Musicians' Raft

For the better part of a millennium, Yiddish culture flourished in the Ashkenazi Jewish communities of East Central Europe, above all in the shtetl, the small town set amidst regions of multiple religions and nationalities. Thanks to centuries of reciprocal influence and dialogue, the culture of these borderlands blended their varied elements into a whole. Yiddish culture was a strong and permanent part of this whole. 

The idea for the “Musicians' Raft” was born out of our contact with David Krakauer at the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow organized by Janusz Makuch. David then came to Sejny and organized workshops for our ensemble. We also traveled together to meet Jews in Kaunas. Last year we decided to expand the scope of our meetings and invite others to share in our adventure. 

The Shoah put an end to Yiddish culture in this part of Europe. This, at least, was how it seemed. I. B. Singer, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, referred to Yiddish as a disappearing language, a language that belonged only to the past. At the time, he already lived in New York, having participated in yet another Jewish exodus, this time across the Atlantic Ocean. Singer was accompanied in this migration by many other Jewish writers, musicians, actors, and artists who still retained East Central European traditions in their hearts. In America they continued to develop klezmer music or Yiddish theater, blending them with jazz and Tin Pan Alley, vaudeville and Broadway. For these artists too the Shoah appeared to be a decisive break, after which Yiddish culture seemed to vanish forever. 


And yet... In various places in the world in recent years the Yiddish language began to revive. Courses, summer programs, university departments devoted to Yiddish began to enjoy increasing popularity. Above all there has been an extraordinary renaissance of klezmer music. Its capital is now New York, where in neighborhoods such as the East Village or Brighton Beach, sparks of East Central European Jewish spirituality now flare. 

This renaissance, whose creators have been above all third and fourth generation descendants of Jewish immigrants to America, then began to attract the interest of East Central Europeans. Similarly to Israeli participants in the March of the Living, representatives of the Ashkenazi tradition from New York and other corners of the world started to arrive in East Central Europe. Just like their Israeli counterparts, they pilgrimaged to Auschwitz and other sites of Jewish martyrdom. But not only. They traveled to the Carpathians, to Krakow, Prague and Vilnius, to Bukowina and Polesie, to Transylvania and Maramures, to the Balkans, wherever they hoped to discover traces of the old Jewish culture. Sometimes they met Gypsies who still remembered the music they used to play with Jewish musicians at weddings. Sometimes they met surviving Yiddish writers or musicians, proving that Singer was not the last of their kind. Elsewhere they met those who remembered their grandparents, could show them where a family house still remained, or a spot in the Jewish cemetery. Sometimes they encountered vulgar anti-Semitic scrawls on a wall, a commentary of prejudice and hatred, contempt for the dead and for memory, propaganda for oblivion. 


Travelers from New York and other parts of the world also came to Sejny, a small town of the borderlands once populated by Jews. How surprised they were, when within the walls of its old synagogue they heard the sound of klezmer music performed by very young people. Only recently these musicians had been students at the secondary school in Sejny. Through the Borderland Center, they began to learn about the multicultural past of their region, including its Yiddish culture. The next step had been working on a production of “The Dybbuk” and researching the music connected to An-sky's dramatic world. Later came meetings with musicians at the annual Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, tapes and cd's sent from New York, workshops with klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer, travels in East Central Europe to people who still remembered, and through songs, stories and instrumental music could still express and transmit their memories. 

That is how New York and Sejny met. Though these are actual places, they also stand for numerous other places on both sides of the ocean where similar dialogue is occurring. We are witnessing the rediscovery of routes which had seemed permanently lost because of the awful history of our times. A new meeting emerges, beyond broken links, tragic conflicts, severed roots, and ruined memory. 


Most important, this meeting takes place in a living cultural context, not at all limited to the past, a context in which we encounter modernity and pose the most essential questions for today and tomorrow. We are aware that this is only a beginning, that much more remains to be done to keep the routes open, to have them truly affect the world around us. 

This is why we have initiated the “Musicians' Raft”. May it ride the waves between New York and Sejny. May it lead the way to the remaining traces of Yiddish culture in East Central Europe. May it lead to contact with those in Vilnius, Grodno, Czernowitz who have preserved the Yiddish language, Jewish music and song. May it renew the links among people of various religions and nationalities. May it lead young people in places where Yiddish culture was once part of a common heritage to a meeting with those "others" who have long only revealed themselves in silence and ruins. 

June 17-26, 2001 the Klezmer Ensemble of Sejny Theater will host a gathering of young musicians from East Central Europe along with some of the most outstanding klezmer musicians from the United States. 


The idea for the “Musicians' Raft” was born out of our contact with David Krakauer at the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow organized by Janusz Makuch. David then came to Sejny and organized workshops for our ensemble. We also traveled together to meet Jews in Kaunas. Last year we decided to expand the scope of our meetings and invite others to share in our adventure. 

We would like this year's workshops to be a creative artistic quest: to draw on the varied musical traditions which participants represent in order to discover new sounds, to inspire the creation of new music rooted in the sensibility of youth. 

May our Musicians' Raft ride the waves between the old world and the new, tradition and modernity, one generation and another. 


David Krakauer is an art director of Musicians' Raft. 

The project is directed by Małgorzata Sporek-Czyżewska and Wojciech Szroeder on behalf of the Borderland Center of Arts, Cultures, and Nations and the Borderland Foundation.

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