticed a bit in which the two stars seem to share an "in-joke" about homosexuality. Picon, in character as a typical mamaleh, refers darkly to a "sissy" who decorated her home. In reality, she was known for a disregard for gender roles. Her female characters often cross-dressed in a bid to escape their lot, and Picon herself once wore a tux to accept an award.

"Given the two in the scene," Sicular said in a phone interview with HuffPost, the exchange struck her as somewhat momentous: a playful wink-and-nod between a pair of performers acquainted with homosexual culture, rather than a "put down."

Her other discovery: a "lovely klezmer underscoring" playing through much of the 23-minute episode, which somehow escaped her attention years ago when she first saw it. This is the kind of material that's right up Sicular's alley. With the help of an archivist at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, she tracked down the widow of the composer, who agreed to let the band rearrange her late husband's creation. A bonus track on the album, it's now called, "When Gomer Met Molly."

The Isle of Klezbos performs a more traditional klezmer hit, Cartagena Chosidl.

Other bands simply edit the classics to their liking. Gay Iz Mir, a San Francisco-based outfit, who call themselves the only LGBTQ klezmer "house" band in the world (they are members of the synagogue they play for, Sha'ar Zahav), sings an updated take on the "Khosn-Kale Mazel Tov." Theirs is a "Kale-Kale Mazel Tov," for a bride and bride.

The band name is also a twist on a standard: the famous Yiddish kvetch, "Oy vey iz mir," or "Oh woe is me." Now it's "gay is me." (Queer puns are held to a high standard in this crowd. Sicular says she didn't even consider calling her band The Klezbians as "it was already kind of cliché.")

It helps that klezmer is a hybrid art, cobbled from Eastern European folk songs and Yiddish influences. Its dynamic history is often cited by performers as license to write new songs and change old ones without stepping outside the bounds of the form.

Certainly the timing is right for improvising around gay marriage in particular. And yet the subculture of queer klezmer formed decades ago, long before that was the case. Partly this had to do with the music's Yiddish roots, which posed an intriguing counterpoint to the Israel-obsessed "mainstream establishment" Sicular recalls setting the tenor of American Jewish life, when she was a teen in the suburbs of New York in the 1970s.

This trajectory of cultural pride launched from the founding of Israel in 1948. In an essay exploring the line between queer and klezmer culture, Dana Astmann, a staffer at the Yale School of Music, orients the start of "a long-lasting Jewish interest in Israeli music and culture" to the establishment of statehood. Amid this spreading nationalistic fervor, Yiddish, with its Germanic roots, didn't really belong. Sicular remembers parents insisting their kids learn Hebrew and take Israeli folk dance classes. Watching TV at a friend's house one day, she was shocked when her pal understood a short Yiddish phrase that appeared in a commercial.

She eventually joined what Astmann identifies as the "klezmer revival" that began in the late seventies, aligned to the new national interest in folk culture. In 1976, the first notable "neo-klezmer" recording appeared: "East Side Wedding," a rhythmically loose 18-track album cut by a band that called themselves, simply, The Klezmorim, the technical word for klezmer players.

Sicular joined in after experiencing a concert as an undergraduate at Harvard. Hearing klezmer -- for the first time in her life -- both thrilled and upset her. Its clarinet-driven sounds, felt to her, quite simply, Jewish. It was as if, she says, she'd stumbled onto a “party for me in my own backyard that nobody told me about."

An arrangement of Ale Birder by The Klezmatics features tweaked lyrics in the last verse, from "We're all brothers," to "We're all gay, like Jonathan and King David."

Alicia Svigals, an out alum of the Klezmatics, a Grammy-winning band that's both prominent and queer-focused, describes a similar sensation. In a 2007 article for the Jewish journal Sh'ma, she gives a name to the imaginary space where queer, Jewish musicians began to congregate. "Yiddishland," like the backyard of Sicular's metaphor, remains “a safe haven, a frontier world we can begin to populate unmolested.”

The Yiddishness of Yiddishland, naturally, is critical. Says Sicular: "One of my theories is that people who already have a sense of the value of things that are maybe considered a little more outside" -- in this case, being queer -- "are more open to venturing into other things like," for instance, Yiddish culture.

That's not to say the music coming out of this new frontier is strictly Yiddish in spirit. The sound of modern klezmer, in Sicular's words?

“New Orleans second line meets cantata, as dreamt by a Romanian shepherd.”

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