The Greensboro Klezmorim and their swinging rabbi

by Jordan Green

The musicians cradle their instruments and step to a line of microphones, chatting lightly and preparing to entertain the crowd at the fast-filling Green Bean on this Saturday night.

One of them, a 65-year-old retired botanist named Pete Campbell who wears his long gray hair tied back in a ponytail with, a sheepskin vest and black cowboy hat, hauls a standup bass onto the stage.

‘“Pete is the lone Scotsman in the group,’” says Rich Lerner, a Duke graduate who plays acoustic guitar in the Sinai Mountain Ramblers, along with his other outfit, the rock jam band the Groove.

It’s safe to say the Ramblers are the brightest and possibly the only light in the Greensboro klezmer scene. They have a loyal audience that seems to instantly materialize at the Green Bean right before their show starts at 9 p.m. The crowd ranges from about eight years to eight decades, including musically-inclined teenagers, sharp-dressed young couples and many jolly middle-agers.

Standing in the back near the end of the bar Rabbi Fred Guttman, the spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel, is positioned to converse with all comers.

The members of the Ramblers are passionate about their music and its intertwined relationship to Jewish history and culture.

‘“Before the nineteenth century, there was very little instrumentation in Jewish music,’” says Kurt Lauenstein, a classically-trained musician who plays cello with the group. ‘“It was considered work to play an instrument, and you didn’t work on the Sabbath ‘— at least not in orthodox in times.’”

‘“It’s not work!’” Campbell protests. ‘“What do you do about David in the Bible?’” He refers here to the famous harpist and king of the Israelites.

‘“Well, then you had the reform movement,’” Lauenstein says.

All five of them will be quick to point out that klezmer (Yiddish for ‘vessel of song’) is primarily wedding music, and the spiritual aspects are a latter-day crossover.

They launch into their set with a song called ‘“What Did You Do Before Prohibition?’” The music lurches forward in a minor key, the players racing through the song with exquisite timing. Then the song slows to a creeping stomp and Gary Silverstein, the bearded mandolin player, begins to trill, followed by a melancholy solo on clarinet by Paul Fribush. The music features a lot of stops and weird time signatures. In some songs the chords change with every phrase and the guitar player will slip into a restrained wind-milling technique.

They’ll play two hours straight without a break.

‘“Definitely, a klezmer revival started in the eighties,’” Fribush says. ‘“This music was kind of languishing in Brooklyn where it was ceremonial music. Its heyday was in the twenties. Of course, klezmer was purely ceremonial music in the shtetl.’” He refers to the Jewish villages that dotted Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.

Fribush experienced his klezmer conversion around the late ’80s when he was playing New Orleans jazz with his band the Swamp Cats. The band’s drummer, Greensboro native David Licht, had relocated to New York and started the Klezmatics. Licht urged Fribush to come up to the Catskills to join some other musicians to woodshed at a ‘klez-camp.’

Other klezmer players, like Silverstein, have roots in the old-time Appalachian music scene.

‘“A lot of Jew kids played old-time Appalachian music,’” Fribush says. ‘“That’s the way we learned. There’s the story of Henry Sapoznik, the old-time banjo player who played with Tommy Jarrell, the fiddler from Mount Airy. Jarrell said to him, ‘Hey boy, don’t you have any of your own music?””

Since his days of pilgrimage in the western North Carolina mountains, Sapoznik has become a luminary of the klezmer revival, and may be best known as the producer of National Public Radio’s ‘“Yiddish Radio Project.’”

A stream of guests will join the Sinai Mountain Ramblers over the next two hours. They include the 80-year-old Hank Brodt, introduced by Fribush as ‘“a native of Poland via New Jersey and survivor of the holocaust.’” Another is a girl named Emily Siar who sings ‘“Dona Dona.’” Fribush’s wife, Judi Magier, sings a reverential version of ‘“Shabbes.’” For the last half of the set, a 16-year-old Weaver Academy student named Eric Robertson who plays the mandolin slots himself in between Fribush and Silverstein, his mentor.

As the boy solos, shouts of ‘“yeah’” and ‘“wow’” come forth from a line of drinkers against the wall. The rabbi is beaming.

Most of the songs are klezmer standards sung in Yiddish ‘– songs with titles like ‘“As Der Rebbe Tantz’” (‘“As the Rabbi Dances’”) and ‘“Fon Der Khupe’” (‘“Under the Wedding Canopy’”), although snippets of Southern gospel surface occasionally, as in a segue to ‘“Ain’t Gonna Study War No More.’”

Silverstein announces an original song about a ‘swinging rabbi,’ part of the Sinai Mountain Ramblers’ contribution to the genre.

‘“This is about a very special friend of ours,’” he says.

Then he sings in a jocular manner: ‘“He’s not Cab Calloway at the Savoy ball/ Or Benny Goodman at the Carnegie Hall/ You’ll tap your toes, you will see/ Because he likes to swing in a minor key.’”

Later, Silverstein announces: ‘“We got a good wedding song. We got a rabbi here. Anybody looking to get married?’”

Fribush blows a set of lines through the clarinet and strolls out onto the dance floor, as if to begin the procession.

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