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Yale Strom, A Champion for Klezmer

Jewish Heritage Month 2013 Honoree

Listen to klezmer music and it will harken you back to another time. Rich with tradition, the haunting melodies are a testament to the Jewish people and all they’ve endured throughout the course of history. To me, klezmer has the capacity to reach into our hearts and stir us to feel its beauty and soul.

One of the most passionate champions of klezmer music is San Diego’s own Yale Strom, a 2013 Jewish American Heritage Month Local Hero honoree. Strom, who is an Artist-in-Residence in the Jewish Studies program at San Diego State University is, without a doubt, a renaissance man for the ages. Violinist, composer, filmmaker, author, photographer and playwright, he is an artist with a mind that exudes brilliance and a creativity that seems to be boundless.

Photo credit: Jim Spadoni

2013 Local Hero honoree for Jewish Heritage month, Yale Strom.

To Strom, klezmer is more than just notes on a page. He sees it as a style of music steeped in history, one that robustly adds to our cultural tapestry. “It’s a people. The music is as old as the language of Yiddish. It is as old as the words, 'Jew' and 'Moslem,' using ancient Semitic scales. Yes, it sounds Middle Eastern and it should. Klezmer music is an extension of who I am and my culture, and a way to communicate to all kinds of people.”

In 1981, Strom, who is considered a revivalist and the world's leading ethnographer-artist of klezmer music and history, founded his own klezmer band, Hot Pstromi (a play on his name). As the band’s website explains, Hot Pstromi has a sound that is “a fusion of traditional klezmer, new Jewish music, Gypsy, khasidic, world beat and Balkan music.”

Strom’s love for klezmer began early on. “I grew up with a broad range of music, classical, blues, labor songs, folk--Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly. The Jewish music came around the table Friday nights on the eve of the Sabbath, Saturday afternoons, holidays, and at the synagogue. When the klezmer revival began in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, my father came home with a record of a band he saw play at Old Time Café, which used to be up in Leucadia. It was one of the premier folk world music clubs in the United States. Bands would travel and stop here in San Diego. I listened to the record and said, oh yeah, it reminds me of some of the things we sing in the synagogue.”

Working on his book, Wandering Feast: a Journey through the Jewish Culture of Eastern Europe, which is an autobiographical account of the year he spent in the former East Bloc, solidified his appreciation and knowledge of klezmer.

“Through my book, I was meeting people, particularly Holocaust survivors,” he explains. “And, it took on a whole different texture as I got more into it, and I saw that I could communicate with people, not just Jews, through music. I got immersed in history and culture.”

Photo credit: Jim Spadoni

Yale Strom plays a klezmer tune on his violin.

What Strom loves most about music is its ability to connect with others in a way that language cannot. “Music transcends words, observes Strom. “Music is an international language of itself. I'm lucky that I know music. I think my artwork would be so much different if I didn't have my music as a close ally and friend.”

Still, for all his success, Strom is most proud of having raised his daughter, Tallulah, 15, with his wife, Elizabeth Schwartz, who is a vocalist for Hot Pstromi. “Tallulah is an extension of who I am, who my wife is. She will become her own person but there’ll always be a part of me in her, and that’s an ongoing creation.”

Another creation close to Strom’s heart is a milestone photograph he made happen, titled “A Great Day on Eldridge Street,” which is on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

“I got all these people together for the photo,” he excitedly recalls. “It’s historic. Two people have since passed on, so the photo will never be duplicated. I’m so proud of it and how I captured a moment in history.”

Strom got the idea for the photograph after seeing the documentary film, "A Great Day in Harlem," which was about the 1958 gathering in Harlem, of the top jazz musicians, for a now famous photo.

Photo credit: Leo Sorel

More than 100 klezmer musicians came together for a photo shot on the steps of the newly renovated Eldridge Street Synagogue in New York City.

“So, in 2007, I gathered 104 musicians from around the world that have contributed to klezmer culture, whether through scholarship, research, playing or composing. Why Eldridge Street? Because that’s the portal of Eastern European culture, a bastion of Yiddish culture. We did it in front of a famous landmark on Eldridge Street.”

Strom’s latest project is a dance musical, “Chagall,” with renowned choreographer John Malashock, which will have its second series of workshop performances at the La Jolla Playhouse, June 6 through 9 in the Playhouse's Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre.

Strom’s unabashed curiosity and sense of wonderment is why he’s been able to achieve so much. “I'm always thinking of something new to challenge myself,” he says. “I've never written opera. I'm going to tell you this: I will before I leave this earth one day. Why not? Let me try. If nothing else, so I failed. If you don't try then you've already failed because there’s zero on the page.”

Strom becomes introspective when he reflects on his work and many achievements. “I believe it’s my duty as a human and as a Jew to, through my art, enlighten a few other people,” he expounds. “Leave the world a better place than I came into it. ‘Tikkun olam,’ which means, to repair the world. It is the duty of every human, and as a Jew, to make just a little bit better, this world, my neighborhood, my home, my city. And, if I can just do that even a little bit, then I’ve achieved something. Because if we all did it, six billion, we’d have so much more love in this world than hate and sadness. People might say, oh, he has his head in the clouds. Well, I’m an artist. I want to believe in the goodness and capability of man. I do look at the glass half full, always. I’m a positivist. Fault me, but that’s who I am, and I’m not going to change.”

He adds, with a touch of whimsy, “There’s part of me that never grew up. One of the greatest compliments I hope to get is when I'm 99 and people say, ‘What an immature person. Will he ever grow up?’ Never. I hope to have that in me. I'm willing to try and fall down."

Union Bank Local Heroes - Jewish American Heritage Month, Yale Strom

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