Music has been a vital part of Jewish culture since biblical times. After the destruction of the Second temple in 70 C.E., Jews were dispersed throughout the world. The rabbis then banned all instrumental music with the explanation that their congregants should be in mourning for Zion. They associated any kind of secular music with the decadence of Greek culture.
Unfortunately these extreme attitudes persisted through the 17th century, and helped create a negative stance towards Jewish folk instrumentalists in the community.
Ashkenazim (Jews in Eastern and Central Europe) were often physically and culturally isolated & persecuted. Eventually this constant oppression, combined with legalistic rabbinical restrictions, lead to an emotional, mystical reaction.
In mid-1700’s Poland, a preacher called the Ba’al Shem Tov taught that there were no divisions between sacred and secular. Rejecting asceticism, he emphasized joyfulness. “Our Father in Heaven hates sadness and rejoices when his children are joyful”. Prayer filled with song (and dancing) became the most essential way of reaching dveykes (adhesion to God).
Ba’al Shem Tov’s movement became known as Hassidism, and although orthodox rabbis frowned, it soon swept eastern and central Europe. It’s still popular today – Hassids are the guys in the long black coats with the sidelocks.
Hassidism’s effect on Jewish music was positive, boosting the status of musicians, and increasing the occasions in which it was permissible to hear their music. Klezmer, Hebrew for “vessel of song”, was first used to describe certain kinds of musical instruments, then to the musicians who played them. Soon every village had a klezmer kapelye (band). The kapelye phenomenon peaked between the early 1800’s and the early 1900’s. Their music became an indispensable part of Yiddish weddings.
However, increasing anti-Semitism, beginning in the late 1800’s and culminating in the Nazi Holocaust, caused an exodus of Jews from eastern Europe to places where they could start again. In two of those places, Israel and the USA, the evolution of klezmer had two very different outcomes.
Only in the late 20th century has the term klezmer become synonymous with a musical genre. Klezmer music is simultaneously joyous and poignant, sassy and spiritual, celebrating and mourning, full of all the possibilities of life.
Source: The Book of Klezmer by Yale Strom