Singing rabbi and wife bring back old world Chanukah music

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AUBURN — On Monday, the night before the first day of Chanukah, the singing rabbi and his dancing wife, Sruli Dresdner and Lisa Mayer, will offer a bit of history and fun through a family concert of old country “Klezmer” music.

The Klezmer folk music will be upbeat and lively, the kind played in the 1800s in Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Hungary. Think “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“We have clarinets, violins, accordions and drums and other kinds of wacky things,” she said. “It’s interactive with the audience from the first note.”

Dresdner and Mayer moved from New York to Auburn last year when he became the new rabbi at Temple Shalom. They love their new town.
 
“This community has been unbelievably wonderful, accepting, loving and open,” she said. “We feel so lucky to be here.”
 
They’ve performed for audiences all over the world, have headlined at Jewish music festivals and have created several albums.
 
“The focus is on the music and culture,” he said. “We weave Chanukah in. We teach kids how to count to 10 in Yiddish. Teach them how to clap to eastern Romanian rhythms, some Yiddish phrases. We introduce them to the world of people who celebrate Chanukah.”
 
The audience has parts. 
 
“Yelling, dancing,” she said. “We get them counting, shouting things out. They’re part of the show.”
 
Their concert is more about culture and music than religion. The rabbi may give an overview of Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights, which stems from a mircle centuries ago, when there was only enough oil for the menorah for one night — yet it burned for eight.
 
“In Chanukah, you try to make your own miracle,” she said. “If you’re nice to someone, that’s a miracle. If you help people, that’s a miracle.”
 
The star of the show is the Klezmer music, which enjoyed a revival in American in the 1970s.
 
“Now people all over the world are playing it,” Mayer said. “There are Klezmer bands in Sweden, Germany. Non-Jewish people are devoting their lives to this music.”

Both were born into the music. Their parents are Holocaust survivors.

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“My father’s family was in Belgium,” he said. “He was four when the war started.”

His mother was born in 1940 while her family was running away from Germany.

Yiddish was his parents’ first language, “the language I grew up with, the music I grew up with,” he said. “I loved this music. It was natural for me to play this music.”

Both his and her families have cantors, which are a rabbi’s partner who leads in song. Mayer’s grandfather was a rabbi and cantor in Philadelphia, her father was also a cantor and her uncle runs a cantor school in Tel Aviv.

The couple met in Scarsdale, N.Y., after a local rabbi introduced them and wanted music for a celebration. They put on a show. It was a success. They made their first album for children and started getting hired to perform.

The couple married in 2007. Today, their adult children from previous marriages often perform with the “Sruli and Lisa’s Family Band.” They also have 5-year-old twins, a girl and a boy, who attend Park Avenue Elementary School.

The twins aren’t part of the act. Not yet.

“They’re champing at the bit,” she said.

During concerts he plays three instruments at one time, drums, accordion and a harmonica. And he sings. He also plays the clarinet and a jaw harp.

She plays the violin and ukulele, as well as sings and dances.

Those attending the concert don’t have to be Jewish or familiar with the religion to enjoy the music.

“Take it on! It’s great! It’s life affirming!” Mayer said. The first time she played Krezmer music, “I couldn’t sleep. It was like a dance in my head, it was so exciting.” 

They start their concerts coming from the back of the room, replicating what was done in the old days.

“The Klezmer would come from the edge of the village into the town,” she said. “Kids would listen. My grandmother, who lived in Poland, would wrap coins in tissue paper and throw it out the window.”

Dresdner said he hopes those attending get a love for traditional folk music, “an openness to the richness of the tradition of other cultures. A kind of Jewish spice and flavor.”

They love to share their music with all ages, especially children. With youngsters, “there’s a real genuine openness and eagerness,” he said. “Kids’ enthusiasm is just dripping off their faces.”

The one-hour concert begins at 6 p.m. Dec. 15 at the Auburn Public Library.

bwashuk@sunjournal.com

If you go, be in the know

Q: What does “Oy vey!” mean in Yiddish?

A: Oh the pain.

Q: What’s Klezmer?

A: A style of music of Eastern-European Jews.

Q: How do you sing along to a Yiddish melody if it doesn’t have any words?

A: You go: “I di di di di di, ma ma ma.”

Q: What does “gelt” mean in Yiddish?

A: Money.

Songs performed at Monday’s Old World Chanukah Concert will include “Eight Little Candles,” the dreidel song, hybrid tunes and more.

Be prepared to sing and dance.

Chanukah begins at sunset on Dec. 16.

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