Maxwell Street Klezmer Band members play their grandmothers’ music in this weekend’s Jewish Arts Festival.

Rhythm and Jews 

Maxwell Street Klezmer Band members play their grandmothers’ music in this weekend’s Jewish Arts Festival.

Jewish culture has been coming out of the ghetto, so to speak, over the past few decades. But while most of today's Jews would gladly let popular culture revolutionize, say, gefilte fish, more beloved traditions remain untouchable.

Klezmer music, once played in Jewish-American immigrant communities, is a case in point. It's characterized by Eastern-European folk instruments such as fiddles, accordions and clarinets favoring the minor scale. Skits rife with Jewish humor fill the spaces between songs.

But in an offshoot of the swing revival, klezmer has gained favor with hipsters, resulting in a curious phenomenon: klezmer bands that "act like this music comes from a country called Klezmoria, having nothing to do with anything Jewish," says Lori Lippitz, who started Chicago's Maxwell Street Klezmer Band in 1983.

Maxwell Street's members don't wear clunky shoes or brandish body piercings. "To me," she says, "that would be like dressing my grandmother up in contemporary clothing and pushing her down the runway. The point is, I like my grandmother how she was."

Questioning a klezmer band's authenticity is a dubious exercise, considering that the art form began as a hybrid of folk music, Hassidic melodies and jazz. Still, devotees don't want the original art form to sink into oblivion.

"My bubbie and zadie [Yiddish for grandma and grandpa] were Holocaust survivors," says Kimber Leigh Nussbaum, a Maxwell Street vocalist and Kansas City native. "This kind of music allows them to remember the good times, before the camps." As someone tied to Judaism more by culture than by ideology, she says, joining the band has given her a connection to "her people."

Lippitz hopes that the band's staunchly unhip credo won't scare people off. "Just because it's not avant-garde doesn't mean its dreary."

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