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Klezmer

When music brings life 

Chaim (Life) seems to be stronger in church congregations that are under strong direct persecution, as we occasionally see on videos smuggled out of such places as Iran and China. For them, their faith is a life or death decision and freely celebrate the former because they know that the latter can come at any time. Ironically persecution can become a blessing. If it ever came to Western churches (and there’s every indication that this is a very strong possibility the way our society is progressing) we will be forced to take our faith very seriously indeed. Gone will be church-as-social-club as those people would melt under the first whiff of trouble and, indeed, whole churches will compromise themselves out of meaningful existence and will acquiesce to whatever the State is telling them to do. Then, with what’s left we shall see true chaim. Perhaps we will finally have a Church that resembles the Church of the early Roman Empire, when persecution was extreme. The Christian and the Jewish experience will at last have something in common, a true community experience born out of adversity, where life suddenly becomes very precious and is therefore celebrated.

How will this look? Two areas initially come to mind, music and dance. A recent experience of mine showcases both of these. It was the 2018 Klezmer in the Park festival in Regent’s Park, London. Klezmer is a Jewish musical genre that was born in the shtetls of Eastern Europe a few centuries ago. It is the very embodiment of chaim, a quote about it declares, klezmer captures all who hear it weep, sing, sigh and celebrate. It beautifully expresses the joys and pains of life. You only have to consider the principal instruments within its arsenal, the clarinet, the violin, the accordion and – of course – the human voice. In fact, the musicians often coax their instruments into replicas of the latter, with sobs, wails and whoops of delight. The word klezmer only appeared in the 1930s and is a Hebrew word for “vessel of song”.

The festival was a celebration of klezmer and featured musicians and groups from all over Europe, not all of them Jewish. The music is not just for listening to, but is intended to get people onto their feet in dance. Most people were on their feet, with some swaying and tapping of feet, but the real spectacle was the lines of dancers weaving through the crowd in formation. All ages, all levels of skill, a celebration of chaim, even when the songs were sad and mournful.

Klezmer is very much an audible extension of the Jewish experience, bittersweet and raw, compelling and triumphant. By way of contrast, what has the Gentile Church given us? Undoubtedly beautiful music. From Gregorian Chants, the various Mass expressions, Hymns to Carols, we have music for the mind and spirit, particularly when there is singing in the vernacular. With contemporary Praise & Worship music we have nothing unique, just a Christian expression of popular secular rock and folk music. Yet, with the exception of the Negro (am I allowed to say this word?) Spirituals, also born out of personal adversity, klezmer is unique, as a musical genre founded on tears, but transcending its origins. Of course we must hold back on the eulogies and snap back into reality but it is worth sparing some thoughts on the role of music in our worship to God.

As I have written about extensively (most of my last few books), worship, despite common usage, is not all about music. A worship genre has appeared that gives this impression, fuelled by the forms of worship leaders, worship service, worship CDs, that can skew the function of giving worship to the Lord, through all of the gifts He has given us. If music focusses our attention on the Lord, and Him only, then it is performing its prescribed function. But if it is used to highlight the skills (and behaviour) of worship leaders on a platform, or to emotionally manipulate an audience, or as a ‘warm up’ before the preacher hits the platform, then it is just another way that the world and its ways have crept into the Church.

On the other hand if music, whatever it is, can facilitate our walk with God, then go for it! And if it can do so in the spirit of chaim, all the better. I’m still waiting to hear klezmer music in a church, they really don’t know what they are missing! Can you imagine a klezmer treatment of the Psalms, for instance?

This is an extract from the book, Shalom, available for £10 at https://www.sppublishing.com/shalom-239-p.asp

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