By Laura Porter
WORCESTER – Temple Emanuel Sinai will transform into a blues club for the evening of April 8 when it presents “Jews ‘n Blues” with singer-songwriter Jeff Klepper.
Klepper will explore the intersection of Eastern-European Jewish and African-American music in American rhythm and blues in a multi-media adventure, “Jews ‘n Blues”.
Next comes a barbecue bonanza from award-winning BT’s Smokehouse. BT owner Brian Treitman, will park his traveling smoker on the Temple Emanuel Sinai patio, and will dish up beef ribs and brisket, beans and coleslaw. (BYOB if you like a beer or a glass of wine with your ‘cue.)
Finally, the Big Daddy Blues Band will take the stage. Besides Big Daddy, otherwise known as Mark Brack, the five-man band includes Alex Simpson on guitar, keyboards and harmonica. Simpson is the son of Temple Emanuel Sinai’s cantor, Rachel Reef-Simpson.
In the 1970s, he formed the group, Kol B’Seder, with Rabbi Daniel Freelander, and together they helped to make Jewish spiritual music both accessible and inclusive.
Cantor at Temple Sinai in Sharon, he also teaches at the Jewish Music Institute of Hebrew College in Newton.
The Ledger recently caught up with Klepper to ask him about how these two vital musical traditions have influenced each other.
Q: How long have you been doing your series, Adventures in Jewish Pop Culture? When and why did you start?
A: When I was songleader at Jewish overnight camp in the early 1970s, I did a workshop called “Jewish Dylanology,” which was a big interest of mine. The first summer I actually used my own records and a portable phonograph — but that was a very bad idea because the records would start to melt as they were playing under the hot sun. So the next year I switched to cassette tapes.
I continued teaching the Dylan class, and also another one I did on Jewish comedy, and the technology evolved from records to cassettes to minidisc, to CDs, then mp3s with an iPod. But it was still just an auditory experience.
Around ten years ago, I watched Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” and I was amazed at what he had done with PowerPoint. So I got a laptop that could handle video and started to add video clips to the lectures and that made everything come alive. Who doesn’t like watching video? I now have about ten different programs, all on different aspects of Jewish musical pop culture. These days they are all created and shown from an iPad, using Apple’s version of PowerPoint. I began to construct these lectures for my own enjoyment because they are about the things I am most passionate about, all revolving around how music is such an important force in our lives.
Q: Why is the historical long view of Jewish humor and music important?
A: I came of age during the Vietnam War, and before that there was the Civil Rights movement in which my parents were very much involved. Both of those protest movements had music at their core. A song is one of the most powerful weapons ever created, but a peaceful weapon. I have no doubt that the song “We Shall Overcome” helped to define the Civil Rights movement and probably contributed to its success. The same thing with John and Yoko’s “Give Peace a Chance” and Vietnam. Consider Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” – that’s not just prophetic, it’s totally Jewish, and so is a lot of Dylan’s music (not to mention the late Leonard Cohen). If you follow a trail from Dylan and go back in time, you find that much of the music that influenced Dylan had a significant Jewish connection. The folk-protest music of the 1940s was heavily influenced by Yiddish songs and Jewish involvement in the labor unions. Consider the most important song of the Depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” written by two Jewish songwriters, and it even sounds like a Yiddish lullaby.
Q: You have had a monumental impact yourself on Jewish music. How would you describe the musical impact you and your generation of Jewish musicians and cantors have had? What are the main contrasts in secular and sacred Jewish music between then and now?
A: The history of my generation is only beginning to be written. The influence of Shlomo Carlebach, for example, is profound, and still being felt in a major way, across all the denominations. The entire 20th century history of synagogue music can be viewed as a struggle between tradition and innovation, but it’s complicated. The traditionalists tended to be the highly-trained musicians and singers (composers and cantors) who saw themselves as the carriers of a very old and great musical tradition, and in many ways they truly were. But in America, the birthplace of jazz and rock, democracy (in other words, participation) became, for many, more important than artistry. In the ‘60s, the formality of operatic cantors, pipe organs and robed choirs began to feel stuffy and old-fashioned. This was not about Orthodox or Reform: it was happening across the religious spectrum.
Until about the 1950s, Yiddish and cantorial songs were the most popular Jewish musical styles. In the ‘60s and ‘70s it was Hebrew songs from Israel. Carlebach’s songs were a combination of Chassidic and Israeli styles, but with an American spirit, so that opened the door for people like Debbie Friedman and myself. But unlike Carlebach, who was raised in the 1930s in a rabbinic family, Debbie and I went to Jewish camps and sang 1960s folk music, which evolved into the “singer-songwriter” genre of the ‘70s. In the 1980s, the new music we had created was called Contemporary Jewish Music, and it became mainstream in many Reform camps and synagogues, while the Orthodox preference continued to be Chassidic music with modern studio production.
A number of other Jewish music trends emerged in the 1990s and 2000s. The Jewish Renewal movement created new forms of Jewish chant, combining elements of Chassidic (wordless) niggunim and mystical chants of other traditions such as Native American and Sufi. The Klezmer movement has revived many beloved Yiddish and cantorial songs along with a retro-European sound that is very haimish and hip. A number of bands play a heady rock infusion of Ashkenazic and Sephardic styles. You can hear that in New York groups like Pharoah’s Daughter and the late Yosi Piamenta’s Band, and in Israel from Moshe Ben Ari and Nava Tehila. Thanks to technology, in the 21st century, Jewish musical influences come from all over the globe: Argentina, Uganda, Iran – almost everywhere.
Tickets for “Jews n’ Blues” are $36 for adults and $18 for children under 12. (Presentation, dinner – BYOB – and concert are all included in ticket price.) Event is registration only with payment received in advance. Deadline is April 1. Call the Temple Office at (508) 755-1257 for tickets and/or more information.