Judy Sweet, 26, first took interest in klezmer music when her father took her to Klezkampat around age 7. She says the klezmer scene was separate from her Jewish and musical identities until about a year-and-a-half ago, when she moved to Baltimore from upstate New York.
Sweet is now the lead teaching artist and program manager at Belair-Edison School for Orchkids/Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She also co-leads the Klezmer Band at Hinenu: The Baltimore Justice Schtiebl.
What is the value of Yiddish dance?
For the Ashkenazic Jewish community, [the arts] are ways to reclaim parts of Jewishness that were lost to assimilation. This is an expression that isn’t necessarily rooted in religion or Zionism, which means it can be a way to invite in Jews who may feel disconnected. It can also be a way of connecting and exchanging with other communities. Think: klezmer-bluegrass jam sessions (it has happened).
For Yiddish dance specifically, a lot of it isn’t complicated footwork; it’s more in the emotion, nuanced gestures, and collective energy. [That] makes it more accessible to people who might not have experience with dance. You can get a group of people dancing together pretty [easily]. Seeing that, someone recently shouted out at an event “why hasn’t Yiddish dance solved world peace yet?!”
Do you adapt the music?
I think that often, upon discovering [any kind of] traditional music, there is a period of learning about the [style’s history]. Then, as that knowledge grows, you slowly start to feel a sort of ownership and permission to bring yourself to it.
I like to think of it as a mosaic. The original was shattered during the Holocaust — to try to sweep up the pieces and put it back together the way it was really isn’t possible. We also have to bring pieces from ourselves and our own experiences in the modern world to the picture.
Describe teaching dance.
Working with every age has its own joys. With young children, I love watching [their enthusiasm], with peers [to see them connect with it]. With older participants, their joy is seeing the next generation [continue] the culture. Then, of course, it’s always amazing to see [all these ages] come together!
Aside from Klezmer, what genres of music match your personality?
I connect with impressionist music. It’s kind of messy and dreamy, but also intentional and meticulous. I’ve always been an odd combination of type A/B personalities, especially as a musician/music educator. Plus, I just really love Debussy!
“Mayn Ershter Vals” is a favorite song of mine. It’s a very sweet sort of coming-of-age song about first dances and first loves set against the backdrop of klezmer, which definitely resonates with my experience. On the flip side, of course, there’s “Oy Mame, Bin Ikh Far Libt,” which is about crying to your mom about the klezmer boy who stole your heart. There’s something really comforting and beautiful about finding connections to your own experience in the modern world from generations before you.
How can JT readers participate in this culture?
We’re in a new golden age of klezmer! There are so many resources, from Youtube, to the Ruth Rubin Archive, to the “Yiddish Song of the Week” blog. [Our klezmer band at Hinenu hopes] to become a hub for klezmer activities, from concerts to workshops to dances. Keep an eye out for some exciting stuff we’re cooking up with Creative Alliance.
The DC Klezmer Workshop also has monthly sessions with guest artists. Look into Yiddish New York, Klezkamp, or Klezkanada.
If you want to learn it, we want to share it with you!