Mark Kligman Interview

Dr. Mark Kligman interviewed by Daniel Schley for the Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive, March, 2011

Note: The following is a literal transcription of the audio file of the interview with Dr. Mark Kligman. The text follows the spoken audio faithfully, with few edits or contextual corrections of imperfect grammar, etc., so that the original intent and flow of the spoken interview is not compromised.  We have embedded links in the text where it made sense.  We have also included additional links of interest at the end of this page.


DS: The research that we’re doing has two parts: we’re looking into first recordings of traditional Hasidic melodies such as a lot of the music put out by the Nichoach label by Chabad and, later, neo-Hasidic music put out by musicians like Mordechai Ben David et. al. So the first thing I wanted to ask you was how did this music come about? What sparked both of these waves of recordings and productions?

MK: The Nichoach society is an abbreviation for Niguney Chasidey Chabad or 'melodies of Chabad Chasidim'. When Lubavitch (Chabad) came to the United States some time around the 1930s and there was settlement and establishment of Chabad communities in different places and culminating in their center at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, they started developing a series of different organizations to print publications, create educational material, and establish a very fundamental network. The Rebbe in the 1940s established these different societies and there were a number of people in the community who were considered to be the experts in Chabad melodies. There’s a publication that you might be interested in called Sefer HaNigunim (The Book of Melodies), in four volumes. It is no longer in print. Samuel Zalmanov basically documented somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 different melodies, which are considered to be the core melodies in the Chabad tradition. For each melody, the book has a very short explanation as to whether or not the melody is considered to be very old, from one of the previous rebbes, and the context of the melody. Each melody has its own unique story and some of them are borrowed melodies. Ellen Koskoff’s book, Music in Lubavitcher Life, records a good deal of this. There was this desire to start recording the core Chabad melodies. I don’t recall the date of the first Nichoach recording but it was in the late ‘40s or probably the early ‘50s.

DS: And when was Sefer HaNigunim published?

MK: I believe it’s between 1948 and 1952

DS: So this was before the recordings were made?

MK: Correct. The book was published before the recordings were made. Now, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s office would publish various talks and speeches that he gave or sermons and they were considered to be official publications from the Rebbe. What I heard is that after the first Nichoach recording came out, the people who worked with the Rebbe didn’t feel that the music adequately reflected what they wanted to be of the tradition, so the office of the Rebbe did not officially endorse Nichoach. But there’s ample respect given to Nichoach as being a very important part of the community.

DS: But wasn't the Rebbe the one who gave the impetus to start recording the melodies?

MK: Yes, that’s correct. But my understanding is that Nichoach was never officially a part of the Rebbe’s official endeavors. It might just be very nuanced but what it just means is that the Rebbe wanted this to happen and sanctioned it and supported it but didn’t put it under the auspices of his offices. I guess you know that looking at the Lubavitch community and the Rebbe is like looking at a political structure.

DS: What about the Gerer Chasidim for example, with Dovid Werdyger’s recordings? Is it the same sort of dynamic?

MK: My understanding is that for Gerer and Bobov and most of the other Chassidic groups, there was this general recognition by these rebbes that the community was really suffering, so to speak, from a real decline in its membership and population, and in coming to America they really knew that they really had to reestablish themselves and that they had to rework preexisting structures. There’s a book Songs of the Hasidim, in two volumes, published by Velvel Pasternak. A good deal of my information has come from my conversations with him. And what he describes about this early period is that it was really a time that there were very, very few Hasidim in these schools and very few things that people really had available, and there was a sense that things were really dying out. So these weren’t fieldwork recordings but rather they were musicians, such as Velvel Pasternak, who took these melodies and wrote very simple and straightforward arrangements so that the music could be documented and so that people really could learn it. I don’t think that it was meant as artistic entertainment but rather just as a means of documentation. So I guess it occupies an interesting space – in that it’s not a fieldwork recording but yet it’s not really a highly artistic sort of endeavor.

DS: And can you tell me a little bit about the development of neo-Hasidic music?

MK: Before we do that let me fill in a couple of other things: Dovid Werdyger was a well known singer and someone who led services as a cantor – I believe he had a family travel agency and I don’t know that he necessarily made a living as a cantor, but he was a pretty well known cantor in the community. And he actually wrote a memoir –

DS: Songs of Hope?

MK: Yes, that’s it. And it’s definitely worth reading to get his characterization of things during that time and that era. And what inspired it was that as different Hasidic dynasties did this, others did it. And I mean, Chabad was really one of the first but what makes Chabad unique and the Nichoach society unique is that they really have more of a system and structure for their music that is not necessarily found in the other Hasidic groups. So the fact that Lubavitch has an official set of these melodies such as Sefer HaNigunim, the work of people in the community that are really considered to be musical experts, is what gives it a certain status. So the Nichoach recordings appeared year after year and my understand is that the people on the recordings – at least the singing – were Lubavitchers. They weren’t like hired musicians who came in and sang. It was people who really knew these melodies and the melodies were really a part of their life, so to speak. And that went on for a number of years, so there are various series of these Nichoach recordings and of course the Dovid Werdyger recordings go on from the 1950s and into the 1960s. 

And another significant component of this is Ben Zion Shenker and Modzitz. That really is its own unique and interesting story. And some of that has been documented by the Milken archive – they’ve done a number of interviews with Ben Zion Shenker. And Ben Zion Shenker did not grow up as a Modzitzer Hasid but was very close to the Modzitzer Rebbe, and Ben Zion Shenker was a very, very good musician so he documented and recorded a lot of the Modzitzer melodies and the Modzitzer melodies are really on a different level – they’re really far more complex. In general, when we think of Hasidic melodies we think of Ay Ay Ay, Biri Biri Bum, you know, these very up-beat, pound-your-fist-on-the-table kind of melodies. But it’s a whole world of music that is very nuanced and very developed. And in each of these traditions there’s a series of different types of melodies that are sung in different contexts and some are very soulful and yearning melodies, and there are many stories connected to these in terms of different rabbis' experiences that are connected to them. And in Modzitz, there's Rabbi Taub of Modzitz, in early 20th century Poland. He was a diabetic and had to have a foot amputated and they didn’t have anesthesia. So he said that he would write a melody and go into a trance and then they could do the operation. And the melody is called Ela Ezkara – and Ela Ezkara is a text that comes from the High Holiday liturgy and this particular melody is like a 20 minute melody that unfolds without real repeats. And Modzitz has four melodies from this Rebbe that they call “operas” and each of these melodies has a very long structure -- meaning that this is its own art form, its own unique sort of entity and there are many recordings that people have done of this tune Ezkara and people have done instrumental versions of it. There’s a whole lore to all this – there’ve been a number of archivists in Israel that have really looked at Hasidic music, like Yaakov Mazor and Andre Hajdu. And if you look at the Yuval publications, they have some extremely in depth studies of various Hasidic nigunim. And what I just mentioned about Modzitz and the comments about what Mazor and Hajdu is really all sort of pre-America. It’s all things that happened prior to Hasidim coming to America. I think that before we get to the Neo-Hasidic, I need to ask if you have any other historical questions or comments?

DS: This music was mostly for themselves, for the Hasidim?

MK: Yes, that’s a great question. It really was for the context of when they would sing it, and that context would be what I’d roughly call a “para-liturgical” event – where it wasn’t necessarily things that would happen in the synagogue. Now some of the melodies do develop into ritual use – those are the melodies they sing in synagogue. But in general, the more ornate melodies and the context of thee melodies are things that would be sung at a “tisch.” tisch means “table” In Lubavitch, it is called a farbrengn. It’s the same kind of context. where people are with the rebbe and when they sing these melodies or various zemirot that people would sing on the Sabbath. That’s the core of this music. And some of it spills out and then does get adapted to use in the liturgy but yes,. it’s all really for internal use. This is really not music for entertainment. This is really music when everyone’s coming together to really set a mood and a tone and hear the words of the rebbe.

DS: So moving on to Neo-Hasidic music: These musicians were trying to integrate American music with Jewish values?

MK: Yeah. I mean, it was kind of a process that evolved. I think that Shlomo Carlebach was really the first one to do something American, but he did it by really taking the Hasidic sort of tradition of a bi- or tri-partite musical structure with repeated sections. And he just sort of changed the dynamic of it and made it more folk-oriented, by having a guitar. And you know, his first efforts at this were really in the 1950s. Shlomo Carlebach talks about his background connection to the Modzitzer Rebbe. Carlebach did not come from a Hasidic background at all – he was born German, to a German-Ashkenazic tradition and as a teenager going into the Catskills in the summer, he had more and more connections to Lubavitch and through that not only Lubavitch, but also Modzitz. He really had a different connection to Jewish Hasidic experiences that he went on to develop on his own, so to speak. From what I’ve researched and from my observations, I wouldn’t say that he was necessarily so much trying to be American as he was trying to take the traditional ethos of a Jewish melody and just put it into a context so that American kids could really understand it. So that was Step One. And what many of the musicians that I’ve spoken to in the late 60s and early 70s have said is that seeing Carlebach do it – seeing a rabbi with a beard doing this – gave them the impetus to really do it themselves. So groups like the Rabbis’ Sons, Mark Fried, Ruach, D’veykus were each really starting to do that really on their own. And well, you know the Rabbis’ Sons: four young men whose fathers were all rabbis and studying in Israel, and the real impetus of their music was that there’s a connection to the kind of Hasidic realm of not really writing new liturgical music but rather writing music that would be sung in the para-liturgical context. Now, over time, the melodies of Ruach D’veykus, have been used more and more in liturgy and that’s how many people know them -- but that really wasn’t their goal.

DS: You talk about Carlebach taking the Jewish ethos and putting it into the context of America. Some things that I’ve read about Carlebach have said that his target audience was largely secular, correct?

MK: There were secular Jews, and Jews who grew up in a religious environment but were starting to get very disaffected with expressing their Judaism. So, it would be like first generation Americans, where parents were European. What these young Jews who were now in college in the 1950s were really trying to make sense of – through various youth movements of the 1950s -- was: how can I be Jewish but yet still American? And it was people from a very traditional upbringing where the parents' desire was to really secularize but it really wasn’t coming from people with necessarily a secular background. I mean, there’s certainly that component to Carlebeach, but from what I’ve gleaned that’s not how it started. How it basically started and the attraction that people really had to Carlebach was that it somehow was pointing to a way that they could still remain connected to the Jewish life and experiences that they grew up with and didn’t have to leave it completely.

DS: OK. So how were some of the Neo-Hasidic music – I guess also both in regards to Carlebach and then other musicians such as the Rabbis’ Sons and Mordechai Ben David - how was their music received?

MK: I never really researched that question or asked questions of people about that at that early stage. I don’t really know how the Rabbis’ Sons were really received but I haven’t heard that there was any controversy to it. I think it was something that they really came up with some really interesting melodies to sing and things that people would do – the kumzitz or melave malka or just to really have these kind of meaningful Jewish experiences and they weren’t like planning to become rock stars or become musical personalities. It was just something that they did and Baruch Chait and a number of other people who were a part of the Rabbis’ Sons are people who still remain very connected to Jewish education and Jewish religious life. Mordechai Ben David is really unique because he was kind of a departure from it. Because he - other than Carlebach - is really one of the first individuals that develops as an individual singer and starts something that is far more than 'Americanization'. There’s more the sense of writing a pop-rock ballad or one of the things that I’ve talked about in some of my articles – like the article that was published in the YIVO Annual in the mid ‘90s. The essence is in his recording called Hineini. The word “Hineini” comes from when Abraham binds Isaac to sacrifice him, and God calls out to Abraham and Abraham says Hineini which means “here I am.” It’s a whole experience of being ready, being prepared, and the real religious message that it’s giving is really done in English. So the real cornerstone song for this music was this song Hineini. And what really developed in the early 1970s from Mordechai Ben David was singing a couple of original compositions on an album and then doing some Carlebach melodies, and then there were a lot of melodies that were coming out of Israel like the Hasidic Song Festival. All of those things were represented in the early Mordechai Ben David recordings. 

DS: What was the relationship with the Israeli Hasidic Song Festival? Weren’t there secular musicians who played there?

MK: The Hasidic Song Festival is something I haven’t done a lot of research on. There might be some – there’s a book by Edwin Seroussi and Motti Regev, Popular Music and National Culture in Israel. I think they have a section where they talk about it. Israeli culture in the 1950s and 1960s as a young developing country was always holding festivals for, you know, people who created the nicest Purim costume, the nicest Hanukiya on Hanukkah - there’s a festival for everything because everyone’s trying to be Israeli and create and do things, and it was very artistic and organic, in terms of really trying to develop things that were 'Israeli' -- so there were many, many, musical festivals. The Hasidic song festival was simply Israeli music – Israeli style music by Israeli performers that were based on liturgical words. So it had absolutely nothing to do with Hasidim. And the way these contests worked was that people would enter songs, and they would have some sort of concert or program where they would present this music, and then there would be, say, the Hasidic Song Festival of 1967, 1968, 1969, and they issued all these different recordings and usually the graphic was some new age sort of Hasid dancing -- but it really had nothing to do with Hasidim. Now Shlomo Carlebach, since he was a well known singer and someone who typically travelled to Israel, became a part of the Hasidic Song Festival. But the Hasidic Song Festival was really just a venue for creating new music in Israel. They produced a number of melodies -- I mean, I think you know the Od Yishomo of Carlebach. There are a number of such standard melodies in the canon of Jewish summer camps and so on.

DS: Getting back to the reception of Hasidic music: So at the beginning with the Rabbis’ Sons and [Mordechai Ben David’s] Hineini’s use of English, there was no conflict with religious authorities?

MK: I’ve never heard of any conflicts with the Rabbi’s Sons. I have heard about conflicts with Mordechai Ben David. And the stories that I heard when I did initial research in the mid to late ‘80s on this stuff about things that happened in the ‘70s was that many rabbis were very concerned about the music of Mordechai Ben David because they felt it was a popular style, a rock style, and that that was going to lead people astray from Judaism. And they tried to ban the music. They were very upset with it and - 

DS: This was in the 70s?

MK: In the ‘70s. And as they banned music – which is true of things in every decade, and even true today – in many ways it made it more popular. And the other part of what I wrote in the YIVO Annual is that I quoted a rabbi in Brooklyn who basically said that once the rabbis found that the music was helping to make people religious and that it was a part of the religious experiences that people were having in Israel and America, the rabbis embraced the music. But there’s no single rabbinic authority that governs all of this. It’s diffused in many, many different ways. So different Hasidic groups might have more autonomy and a rabbi might say something which might have more of an impact or at least during that time period. But now it would be far more difficult, with the internet and many other resources that the people have at their disposal to listen and consider music. There was a story – I’ve never written about this, because I never really got all the ins and outs of it – about a rebbe called the Ribnitzer rebbe – and the Ribnitzer rebbe was this rebbe who’s considered to be a real wonder worker where he can do magical things and has very special powers, and when I learned in yeshiva in Los Angeles in the 1980s –someone told me a story that the Ribnitzer rebbe,years prior to me being in the yeshiva there, came and woke up some guys in the yeshiva very early one morning and said: We have to go to the zoo because there are very special neshomot (souls) there that we need to bless. And so there, this is a rebbe who’s working in a very very different sort of realm of spirituality. And in the 1970s Mordechai Ben David had some connection to this rebbe and at the time Mordechai Ben David kept on talking about trying to make it in the secular music market and the Ribnitzer rebbe apparently told him that if he did he would take away his voice, that he had the power to take away his voice and he would do it if Mordechai Ben David went into the secular music market. So I mean, I’ve heard that story from a number of different people. I mean, I don’t know, I can’t attest to it being true but at least it tells you something even if people are making up a story like that.

DS: Did different frumm groups - such as litvish versus hasidish for example –relate differently to the music?

MK: That’s a great question. There’s a great book by Samuel Heilman called Sliding to the Right that really describes the journey of the orthodox community and these different divisions were very clearly defined in the 1960s and 1970s, but as you get on into the ‘80s and ‘90s a lot of these divisions become less clear and polarized and it’s much harder to make these very broad statements. In my experience in looking at this music, I would say that certain parts of this music were always embraced by what would be called the Litvish or Lithuanian community, the non-Hasidic community, as well as the Hasidic community in a joint fashion, in the sense that Mordechai Ben David is equally enjoyed by both of those camps. And there’s a certain level that really propelled Mordechai Ben David’s career is that he was accepted by the Hasidim and the religious Litvish Jews and people who are a little less intensely Orthodox, so Mordechai Ben David really spanned the gamut of the Hasidic, the non-Hasidic, and the Modern Orthodox. He had “very broad appeal.” And Avraham Fried filled that same space. They really did the same thing. I guess someone like Mordechai Ben David or Avraham Fried would be the blue chip standard by which different communities would have concerts in the ‘80s or ‘90s, 2000s with these individuals that people would always come out for them because they’re the biggest names. And what I found in a lot of the music that I’ve studied in the Jewish community is that you have one or two or three people that are really the names and periodically there’s another name that gets put on that level, so in the ‘90s did you ever hear of Dedi?

DS: Yes.

MK: D-e-d-i. So he was really popular then. But he didn’t really have a lot of staying power. And now the other two really popular names in the orthodox community in the last few years are Yaakov Shwekey and Lipa Schmeltzer. But again, they are pretty recent to this but they kind of also fall into the same particular space of working within the Far Right sector of the community. Now Lipa Schmeltzer’s a unique story because he was really very officially a part of the orthodox - Hasidic community. Shwekey is more part of the Litvish community. And he kind of occupies a slightly different place but really too has that appeal. Now in the research that I’m doing now, I’m really trying to show how the continuum of Orthodoxy has been filled in the past 10, 12 years with a lot more music. So, in the Modern Orthodox community, groups like Blue Fringe and the Moshav Band and Soulfarm are really catering now to the Modern Orthodox community and they have a more limited audience but their appeal to the audiences is just unbelievable – I mean do you listen to that? Do you know what I’m talking about?

DS: Yeah, yeah

MK: I mean the kind of modern orthodox community at Yeshiva University. Have you ever been to those concerts? I don’t know exactly how to reference them.

DS: I’ve heard of them – I’ve never been to them though.

MK: OK. Do you know about the Maccabeats?

DS: Yes, of course. I was about to mention them.

MK: Yeah, the Maccabeats have been around for a couple of years but their Hanukkah video was just unprecedented in this world and in fact there’s a Maccabeats concert coming up in New Jersey, not this Saturday but the next one I’m actually on sabbatical now from Hebrew Union College, but I’m teaching a Jewish music class at Rutgers and the students are just so electrified by the fact that the Maccabeats are coming. And I can just tell you – I live in a modern orthodox community – that the talk now is “oh do you know so and so? Their cousin is gonna marry a Maccabeat.” They are kind of like rock stars. But that’s just within the Modern Orthodox community which is in that world, I mean the people who go to those schools and camps and programs and so on. It’s a big deal, but to the rest of the Jewish community it’s a little world. Then in the Centrist community, which would be largely the people who live in Queens – and the more Black Hat but clean shaven, I mean people who are going to college but are very fervently orthodox – because they’re clearly not Hasidic - you know there’s a guy named Eli Gertsner, and Yeshiva Boys’ Choir, and Chevra and those groups? So he’s kind of created a unique space for himself.

DS: Can you tell me a little but more about the role of live performances for these musicians?

MK: Sure. Live performances is really how they make money. Money is not made from the recordings. People are basically lucky if they break even from the recordings. My kind of models here are really pre-Internet in the sense of when recordings were really recordings, but now the economics of things might be different in the last couple of years. But I mean the economics of a lot of this are very, very complex because there’s no way to really get a lot of accurate information on it. And by and large, do you know for folk music if you sell 5,000 recordings of a single album, you’re doing really, really well. And usually when you sell about four or five thousand you probably can recoup on costs. This depends on what your production budget is and what your expenses are and how you really want to record something. You can of course record something very, very cheaply but the people who are really making the money on the recordings are the retail sellers – the distributors – I mean, it’s a commodity, and you know they’re clearly going to be making money on it. The performers in large measure use the recording to get known. They use recording to get requested. So I guess, in a lot of different musical circles it's one thing is to be requested at a wedding and a big thing in high end orthodox weddings would be – I mean, Avram Fried’s available to sing at a wedding if you’re willing to pay his price. And many, many other singers really are as well. And then they make really big money. But to really hire these musicians for a concert, they’ll charge a few thousand dollars which is really pretty unique. In most folk music or grassroots musical environments, many musicians will just typically expect a couple hundred dollars for playing but the economics of this are such that live performances really become very, very important entities. So there’s a hierarchy or similar structure to it. In New York City there are a couple of really big concerts for Hol HaMoed Pesach or Hol HaMoed Sukkot. And every year there are some very high end venues and high end concerts for this stuff. So, last couple of years where we live, in Central Jersey, where we’re the largest kind of community, the State Theatre which is a venue right outside of Rutgers and can seat 1200-1500 people -- I don’t know if they fill it but they get pretty close to it and I have in mind the Boy’s Choir and a couple of non-singers that are a part of it too. Some kinds of grassroots concerts on Hol HaMoed might be at Brooklyn College or Queens College, and over the years there have been bigger venues such as Nassau Colliseum and other Long Island Venues. Once a year, an organization called HASC – the Hebrew Academy for Special Children -- had a huge concert. Are you familiar with that?

DS: Yes.

MK: So that’s usually been the point and it’s gone on for maybe 25 years. They’ve done very high end concerts where the big singers – Avraham Fried, Lipa Schmeltzer -- are really unveiling their new albums with those concerts. But those are really unique and those are very high budget. I understand that people pay hundreds of dollars for tickets to go to those concerts. And they’re really significant fundraisers. So live performance, the kind of goal of being a singer is to just make recordings and to be in demand for your concerts and there’s a whole economic scale. I have had a little eye-opening experience: I was the scholar-in-residence at Wesleyan University three or four years ago and one week I talked about music in the Orthodox community. They said they wanted a concert and they gave me a budget of a few thousand dollars and so I just started asking a few people I know in the Jewish music world about who can I get for this amount of money? And we wound up hiring this guy named Gershon Veroba, who did the Variations CDs – are you familiar with them? 

DS: Yes, I think I’ve heard of him.

MK: He does parody of a lot of real pop songs of like – five years ago it would be sort of a different nature but Gloria Estefan and the Backstreet Boys, I mean kind of really the very popular music of the late ‘90s, early 2000s -- and adds Jewish lyrics to them. I mean he does it in sort of a particular way. He’s really just a phenomenal musician so he plays guitar, he plays piano, he sings, playing tracks, and that really costs a few thousand dollars to get someone at that level per se. I don’t know at this point in time what Blue Fringe or Moshav Band charge for a concert. I just know that in their economics I can’t imagine that they’d charge a huge sum of money. You know, the first time I heard the Moshav band live was at someone’s wedding, and it was the daughter of a good friend of mine and the son had recently just graduated from the Berklee School of Music in Boston. And so I knew that there would be decent musicians and I’m hearing this band and I’m like: I mean, this is not just your average wedding band, I mean these musicians were really, really good and I inquired. This is maybe seven or eight years ago – and someone had said, oh yeah, that’s the Moshav band. And have you heard the Moshav band? I think they’re really good. You know, it’s interesting at this point -- it’s a really interesting and complex musical world, with a whole business and economic angle that structures different parts of it. So depending on who you are and how you’re trying to break into the business and what opportunities you have, I guess it's like in any other music business: it’s all about luck and opportunity and I mean, there are a number of arrangers who will, for the right fee, certainly arrange a recording for you, but there are a number of producers who I’ve spoken to who have said: you know, so and so came to me and said they want me to produce a recording and they need to sign a contract that they understand that this recording is not going to be a hit, it’s not going to sell many recordings, so it's become more like a novelty thing. There’s so many different angles to all of this which are really really interesting but in the general scheme of things -- I wrote this in the article that I wrote ten years ago and I still think it’s true -- I mean all of this new music in the Orthodox community is really on-going in terms of its production and and the amount of music that’s coming out of it. I was told that there are two or three new CDs a year and on that level – let’s do the low end of it – let’s say there are, say, 250 new recordings that come out every year – well, only a tenth of that are actually going to be for sale next year. And the thing is that it’s the names that really emerge – like Shwekey and Lipa Schmeltzer and those people -- those are the ones that are able to come out with album number two and all the other things that go with it. At the concerts that I’ve gone to in the past few years, there’s constantly other people who are trying to break into this industry and it’s very, very difficult. 

DS: Have there been reissues of earlier musicians from cassettes and vinyls to CDs?

MK: In fact, with the first category of things that we talked about, I would imagine there’s Nichoach. But a lot of the other materials from the Dovid Werdyger, the Modzitz, all of that has been re-mastered. And it’s really interesting: I bought some of those things and it's been around for the last five, six years. They have a copy of the cassette of the original album on the CD cover, but like a picture of it like in a 3-dimensional form – you really got to see. So there’s this retro component to it. And the albums are digitally re-mastered or renewed and so on -- that’s definitely happening. A lot of the older stuff of Mordecai Ben David and Avraham Fried is now available on CD, and a few years ago Mordechai Ben David put out something called “Mordechai Ben David: The English Collection” and then the Boy’s Choir did it too, where they sort of took the first 10 or 15 years of recordings and just took out the English songs and published those on one album. It’s kind of on the level of a Greatest Hits or just a compilation CD.

DS: Are younger listeners paying attention to Mordechai Ben David and other early musicians, such as the Rabbi’s Sons?

MK: You know, that’s a great question. I don’t know. And I can’t answer that. I think that for them, if they know that, it’s their parents’ music and not their music.

DS: OK. 

MK: That would be a really, really good question to do research on.

DS: What do you think is the impact of both the Hasidic Melodies and their recordings and the development of Neo-Hasidic music on Orthodox Jewish life today?

MK: I would say that the first stuff we talked about – the Hasidic recordings in the 1950s and ‘60s -- is speculation because I don’t know this from experience or from research. I would say that the space it really occupied is that for people who had recording collections, it was like something Jewish to obtain or something Jewish to have –it would just be something that wasn’t only consumed by the Hasidic community, it was just something that people who wanted to have a diverse collection or wanted to have these different recordings would have. There’s the whole aspect of reception theory in this music. I haven’t done that research and to my knowledge, no one else really has. I’m actually embarking on a project where I’m working with some other anthropologists and sociologists to do something like this. My own speculation, in the research that I did initially did twenty years ago on this stuff, is that a lot of people would say that they would listen to this music more intensely – you know some of the Hasidic music – around the time of a simcha, or in the way they prepare for the simcha, or to keep that feeling of the simcha alive in their life, so they listen to this music. I mean, those are just some initial things that certainly need to be more developed. The idea now, in the age of people playing things on Ipods and watching Youtube and people in front of their computers a lot, just means that all of these questions need to be reanalyzed and really rethought. I mean, listen, 4.9 million people have clicked on the Maccabeats. I mean, have you read any of the posts of these for the Maccabeats?

DS: I saw the video, I haven’t read any of the comments

MK: Some of the comments are really interesting and the story that I’ve heard from the guys in the Maccabeats is that they really love the fact that people relate to the Hanukkah story with more interest now and with more knowledge and are more keen on knowing and observing the holiday and that’s what was really starting to be the most interesting thing about their work. I think getting back to this context of when people are really listening to it. I’m just trying to think in my own personal set of experiences as to what I’ve seen. And I mean I think that people aren’t in their homes that much. When they’re in their homes, particularly in the Orthodox world, it’s not a time that they can really play recordings. I kind of see the recordings as marking a Jewish space. If you’re in a Jewish neighborhood or a Jewish section of Brooklyn and you hear the cars driving by, everyone’s playing this music, or you walk into the bakery stores or the book stores or the pizza stores -- everyone’s playing this music. So it’s kind of a way to demarcate space. We once went on Hol haMoed Pesach to Hershey Park in Pennsylvania and they had made the entire park Jewish – they had kosher food, it was like every different Jewish Orthodox organization you know had a trip, thousands of people in the park and they had different Jewish groups performing in the performance spaces at Hershey Park and the music that was blaring throughout the park was the music of Avraham Fried. There’s a certain level by which the music really defines the community, the music is synonymous with the community. And I would say that just as some of the research on Orthodox culture has talked about how Artscroll publications and books that have come out are really addressing health issues, access to religious texts, high end cookbooks, gourmet kosher food and gourmet kosher wine, similarly their music is just another part of this burgeoning Orthodox culture which is basically synonymous with the community. It’s just what the community is and to really be in the community is a matter of having literacy in this music.

DS: On that, can I ask: has there been an evolution in Neo-Hasidic music and has that a parallel the community at large?

MK: What do you mean by that? The initial response is like, “Yeah.” Sure. But what do you mean, specifically?

DS: The Rabbis’ Sons sounds very different from Lipa Shmeltzer, right? So is the musical influence of these groups from outside sources that are popular in the non-Orthodox world?

MK: Oh absolutely. I mean that is one of the things that I talked about in my article on contemporary Jewish music, where Yossi Green and a number of the other song writers and people have really talked about the influences of Billy Joel, Elton John, and how they’ve really tried to incorporate those musical styles in many ways. What sort of styles of music really propelled Lipa Schmeltzer and other people over the last ten years? No, I haven’t done research with them to really kind of ask them those kinds of questions. But, clearly there’s an awareness of this music and the context is that the musicians who are in the Orthodox community are not always the people who are at the core of the community. Historically, the cantor has always been the arbiter between popular and secular culture in the Jewish community. And that’s basically what they’re doing, even though it’s not communally acceptable for people to “listen” to this music -- although depending upon your level of orthodoxy, you know, it’s really kind of personal as to whether or not people actually listen to things that are not Orthodox. But it’s kind of like a sliding scale – if you’re more Hasidic or you’re more to the Right it’s more expected that the Orthodox music is the music that you’re going to listen to. But, at the same time, you have to have an awareness of things. The controversies behind Lipa Schmeltzer or Avraham Fried have put it out that some of this music is really considered to be too secular. So there are several nuances to this.

DS: How important do you think the Orthodox music scene is for cultural historians?

MK: I think it’s very important, because at least what I’ve tried to show in my work -- or at least it’s a beginning and I’m currently working on it further -- is that the Orthodox community represents a really important subgroup of the Jewish community and it’s a rapidly growing demographic, and as many sociologists have been showing, the Orthodox community has a unique set of experiences, very different than the non-Orthodox community. All this cultural production is a wonderful indicator of their experiences in America. We’ve tended to look at those things as if they were holdovers from an older music style and an older cultural style . But over time we’ve seen that their culture has been modernized, it’s really been developed. It’s coming under contemporary influence and that’s a rather superficial way of looking at all of this because there are very important nuances to really see in terms of how this works and we see this in terms of language, in terms of different aspects of cultural history, of publications, and there are markers of their experiences which really indicate the ongoing dialog between tradition and innovation.

DS: How well do you think it’s been studied?

MK: The music or Orthodox culture?

DS: The music and its context in culture, so both?

MK: I really don’t think the music has been studied well at all. There’s an incredible wealth of music, which requires writing a history or trying to get a sense of the trends and style. The work that I’ve done is just the tip of the iceberg. Certain parts of Orthodox culture have been well studied. There are more studies of the Hasidic communities – the various Hasidic enclaves. Over the past few decades, there have also been a number of sociological studies of the Modern Orthodox community but the communities that are sort of in-between those – the yeshivish communities, the Litvish or non-hasidim -- have really not been well studied. People tend to look at the whole baalei teshuva phenomenon as one wave of the doormat but those studies have not really done and what I’m trying to do now in my present work is try and map out sort of the dynamics of these things within the community and my work is not as a musicologist. It’s not intended to be historically comprehensive, although it will be historical. It’s more or less to try and map out the cultural dynamic between the groups.


Additional Links of Interest

Mark Kligman Interview for DJSA - Part 1 Mark Kligman Interview for DJSA - Part 2
Mark Kligman Wikipedia Page DJSA Search - Nichoach
DJSA Search - Mordechai Ben David DJSA Search - Shlomo Carlebach
DJSA Search - Gerer DJSA Search - Rabbis Sons
DJSA Search - Ben Zion Shenker DJSA Search - Chassidic Song Festival
DJSA Search - Modzitzer Favorites DJSA Search - Dedi
DJSA Search - Yaakov Shwerkey DJSA Search - Lipa Shmeltzer
 DJSA Search - Soulfarm DJSA Search - Eli Gerstner
DJSA Search - Yeshiva Boys DJSA Search - Chevra
DJSA Search - Gershon Veroba DJSA Search - Yossi Green