The Jewish people invented the idea of diaspora and have experienced nearly 2,000 years of wandering the globe, refugees and immigrants receiving a dubious welcome almost everywhere. Of course, one result of that history is that the Jews have left behind a lot of literal and metaphorical baggage. The former, mere material goods, can be replaced, but the latter — a rich tapestry of languages, literature, music and other arts — is harder to recover.
Hanna Griff-Slevin, the director of cultural programs for the Museum at Eldridge Street, admits that it is the music that speaks to her most vividly, which is probably why for the past five years the museum has been showcasing its wonderfully creative “Lost and Found Music” series.
“I remember my grandfather singing zmirot and nigunim when I was a child,” she says. “And as a folklorist I fell in love with the old Yiddish music.”
Inevitably, when she came to Eldridge Street, music was in the forefront of her thoughts — especially when she realized that the building’s main performance space was an acoustical gem. “The sound is gorgeous,” she says rapturously.
So is the space itself, a 125-year-old synagogue that has undergone extensive restoration in the past decade with impressive results.
No less impressive are the wildly variegated programs that the “Lost and Found” series has offered. From Greek Rebetica (a kind of blues) to mambo, avant-garde jazz to Borscht Belt swing and even a sprinkling of Chinese folk music, the concerts have been a vivid reminder of the global nature of the Jewish experience.
Equally important, the series has hosted an honor roll of contemporary Jewish music giants, with a welcome focus on next-gen creators like Dani Kahn, Jake Shulman-Ment, Michael Winograd, Benjy Fox-Rosen and Jeremiah Lockwood. That emphasis on youth took on a greater significance in last year’s series and will carry over into the spring schedule.
“Last year we started introducing a generation-to-generation element into the program,” Griff-Slevin explains. “There aren’t a lot of father-son Jewish music duos out there, but we’ve sought out performers who can make that kind of connection real.”
The opening concert in this year’s series, “Parnuse: A Jewish Musical Legacy,” is an excellent example. The March 5 concert is a tribute to the late German Goldenshteyn with an ensemble of younger musicians performing some of his over 1,100 transcriptions and compositions, led by Naum Goldenshteyn, German’s grand-nephew. Interspersed among the tunes will be reminiscences by Naum of his granduncle.
That personal touch is “what makes the series so much fun,” Griff-Slevin says. “It makes the music come alive.”
That combination of the personal, the intergenerational and the historical is strikingly at the center of the March 26 event, “Polyn: Farewell to the Homeland.” In 1925 a violinist from the Frand family klezmer band left Poland for the New World. He took with him his violin and a suitcase filled with music. In America he spread that music around to family members and friends. A few generations later, Sharon Frant Brooks shared some of that music with flutist Adrianne Greenbaum, who, seeing that it was for strings and flute, jumped at the chance to perform the unfamiliar, haunting material. Greenbaum is releasing a CD of some of the music this spring, and the concert features a powerhouse ensemble including Michael Alpert, Shulman-Ment, Pete Rushefsky and Brian Glassman.
One of the more salubrious side effects of the Jewish wanderings is the way that Jews picked up and incorporated elements of the local cultures in which they landed. This, too, is the basis for an event in the “Lost and Found” program, perhaps the most unlikely one on the spring schedule: “Lower East Side Sounds,” an expansion of last year’s klezmer-Chinese event.
“That was a beautiful concert,” Griff-Slevin enthuses. “We had over 300 people and I knew immediately that I wanted to do something like it again. This year, I decided, we’ll add the Puerto Rican element. I contacted [drummer] Bobby Sanabria and he gladly agreed. He’s going to bring his band, Zisl Slepovitch will have his band and Susan Cheng will perform with her group, Music from China. Everybody gets their own set, then they’re going to weave in and out with one another and end with a jam session for all three groups together.”
Puerto Rico, China, Eastern Europe and the Lower East Side. What could be more Jewish? ✿
This year’s “Lost and Found Music Series” begins with the Sunday, March 5 event “Parnuse: A Jewish Musical Legacy,” the first of four programs. All will be held at the Museum at Eldridge Street (12 Eldridge St.). eldridgestreet.org/events.