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Madison to host first summer KlezKamp
June 1st, 2011
Henry Sapoznik was not looking for a regular gig when he put together the first KlezKamp in 1985.
He just wanted to create an event where a group of like-minded musicians could get together and spend an extended chunk of time playing in a genre they loved.
Twenty-seven years later, the result has been a lot of changed lives, not least of which has been Sapoznik’s own.
Since 1994, KlezKamp has been run by Living Traditions, an organization “dedicated to the celebration and continuity of community-based traditional Yiddish culture.” Sapoznik, viewed as one of the world’s foremost experts on Yiddish culture, is its executive director.
In 2009, he was invited to the University of Wisconsin-Madison as an artist-in-residence (see Chronicle, Jan. 28, 2009). Last year, Sapoznik was named director of the newly formed Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture at the university (see June 2010 issue).
And this July 10-14, for the first time, a summer edition of KlezKamp will be held — in Madison.
“I have to admit with the first one that we did not bill it as ‘The First Annual,’” said Sapoznik of the initial KlezKamp in a recent telephone interview. “I had been teaching at an Old Time music camp run by Jay Unger, who did the music for Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary.” That was the model he used for the initial run.
Sapoznik had been an established banjo-player of “Old Time” music (the precursor of Bluegrass and Country), when one of his musical mentors asked him whether Jews had music.
That set Sapoznik on the path to helping lead the revival of Klezmer, which had all but disappeared off the mainstream Jewish radar screen.
Sapoznik became immersed in playing with and learning Klezmer music from an aging group of lifelong players. In the process, he found enough other musicians who felt the same way that he organized an event to bring them all together.
As of today, approximately 15,000 people have made the trek to New York State’s Catskill Mountains to spend a December week at KlezKamp.
They attended workshops and seminars on Yiddish language, culture, and arts during the day; and spent their nights performing or informing one another in lectures, concerts, and other staged events.
Many return year after year. Some who began attending as children are now part of the faculty.
With the establishment of the Mayrent Institute, KlezKamp’s headquarters has moved to Madison. The December event will continue to be held in New York state. Summer KlezKamps will take place in Madison.
Registration had just opened as of this writing, but Sapoznik said response had been positive.
“There’s strong regional interest and people who are not able to travel in winter are more able to do so in warm weather,” he said. Additionally, he said, its metropolitan location may make it easier for some people who haven’t attended before.
UW was first
But that aside, there’s another compelling reason for KlezKamp to take place in Madison, and it is deeply connected to the history of Yiddish culture in the United States.
“The first American university to offer Yiddish as a course of study of language and literature was Madison in 1916,” Sapoznik said. “There is not one history book that talks about that whole immigrant period that recognizes that jaw-dropping fact.”
As to the program itself, that will not differ in substance from its winter version. It is a chance for anyone — regardless of religious background or prior knowledge — to become immersed in Yiddish culture in a setting that is both authentic and inclusive.
Sapoznik said about 10 percent of the regular winter camp attendees are not Jewish. Neither are some faculty members.
That, said Sapoznik, is hardly surprising, given that while the music can be enjoyed on its own, it arose out of an existing culture that is still relevant and evolving. KlezKamp is an opportunity for people to experience the music within its larger context.
“It’s unfettered, unalloyed and it’s this seamless transition into a fully functioning and relevant culture,” Sapoznik said. “It’s about a traditional music form and culture that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with any other world culture.”
All food will be kosher, with supervision by Milwaukee-based mashgiach Rabbi Benzion Twerski. Family groups are welcome, and programming is provided for children between the ages of five and 12.
For teens and parents, there are offerings in instrumental music and Yiddish song, dance, language and literature, visual arts, and a category called “general interest,” featuring a course taught by Sapoznik called “Hear O Israel: Yiddish-American Radio from 1925-1960.”
No doubt anyone lucky enough to take it will learn more about Wisconsin’s five Yiddish radio shows, three in Milwaukee and one each in Marinette and Eau Claire.
They will also get a chance to learn about the Yiddish radio’s golden age from Sapoznik, the man who co-produced the Peabody-award-winning Yiddish Radio Project, which aired on National Public Radio in 2002.
And they’ll probably be among the first to get to hear some of the 6,000-plus 78-RPM discs of Jewish music that Sherry Mayrent will be donating to Madison’s music library.
This year, the 12th annual Greenfield Summer Institute will run in conjunction with KlezKamp on the same dates. Its theme, “Yiddish in the 21st Century,” has been chosen in honor of the establishment of the Mayrent Institute.
The institute’s program will include, among other topics, a discussion of Yiddish theater presented by Joel Berkowitz, director of the Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
The institute is sponsored and run by the university’s George L. Mosse/Laurence A. Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies.
For information on KlezKamp and the Greenfield Institute, visit jewishstudies.wisc.edu or call the Jewish studies center, 608-265-4763.
Amy Waldman is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer, a member of the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, and coordinator of the ACCESS Program for Displace Homemakers at Milwaukee Area Technical College.