Smoked fish and klezmer are two sure signs of a happy Jewish occasion. But as author Thane Rosenbaum discovered, klezmer provides more than a soundtrack for simchas.
In his 2002 novel "Golems of Gotham," a ninth-grade violin prodigy named Ariel raises the spirits of the dead with her impassioned playing of rarely heard klezmer tunes to spellbound crowds outside of Zabar’s, the smoked-fish mecca on Upper Broadway.
Rosenbaum learned about the long-forgotten klezmer treasures from the violinist Alicia Svigals, who as a founding member of the Klezmatics was at the forefront of the klezmer revival. Rosenbaum was halfway through writing his third novel – which "revives" six writers who survived the Holocaust only to commit suicide – when he interviewed Svigals for a newspaper profile. Their conversations gave him the idea of using klezmer as "resurrection music" in his story.
Rosenbaum consulted Svigals about the Eastern European musical tradition, and she suggested real tunes for Ariel to perform. Svigals also provided inspiration for Rosenbaum’s characterizations of both Ariel and the klezmer violin teacher who discovers her. Next week, Rosenbaum reads and Svigals plays violin in a performance at the 92nd Street Y designed to bring the fiction alive (May 5, 8 p.m., $18, 212-415-5500).
"It’s an act of repair not just to restore the music for memorial purposes," Rosenbaum said of the return of "Jewish jazz." "It is our sound, and it’s an authentic sound," he said. Klezmer’s revival to appreciative audiences signals "a return to things that were lost in the aftermath of annihilation."
Svigals’ program will include a range of dobridens, zogekhts, freylakhs, kaleh bazetsns and khusidls that harken back to a time before recorded music, when klezmer set the mood for myriad occasions.
With klezmer’s renaissance in full swing, Svigals said, many musicians are turning back to the days when the violin, not the clarinet, was king in klezmer. They’re also uncovering a tradition of music, especially wedding music, that has a more somber, even mournful quality, including a tune designed to make the bride cry.
In the book, the central composition Ariel plays, as if by magic, is the "Invitation to the Dead." The melody – which epitomizes krekhzn, a sobbing vocal effect often used by cantors and mimicked by klezmer instrumentalists – traditionally was played before an orphan’s wedding at the parents’ graveside.
Svigals told The Jewish week that klezmer’s spiritual power as depicted in "Golems of Gotham" was no mere literary conceit. "I think it really works that way," she said. "I think klezmer music does connect people to our collective unconscious."