Between 2008 and 2009, the European Union subsidized a musical project, titled The Other Europeans, whose purpose was to explore common roots of Gypsy and Klezmer music. This funding not only matched the European Unions’ cultural policy—protection of folklores and promotion of diversity—but also led to the official recognition of these forms of music as European cultural patrimonies. In a parallel manner, Klezmer music became a Pan-European phenomenon and a democratic musical practice, played and heard by musicians and audiences from all cultural horizons.

Since the revival of Yiddish culture in the 1970s, the popularity of klezmer music ­– its instrumental folklore – has undergone constant growth, especially in North America and throughout Europe. Orchestras, festivals and institutional initiatives have flourished at local and transnational levels. However, despite klezmer music’s significant development throughout the continent during the last decades, and as David Kaminsky pointed out, previous studies on its revival in Europe have been restricted to its twin epicenters: Germany and Poland.

The question of Yiddish culture, raised in the space of its obliteration, after the Holocaust, has generated an abundant literature revolving around its therapeutic and cathartic virtues. In the musical field, works of Joel Rubin, Rita Ottens, Magdalena Waligórska, Michael Birnbaum and Ruth Gruber are among those that pose the questions of legitimacy, authenticity, and cultural appropriation that have emerged since the revival of Yiddish culture. These pivotal concepts structured a paradigmatic dichotomy that splited Jews and non-Jews. I argue that both the Jewish and non-Jewish dichotomy and the study of klezmer in Germany and Poland as restricted spaces for research are as problematic as they are now obsolete.

Considering that klezmer music is historically and intrinsically Jewish music, the abovementioned dichotomy may seem unsurmountable. However, the concept of New Old Europe Sound, developed in the 2015 Ethnomusicology publication, offers new research perspectives. From an historic point of view, klezmer music had always been a European Yiddish music. However, several factors – migrations of Ashkenazim Jews, assimilation patterns, globalization of cultures – have altered this definition.

For the last decades, Klezmer music evolved in most European countries. Thus, it now warrants consideration from a transnational point of view. Therefore, my first purpose is to study klezmer music on a Pan-European scale. While I acknowledge fundamental differences in the revival modalities and idiosyncrasies of klezmer music in each European country, I consider the European Klezmer as a hole, on the model of American Klezmer. For each regions of Europe, excluding Germany and Poland, I will select local klezmer scenes – such as Amsterdam, Paris, London, and Vienna – according to significant cultural events and the presence of prolific actors. I discern in the history of klezmer in contemporary Europe two major periods. The first is the revival (1975-1995) and will be referred as the modern klezmer period, in contrast to the contemporary klezmer period, which started in the second half of the 1990s. My research will focus primarily on the second period, while the first will provide an historical perspective.

The central problematic of my research will seek to illuminate the characteristics of klezmer music in contemporary Europe. Therefore, my second purpose is to explore the constitution of the contemporary European Klezmer through two synchronic processes. The first is its democratization, a process by which a cultural object or practice is legitimately and potentially popularized and made accessible to the greatest number of people. The second is its patrimonialization, a process by which an object or a practice becomes a patrimony worthy of protection and conservation.

The first process attests to the status of klezmer music a democratic practice. In this research, therefore, the concept of democratization will replace the concept of cultural appropriation. Both notions mean that klezmer music has been extracted from its original community and setting. The second process acknowledge the inscription of klezmer music both as a Yiddish and European patrimony. In light of the democratization, it follows that Ashkenazim communities would not be the only legatees, nor would they hold a complete responsibility for klezmer music as their exclusive heritage. Thus, klezmer music became a Yiddish and a European patrimony and entered a larger process involving Jewish cultures in general, from local to transnational levels. Institutions have also emerged – notably in Paris, Barcelona, and London – contributing to processes of both the dissemination and protection of Jewish music.

If these processes contain a contradiction – evolution and modernization on one side, conservation and protection on the other – it is possible to consider a resolution in the form of a synthesis among tradition and modernity, the self and the other, idiosyncrasy and universalism. Klezmer music would then reflect how Yiddish culture and identity are taking shape in contemporary Europe. Indeed, this combination simultaneously configured klezmer music as a Yiddish and a European musical folklore and allows it to perform new cultural and social functions that legitimize it as a democratic practice as well as its new status within European cultural patrimony.

Through cultural and social evolutions, characteristics of klezmer music multiplied. In addition to its original attributes – traditional and ancestral, Jewish and Yiddish – klezmer music also became a legitimate alternative in the European musical landscape as a folk and exotic genre, an Eastern and Central Europe music, and a World Music. The third purpose of my thesis is to demonstrate that, through these new attributes and categories, klezmer music conveys three major socio-cultural motivations and reasons for musicians and audiences in contemporary Europe: inclusion, nomadism and hybridity. Finally, I will outline the challenges that klezmer music faces in contemporary Europe such as its festivalization, the impact of American klezmer or the conflation with Gypsy and Roma music.

Seeking to understand the motivations and perceptions carried by actors through production and dissemination of klezmer music, I will conduct extensive ethnographic research, including inquiries and interviews with musicians, audiences and actors throughout the musical industry. I will also attend, both as a performer and a researcher, educational programs throughout Europe.

My dissertation should achieve the following: 1. To expand beyond previous studies conducted exclusively in Germany and Poland and, thus, to overcome the paradigm dividing Jews and non-Jews that has prevailed since the 1990s, 2. To establish Europe as a legitimate space for the investigation of klezmer music, 3. To make a substantial contribution to the innovative concept of New Old Europe Sound, and 4. To demonstrate that the evolution of klezmer music reflects the emergence of a distinctively new Yiddish culture in contemporary Europe.


Thesis proposal


The European revival of Yiddish culture and Klezmer music

In this preliminary chapter, I first propose to put in perspective the revival of klezmer music in the larger cultural process of Yiddish revival, which started in Europe as in the United States during the 1970s. The cultural assimilation of European Jewish communities interfered with this revival, in addition to the burden of Holocaust. Hence, Yiddish culture and klezmer music were related to both. It follows that the first function of klezmer music is related to Jewish memory and Yiddish identity, while the second is related to its claim and celebration.

  1. The functions of Klezmer music among Ashkenazim Jews in Europe. The first function is related to memory and the second to culture. In Europe, heirs of Yiddish culture considered klezmer music as a vector of resiliency after the trauma of Holocaust. Then, klezmer music slowly shifted from a music of a tragic past to a music of the future, contributing to the revival of Yiddish culture as well as claiming and celebrating that heritage. Thus, Klezmer music also allowed the European Jewry to reconnect with its Eastern-European roots. While cultural assimilation has largely prevailed since the 1950s, Klezmer music participated in the modeling of a new identity construction among Ashkenazim Jews as an alternative to the Zionist movement.
  2. The Jewish and non-Jewish pioneers of modern Klezmer music in Europe. Conversely to Germany and Poland, where the revival of Yiddish culture and klezmer music was mostly caused by an interest coming from non-Jews and cultural outsiders, this process was considerably restricted, in other regions of Europe, to Ashkenazim communities up until the 1990s. However, a few non-Jewish musicians have been involved in klezmer music during this early revival. Here, I will demonstrate the causes of this involvement. Since that time, several parameters have guided the popularization of klezmer music throughout Europe among Jews and non-Jews alike.

2. The European popularization of Klezmer music

The popularization of klezmer music is a phenomenon through which this music become attractive in and out of Ashkenazim communities by simultaneously rooting itself in and extracting itself from its original socio-cultural context. This extra-communitarian popularization is here synonymous with democratization. In this chapter, I list the different parameters and processes that enable us to understand the transition of klezmer music from an exclusively Jewish music to a European musical folklore.

  1. The European geo-politic. Yiddish culture and klezmer music have benefited from two major evolutions of the European geo-political context. The fall of the USSR and the Berlin Wall led to a flux of musicians from Eastern Europe. This Eastward opening was reinforced by the enlargement of the European Union, especially by the integration of Eastern countries in 2004 and 2007. Indeed, the Baltic countries, regions of Poland and Rumania where parts of the former Yiddishland, or Pale of Settlement, in which klezmer evolved since the end of the eighteenth century.
  2. The process of cultural globalization. This process combines a new awareness of cultural diversity in contemporary societies, and the rise of a dominant and common (mainstream) culture that threaten that very diversity.
  3. The development of the musical industry. The musical industry adapted to the abovementioned process by creating new categories in order to include traditions and folklore under the label of Otherness: Eastern Europe music and World music. These categories contributed to the conflation of Klezmer with Balkan and Gypsy music and to their inclusion in the mainstream musical landscape.
  4. The growth of interest for folk music. This adaptation answers to an enthusiasm for exotic and folk music that has increased since the 1980s. Klezmer music fits all of these categories: traditional, folk, Eastern Europe, and World music, following waves of immigration of Yiddish communities throughout Europe and Americas.
  5. The influence of American Klezmer. The popularity of klezmer music in Europe owes considerably to the United States, from the recordings of Immigrant Era klezmorim (1881-1924) to performances and mentorship of American revivalists and avant-gardists of the Radical Jewish Culture movement. It was only after the importation of American klezmer that European klezmer emancipated of Yiddish songs, Hassidic musical tradition and Israeli music.
  6. The process of festivalization. Klezmer music was included in the blossoming of festivals on several levels, not only as a component of Yiddish and Jewish culture but also as a folk, world and Eastern European music, until specific events, eventually dedicated to it, emerged.

The democratic practice of and access to Klezmer music in Europe

The confluence of all of these parameters led to the ontological shift of klezmer music and to a subsequent paradox: in order to enter a democratic process, Klezmer music has to claim its identity, its historicity, and its singularity, while at the same time it must dissolve its constitutive elements to fit its new status, to secure its sustainability, and to adapt its new environment. On one side, an accumulation of predicates and categories may alter klezmer music as an ancestral tradition of Yiddish communities. On the other, klezmer music has gained new meanings, enabling it to perform new functions. Here, I postulate that klezmer music now manages to drive several socio-cultural motives in contemporary Europe.

The principle of cultural democratization

In this research, I chose to replace the concept of appropriation, raised in Germany and Poland, by the concept of democratization. The latter incorporates the first but adds a positive component. The principle of cultural democratization is a political concept related to the idea that any citizen should be able to access culture in order to equalize disparities. The democratization of klezmer music implies the potential production and enjoyment of this music by the greatest number and a shared responsibility derived from this evolution beyond Jewish communities. On one hand, the accumulation of predicates and categories transformed and altered klezmer music as a traditional and ancestral Yiddish music. On the other, klezmer music took on new meanings and functions, which can be invoked to legitimize its democratization.

The multiple motives behind the democratization of Klezmer music.

In this chapter, I will look into the different motives and claims that legitimate klezmer music as a democratic cultural practice. Musicians, audiences, and actors of the music industry may claim their attraction to, production and dissemination of klezmer music for multiple reasons, which derives from singular backgrounds, perception of Jewish culture, cultural purposes, targeted audiences, etc. Hence, klezmer music can be a lost heritage, a cultural niche, a musicianship challenge. Here, I will develop a connection between these motivations and three main socio-cultural ideals of contemporary Europe.

  1. The inclusive ideal. This integration of klezmer music in the European music landscape first allows for contributions from a multicultural landscape and for the integration of a music from Jewish communities—meaning an historical otherness and a formerly dominated minority of pre-modern Europe in the modern European community.
  2. The nomadism ideal. The ideal of nomadism reflects the will to obliterate borders, whether they are cultural, social, or national. Klezmorim were already, in pre-modern Europe, wandering musicians. Modern Europe claims a continuity by injecting a symbolic romanticism. This ideal not only allows EU citizens to travel through music but also to include in their cultural space the exotic—that which is beyond their own cultural and national borders. However, nomadism also implies that klezmer music should always claim its status as intrinsically wandering and unrooted music.
  3. The hybridity ideal. The ideal of music hybridity is a logical continuity of Yiddish culture and language, since both were already historically and structurally hybrid. In klezmer music, this ideal translates on two levels: first, through the conflation with Gypsy music and second, through blending with modern and popular musical trends. Klezmer music thus integrates the neo-folk movement, notably by creating new musical genres such as Klezmer-Punk and Electro-Yiddish. Both levels simultaneously engage klezmer music in an enrichment and a corruption of a singular and traditional musical genre.

The recognition of klezmer music as a European cultural patrimony

  1. The Institutionalization of Jewish Music

The acknowledgment of klezmer music as a European patrimony, while remaining unofficial, was endorsed by several institutions. These institutions are or have been involved in the preservation, promotion, and development of Jewish and Yiddish Culture and their musical folklores. This institutional involvement allows to connect klezmer music with the development of cultural politics.

  1. Local and national levels. The Jewish Music Institute in London, the European Center for Jewish Music in Hannover, the Institut Européen des Musiques Juives in Paris and the Institut de Musica Jueva in Barcelona are all non-profit cultural organizations sharing the same purpose. Besides, local governments are reinforcing these structure by punctual or long-term involvement and support.
  2. Transnational and International levels. The European Commission Cultural program, the European Days of Jewish Culture and Patrimony are reinforcing cultural events at transnational or international levels, such as the Festivals of Jewish Music in Amsterdam and Lyon.
  3. The status of Klezmer music in this cultural process

On several levels, klezmer music legitimizes its access to a European cultural patrimony status. As a component of Yiddish culture, klezmer music allows European citizens to perform their duty of remembrance and to reconcile Europe with one of its formerly persecuted communities. As a vector of European cultural ideals, klezmer music also fits a social and a political European ideal:

  1. The cultural ideal. This ideal consists in promoting multiculturalism, cultural diversity, and intercultural dialogue as a symbol of otherness and through its capacity to blend with folk and modern music.
  2. The social ideal. This ideal is the integration of Jewish population, considered as an historically oppressed minority of Europe.
  3. The political ideal. This ideal is supported by a shared heritage, securing the cohesion of European community citizenship.

 The new challenges of Klezmer music in contemporary Europe.

  1. The authenticity of Klezmer music.

The question of authenticity is raised by new contexts of performances, the conflation of Klezmer and Gypsy music, and the neo-folk movement. Klezmer music faces challenges related to the music industry and the demands of modern society, as it is at risk for becoming estranged to itself in its efforts to fit this new environment. Counteracting the emergence of numerous hybridities, some bands and artists rely on the discourse of tradition in an attempt to recreate or reproduce klezmer music as it was supposed to sound before the twentieth century

2.The manipulation and reproduction of Otherness.

Klezmer music is also threatened by an ideological and commercial manipulation that would confine Yiddish culture in a representation of an historical pre-modern Europe Otherness. This issue was raised notably by Alexander Markovic about Gypsy musicians and the difficulties encountered to access a mainstream performance setting. The production, reproduction, and consumption of exoticism and otherness may fit modern cultural ideals and requirements of collective imagination, but this also compels the conception and the reception of klezmer music in terms of the otherness it represents. The concept of Otherness questions the integration of Yiddish culture in the European landscape. Indeed, while Jewish communities have been assimilated on the whole, Klezmer music reanimates the concept of Otherness and the perception of a Jewish Identity that has been simultaneously reclaimed.

3. A neglected history.

The historical and memorial functions of klezmer music, described in the preliminary chapter as an exclusive prerogative of post-holocaust Ashkenazim communities, are endangered by the enthusiasm of cultural outsiders and the process of festivalization.

  1. The enthusiasm of cultural outsiders, which notably spread through mainstream medias, implies that klezmer music is in danger of losing its historicity and its roots, of becoming a folk music among others rather than a specific component of Yiddish folklore. Here, I raise the question of disconnecting a musical folklore form its cultural origins. Are cultural outsiders genuinely interested in Yiddish culture and its history, or are they only attracted by its musical folklore for its exotic and somehow mysterious origins?
  2. Finally, Festivals offer traditional and folk music new opportunities as well as new limits. Beyond criticism related to the hyper-festive contemporary societies and the dominance of festive cultural forms, the process of festivalization seems to imply yet another loss of historicity for klezmer music, a denial of a painful history in favor of cyclical time and a hedonistic philosophy. In his Introduction to the 2015 Ethnomusicology Forum, David Kaminsky divided contemplative and festive repertoires, echoing the division previously established by Moshe Beregovski between dance and listening tunes. Here, I will consider the sociological impact of festival on klezmer music and how performers are selected and which repertoires are in favor within a festival context.



Limits of research: time, spaces, events, and actors

  1. In order to provide an historical context regarding the early European revival of klezmer music, I will begin with a preliminary study of the early klezmer revival, preceding its popularization and the influence of American klezmer, between the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1990s. The main part of my research will focus on the contemporary klezmer and its popularization between the mid-1990s and the 2000s.
  2. The spatial limits will be drawn by selecting a sample of cities throughout Europe: Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna, Stockholm, etc. The final choice will be made in accordance with festivals of Yiddish and Jewish culture and/or klezmer music, based on the respective prominence of the klezmer scene and the number of prolific artists and bands. This selection will allow me to cross local and transnational dimensions and thus to confirm or deny a similar pattern in the contemporary European klezmer.
  3. Once the time and space limits are settled, I will select cultural actors — musicians, agents, producers, artistic directors, and audiences — as well as a set of cultural events — concerts, festivals, and educational programs — in order to conduct my ethnographic research.

Ethnographic research and other empirical data

First, I will perform ethnographic research in two forms: a written inquiry and a series of more informal interviews. For musicians, a specific inquiry will be designed based on the one realized by the ethnomusicologist Moshe Beregovski for his ethnographic expeditions in Ukraine during the 1930s, and which was edited by Mark Slobin in 2001. By conducting informal interviews, I hope to gather materials and complementary data by interacting with my informants in a non-academic setting.

Second, I would like to add a study based on graphic and linguistic data in order to elaborate an analysis that would take into account what I call here meta-musical data. The use of language (band names, album and song titles, use of specific terminology to describe the music) and designs (album covers, websites, festival posters) are as significant as the music itself. Therefore, these iconographic and linguistic data should enter in the analysis of the construction and perception of musical identities.

An interdisciplinary approach

Klezmer music is above all an object of ethnomusicology. Studied here as a cultural component of Yiddish culture and through my specific angle, I will be able to cross dimensions of cultural history,  sociology and ethnography.

Musical practice

Finally, I would like to include my own musical practice, whenever possible, as a complementary component of my research. My involvement as a musician in the field of my research should enable me to avoid the anthropological pitfalls of the radical division between the field of research and the observer and will grant me full consideration as a cultural insider among actors of the klezmer scene.

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