KlezCalifornia: Yiddishkeit comes to North Berkeley

Veretski Pass celebrate new album Poyln: A Gilgul at JCC East Bay on Sunday
Veretski Pass celebrate new album Poyln: A Gilgul at JCC East Bay on Sunday. Photo: Dana Davis

No one is ever going to mistake the Gourmet Ghetto for the Pale of Settlement, but this weekend the JCC East Bay turns the neighborhood into a vibrant outpost of Yiddish culture. KlezCalifornia, the festival that celebrates the music, dance, poetry, and humor of Eastern European Jewry, returns to Berkeley on Saturday and Sunday with a jam-packed series of workshops, talks and performances.

The event was founded in 2003 by Red Hot Chachkas fiddler Julie Egger and Berkeley’s Judy Kunofsky, who moved to town in the mid-1970s for a temporary position teaching mathematics at Cal and decided to hang around. Last held in Berkeley in 2013 with events at the Magnes Museum, Gaia Building, Subterranean Arthouse and other venues, KlezCalifornia celebrates its Bat Mitzvah season at the JCC East Bay with a concentrated dose of Jewish soul.

“We’ve held KlezCalifornia all over the Bay Area, from Santa Rosa and Palo Alto to San Francisco and West Marin, and this is our fourth time coming back to Berkeley,” Kunofsky says. “It’s striking that a good deal of the audience and the majority of the performers and presenters are from the East Bay.”

In many ways KlezCalifornia highlights Berkeley’s deep but little acknowledged fount of Jewish culture. The festival kicks off 7:30 p.m. Saturday with Cabaret & Cabernet, an event featuring an array of artists, such as performance artists Sara Felder and Naomi Newman (co-founder of A Traveling Jewish Theater), and singers Heather KleinJeanette LewickiAnthony Russell and Berkeley’s Sharon Bernstein. The players include fiddler David Chernyavsky, and the longtime house ensemble for Klezmer Mondays at Saul’s Deli featuring Mike Perlmutter on clarinet and saxophone, Dmitri Gaskin on accordion, bassist Eric Perney, fiddler Ilana Sherer and Jack Hanley on mandolin and poyk (drum). Playwright and actor Arje Shaw is the evening’s MC.


Sunday is packed workshops and events focusing on music, song and dance, plus Yiddish poetry and literature. Many of the sessions are designed to provide opportunities for participants to interact with experts in Yiddish culture. “At most things called festivals you sit in the audience and watch,” Kunofsky says. “We’re different in that our idea is people should be directly involved and do it themselves. They learn how to sing klezmer songs, dance, learn about their history. There’s one workshop about writing poetry inspired by the music you’re hearing.”

KlezCalifornia concludes Sunday night with a performance by the renowned klezmer ensemble Veretski Pass followed by a klezmer dance party featuring the trio and other musicians (with dancing led by Berkeley’s Bruce Bierman). Veretski Pass is celebrating the release of the new album Poyln: A Gilgul (Golden Horn Records), a project that explores obscure Polish fiddle tunes not usually associated with the klezmer repertoire.

“The recording catalogs that sparked the klezmer revival in the 1970s were mostly Romanian Jewish and Russian Jewish from the early decades of the 20th century, not Polish Jewish,” says Veretski Pass violinist Cookie Segelstein. “The polish stuff doesn’t really have that snaky minor key sound. It’s a different tonality that’s been left out of the klezmer revival, with more major keys. We’re not experts in Polish dance music, and we play it our way to make it our own.”

Veretski Pass takes its name from a route that traverses the rugged Carpathian mountains through which Jews first settled in Transcarpathia (now part of Ukraine) around the 16th century. It’s the region where Segelstein’s father grew up, and after a lifetime of studying and performing European classical music she ended up delving into the tunes she heard and played as a child in Kansas City.

She moved to Berkeley about six years ago to join her husband, Veretski Pass’s Joshua Horowitz, who plays tsimbl (hammered dulcimer) and button accordion (his ensemble Budowitz is named after the 19th Century master accordion builder whose instruments possess a famously rich, reedy tone). Bassist Stuart Brotman, who also plays Carpathian flute and baraban (frame drum), rounds out the trio.


A versatile musician who’s toured and recorded with Canned Heat and Geoff and Maria Muldaur, Brotman is best known for his extensive contributions to Jewish music through his work with Brave Old World, Andy Statman, Davka, and the San Francisco Klezmer Experience. He helped spark the klezmer revival an early member of the pioneering Berkeley band Klezmorim, producing the band’s Grammy Award-nominated 1981 album Metropolis (Flying Fish Records).

On Poylin the trio collaborated with clarinet master Joel Rubin, a music professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. They cobbled together long forgotten material by exploring neglected collections of Polish Jewish tunes. The mystery is why the music has been overlooked for so long

“Some of the smartest people I know can’t tell me why,” Segelstein says. “The music of the synagogue had the Semitic flavor of Romanian and Ukrainian music. These Polish tunes sound a little more German. What’s funny is that a lot of the Polish tunes, if you ask the real staunch Polish musicians, they’ll say it doesn’t sound Polish, and the Jewish musicians say they don’t sound Jewish. But before World War II there were three million Jews in Poland. How could that not be in the dance culture?”

Recommended concerts: Lenka Lichtenberg, Legends of the Celtic Harp

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Lenka Lichtenberg

The polyglot Czech-born Canadian chanteuse Lenka Lichtenberg and her band Fray make their Bay Area debut Sunday at Ashkenez. The child of Holocaust survivors, she fled communist Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s as a young women and eventually made her way to Canada. Singing in six languages, including Czech, Yiddish and Hebrew, she’s forged an expansive repertoire embracing traditional Eastern European and Middle Eastern music and originals that combine her roots with jazz and bossa nova.

The trio Legends of the Celtic Harp present The Door Between Worlds at Freight & Salvage on Thursday, Nov. 12. Presented as a dramatic journey delving into Celtic lore of the Otherworld, the production features songs and stories delivered by Irish harp expert Patrick Ball and multi-instrumentalists Lisa Lynne and Aryeh Frankfurter on Celtic harps, Irish bouzouki, cittern, and Swedish nyckelharpa.


Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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