On a cold Tuesday evening in January, a living room in Silver Spring heated up as 11 hobbyist musicians played through half a dozen klezmer tunes. There were bouncy, toe-tapping freilachs, a Romanian hora, and a serba whose score advised “as fast as can be played.” Along with the music, came plenty of camaraderie.
For the past two years, a group of serious amateurs has met weekly to play klezmer — Eastern European Jewish dance and wedding music. They are amateurs in the best sense of the word — pursuing an activity out of love and for pure enjoyment.
Howard Ungar, a Bethesda software engineer who plays trumpet in his off hours, co-founded the group he calls DC Klezmer Workshop. He was drawn to this distinctive Jewish folk form two decades ago when he began attending klezmer music festivals and the famed annual New York KlezKamp — a weeklong total immersion in everything klezmer, from music to dance, to Yiddish language lessons and more.
At home in Bethesda, Ungar hooked up with Mrs.Toretsky’s Nightmare, a local band organized by pediatric oncologist and clarinetist Jeffrey Toretsky. But the occasional synagogue gigs weren’t enough to feed Ungar’s hunger for klezmer.
“My bandmates kept advancing in their careers, so we didn’t have enough time for klezmer,” he said. “I wanted to play more.”
And he had a growing collection of klezmer sheet music. After he electronically transcribed and cataloged these sometimes obscure compositions — which now number more than 250 scores — he wanted to find a place to play them and the musicians to join him.
That’s the origin story of the DC Klezmer Workshop. The group is open to all musicians interested in playing klezmer — no auditions are required. With little pressure to perform, or even practice between sessions, the evening feels like a warmhearted, occasionally rowdy, jam session for Jewish music lovers.
Some music historians trace klezmer back to itinerant 15th-century Jewish musicians, who traveled from town to town entertaining at weddings and other celebrations. Others date the folk form to more recent traveling musicians a century ago in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, particularly Bessarabia, most of which is in present day Moldova.
The poetic translation of the word klezmer derives from combining the two Hebrew words ke’li — vessels — and zemer — song melody. Klezmer: vessels of song.
Mel Leifer of Germantown is one two flutists who attends Tuesday workshops regularly. “With no auditions, anyone is welcome, from beginners to Juilliard-trained … it’s a very egalitarian community, we’re open to suggestions,” he said.
Retired from the Department of Energy, Leifer discovered the workshop about a year ago at a local Jewish music festival.
“It was a good incentive to get back to playing music,” he said, claiming he plays flute at the beginner level. “It’s one of the few things I do that involves people of a variety of ages.”
Retired music teacher Marilyn Hammerman is Juilliard trained and taught piano for more than 60 years. She simply loves Tuesday night klezmer. Yet it never occurred to the North Bethesda resident to try the folksy music as a budding musician. But two years ago, she joined the workshop as a keyboard player.
In her youth, as she immersed herself in the classical music canon, Hammerman’s mother looked down on klezmer musicians. “While my mother thought of the klezmorim as not cultured people — they were street performers who played for money. It’s so different now. Forget about street musicians. This brings Judaism back to the 21st century.”
By day, Michael Mendelson is an IT consultant, but most Tuesdays he, too, connects with his Jewish roots at the workshop. “I love to play with other people,” he said, noting that he was involved in klezmer, bluegrass and jazz bands in other cities before relocating to the District. “Like other folk genres, it’s easy to connect on a musical level with klezmer,” he said. “Of course, there’s always a desire to perfect. We return to some songs every week.”
For Melissa Wilets, the DC Klezmer Workshop is one way she digs into her Jewish roots. “It is definitely nice to have a cultural connection to the music,” the Bethesda graphic designer said. “I didn’t grow up in a highly observant atmosphere … so for me, music, this is a natural way to connect.”
Wilets began piano studies at 5, played the flute seriously and, just recently, picked up the accordion because, she said, the group had enough melody players. Her 11-year-old son plays trumpet and joins the workshop occasionally, particularly for its Sunday afternoon master classes and dance sessions.
A retired folk music specialist for the Smithsonian, Judy Barlas hosts the weekly klezmer jam sessions at her home. Barlas, who plays the tsimbl, a hammered-dulcimer-style instrument popular in klezmer bands, founded the workshop with Unger in 2017.
“You shouldn’t have to go to the camps or to New York to learn to play this music,” she said. “We as musicians should be bringing it to our community. For me, it’s a very personal connection to the [Yiddish] language, to my parents who were native Yiddish speakers, to Yiddishkeit.”
About an hour in, after winding through a half-dozen bouncing Eastern European melodies, the 11 players took a slivovitz break. Shot glasses of the plum brandy were passed around, then the players returned to their instruments, which that night included two accordions, a pair of violins, a mandolin and a piano keyboard.
“Let’s try that hora faster this time,” Ungar urged, the slivovitz reddening his cheeks slightly. “This one is going to require more work, but it’s fun.”
Mendelson, the bass player, admitted to rarely practicing at home. He’s adept enough to sight read and wing it.
“I grew up hearing this music,” he said. “Even though at the time I didn’t think much about it at all.”
These days, Mendelson tries not to miss the weekly sessions, because “Klezmer speaks to my soul.”
Lisa Traiger is Washington Jewish Week’s arts correspondent.
Get in on the klezmer
DC Klezmer Workshop meets weekly on Tuesdays, 7:30 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. Request to join the DC Klezmer Workshop Group on Facebook for more information. The next public master class features clarinetist Joel Rubin, Feb. 23, 2 p.m. at Adas Israel Congregation, 2850 Quebec St., NW, Washington. DC. Click here.