Freileche family fun Dec. 16

Klezmer lights up the winter night

By Dagney C. Ernest | Dec 06, 2017
Lisa Mayer, far right, leads a traditional circle dance. She and her husband, Rabbi Sruli Dresdner, will bring the joy of music and dance to the community Hanukkah celebration Adas Yoshuron is throwing Dec. 16 at the Rockport Opera House.

Rockport — Hanukkah begins at sundown Tuesday, Dec. 12, ushering in eight days of celebration. Like other winter festivals of the Northern hemisphere, it focuses on light in the darkest time of year, family and food — which, in the case of Hanukkah, means potato pancakes and lots of them.

“A typical party might start with some background music while people eat latkes, because latkes have to be hot and crisp,” said Lisa Mayer. “You know Jews, you can’t interfere with the food! After people have enjoyed eating, there’s dancing.”

Mayer and her husband, Sruli Dresdner, rabbi of Auburn’s Temple Shalom Synagogue Center, will provide music to eat by, dance to and sing along with at a community Hanukkah celebration Saturday, Dec. 16, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Rockport Opera House. Sponsored by Rockland’s Adas Yoshuron Synagogue, the event aims to bring people together from all around the Midcoast to celebrate the festival of lights.

Sruli and Lisa, as they are known as a musical duo, have been bringing people of all ages and cultures together for a tradition-based party for a long time. Since moving to Maine a few years ago, they have been making the rounds — including a couple of appearances on the Farnsworth Art Museum’s Share the Wonder schedule.

“There’s not that many Jewish musicians in the state,” said Mayer, who also works at Lewiston’s Public Theatre. “We’ve played at pretty much every synagogue and many, many churches and community centers.”

Sruli and Lisa will bring a mix of music to the Midcoast’s community celebration, starting with background tunes for the aforementioned latkes  — Rockland’s Main Street Markets is mounting a gourmet latke bar for the event — and menorah lighting at dusk.

“Everyone brings their own menorah from home, which everyone lights together. It’s a lovely custom,” Mayer said. “And I have to say, every single time you see the little kids’ faces reflecting those candles, it pulls out the sap in me.”

The party being held on the fifth night of Hanukkah, there will be plenty of candlelight to go around. Other hands-on holiday activities will be offered for the children. And when it comes to the music, it will be all hands on deck for Sruli and Lisa who, between them, play more than a dozen instruments.

“Sruli plays about 15; I play a few, because I’m primarily out there leading the dancing and singing. But I play violin and ukulele, when I feel like it,” said Mayer.

Everybody is likely to feel like dancing when the klezmer music gets going. A distinctive blend of Eastern Europe folk traditions, sacred melodies and Romani dances, the music has a rhythm that can’t be denied. Mayer explained how klezmer takes the “OOM-pah” of, say, “Hava Nagila,” and overlays stresses on beats 1, 4 and 7.

“It’s a little like a heartbeat, and it really gets you going,” she said. “I like to say it makes your heart move and then it makes your feet move!”

Those feet will be moving in a circle, as Mayer leads celebrants in patterns, and songs, that come from “what we like to call the Old Country” — Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Bulgaria and Rumania — and Israel.

“We get everybody going and it’s young, old, very intergenerational, you don’t have to be a super dancer to enjoy this. And it’s a wonderful feeling, because you really get to see everybody when you’re in a big circle, it’s very special,” she said.

During the dancing, Dresdner plays the accordion, drum and a khazer -- kind of a kazoo/harmonica combo. He also sings, as does Mayer when she is leading the circles on the dance floor. Depending on the crowd and how the dancing is going, they mix up the set as needed.

“It’s very organic; we go from one right to the other. My husband and I have been doing this for a really long time, and we kind of just ‘make eyes’ and know what the next song is going to be,” she said.

That flexibility comes in handy at the wedding receptions and bar and bat mitzvahs the couple are asked to be a part of. One of the dances, “Thread the Needle,” is 150 years old. Mayer said they like to do it early on, because “the speed of the ‘threading’ tends to get faster the more Manischewitz is consumed!”

Klezmer has never been a genre that people sit for; it isn’t concert music, Mayer said; it’s folk party music … and the songs are participatory.

“We’ll be singing in Yiddish and Hebrew and English – some of the songs have lyrics in all three languages,” she said.

“Rabbi” means "teacher," she said, and having the next generation learn these traditional songs and dances is part of what’s taught. They are remarkably consistent, she has found.

“If you’re in the Jewish community, you’re so connected — singing very often the same songs. I come up to Maine, and we’re singing the same songs I sang as a child in New York,” she said.

Singing and playing these songs, and teaching these dances and traditions as adults were not career aspirations for either of the duo. They left the tri-state metroplex for twin-cities Maine just three years ago, but broke away from the corporate world to play klezmer music some years earlier.

“Sruli used to be a corporate lawyer and I used to be in advertising on Madison Avenue — serious, high-stress jobs, but very nice jobs,” she said. “So not only do we love it, we made it our life’s work.”

Now one of the highlights of Mayer’s life is producing a Hanukkah play she’s written based on the tales of Chelm, Jewish folklore’s village of mostly foolish folk. She said the kids at Temple Shalom have really taken to the characters.

“When you see the kids singing in Hebrew, singing in Yiddish and you think, oh my god, this is going to continue, it’s the greatest feeling,” she said “We feel like, you know, we’ve done our job — that’s what we have to do.”

One of Mayer’s older sons — the couple have a young pair of twins — recently finished a master’s degree at the New England Conservatory. He performs in a band that is part of a genre that bodes well for the traditional music his mother left Madison Avenue for. While there are many young musicians, not necessarily Jewish, who have embraced klezmer all around the world, Zach Mayer’s band Night Tree is an example of klezmer fusion — fused in this case with Swedish, Celtic and Scottish music.

“There’s now Pakistani klezmer music, Japanese klezmer music, Dutch – it’s crazy,” said Lisa Mayer.

The cross-cultural appeal of the eight-day festival of lights is just as strong, she said. One doesn’t have to be Jewish to love Hanukkah.

“It’s a celebration, like Christmas, of family, of togetherness, of peace and light. And it focuses on children,” she said. “It makes children feel happy and secure and loved and, well, what else is there?”

Admission to the Dec. 16 event is $10, free for children younger than 13. Adas Yoshuron’s community Hanukkah celebration is sponsored by Cedar Works, French and Brawn, Maine Street Markets, Once A Tree, Planet Toys and the Grasshopper Shop of Rockland.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Dec 13, 2017 09:03

What an opportunity for those of us not Jewish to show our appreciation by joining them in their celebration!



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