by Miri Verona
During the pandemic, klezmer music became my quarantine obsession — one of the only consistent things tethering me to reality. From being my rock during the pandemic, klezmer for me blossomed into a surprisingly thrilling medium for community engagement. Despite Appleton being famously home to Jewish magician Harry Houdini, it has an incredibly small Jewish community. In total, less than half a percent of the Appleton population is Jewish. Even so, Appleton maintains a small and close-knit Jewish community centered around Moses Montefiore Synagogue.
Klezmer, for those who are unfamiliar, is a Jewish music genre that has its roots in the musical traditions and practices of Ashkenazi Jews in Central and Eastern Europe. The Jews who wandered around those parts of Europe played a variety of Jewish and non-Jewish musical styles and dances in various settings. Over centuries, this synthesized into this genre we now call klezmer. Yes, even a Wisconsin-spun, Liberace-style Beer Barrel Polka might be klezmer in the right context.
Were it not for Lawrence University’s musicology department, my klezmer band may have never come to fruition. It was one day during Zoom class in their intro sequence that me and a classmate Georgia (who would come to be our band’s clarinetist) first connected over a shared interest klezmer. Soon after I reached out to my trombonist friend Mikayla who in turn got a linguistically-inclined singer, Zemirah. We had our first jam during spring break of 2021.
That jam turned into a weekly open jam I hosted, known colloquially as “klanky time.” Here, I tested out my transcription and songleading skills as well as the limits of what might be klezmer: Yiddish dances, Hebrew songs, a number from the movie The Prince of Egypt. In another hat-tip to the Lawrence musicology department, it must be noted too that Prof. Erica Scheinberg was the band’s go-to advisor throughout its existence.
After months of the weekly jam, a group of ‘regulars’ had emerged. A graduating trumpet player, Eviatar, asked if we could put together a group to play klezmer on his recital. After getting that group together, I used the opportunity to suggest we might try and find gigs and perform generally and from there, “Eviatar and the Klezmommies” or just “The Klezmommies” was born.
Our first gig was a Lawrence Hillel Hanukkah party, but then we went on to do some events as a part of Lawrence’s Music for All Initiative. Music for All booked us for a performance at Gibson Community Music Hall. Here, I got my first taste of how meaningful sharing this niche music genre can be, even in the Fox Valley. Following a small set, a couple of older women came up to me and my fellow musicians positively beaming about how much they love klezmer and appreciated us playing it for the event.
After the Music for All event we got to play at LUaroo, Lawrence’s annual music festival. From close friends to classmates I’d never met, folks bought our custom t-shirts and danced in three concentric hora circles as we played the classic song, “Hava nagila” during a downpour. This was around when our humble collective of fans started calling themselves “klezbabies.”
The next school year would see most of the Klezmommies graduate, but not before making more meaningful memories together. Our eponymous trumpet-player Eviatar was finishing his student teaching, so we had one final recording session in the Lawrence chapel with him. The recordings from this are still yet to be released, but Running Out of Time, maybe the first Appleton-produced klezmer album will see the light of day in the near future.
During this time, we also played what remains my favorite gig that we had — providing music for Simchat Torah at Moses Montefiore Synagogue. Simchat Torah marks the end and restart of annual Torah readings and is a joyous celebration of learning. Families get together and dance around with the Torah scrolls. I’d connected with Rabbi Hannah who leads services and she had suggested this as an opportunity to play for the local Jewish community. The event was packed too, with at least as many people in attendance as during the most attended Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services a few weeks before.
Following this, we played out the rest of the year — a Lawrence Tiny College Concert and LUaroo again among other things. Since then, the graduating Klezmommies dispersed into their own diaspora of sorts with bandmates moving out of Appleton to cities from Massachusetts to California (I’m in Chicago myself). I miss my Klezmommies deeply and my memories with them will remain among my most cherished and joyous in life.
During Simchat Torah this year, as initial shock and disbelief were still hanging over myself and many American Jews as to the events in Israel-Palestine, I got a message from Prof. Scheinberg that the Klezmommies were all very missed at the congregation’s celebration that year. Apparently, Rabbi Hannah had dug up one of our YouTube recordings to play during services. As I remembered the joy of sharing music in community. In my experience, klezmer gives me hope because it is a cultural touchpoint which can bring together Jews of various generations and beliefs. Music’s spiritual uplift can bring people together in the darkest, most unnavigable of times.
Miri Verona is a Chicago-based journalist and klezmer musician. She has written words for fsm., The Lawrentian and a variety of Jewish publications around the US. While studying at Lawrence University, Miri founded The Klezmommies who were a featured band at the first ever Klezmer On Ice music festival in Minneapolis. Right now she’s probably wildly gesticulating while speaking to herself in Italian or listening to Regina Spektor or both.