When it comes to klezmer, Seth Rogovoy wrote the book. Literally.
During his long and popular stint as reviewer for The Berkshire Eagle, Rogovoy, now editor of Berkshire Living magazine, became enamored of the centuries-old genre that grew from Jewish celebrations, especially weddings, in Eastern Europe. He quickly became one of the world's foremost authorities and author of a comprehensive volume entitled "The Essential Klezmer: A Music Lover's Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music,"which remains the best-selling guidebook of its kind.
On Sunday, Rogovoy and the cutting-edge klezmer band Golem will host Club Helsinki's "Hanukkah KlezFest," a performance that will be part history lesson and part celebration of what Rogovoy calls "the happy, frenetic, upbeat music for dancing, as well as the heartbreaking, poignant, reflective music for listening." (There are two shows scheduled one at 2 p.m. and the other at 7 p.m., which sold out several days ago).
In a recent e-mail exchange, Rogovoy recounted his introduction to and love affair with the joyous and poignant sounds.
"I first heard klezmer in the mid-1990s just in the process of doing my job as music critic for the Berkshire Eagle, in the same way I was introduced to all kinds of music deep blues, bluegrass, Cajun, jazz, Indian music, Tex-Mex, Bulgarian women's choirs, Irish folk, etc.," Rogovoy said. "But there was something different about klezmer, something instantly recognizable."
Rogovoy had never heard of the likes of Andy Statman, David Krakauer or The Klezmatics. Yet when he saw them play, Rogovoy experienced an immediate connection to their music.
"There was something intensely familiar, in the literal meaning of the word,about this music, and it spoke to me on a deep and profound level," he said.
"The klezmer I was listening to had its roots in the celebration music wedding music and party music played by Yiddish-speaking, Eastern European Jews in the 19th and early 20th century. That world may seem very far away and distant, but all my grandparents grew up in that world, and I knew them all very well.
"I continue, in fact, to be very close to my 93-year-old grandmother, so I really feel a connection to that world."
Rogovoy also found a spiritual connection to klezmer through his maternal grandfather.
"I grew up hearing him sing all the time," Rogovoy recalled. "He was a cantor who sang religious melodies. He died in 1981, a month to the day after John Lennon was killed. I'll never forget that. But his singing has stayed with me.
"Klezmer and synagogue music the kind of music he sang are closely related, at least first cousins, and sometimes even siblings."
After a decade as a music critic, Rogovoy stumbled into the soul music of his own culture. He immediately immersed himself in it.
"This whole world opened up for me, and I quickly delved in, both professionally writing about many of the leading practitioners of modern klezmer for the Eagle and other newspapers and magazines and personally going to as many concerts as I could in New York, attending the annual weeklong 'KlezKamp' in the Catskills, and just generally learning as much about the music and the culture as I could."
He discovered that there there was little written about klezmer at the time and a friend suggested that Rogovoy fill the void.
"I actually laughed at her and dismissed the suggestion, thinking that there was no way I could do that," Rogovoy said. "It took about six months, in fact, for the idea to sink in." Then Rogovoy took the plunge.
For the KlezFest, Rogovoy will be collaborating with Golem to present "Rockin' the Shtetl," a multimedia program that distills the essence of his book into a 50-minute program that uses narration, a digital slideshow, and snippets of recordings to take a whirlwind journey through the entire history of klezmer. Then Golem will put their post-modern spin on klezmer.
The group features Annette Ezekiel, whom Rogovoy met at KlezKamp several years ago.
"She hadn't even formed Golem yet," Rogovoy said, "but she sang one amazing old Yiddish song the final night of the camp and invested it with such incredible passion, humor, and punk-rock intensity, that it really stayed with me."
Also featured is Alicia Jo Rabins who is fast becoming one of the greatest exponents of klezmer fiddling in the world.
"Golem's approach appeals equally to grandmothers and punk rockers," Rogovoy said. "They can play versions of Yiddish classics like 'Rumania, Rumania' or "Bie Mir Bistu Sheyn" and it evokes both nostalgia and camp, depending on your particular point of view. So it's incredibly fun, but it's also incredibly authentic."