Songs from the old country: Yidstock Music Festival returns to Amherst

  • Daniel Khan and the Painted Bird, from Germany, merge klezmer-based music with punk rock and other modern sounds. Image courtesy Yiddish Book Center

  • The Klezmatics, the renowned New York-based band and Grammy winners, will play Sunday at this year’s Yidstock Music Festival. Image courtesy Yiddish Book Center

  • Aviva Chernick, best known as a Ladino singer, also sings in Yiddish and makes her Yidstock debut on Sunday, July 14. Image courtesy Yiddish Book Center

  • Vira Lozinsky, a Moldovan-born, Israel-based Yiddish vocalist, comes to Yidstock for the first time on Friday, July 12. Image courtesy Yiddish Book Center

  • Singer Sarah Mina Gordon will join Daniel Kahn on Sunday for an acoustic set of original and traditional Yiddish songs and ballads.   Photo by Lloyd Wolf/courtesy Yiddish Book Center

For the Gazette
Published: 7/10/2019 4:23:41 PM

An artistic lineage persistent in spite of diaspora and genocide: That’s the foundation on which the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst has built its annual “Yidstock: The Festival of New Yiddish Music.”

This year’s Yidstock, now in its eighth season, takes place July 11-14 and will bring artists from across the world to share songs that build upon the traditional klezmer music of eastern European Jewish communities.

“It’s been great … to keep pushing the envelope on this every year,” said cultural journalist and Yidstock artistic director Seth Rogovoy, who has curated acts for the music fest since it debuted as a two-day concert series. The festival now spans four days and features additional talks, workshops and film screenings about Jewish music and culture.

Traditional klezmer music incorporates instruments such as the accordion, clarinet, fiddle and trumpet in spirited melodies expressing emotions ranging from exuberant joy to deep melancholy. Historically, it’s played at weddings, funerals, parties, and other celebratory occasions.

The music performed at Yidstock is heavily influenced by klezmer, but as the title “Festival of New Yiddish Music” indicates, klezmer serves as a springboard for modern work that incorporates aspects of American jazz, punk, rock and other Yiddish music from across the world.

“[Artists] make [Yiddish music] speak authentically through themselves, based on their own background, ideas and musical practices” said Rogovoy. “Therefore, they make it speak very relevantly … with a contemporary audience. It speaks directly to today. And to tomorrow.”

In a recent phone interview, Lisa Newman, the book center’s director of communications, described how Yidstock also encourages musical “cross-pollination” through onstage collaboration.

For instance, as Rogovoy listens to Yiddish music primarily in New York City and Toronto, he envisions what musical pairings might yield innovative performances. Many collaborations will also develop sporadically throughout the festival as musicians meet and discover each other’s work.

“It really shows you how this music borrows and evolves and continues to be reimagined,” Newman said.

Although Rogovoy, a former Berkshire County resident who now lives in New York state, published the bestselling “Essential Klezmer: A Music Lover’s Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music” in 2000, he hadn’t encountered the genre until he covered a performance by klezmer clarinetist David Krakaur while writing for the Berkshire Eagle.

“It hit me in a deep and profound way that almost no other music had hit me,” Rogovoy recalled. He attributes his intuitive connection to klezmer to childhood memories of his singing grandfather, a cantor who immigrated to America from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s.

Berlin-based Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird will open this year’s festival July 11 with a concert featuring traditional and original songs incorporating punk-rock themes and other musical influences. The Grammy award-winning Klezmatics will return to the stage, as will multi-instrumental klezmer revivalist Hankus Netsky, vocalists Eleanor Reissa, Sarah Mina Gordan, and many others.

The series of talks and workshops at Yidstock include conversations with individual artists like newcomer Israeli vocalist Vira Lozinsky, talks about klezmer music with Rogovoy and Netsky, a Yiddish dance workshop with instructor Steve Weintraub accompanied by accordionist Lauren Brody, and more. 

Vocalist Aviva Chernick will hold a song and poetry workshop on Friday, July 12 to “Sing in Shabbos,” a day of rest and spiritual enrichment observed by some members of the Jewish faith. Local musician Brian Bender will host a sold-out instrumental klezmer workshop during which instrumentalists of various skill levels can learn and jam.

In the spirit of Yidstock cross-pollination, many artists will perform multiple times with various onstage accompaniment.

Stories of how artists developed interest in Yiddish music are almost as various as the acts themselves. Although Yidstock performers produce work in Yiddish, many are not native speakers.

“Even though my grandparents had a Jewish deli in Brooklyn, I didn’t grow up with Yiddish music at all,” said trumpeter Frank London of the Klezmatics. London has performed at Yidstock multiple times with the Klezmatics and his Klezmer Brass All-Stars. This year London will perform with both ensembles and special guests including Lozinsky and Reissa.

As Yiddish music moves forward from a cultural history suppressed by the violence of the Holocaust and fragmented by flight from Jewish persecution, Rogovoy, Newman and London note that the mission of both Yidstock and the Yiddish Book Center is to reenvision Yiddish language and culture and build a vibrant future for both.

“You can’t keep it down,” said Rogovoy. “It comes back because historically, it would have kept going.”

At press time, concert passes to attend all the Yidstock music events were sold out. But a full schedule of events, and links for buying tickets to individual concerts and other events such as workshops, can be found can be found at


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