Germantown Jewish Centre’s ‘Klezmukah’

A very Jewish Christmas eve

Klezmukah sounds like a sinus condition. If what I witnessed on Christmas Eve is any indication, Ashkenazi Jews are uniquely susceptible, along with anyone who loves to dance to the raucous Eastern European music known as klezmer. It was also the first night of Hanukkah, but lighting candles, eating latkes and giving gifts to children does not make for a full evening’s entertainment. Ergo, Klezmukah!

The crowd goes wild at GJC's Klezmukah. (Photo by Stacia Friedman)

I skipped the option of a buffet dinner served earlier in the evening in the Germantown Jewish Centre’s (GJC) auditorium and arrived just as the Ken Ulansey Band with vocalist Phyllis Chapell were getting 200 people on their feet. David Posmontier was on keyboards, Chico Huff on bass guitar, Paul Jost on drums, and Stan Slotter on trumpet and flute. All of these musicians perform regularly at Philly’s top jazz venues.

An intercontinental affair

The crowd was casually attired, more jeans and sneakers than skirts and heels, even on a Saturday night (This is Mt. Airy, not Gladwyne.) Following the instructions of Philly dance master Steve Weintraub, attendees formed concentric circles and moved across the floor in time to the plaintive wail of Ulansey’s clarinet. They formed human tunnels with arms linked in the air and children balanced on their shoulders. At other times, they split off into couples holding scarves, rather than one another’s hands, in a throwback to previous generations that forbid men and women from touching on the dance floor. The dancers’ skill levels covered a wide range, from talented pros to those who happily shuffled along, sometimes, like me, in the wrong direction. One couple performed an acrobatic tango the entire evening, as if competing on Dancing With the Stars.

The dances Weintraub taught reflected the geographic journey many Jews made throughout Eastern Europe with stops in Romania, the Balkans, Ukraine, and Poland. For those who think “Hava Nagila” and music from Fiddler on the Roof are uniquely Jewish, I’ve got some news: many of the same melodies can be found in Armenian, Turkish, Moldavian, Russian, and Romany music. Why? Because the nomadic Jewish and Romany bands that played at weddings throughout Eastern Europe mingled and collaborated, just as Ulansey’s band comprises musicians who can switch gears from Klezmer to Latin music, jazz, or R&B.

The same goes for the vocal versatility of Chapell who has a special passion for Brazilian music and yet can sing her way around the world in Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Russian. At Klezmukah, she sang in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Ladino, the lilting blend of Spanish and Hebrew that Jews spread throughout the Mediterranean and New World after getting the boot from Queen Isabella in 1492. (Case in point: Philly’s first Jewish settlers migrated from Portugal via Brazil, bringing Ladino language and music with them.) If you had walked in while Chapell was singing a spicy Ladino rumba, you would’ve sworn it was a salsa club.

Perfect fit

Performing klezmer music on Christmas Eve is a holiday tradition for Ulansey that has evolved over time. I first heard him over 15 years ago at Mt. Airy’s Sedgewick Theater.  Back then, the event was dubbed Klezmas and attracted just a small audience for a seated concert with little room for dancing.  However, I remember being dazzled by Ulansey’s ability to make his clarinet “talk” in a wide range of emotions from mournful to ecstatic. At Klezmukah, I swear his clarinet giggled.

From the large attendance and radiant expressions on the faces of dancers, I am convinced Ulansey found his ideal audience and venue at GJC. If you’ve never spent time in Mt. Airy, it’s a world unto itself, filled with liberal academics and professionals who take pride in their culturally diverse community, for whom GJC is a focal point. After urban White Flight in the 1960s, largely because of GJC’s leadership, only Mt. Airy stood firm and welcomed its new neighbors. Klezmukah provides the perfect expression of that heritage and embrace of diversity. Besides, who really wants to mark the first night of Hanukkah by going to a Chinese restaurant? They’ll be plenty of time to do that on Christmas Day.

Our readers respond

Evelyn Eskin

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on December 28, 2016

Great article on the unique culture of Mount Airy and Germantown Jewish Center, as well as the incomparable musicianship and charisma of Ken Ulansey. Yasher Koach!

Roz Warren

of Bala Cynwyd, PA on January 04, 2017

Love that last line. It's funny because it's true.

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