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Is Klezmer Music Really Jewish? Culture and Creativity with Yale Strom
Episode 1821st October 2021 • Conversation with the Rabbi • Rabbi Michael Beyo | PHX.fm
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Rabbi Michael Beyo and Dr. Adrian McIntyre talk with Yale Strom about Jewish music, folklore, and other forms of cultural expression.

Yale Strom is a professor at San Diego State University and a violinist, composer, filmmaker, writer, photographer, and playwright. He is a pioneer among revivalists in conducting extensive field research in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans among the Jewish and Roma communities. Initially, his work focused on the use and performance of klezmer music among these two groups. Gradually, his focus increased to examining all aspects of their culture from post-World War II to the present. From more than 3 decades and 75 such research expeditions, Strom has become the world’s leading ethnographer-artist of klezmer music and history.

His klezmer research was instrumental in helping form the repertoires of his klezmer band, Hot Pstromi in New York and San Diego. Since Strom’s first band began in 1982, he has been composing his own New Jewish music, which combines klezmer with Khasidic nigunim, Roma, jazz, classical, Balkan and Sephardic motifs. These compositions range from quartets to a symphony. Strom is also one of the only top composers of Jewish music to carry on the tradition of writing original songs, with Yiddish lyrics, about humanitarian and social issues. His fifteen CDs run the gamut of traditional klezmer to "new" Jewish music.

Yale Strom was the first klezmer musician to perform at the United Nations General Assembly. His research has also resulted in photo documentary books, documentary films, as well as CD recordings. Strom latest children’s illustrated, “Shloyml Boyml and His Lucky Dreydl,” was published in November 2020.

Conversation with the Rabbi is a project of the East Valley Jewish Community Center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, neighborhood organization that has served individuals and families inclusive of all races, religions, and cultures since 1972. Visit us online at https://www.evjcc.org

The Conversation with the Rabbi podcast is supported by a grant from Arizona Humanities, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act.

The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B podcast network in Phoenix, Arizona. Learn more at https://phx.fm

Transcripts

Announcer:

From PHX.FM, this is "Conversation with the Rabbi", featuring open, honest dialogue, and sometimes unconventional perspectives on the world we all share.

Adrian McIntyre:

Welcome back for another Conversation with the Rabbi. I'm Adrian McIntyre. Our host for this program is Rabbi Michael Beyo, CEO of the East Valley Jewish Community Center. Good morning, Rabbi, how are you today?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Good morning, Adrian. I'm doing awesome. How are you today?

Adrian McIntyre:

Well, I'm so glad to hear it. There's a lot of un-awesome things happening around us so it's always good to hear that you're maintaining the course. Our guest for this conversation, and I'm really looking forward to this one, is Yale Strom. Yale is a professor at San Diego State University. But more than an academic, he's a researcher, a performer, someone with a deep passion for the arts and culture, and we're going to learn more about that today. Whether it takes the form of violin or composition or film, stories, et cetera, Yale, I'm excited that you're here. Welcome to the Conversation with the Rabbi.

Yale Strom:

Thank you, Adrian, and thank you for inviting me.

Adrian McIntyre:

Now, as I read your bio and looked at some of the projects that you've worked on, I'm struck by the breadth of the directions, the different ways that your creative interests have taken you. And there was something in there, I wonder if you could start by just sharing with us, you dropped a little hint that it was your research that sparked your creativity, not the other way around. So could you give us a little overview of your work and all the different domains in which you play?

Yale Strom:

Sure, sure. So for those who don't know me, formative years through elementary school years, Detroit. So I'm a proud former Detroiter, and then moved with the family to San Diego, went to grad school at NYU and lived for almost 20 years in New York City. So I often say I lived by the three great bodies of water, the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Great Lakes, now back to the Pacific. So middle school, high school, undergrad in San Diego. So just before I got into what brings me here to both of you and the rabbi is, I got my first degree in American Studies, literature and history emphasis, and then decided to go... I didn't know what I was going to do with it, it was sort of default. I was studying abroad and they said, "Oh, you can't put undeclared major." You had to put something, and I looked at all these humanities classes I had, and oh, American Studies a nice umbrella. And I wanted to work with my hand, and then I... Well, I've always liked art, and I think I get that from my mother who had studied painting at Michigan State University. And my parents liked music and so forth, and I was playing the violin, studying classical and playing little recitals, but never thought about making a profession out of it. And then I decided to go back to school and study Furniture Design. And so I studied that and worked on that for... Got the degree, worked in a factory, planing the left side of a rocking chair, like piece meals, and every time I had an idea, I'd go up to the floor manager and he'd say, "Strom, yeah, we'll talk later. Get your quota done today." And I'd go, "Oh yeah." And after about six, seven months of that I was bored and it just was tough, and I said, "Oh, I don't know. Maybe I could maybe open a little shop and I'll starve." I don't know, I was just stressed out. So then I decided to go to law school because I come from a home where... Imbued with a strong sense of our Jewish culture, East European of my grandparents, both my father and mother are very proud of it. American, baseball, Chevrolet. We drove Chevrolets coming from Detroit. We drove American-made cars, but also imbued with a strong social conscience, politically. I'm very proud to say we were progressives before even people say progressives today. So imbued with all that, and so I thought, oh, civil rights law or ACLU, or who knows? Labor law. So I took the test and waiting for the... Some rejections came and some of acceptances came, but during that time, I was still living at home and I was with a buddy. The revival of klezmer was just beginning, this was the early eighties, and Jewish East European music for those who say, "Hey, we just said a word. I don't know what it means." Think of Fiddler on the Roof, think of wedding Jewish music, happy. It can be slow sometimes, a little sad, but it's generally, it's happy music, it's party music. And I knew about this, and I had grown with Jewish music. Not particularly that instrumental time, I grew up with more like a kind of religious melodies around the table; Hasidic, the capitalistic mystic melodies, because my father's side of the family came from that mystical side of Judaism; and in synagogue, melodies, whatever, and some Yiddish folk songs. But a buddy said, "Oh, there's this. It's downtown San Diego, it's at a club. It's not at a Jewish edifice. It's not at a bar mitzvah, a wedding or anything," he said, "It's a club." So I went, and I was curious to see it, and I knew a couple people in the band. It was a big band too. It was interesting, it was about 12 to 15 people and the arrangements were interesting. So basically during the intermission, I went up to the band leader and said, "Hey, do you need a... Can I give you my card? Maybe you can hire me someday. Or can I jam with you, or just rehearse? Whatever." I was interested. I was kind of excited, and basically he said, "Don't call us, we'll call you." And okay, whatever. So we came home, and I got home probably about 3:00 AM, and, literally, a light bulb went off. It was like a 360. Or what's that, a 520? No, a 720 turn in my head. I decided, because I was going to the library and the law section, and figured, let me read up a little bit on torts and just get a little so I'm sort of with the students because I hadn't really taken a lot of law core stuff in undergrad, but I was not enjoying it. I was doing it. I mean, I was enjoying the idea of becoming the lawyer, but God, three years of it is studying and cost of money. Even with a little scholarship promise, it was still going to be a lot of money, and I was going to be paying for it, loans. So I came home and I said, "If you can't beat them, join them. No, if you can't beat them, form your own." And that's when I decided to form my own klezmer, Jewish instrumental, East European Jewish band. But if you're going to form it and there's already one there and they're playing and they're getting gigs and concerts, you got to be a little different. You can't open the same restaurant a block away. They hung their shingle a couple years before you, so how are you going to get the customers to come to you? So I thought, "Ah, I wonder if there's music still in the memories of Jews, non-Jews, whatever, in Eastern Europe who are still living there." And so I bought a one way ticket to Vienna, because that was the portal to the East Block then. Vienna was "the biggest city" in the Western zone, and then you're in the hegemony of the Soviet Union, so to speak, the Soviet East Block. And thinking two, three months, and ended up being over a year, searching for melodies and et cetera. And I did form my band. Initially it was called Zmiros, which means melodies in Hebrew; zemirot, z'miros, the Ashkenaz way, the old Hebrew way, but today it's Hot Pstromi. It's been that for decades. So just to finish up, but my interest focused first ... folk music, ethnomusicology if you want to use it, we can use that academic term, like Bartók was and the Lomax family, John and Alan giving us great music from the Americas. But then my interests widen. Okay, so who are these interesting people? Who are these Jews who returned from the Holocaust? So they all suffered whether they returned from the ghettos they survived in, forests they hid in, military they fought in with the Russians, the Soviets, or they had been taken, had run and saved themselves by being in Central Asia, whatever. There's still about a quarter of a million Jews outside Russia, Soviet Union, living in Poland, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia. These are former Yugoslavia, former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, these interesting countries. And then when I formed the band, did my first recording, went back again a couple years later with my photographs, took more, went with a buddy, really some... I'm looking at life in its totality, all kinds of culture. What makes people tick here, and why do they stay in a place that the streets slowly ran with blood of their family? It's not easy to be a human in East Block if you're a free thinker and you're creative, but also Jews, we know that the Soviets were hard on minorities, particularly Jews, et cetera. And also my contact with the music and playing the violin. I'm a violinist, very proud to be. The violin opened the doors. The violin allowed me to meet another group of people that also played music with the Jews sometimes in certain regions. And who are those? The Roma, Gypsies, but it's the PC where we really should say Roma. And it has nothing to do with Rome, good old Rome, Italy, or Roma tomatoes; it means "a man" in Sanskrit. They're not Semites, they are from India. They're actually Aryans. They're from northwestern India, Rajasthan, southeastern Pakistan, Baluchestan. And so all these years later, so I kept going back. And so my interest in Yiddish culture, Roma culture, music, but brought into the politics of the day, et cetera. So here I have this research, but then I said, "Okay, I could just write a book or write some articles." Very academic, which is fine. I think being an intellectual, it's not a bad thing, and we won't go into politics these last four years. Nothing wrong with having intellect and thinking, but I wanted to reach the masses if I could, because... And, Adrian, you understand this, and I think even the rabbi understand this. If you write just for a specific group so you get your stuff posted in a ethnomusicology journal or anthropology journal, that's fine, so 400, 500, 6, 8, a thousand intellectuals and others will read it in the world. I wanted to reach, sounding kind of egotistical, I wanted to reach millions, so that's why I started doing documentary films, writing books, creating recordings, doing theater plays, photo exhibits. And I'm proud to say, and all artists have to have an ego. If you don't, then you're not a real artist. I'm proud to say, though, my work has reached millions of people. I know that for a fact, and that's how I'm here in front of you two wonderful people today, that little side trip of deciding not to go to law school, to form my own band, and using my art to be able to understand and research and preserve and extol and push forth the culture. I don't like... Last thing, before I open it up, a lot of people say, "Oh, are you preserving the tradition as it was?" Well, if I take a photo or I record somebody from 30, 40 years ago, you hear that we captured that moment, but musically I'm pushing the envelope. I can play the traditional sounds, traditional folk, the traditional Jewish East European, but I'm also interested in the music that moves me, whether it's jazz or classical or different kinds of folk music from around the world. And so I end with this. So some people might say, "Oh Yale, that sounds a little jazz you added there in that klezmer, a little too much Roma, or maybe there's a little bluegrass or something." I say, "Oh yeah, you have good ears." So yeah. "So it's not traditional." I said, "Oh, so what's traditional klezmer?" "Well, that 1913 recording that I hear." "Oh, let's put it on." And you hear it [scratching sounds]. "Oh, that's very nice, yes. And guess what?" I say to the gentleman, trying to be polite and not sarcastic, "And what about that recording from 1813? And what about that recording from 1713? You think that cat, that musician in 1713 is playing the same way as the cat in 1913? I rest my case. Next subject?" Meaning culture, like humanity, we change, we evolve. Doesn't mean we don't forget our roots and bring them with us to that time that we're living right now today, whatever, December nine I think it is, or eight, whatever it is, 2020, but we also look forward to the future. And also if you want to attract people and... Meaning to attract youth, because youth become that next generation. And so youth, let's say I like old, I like traditional, I like retro, but I also, how do you speak to me in my times? So that's how I view my research academically and artistically.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Thank you, Yale, very much. You definitely had a wonderful career and you still have a wonderful career in front of you. Our association with Yale started two years ago when we did our first klezmer festival here at East Valley JCC, and hopefully our collaboration with East Valley JCC and Yale will continue for many years. But, Yale, let me ask you a question. As we know, since the destruction of the Temple two thousand years ago in Jerusalem, the rabbis instituted a ban on music. And just because the rabbis instituted a ban did not mean that Jews kept it, but there was this concept that we are so terribly sad because of the destruction of the Temple that music, per se, was relegated only to the synagogue settings, to ritual music. And so to what extent, and at what point in time, could you, as a music historian point to a point in time where we took the music and the melodies from the synagogue outside of the synagogue? And moreover than that, to what extent is klezmer music really Jewish? Because we lost, that's my contention, is that because of the prohibition of playing music, we lost the music, the traditional music of the Temple. And so to what extent we can talk about Jewish music today, and klezmer music specifically, as Jewish? Maybe we should talk about it that it is an import, a mishmash, a cholent, as we say, of influences from all over the world where Jews were that came into our prayers, that came into our life. What do you say?

Yale Strom:

Well, both great questions. Well, first, the rest of that prohibition. The Temple, the second Temple, is destroyed 70 AD, the year 70, and we're in this constant mourning until the rebuilding of the Temple in Yerushalayim, Jerusalem. But really we see... Well, first of all, let's just say, yes, I'm Jewish, this person's Christian, Muslim, whatever; we're humans. It goes against the grain of just the human existence to not allow a human to enjoy music. First of all, we're... Of all the art forms, and I'm saying this, I could be proven wrong, but in my humbled bias, of all the art forms that we participate in as humans, music is the foremost. And one might say, "Oh, I've never played a lick of music. I listen to the radio or the iPod, but..." I said, "No, as soon as you came out of... Well, even while you were in your mother's womb, but as soon as you came out, it's music." Why? Not only the crying, but what? Rhythm. Because if your heart is doing this flat line, you ain't living too well, dude. You got to have beats and your lungs. And rhythm is the essential aspect of our lives, how we walk and we move, how I move my arms like this, so it's then I'm talking with my hands, the rhythm of my voice. And I often tell my students, if we all were to cry on the count of three and I was recording everybody, and then pause after 30 seconds, let's all laugh on the count of three, you would hear like, whoa, this is this cacophony of interesting sounds. Music is a part of who we are naturally. So I think when the rabbi said, wagged their finger, said, "Okay, no music. We're in mourning except in the beit knesset, in the synagogue, and for the rituals," some people followed that. Others just, quietly, didn't want to go against the rabbis to their face, but said, "Screw that. I'm a human. I'm whistling while my oxen is... Me are hoeing this field. This is hard work and I'm in Israel? Bloody hell, man, it's 90 degrees in the shade, maybe a hundreds, in Fahrenheit. I got to keep my mind on something instead of this sweat and hard work. So music is a part of the human condition. Now, in terms of true facts, we know that by the... There were wandering Jewish minstrels already in the sixth, seventh century. We've heard the word [foreign language] "troubadour." We use that word in English, right? Troubadour. I'm a troubadour. Troubadour is a wanderer. We had troubadours in the time of Shakespeare. So there were Jewish wandering minstrels singing for the Jewish communities, but also for anybody who would throw a coin that they needed, so they had a big repertoire. But interesting, The Maharal, the Reb Loew ...

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

In Prague.

Yale Strom:

... in Prague, the great rabbi who had great status in all of Europe, he said that the mitzvah, the deed of making the bride and groom happy on the day that they get married is greater than you following what those rabbis have said, don't play music. So I saw in the archives, and I wrote this down in my book called "The Book of Klezmer," where he said to this couple. They came to him and they said, "Rabbi, what are we going to do?" He said, "Listen. Go, take the boat with the rower and row across the river to that town and play music, where there's no restriction, and sing, because you should. How can you start your hatuna, your Jewish wedding? How can you start your new life with no music? It's what? You're mashugana? You're crazy?" So anyhow, so slowly, slowly... It's just part of who we are. And before I go to your second question, the Hasidim. So here we are, the 18th century, 1700, the Baal Shem Tov rabbi Israel Eliezer, the great wonder rabbi rebbe, passes away in 1760. There's so much we can go in the history, but to me, the key to the Hasidic philosophy is, don't go around life just going, "Oh, oh, woe is me. It's the pandemic. This is terrible. Oh, the cloud is over my head always. And even when the sun's out, no." In other words, seeing the glass always half empty instead of half full. He says, "No." Sadness is an anathemas. God doesn't want sadness; He wants joy from you. And just studying, studying, studying for study's sake, or just doing a mitzvah because you know God's looking at you. Oh, see, I did the mitzvah, God. No, no. Being happy for the intrinsic value that it brings happiness to you, because God's saying, "Ah, I made you. I want you to be happy." And how do you want to worship God? How can you say your thanks to God? God says, "Then sing to Me. Sing to me in your prayers." And so, boom, all of the sudden... And of course we know by the eve of World War II, the millions of people who were Hasidic, or if not Hasidim themself, felt a connection. And one of the connections was the music, because like dance, they sang their prayers in the synagogue. Now, what is Jewish music? That is a good question. As I had just told Adrian before, we don't... In 69 AD before the Temple was destroyed, I wish we had a recording. We don't. What we surmise though, are these melodies or these scales. When we listen to the Yemenite, Teimanim Jews, the Iraqi, Iranian Jews, Jews that stayed separate. Not so much North Africa, that one's missing, but because the Yemenite Jews lived in these mountainous closed regions, even though... Yes, among Arabs who, they were Arabs before they were Muslims, and then they decided to believe in Allah. And so we hear those scales, and we also know that the scales that the Jews sang to before it became Judaism... I say that the music is older than these three words: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. Older than the three Abrahamic. So most likely the scales come from Central Asia. There's some aspects to India, Pakistan, central Asia, as well as the Levant, the Middle Eastern region. And so those Middle Eastern scales, so actually when you hear music in the synagogues today that are very pop-ish Western Beatles or Paul Simon, Garfunkel, or whatever your pop icon of 2020 is... Nice; not going to put it down. If it moves you in your heart spiritually, great, but it ain't Jewish music. To me, the music that moves me the most is Mizrahi, is that Middle Eastern sound, those scales, the scales that you can't play really on the piano. The piano has white keys. Yes, I hope. And you have black ivories; you have your black and your white. So I tell students it's all the gray keys. And if you have gray keys, go take that $35,000 Steinway and get it rebuilt. Get your money back because you don't want gray keys. But it's the gray keys, it's all of those quarter tones.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

The maqamim.

Yale Strom:

Beautiful, Rabbi, the maqamim. So that's it. So that's probably the real sense of Jewish music. But like anything, things we borrow... Jews, we're adapters, like our cuisine. What is real Jewish cuisine? Who knows? So I find the palate of music is like the chef's palate. It borrows, takes, but there's always the intrinsic, always the [foreign language], the Jew there.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

I also love and enjoy tremendously Middle Eastern music, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Love to listen to Umm Kulthum ...

Yale Strom:

Me too.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

... Farid al-Atrash. And in general, Middle Eastern music moves me tremendously. What is interesting is that in Israel, for decades in Israel, Middle Eastern music was relegated to the underground. Like at the beginning of the formation of the seat of Israel, music sounded more like a Soviet band in the kibbutzim, socialist and communist kibbutzim, than anything; music was very regimental. It's like a communism. Then there was a transition, and the only place that you could actually buy a tape of Mizrahi music was in some shady store in the [foreign language], in the train station or the bus station. Today in Israel, for the last probably 15, 20 years, Mizrahi music is the most common, the most listened to, the most pop music that exists in Israel. It went kind of together with a cultural revolution and acceptance of Mizrahi culture in general in Israel. So that's a different story, but absolutely today in Israel, the top singers are all Mizrahi singers.

Yale Strom:

Yeah, yeah. And you know one of the reasons why, Rabbi, that it became so popular in Israel, and really around the world now? That Middle Eastern sound is, it's driven by the rhythm. People like rhythm. And when you have the doumbek, different kinds of drums, and you have a beat, people like the beats. Some people come to sit down like an opera or a classical, and you're really kind of into the music, looking at the fingers, and that's fine too. But, generally, guess what? People are people, and they just want to be moved, whether they're working, they're with a friend, a loved one, they're dancing, or they're just dancing in the privacy of their home. And if it doesn't have a good beat, it's kind of hard to, but when you got the drums going, and so Mizrahi music, particularly Teimanim, Yemenite, but many... Not many string instruments, a little bit flutes, now of course, over the last hundred years has added, but traditionally it was driven by drums, rhythm. And so you got it. So guess what Israelis found out? We like rhythm.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Right. So let me ask a different question. We spoke about a little bit the past, the history, the various influences that the music had on our culture. Where do you see the next evolution of Jewish music? I mean, we see like the Maccabeats, okay? Great fun music. They take contemporary songs and they give them a Jewish twist. Very fun, awesome, great, but where do you see the evolution of Jewish music?

Yale Strom:

Wow, that is a good question. I guess if I really knew the answer, I could sell it on Wall Street.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

We'll do an IPO.

Yale Strom:

You and I, there you go. Well, even Jewish music, there's this African American because he was born in Seattle, Christian family, Christian. And then he had some trouble with the law, whatever, a poor family, and was seeking answers, seeking, he had questions and seeking answers. And then he went to Islam for a while, that doesn't... And then a friend of his introduced him to a rabbi, a Lubavitcher rabbi, but slowly said, "Hmm." Why do I bring him up? He's living now in Israel, his name is Nissim ...

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Nissim Black.

Yale Strom:

Oh, see, you know Nissim.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Everybody knows Nissim Black. Come on.

Yale Strom:

Yeah, it's Nissim Black, so ...

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

He's awesome.

Yale Strom:

You're right. No, no, no, Nissim Black. So here he's adding ... So he's devotional, his lyrics are about Hashem and God and being one with the Torah.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

But isn't he influenced tremendously by his rap? Because he was rapper.

Yale Strom:

Yes, he was a rapper, and he still is a rapper. He still is a rapper. So he's using the beats and the rhyming scheme of his poetry, so that's interesting. But even I say, "Okay, but..." And I, being a professional musician, and I say this to my students, I say, "Okay, do you think when you're in your sixties and your kids say, 'What did you listen to?'" And they say, "Oh, listen to this." And they say, "Oh my God, that's so old. It's so for an old bogie." I said, "Just because you're 21 now, you ain't going to be 21 for ever, guys. It's going to get... It's just the way that the cycle of life is in the universe." So that is a good question. I see... There are so many ways you can take a scale and break it up. I mean, Schoenberg had the 12-tone scale, and then there's the Eastern scale of five, of Asian, of the pentatonic. And as you were just saying the maqams that play in between, if my fingers were two notes, here's a note, they play in between, and in between the in between, and in between that. So I think it's going to just keep evolving. Obviously rap, but obviously pop music from America, not that it has to be the greatest whatever, it's because we have the biggest bullhorn through Hollywood and through Broadway and through television. So when you put out, and so when someone... And you know what? Youth are youth. They, "Oh, that guy's cool," or "She's hot looking," or "He's handsome. Let's do that." And the song could be, excuse my French, kind of shitty. It could be terrible, but all of a sudden it becomes a pop and I go, "Oh God, okay. Hopefully that will run through its course of time and it'll be a fad." And often it's a short fad for a couple years. I'm waiting for stuff to move on beyond the rap that we've heard for the last 30, 40 years myself, and so that's a good question. I'm always, I'm pushing the envelope. I'm using Mizrahi, but then I'm adding improvisation, and then I add to other styles. I don't even know what the name is, it's just what it is, it is. So I think there are creative people in Israel, in America, wherever Jews are. Non-Jews, one doesn't have to be Jewish to play Jewish music. It's like the old New York City on the buses, there would be a Native American eat with a smile eating like a corned beef sandwich and says, "One does not have to be Jewish to like Levy's rye bread." It could be anybody, so I think the sky's the limit. The only limitation is the limits of what you put yourself on creativity. So I think it's going to go more free, where it's just, kind of incorporates different languages, different sounds, maybe different instruments. Obviously electronics is here to stay, and I like electronics, but I still like the old fashioned instrument because I feel that's part of the extension of the human body. But people will experiment more than we even can imagine, that we think we've hit it just with the scratching, and then no, no. I think it's going to go many places. Maybe we'll get something like John Cage. He surprised us with his piece, "Four Minutes and Thirty-six Seconds". What was that? You might not be familiar. Okay, get ready. It was four minutes and 36 seconds of sitting in front of the musicians and they weren't playing. Did you enjoy that? You heard people breathing, coughing. Anyhow, I think that... Why put limits on ourselves?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Perfect. We have another few minutes, and so let me ask you a last question and get your insight, which is very interesting and so knowledgeable when it comes to these topics. The klezmer is often associated with just "klei zemer," just music, no words. And there is a Kabbalistic concept that niggunim don't have words because words limit, and music without words is limitless. Talk to us a little bit about this tension a little bit between music with words, which is what we are normally used to listen to versus klezmer that is, or niggunim, that is this wonderful music without words.

Yale Strom:

Right. So first of all, lyrics, Jews have been singing, whether it's prayer melodies that came from the Torah or Midrashim, or just poetry that they created from, like David Hamelech, King David, writing beautiful poetry, et cetera. As humans, we like it because the words in our mind, they create an image, a movie, a scene in our head, and then the music is the soundtrack, and we're moved emotionally, whether we are sad or happy, or we've fallen in love with, whatever; it creates an emotion. But you're right, it was often just the instrumental. But that was one of the things interesting, again, with the advent of the Hasidim is, they would say, "Yes, let's sing a song, the words, you know [foreign language]." Righteous we are, and the purity of us is who we are. Or do we say "Ay, ay, ay, bim-bom, die-diddy-die," whatever onomatopoeia sound? And some people say you do that as well. And some people say, "But that's not lyrics, it's just sounds like sounds. It's the consonants with a vowel." And the Kabbalists would say, and the Hasidim, the [foreign language] say, "No, no, whatever you're singing, 'Ay, ay, ay. Bim-bom, die-di-die, hoy hoy," that greater power than you, let's call it God, he, she, it, they. Mine is definitely a she.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

I met your wife. [laughs]

Yale Strom:

You know her, yes, very good, Rabbi. And those sounds are being turned into words. So that greater power doesn't have to hear the word, the cat crossed the street. No, ah. Oh, that means the cat crossed the street, said the greater, if that's what's in your heart. And so I think that's the beauty, and you're right. They say, "Why was the violin one of the favorite instruments?" They even called it the Jewish instrument in Europe up through World War II because so many Jews played and everything, but there was something about it, the crying, the laughing. They say the violin is closest to the voice. It speaks to me, it speaks to you. It's like your heart, an extension. So vocals are important, whether it's the vocal that the violin is singing, or I am singing, a niggun, a niggun without words, or a beautiful song, whether it's in Yiddish or Ivrit Hebrew or in Arabic. So language is language as we form and create images and words, that's the whole study of the linguas. But to me, music is a language, and you hit it right. And so whether you're playing the bassoon or you're playing the piccolo, it all speaks to the human condition. And as I said, to end it, why music is the art form more than any other that we participate actively? Sometimes who are musicians or singing, we go to a party or sing, or just passively, you're just humming, or your heart. You're just sitting here and you're meditative, but your heart's keeping rhythm and your lungs are breathing.

Adrian McIntyre:

As we wrap up here, we can't do justice in one brief conversation to the breadth and diversity of your creative output, your photography, your music, your compositions, your performances, the documentary films, there's just a lot of stuff here. I'd love you to end by just sharing with us briefly about your latest project, which is a children's book, an illustrated book. And if you could, just, what have you learned from that format that maybe could inform the rest of us about what it is to be human?

Yale Strom:

Thank you. It's my second children's illustrated book, and this one actually, probably even up to the age of 10, 11, it will hold your interest. It's a good story for all ages, but it's not a baby book, whatever that means. It was a story, and it's a Hanukkah story. So we can read it all year round, but obviously appropriate for the Jewish holidays, the winter season. I heard a little snippet when I was at an oral history in Romania from this Jewish man talking about, they would go from this one town and one Jewish guy would go to Costanza, to the coast, which is on the Black Sea. And of course we know port cities are interesting because people are coming from all different parts of the world, so you can meet different cultures. And this was during the Ottoman Empire, so Constantinople, Istanbul. Anyhow, they would get oil and bring back fruits and vegetables that were more exotic than they could get in the interior of Romania. And from that little snippet, I created this story called "Shloyml Boyml," boyml means oil in Yiddish, "and His Lucky Dreydl." And he's a klezmer trombonist. Why make him a fiddler? Everyone's a fiddler. Fiddler on the Roof, but trombonist. But anyhow, and what's interesting is, I'll just say I did my first live reading and a man said, "You know what I really liked about the story?" I said, "What?" He says, "First of all, it's set in Romania." We often hear about Poland of Jewish stories, or Lithuania, Russia, I never... "And," he says, "there's a man who's Sephardic," or Middle Eastern Jewish, "His last name is Abulafia, and it's on the port city of Costanza. So," he says, "you added elements we never think about of 'East European Jewish culture.'" And I said, "Well, I'm glad I enlightened you." And so people can find that it's, if I may say, it's being sold on Etsy. What is that? E-T-S-Y dot com. The publisher is a small publisher, but a very good publisher. I'll put a plug in for them. They did the first translation of Harry Potter in Yiddish, and, overnight, he sold out his first 2000 books. Some just wanted it who can't... It's a collector's item; other people are reading Yiddish. So I'm proud of the story because I was able to take some of my research and knowledge that I learned in Romania and make it something that's a story for all people, because it's also about human values.

Adrian McIntyre:

Well, if I can editorialize just a little bit as we close the show, it's always fascinating to me, the radical implications of the kind of research and creative output, Yale, that you've done, because ...

Yale Strom:

Thank you.

Adrian McIntyre:

... although you're honoring traditions that are, to a certain sense, discreet, what you're really revealing is the permeability, the improvisation, the interconnections between the threads of our human experience. And I think that's something that if we really understood that we're not talking about discreet, compartmentalized, unique artifacts from a past, we're talking about a living breathing tradition that interacts with the world, both in terms of adoption and contribution, we would have a much richer sense for all of us, however we're situated in this human tapestry of our own humanity. Yale Strom has become the world's leading ethnographer and artist of klezmer music and history. Thanks so much for joining us for this conversation.

Yale Strom:

Adrian, my pleasure. And, Rabbi, always a pleasure. I love your ... Rabbi has such a great smile.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Thank you.

Yale Strom:

We'll be in touch, Rabbi, we'll see you in a couple weeks.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Absolutely.

Adrian McIntyre:

If you enjoyed today's show, please subscribe to Conversation with the Rabbi on your favorite podcast app. You can also find the latest episodes online at ConversationWithRheRabbi.com. For all of us here at PHX.fm, I'm Adrian McIntyre. Thanks for listening, and please join us for the next Conversation with the Rabbi.