The Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival is Back for the 16th Year

By Amy Crocker

San Diego Jewish Journal

May 2009


It’s an event that appeals to multiple generations and Jewish families of all types.  This year’s Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival is intent on preserving the music and stories of the past as part of a continuation of Jewish oral tradition.


“Having just finished Passover, clearly one of the ways that the Jewish people stay strong is by sharing stories of the past, keeping them alive and learning the lessons from them”, said Todd Salovey, the festival’s artistic director.


With six separate events slated to awaken the spirit of Jewish culture, the festival will last more than a month, from May 26th to June 29th.


Kicking off the fest May 26, Elizabeth Schwartz will be joining other klezmer musicians for Di Ershte Frukhtn – First Fruits Celebration.  Schwartz will sing in Yiddish, though she refers to herself as a klezmer singer.  Klezmer singing involves vocal improvisation and ornamentation, a skill Schwartz has picked up working with top musicians and watching them perform solos.  Singing klezmer music is much like being another instrument in the band (who, by the way, will be her husband Yale Strom’s all-star band Hot Pstromi). 


“My teachers always seem to be instrumentalists, rather than other singers”, Schwartz said.  “There’s something interesting and captivating for me as a singer, in that here are these klezmer instruments that are originally imitating the voice, and here I am as a voice trying to bring it back to the original source by learning from the klezmer instruments.” 


Her background as a jazz and blues singer helped her to catch on to the improvisation of klezmer.  Before she met Strom she knew klezmer only from bar mitzvahs and weddings.


“When Yale heard me singing jazz one night, he said ‘oh, you’ve got to learn Yiddish’.  Like all Jews, I only knew the choicest epithets”, Schwartz said.


As she began to learn the language and become immersed in the music, she became more in touch with her Jewish heritage.  Understanding the lyrics is not enough to sing klezmer, she discovered.  One also needs to understand the social and historical context of the Jewish music. 


“The soulfulness and the history of the music just makes it more meaningful to me than singing blues music”, Schwartz said.  My background is as a blues singer, and I think we all get the blues, but this is the language of my people.”


Now that Schwartz has captured the attention of her cohorts in klezmer, she is able to work with top klezmer musicians in New York and all over the world.  In June, she will tour Europe, where klezmer has enjoyed resurgence in popularity.  Schwartz said she finds klezmer music to be most popular in Poland and Germany, citing a large non-Jewish fan base and a fascination for an almost-vanished culture.


“There’s an exoticism to it”, Schwartz said. 


Klezmer music got much of its sounds from Eastern Europe.  The music began, however, in the Middle East, an origin still reflected in the scales, but the sounds diversified when Jews moved through Europe.  Today, klezmer can be separated into Ukrainian-Polish and Romanian klezmer.  Schwartz, being of Romanian heritage, specializes in the latter category, which was influenced by Romanian folk music.  The doina, a lament, comes from this tradition.


“This is a culture that needs help”, Schwartz said.  “If you are in New York, you don’t get any sense of urgency that this needs to be kept alive, or in La Jolla, or Jerusalem… but Yiddish culture and klezmer need active husbanding.  I have traveled extensively through Romania, and the memory of Jewish culture is like a whisper there.  You can walk into 20 synagogues, and 18 of these will be derelict and abandoned, and one will be turned into something else, and the other one will be dying with barely a minyan of Jews there.” 


The Holocaust not only wiped out the majority of the Eastern European Jewish population but it made the survivors distance themselves from Eastern European Jewish culture. 


“That became the culture of victimhood”, Schwartz said.  With the formation of Israel, Jews gravitated toward a new incarnation of Jewish life. 


“This was the Jewish life of strength, promise, life and all the things that were antithetical to the Holocaust.”