Beyond the Theater of Memory: Reflections on Yiddish Singing in the German-Speaking World

Isabel Frey

“How do you tell the difference between a Jew and a German? The German likes klezmer.” This popular joke among German-speaking Jews reflects a wider controversy around the politics of Jewish music in Germany and Austria: the dominance of non-Jewish musicians and audience members in the German-speaking klezmer world. The revival of Yiddish music in Central and Eastern Europe has been met with significant suspicion by scholars who see it as caught up with a need for post-Holocaust revival and reconciliation, making accusations of cultural appropriation, anti- and philosemitism, or Jewish culture devoid of any Jews. 1 1 Michael Birnbaum, “Jewish Music, German Musicians: Cultural Appropriation and the Representation of a Minority in the German Klezmer Scene,” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 54 (2009): 297–30. Rita Ottens and Joel Rubin, “The Sounds of the Vanishing World: The German Klezmer Movement as a Racial Discourse.” (2004). Available online at Ruth Ellen Gruber, Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002). However, Phil Alexander’s recent monograph about the Berlin klezmer scene, Sounding Jewish in Berlin: Klezmer Music and the Contemporary City, paints a different picture of klezmer in the German capital: not only have many Jewish musicians moved to Berlin, but the city’s vibrant subculture has also provided musicians with a fertile space to redefine Jewishness within a space of ambivalence and bricolage. While the early days of the scene might have been characterized by dynamics of fetishization and appropriation, he writes, “Jewishness – in multiple forms – is now a fundamental part of Berlin klezmer.” 2 2 Phil Alexander, Sounding Jewish in Berlin: Klezmer Music and the Contemporary City (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 11. Many Berlin-based klezmer musicians share the sense that this debate has moved on. In the words of Daniel Kahn: ”Listen, this issue has been put to bed and there is plenty of literature to read about it. Those battles have been fought, and we have won, and we don’t need to talk about them anymore.“ 3 3 Alexander, Sounding Jewish in Berlin, 109, footnote 24.

While Alexander makes a convincing argument that Berlin’s insulated subculture has led to the emergence of a more Jewish klezmer scene, this is not the case for the rest of the German-speaking world. As a secular Jew born and raised in Vienna, who has performed as a Yiddish singer for the past several years in front of mostly non-Jewish, German-speaking audiences, I cannot help but feel ambivalent about the questions raised in the so-called “German klezmer debate.” On the one hand, my presence and the presence of other Jewish musicians are living proof that there is also a vibrant Jewish musical scene outside of Berlin. On the other hand, I am often the only Jewish performer on stage, the only person who knows Yiddish, and the only person who has cultural ties to a contemporary living Jewish community. At the same time, many Jews who do live in Vienna don’t necessarily care about Yiddish or klezmer. Yes, it’s still played occasionally at weddings or bar mitzvahs, and some people from my home community of largely secular Jews still affiliated with the main Orthodox synagogue genuinely love hearing or singing Yiddish songs. But many communities in Germany and Austria come from a cultural and linguistic background other than Yiddish – Russian, Georgian, Buhkharian, German – or are simply more interested in contemporary Israeli culture or other aspects of Jewish cultural heritage. This sometimes gives me the sense that I am living in two separate worlds at the same time: the world of Yiddish culture, devoid of Jewishness; and the world of Jewish culture, devoid of Yiddishkayt.

Infantilizing Love

Performing Yiddish music as a Jewish performer sometimes puts me in uncomfortable situations, which I find myself lacking the vocabulary to describe. They are not situations of discrimination, antisemitism or hate speech. Instead, I experience a more subtle fetishizing gaze that often accompanies Jewish culture in German-speaking countries. For example, after I recently played a concert in a small town outside of Vienna, a woman from the audience came up to me and told me enthusiastically that she had “never met a Jewish person before”, and that I “looked so normal.” The Berlin klezmer scene may have changed, but I still recognize my own experience outside Berlin in the philosemitism that scholars diagnosed in central Europe two decades ago. 4 4 Ottens and Rubin, “The Sounds of the Vanishing World.” It is a gaze that sees Jewishness as an Other no longer to be rejected, but to be loved. But it is infantilizing love, which takes away one’s ability to act or speak for oneself and reduces the complexities of German-Jewish identity to a hollow stereotype. This has been especially apparent in 2021, the official year of celebrating 1700 years of Jewish life in Germany. While the increase in Jewish cultural funding has led to some incredible initiatives, such as the establishment of the first Yiddish youth camp Generation J, organized by Yiddish Summer Weimar, other initiatives have reduced Jewishness to a few stereotypical symbolic representations – such as the trams in the city of Cologne decorated with a blue and white star of David and a German pun on “Shalom.”

Sociologist Michal Y. Bodemann’s idea of the “theater of memory” has helped me conceptualize this phenomenon. Bodemann coined the term in 1996 to describe the post-war revival of Jewish culture in Germany. According to him, Jewish culture fulfills a central role in the post-war German national narrative: it affirms German national identity as beyond their gruesome past. Taking Bodemann’s idea further, I would suggest that — while antisemitism defined national identity in Nazi Germany — in contemporary post-war and post-unification Germany, philosemitism is its defining feature. While this is by all standards a giant improvement for Jewish life in Germany, Jews still remain an Other. Not only is this Othering demeaning to Jews, it is also frequently used to discriminate against other minorities – in particular Muslims. Philosopher Brian Klug has argued that this instrumentalization of Jews as the valorized Other to exclude the Muslim Other has already become a pan-European ethos. 5 5 Brian Klug, “An Emblematic Embrace: New Europe, the Jewish State, and the Palestinian Question,” in The Arab and Jewish Questions: Geographies of Engagement in Palestine and Beyond, edited by Bashir Bashir and Leila Farsakh (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020) 47-67. We see this phenomenon in the weaponization of the fight against antisemitism to curb criticism of Israel or repress Palestinian and other Arab diasporas in Europe. The recent proliferation of the use of the term “imported antisemitism” in Germany (including by the far Left) to describe antisemitism from people with a migrant background exemplifies the way in which the fight against antisemitism is used simultaneously as a mechanism of exclusion of other minorities and as a deflection of the past and present of German antisemitism.

But as I perform Yiddish music in Austria and Germany, I have sometimes been surprised at the absence of the theater of memory in precisely those places I would most expect to find it. The Catholic Workers’ Association of Upper Austria once invited me to play a concert in Linz, a provincial capital with about 200,000 inhabitants and an almost complete absence of Jewish life. I was worried when I saw that the poster for the concert announced me as a “Viennese Jewish singer,” fearing that people would be more interested in me as a Jew than as an artist. Retrospectively, I also see some metropolitan snobbery in my assumption – as if people from the province would be more prone to this fetishizing gaze than in the big city. To my pleasant surprise, it turned out to be one of the best concerts I ever played. No one in the audience was Jewish or understood Yiddish, but they were all union workers and knew about fighting for better working conditions or organizing strikes. After the concert, many people came up to me and told me how my music had touched them and resonated with their experiences. They listened to my music not primarily as Jewish or Yiddish songs but as workers’ songs. It was at this point that I started to question my legitimacy as a person from a bourgeois family building a career from songs that sing about working conditions that neither I nor anyone in my surroundings ever experienced – another, equally troubling kind of appropriation.

The question of legitimacy also goes into the other direction. Because I grew up in a Jewish home, am a member of a Jewish community and self-identify as Jewish (in whatever complex way), people assume that I am a more “authentic” singer of Yiddish music. This equation completely disregards my actual family background ina highly assimilated, bourgeois, Yiddish-averse Austro-Hungarian Jewish environment. Yiddish could not be more foreign to my ancestors. Yet in the German theater of memory, Yiddish has come to signify “Jewish,” and therefore others assume that as a Jewish-Yiddish singer, I have grown up with Yiddish, or at least have a more authentic connection with it. At the same time, the fact that I grew up Jewish in the diaspora does give me a different connection to Yiddish culture than that of some of my non-Jewish colleagues. Just because it is not in my immediate family background doesn’t mean I don’t connect with the Yiddish culture and its themes of hybridity and diaspora, or even simply the Hebrew script, which I have grown up with despite not understanding the language. I found my cultural home in Yiddish in part because of my disillusionment from the Zionist ideology I grew up with, as well as my aversion to Jewish ethno-nationalism. My emotional investment in this culture and its music is deeply personal to me as a Jewish performer.

At the same time, the European Yiddish and klezmer scene has many fewer Jewish participants than its North American equivalent, which puts me in a strange position in North American Yiddish culture spaces. Every time I participate in Yiddish New York or KlezKanada, I feel the need to wear a Magen David visibly, because people assume that I am not Jewish since I am from Europe. When they find out, the reaction is often disbelief: “What, there are still Jews there? I had no idea!” Every time I hear this, it hurts me. I hear in these words the suggestion that Jewish existence in the former countries of the oppressors is illegitimate; that Jewish life that is neither Israeli nor American is worth less; that my community shouldn’t exist in the teleology of 20th century Jewish history. Yes, being Jewish in Vienna is more difficult than being Jewish in New York City or in Tel Aviv, or perhaps even Berlin — just like in any city or town far from the metropoles of Jewish life. It requires more tolerance for contradictions, more clinging to traditions, and more experiences of exclusion, discrimination, and aggression. At the same time, aren’t these experiences also simply part of the Jewish diasporic condition? And isn’t that what Yiddish is also about?

Against Yiddish Essentialism

Perhaps the problem is not the low number of Jews in the German-speaking Yiddish music scene, but the urge to start “counting” Jews and non-Jews in the first place. This quickly leads to problems of who is even considered Jewish: what about people who are halakhically Jewish but culturally assimilated? Patrilineal Jews? People who aren’t part of any Jewish community? Jews from the former Soviet Union whose specifically Jewish cultural background has largely been erased? Or simply people with distant Jewish relatives, partners, friends, who have some relation to Judaism and Jewish culture?

This line of inquiry also raises the much larger problem of why it should matter whether Yiddish musicians are Jewish or not. Does Yiddish culture really “belong” to Jews, or can it also be seen as a part of a more universal European cultural heritage? Are there legitimate reasons for non-Jewish Germans to engage with Yiddish culture and music, even if they might also be motivated by a desire to confront or redeem a troubled family history during the Third Reich? Can klezmer music be culturally appropriated, or has it become a new genre of “world music” that is no longer tied to living Jewish communities in Europe? And is it really that bad if Jewish culture receives so much positive attention today in the German-speaking world? When I complain about feeling exoticized by non-Jews asking me all sorts of questions about Judaism to my Holocaust survivor grandmother, she tells me, “But this is great. Just a couple of decades ago, people here in Vienna wouldn’t even dare to say the word ‘Jewish.’” In fact, Austria officially considered itself a victim of Nazi Germany, elected former SS-officer Kurt Waldheim as a president, and did not pay any reparations or start resitutions until the 1990s. I do agree with my grandmother that the remarkably recent shift from latent antisemitism to overt philosemitism is overall a positive development.

Perhaps it is more useful to detach Jewish music from Jewish identity all together. For this, I return to Phil Alexander, despite the distinctness of the Berlin klezmer scene he examines. Alexander shows that “Sounding Jewish” is not so much about being Jewish, but rather a mode of engagement with past and contemporary Jewishness in all its complexities. Drawing on numerous examples from the Berlin klezmer scene — such as the klezmer jam sessions in Oblomov, Alan Bern’s Semer Ensemble, and Daniel Kahn’s postmodern engagement with Jewish identity through his music — Alexander provides a definition of a Jewishness that is “contingent and contextual rather than definitive and presumptive.” 6 6 Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Jonathan Karp, “Introduction,” in The Art of Being Jewish in Modern Times, eds. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Jonathan Karp (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 3, cited in Alexander, 221. Reading the book, I sometimes wished the scene here in Vienna were more like the one in Berlin, where Jewishness is not the property of a particular group of people but rather a practice: an artistic, creative engagement with rich cultural heritage, persistent contradictions, and troubled history. But at the same time, I felt even more compelled to stay in my hometown and find creative ways to break out of essentialist assumptions and hegemonic narratives of Jewishness. Staying put is itself a reinterpretation of the Yiddish songs I perform: I see remaining in Vienna as my own version of doikayt, a commitment to the here-ness of the diaspora, with all its complexity and ambivalence.

Frey, Isabel. “Beyond the Theater of Memory: Reflections on Yiddish Singing in the German-Speaking World.” In geveb, May 2022:
Frey, Isabel. “Beyond the Theater of Memory: Reflections on Yiddish Singing in the German-Speaking World.” In geveb (May 2022): Accessed Jun 16, 2024.


Isabel Frey

Isabel Frey is a Yiddish singer and a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna.