The last four days of November will provide a feast for the senses, an intellectual experience and a chance to enjoy all of the above with fellow lifelong learners and a couple of very passionate instructors.
The Merage JCC is launching its new School of Lifelong Jewish Learning with a program exploring two important and stimulating topics relating to Jewish history and culture: “Klezmer and Kabbalah: Expressions of the Jewish Soul.” Yale Strom and Daniel Harris, experts in their respective fields, will lead the four-day, all-inclusive program, which is based on the Elderhostel concept of in-depth intellectual discovery.
Strom “grew up in a house where we sang songs on Shabbas,” because his father had been “steeped in the Chassidic tradition of niggunim and folk tunes.” He began to focus on Klezmer music in 1981 after going to a dance in San Diego. Instead of going to law school, he formed his own Klezmer band and used theretofore unknown material from Eastern European and Roma music in his performances.
As documented in his first book, A Wandering Feast: A Journey through the Jewish Culture of Eastern Europe, Strom journeyed through East Bloc countries and collected Klezmer music, Holocaust oral histories and a variety of ethnographic material that would inform his music and his life’s direction. He formed a band, Hot Pstromi, with two sets of bandmates – one in San Diego and one in New York. His initial two band members, with whom he still works, date back to his high school days.
“Klezmer comes from an old tradition,” Strom said. “We want to keep it live and vibrant, not as a museum piece. Much of it comes from the 19th century, but some is from the medieval period. We don’t want to forget the tradition. We want to add many layers while always knowing there’s a core.”
Continually “trying to open new doors,” Strom has composed original New Jewish music that combines Klezmer with Chasidic melodies and other musical motifs. In addition, he has composed original music for theater, film and television. His thirteen CDs run the gamut from traditional Klezmer to “new” Jewish jazz.
In 2006, Strom was appointed artist-in-residence in the Jewish Studies Program at San Diego State University. He has also directed eight award-winning ethnographic documentary films and written twelve books including his newest, Shpil! The Art of Playing Klezmer. Currently, he is working on a recording a soundtrack called The Devil’s Bride with traditional and new Klezmer and Yiddish songs; writing The Shmuel Polonski Yiddish Song Book about a Soviet writer and lyricist whose poems were set to music in the 1930s; and filming A Letter to Wedgwood about how the pottery maker and Christian Zionist Josiah Wedgwood saved Jews, including a survivor from the Ukraine.
In the four-day program, Strom will play the violin and use YouTube to engage participants in a tour of Klezmer through the ages. He will describe the origins of Klezmer in the Alsace-Lorraine region between France and Germany, show how the Chassidic movement was a “shot in the arm” for Klezmer music and “weave in my own personal stories,” he said.
If Klezmer touches Jewish emotions profoundly, Kabbalah intrigues scholars and aesthetes of all faiths. For Daniel Harris, it’s a compulsion.
Harris, the executive director of Hillel Foundation of Orange County, got interested in Kabblalah in high school when he saw how it influenced Shakespeare’s and Milton’s writings. He pursued further study of it in college when he discovered how “Jewish mysticism has so much impact on western tradition, especially classical literature.”
Holding an M.Div from The University of Chicago, Harris specialized in the history of religion and the science and methodology of interpreting texts, discovering that the metaphors of darkness and light and life and death are “never reconciled, never brought to closure” in literature influenced by Kabbalah. He “developed an appetite for mystical knowledge of God,” adding that “Kabbalah has kept me very connected to Judaism.” The language of poems, narratives and other works influenced by Kabbalah “reflect sparks of infinity,” he said.
Harris, who wrote his dissertation on The Zohar, has taught Kabbalah, Shakespeare, Kafka, Celan and Freud and the French Resistance at Lehrhaus Judaica, UC Berkeley and Sonoma State University. He is the author of Hyperlinks of Anxiety, Paul Celan and the Messiah’s Broken Levered Tongue and Unio Mystica. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, his poetry, experimental writing, art and essays have been published in various journals.
The School of Lifelong Jewish Learning runs from November 27 through November 30 at the Merage JCC, 1 Federation Way, Irvine, and includes continental breakfast and lunch each day. The cost is $118 for JCC members and $136 for the public.
For reservations, go to www.jccoc.org/adults/lifelong-jewish-learning/ or call (949) 435-3400.
Yale Strom Lectures
On The Eighth Day God Created the Klezmer
Trance and Dance:
The Chasidic Influence
Klezmer to the New World
Klezmer from the
Ashes to Revival
Daniel Harris Lectures
A History of Jewish Mysticism and Kabbalah
The Kabbalah of Shakespeare and Freud
of Kabbalah: Kafka,
Celan and Jabès
Writing our Sacred
Interiors: A Kabbalistic Poetry Writing Workshop