by Eric Herschthal
The Jewish Week
Two summers ago, Yale Strom traveled to Romania. A seasoned violinist and composer, he was playing at a klezmer festival in Satu Mare, where the Satmar chasidic sect is from, and whose Jewish community, some 20,000 before the Second World War, was decimated during the Holocaust. In his spare time, he made sure to visit the small Jewish towns nearby, in search of some lost past.
“When I have some time off, I like to go exploring,” Strom said in a recent phone interview from California. One town he drove to was called Carei, and he found the synagogue there, which was built in 1871 but had long since been abandoned. When he pushed on the front door, he saw it was locked. No one was inside. And he did not know whom to ask for the key.
But he noticed a woman tending the yard out back. It had been converted into a communal garden, and when she noticed him, she motioned him over. From where they stood, he noticed a cracked window that would let him into the synagogue. “It was high enough that I needed something to get my leg up,” Strom recalled.
The woman, who was not Jewish, helped him up, and when he made his way to the dark, dusty second floor where the female congregants would have sat, he found a small treasure. Buried amid a heap of stiff-backed siddurs was a cantor’s hand-written music book. It contained over 250 original prayer melodies, many just sketches of tunes. “There were even pages where I could see bit of music that just faded out, stopped,” Strom said. “He probably just abandoned the idea.”
Strom made a copy of the music before handing the book over to the city’s archivist, and has now used it as the basis for a new composition for string quartet. Titled “In Memory Of...”, the three-movement score will have its world premiere Wednesday, Dec. 16 at the Eldridge Street Synagogue.
The Mike Block Quartet, led by the eponymous prominent young cellist, will perform it. Block will also perform the melodies in a klezmer version with Strom. Following the concert, Ari Priven, the cantor at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, will sing the prayers in their original form.
“I’m trying to tell a story through the music,” Strom said. The saga of Jewish life in Romania is reflected in his new score, with some sections containing a jaunty tempo meant to evoke the bustle of a once-vibrant community. In other sections, dissonant harmonies convey wartime anxieties, while sparsely written parts allude to a community now vanished. But Strom added that the music is not only about the Jewish experience. “It’s for anyone who’s lost somebody, or even larger losses. It’s about loss in general.”
Still, the Jewish story that inspired the music carries tremendous weight. Soon after Strom found the melodies, he asked Block if he’d play the piece he was working on. “I was immediately interested,” said Block. “The back story of the piece definitely intrigued the quartet.”
Priven agreed. “It wasn’t so much of an arm-twisting,” he said, noting that he signed up despite rarely performing in concerts outside his own synagogue.
Though Strom may not need any added allure, having Block on the bill does just that. At 27, Block is the youngest musician to play with O’Connor’s Appalachia Waltz Trio and is a fixture on the new music scene, performing with hip groups like the Flux Quartet and the BQE Project. Strom and Block met at a camp run by the Grammy-winning violinist Mark O’Connor, where they both taught, and they have played together at several festivals since.
Strom, 47, managed to teach Block a good deal. “It’s been interesting getting to know [the Jewish side] of my identity,” Block said. His mother is Christian, and he was not raised Jewish, but his father grew up in a secular Jewish home in Brooklyn. In his time with Strom, Block says he’s learned quite a bit about East European Jewry, and even a little Yiddish. “Yale taught me the phrase gehakte leber” — Yiddish for chopped liver — Block said, adding, “We talk about plenty of pointless things, too.”
Strom has been studying the musical culture of Eastern European Jews since the early 1980s. His father, a professor of education in Detroit, had a strong socialist Jewish background, which left a lasting impression on him. “I was imbued with a love of European, and East European culture in particular,” Strom said.
Instead of applying to law school, a decision he was ruing shortly after graduating college, he took a trip to states then under Soviet control — Ukraine, Hungary, Poland and East Germany. All he had on him was a tape recorder, a duffle bag stuffed with blank cassettes and his instrument. When he asked people if they knew any Jews, he was often met with stunned, silent stares. “You could just feel how the state security” had terrified them, he said. “But my violin ingratiated me to people.”
He said he would simply tell locals that he wanted to learn about the town’s history. Maybe then he’d play a Yiddish melody, triggering on old, perhaps even sweet memory. Many of the people who gave him information about Jews were not themselves Jewish, he said. And if people were reticent it was because they feared the Soviet police, not because they were necessarily anti-Semitic. After all, he kept going back, each time gathering more material — an old klezmer melody from an impoverished musician, a niggun, the location of an unmarked grave.
His trips to Eastern Europe, numbering more than 60 by now, have resulted in several klezmer albums. In addition, he’s made award-winning documentaries, including “The Last Klezmer,” (1994) short-listed for an Academy Award, and at least one important scholarly work, “The Book of Klezmer: The History, the Music, the Folklore from the 14th Century to the 21st” (2002). Strom composes classical music too, and the Eldridge Street concert will combine both his Jewish and classical musical interests.
“Whenever I want something different, I always contact him,” said Hanna Griff-Sleven, the director of cultural programs at the synagogue. In 2007, she worked with Strom to create a concert modeled on a storied Harlem concert, memorably captured in Art Kane’s 1957 photograph “A Great Day in Harlem.” Instead of 100 jazz icons lined up on the steps of a Harlem building, Strom photographed the same number of present-day klezmer musicians on the steps of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. When Strom asked Griff-Sleven if the synagogue would host the “In Memory Of...” concert, the choice was simple. “We immediately agreed,” Griff-Sleven said.
That shimmering melodies written more than 70 years ago will, at last, see the light of day is cause for celebration. But the story behind them allows for now easy enjoyment. When asked if he found out the name of the cantor who wrote the melodies, Strom replied in an e-mail: “Unfortunately I have not. ...The Jews were deported from Carei on May 13, 1944 to [the capital in] Satu Mare and on May 20 they were sent to Auschwitz. Most likely he was killed in this deportation.”