Re(Jew)vinating Jazz Part II: Klezmer and Messianic Worship

by “Joyful Joe” Miterko

As we saw in Part I, Klezmer music combines a vast range of emotions, from sadness to simcha (joy). The question then becomes: what do we do with it? As a Messianic worship community, should we embrace and incorporate Klezmer music into our worship? If so, how?

First off, when considering this question, it is important to remember that Klezmer started out as Yiddish theatrical music. It would be awkward to walk into a synagogue and hearing the worship team rehearse “Yidn Mitn Fiddl” . However, the Messianic community has experimented and pioneered a distinctive sound based on Ashkenazi roots. Over the years, this style has evolved and continues to do so until today. As Klezmer was a product of Yiddish revival, so too, Messianic Jewish Worship incorporating Klezmer is a product of Jewish revival amidst our people Israel.  

Enter names like Stuart Dauermann, Steffi Rubin, Jhan Markowitz, Sam Nadler, and Mitch Glaser, . They were all members of the musical group The Liberated Wailing Wall. Birthed by Jews for Jesus in 1971 in San Francisco, their goal was to create a new style called “Jewish Gospel” that combined music from the Old Country with Messiah-centered lyrics.  They toured around the world and played in various venues; from college campuses to churches, to major folk music festivals. The group comprised of various teams and stood until the year 2000. Many Messianic congregations still use much of their material as do even church hymnals.  You can find them all over YouTube. Here are a couple of classic albums from the early days.

 A second group that also broke ground with Messianic music and Klezmer was the singing group Kol Simcha “voice of gladness”. This group was pioneered within Congregation Beth Yeshua in Philadelphia, PA in the 1980s. Beth Yeshua has always had a rich musical lineage, and this is a capstone part of its rich history. Such greats like Mark Dayan, Bruce Cohen,, Steve and Linda Brown plus many others were involved in this group. Like the Liberated Wailing Wall, they would have concerts and performances in many venues. Take a listen to one of their more recent songs that feature a lot of Ashkenazi flair.   In addition, Rebbitzen Debbie Chernoff composed a very famous piece that has zounds of Klezmer influence in it entitled “Psalm 30”.  Their music is still widely known and popular.

Joel Chernoff of LAMB did something revolutionary as well. Not only is he an accomplished songwriter, he took the harmonies and rhythms of classic Klezmer and incorporated them into a worship setting without the “bells and whistles”. In other words, The Liberated Wailing Wall and Kol Simcha were rather larger ensembles. LAMB, however, was much smaller, only comprising of a duo.. Joel and his band--mate Rick Coghill did the best they could to incorporate Eastern European feeling within just a duo context. Many congregations still sing Joel’s music today, including some very Ashkenazi-sounding tunes like “Clap Your Hands” and “Shuvee”  

There are countless other examples that could be mentioned about Klezmer’s influence on Messianic Jewish Worship. Now, you might be thinking, “Ok, well, that was then in the 70s and 80s, but this is now. What does Klezmer have to do with me?” It has a lot of relevance to you! First of all, we are commanded to rejoice always (1 Thes. 5:16). Klezmer has the elements of rejoicing. I’m not saying that every song in your worship set must be an “oom-pa”, but taking ideas and experimenting with a hybrid is great too. Klezmer is continuing to evolve, and so too can Messianic Worship continue to do the same.

Second, using Klezmer pieces does not mean that you must use the exact arrangement the original artist used. Make it adoptable for your congregation. I once heard of a group that took the song “The Day of the Lord” by Paul Wilbur and transform it into a reggae Police-type of feel.  There is so much creativity that can be employed. There are no restrictions to Messianic Jewish Worship. What suits your congregation is best. But Klezmer can enhance the color palette of your worship set.

Remembering where we came from and knowing where we are going are two important parts of a whole. Our past can be conveyed through Klezmer’s deep, rich history. And we can preserve it and carry it on to future generation. Let’s re(Jew)venate some Jewish Jazz!