The Jews of Scotland were recently awarded an official tartan. Actually, “they have three now,” says Hanna Griff-Slevin, director of the family history center and cultural programs at the Museum at Eldridge Street.
Of course, this piece of news undoubtedly raises an obvious question: the Jews of Scotland?
As the Jewish Chronicle, the United Kingdom’s largest Jewish paper, reported in 2010, “although there were 18,000 Jews in Scotland in the 1950s, there are now only around 10,000.” There may have been Jews in Scotland as early as the Roman conquest of the British Isles, but the first substantial influx was of Russian Jews in the late-19th century. They arrived in Edinburgh and Glasgow around the same time that their cousins were flocking to the Lower East Side and the synagogue at Eldridge Street.
Griff-Slevin received an email from a Scottish Jew who was looking for a place to exhibit photos of the Jewish communities of Scotland, and he knew some Jewish pipers. Things didn’t quite go to plan but fortunately she had also been contacted by Adrianne Greenbaum, one of the foremost flutist in klezmer music and an expert on baroque music as well; she was interested in doing a concert in the museum’s Lost and Found Music series to focus on Jewish-Irish and baroque traditions.
The result is “Plaid, Baroque and Klezmer,” an engaging concert program that will take place on March 2.
“I love Irish and Scottish music, and I find that a way for me to play it is to find out if I have a connection to it,” Greenbaum explains. “That’s where I was starting from. It’s sort of the backdoor to what [klezmer scholar and performer] Henry [Sapoznik] says about moving from old-timey [American folk music] to klezmer: ‘Don’t you have a tradition of your own?’ I want to play music that I love.”
So Greenbaum sought out a Jewish connection to Scottish music.
“Many of us have a Scottish heritage, and it goes way back,” she says. “The recent DNA research suggests that many Jews have links to the Stewart or Alexander families,” major lines within Scottish history.
That search also played into another concern of hers, one that ties into her day job as professor of music at Mount Holyoke College.
“I’m always interested in how music got from one place to another,” she says. “I want to know how certain musics evolve. Did klezmer always sound like this?”
That is a logical question for someone who is active in the historically informed performance movement, playing period instruments and attempting to recreate the sounds that a composer would have heard and created 300 years ago. The musicians who will be joining her at Eldridge Street — Christopher Norman on flutes and pipes and David Greenberg on baroque and octave violin — are products of that discipline. And singer-percussionist Michael Alpert is one of the pioneers of the klezmer revival’s interest in Old World sounds.
One clue to the nature of the older klezmer comes from an unlikely source, the German baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767).
“Telemann wrote two memoirs and he mentioned that he loved the music of the klezmer,” Greenbaum says. “You ask yourself, ‘what’s that?’ Telemann did a fair amount of traveling through Poland and Central Europe. We have had some fairly recent discoveries of gypsy or folk baroque music, and I’m thinking this is what Telemann was listening to, this kind of dance music. It’s mostly in major keys; it’s not modal the way klezmer is now, but that’s 200 years in the future.”
Greenbaum and her ensemble will draw from a 1720 collection of such tunes for some of the concert’s material, and that leads her, in a roundabout way, to Scotland.
“We fast-forward about a hundred years to late baroque/early classical music in Scotland,” she says. “It’s a giant leap. The only known Jewish music there is what Isaac Nathan put out as his ‘Hebrew Melodies.’”
Published in 1815, 1816 and 1824-9, these songs were ostensibly collaborations between Nathan and Lord Byron consisting of, Nathan wrote, “The favorite airs which are still sung … in the families of the Jews.”
It would be a stretch, Greenbaum says, to call Nathan a composer, and his more famous partner “didn’t gravitate to this collaboration right away.”
She explains, “In the end, Byron said, ‘I’m always interested in furthering the success of the downtrodden,’ and that’s what appealed to him.”
Which seems like a good reason to have a concert, right?
“Plaid, Baroque and Klezmer: A Jewish Musical Odyssey” will take place on Sunday, March 2, 3 p.m. at the Museum at Eldridge Street (12 Eldridge St.). For information, call (212) 219-0888 or go to www.eldridgestreet.org. The photo exhibit “Scots Jews: Identity, Belonging and the Future,” featuring the work of photographer Judah Passow, will be on display at the Milton J. Weill Gallery at the 92nd Street Y (Lexington Avenue and 92nd Street), March 5-April 27.