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Timeshift: Klezmer Review

by: Caroline Westbtrook - Last updated: 2012-10-15



The current glut of Jewish-themed programming on TV that kicked off last week with Friday Night Dinner, Jews at Ten and Jewish Mum Of The Year, appears to be showing no sign of slowing down, with other channels now getting in on the act.

While ITV has contented itself with a late night re-run of Strictly Kosher, the hugely entertaining documentary series about the Jewish community of Manchester which was screened in the summer, BBC Four also made its contribution on Sunday night with Klezmer: Now That’s What I Call East European Wedding Music… As Played by Yiddish Speaking People! an hour-long show looking at the history of the popular Jewish music and how it has evolved over the years.  

Of course being a BBC Four show the tone here was eminently more serious and intelligent than some of the more stereotypically inclined Z-list laden offerings of late as musicians, scholars, historians and, er, Lionel Blair all showed up to offer their views on Klezmer, following its roots back to the shtetls of Eastern Europe, showing us how to play it and even offering anecdotes about its use at their own Barmitzvahs and other celebrations.

All of this was held together by narration from Michael Grade, a self-confessed fan of Jewish music, whose commentary clearly showed deep affection for both the klezmer and for his own Jewish roots, and some fascinating footage from days gone by of Jewish celebrations and the like, showing how the tastes of British Jews evolved across the 20th Century towards more big-band sounds rather than klezmer. It also proved that Barmitzvahs and other Jewish parties really haven't changed that much over the decades, even if the more traditional music of our forefathers might have long been replaced by DJs and bands churning out disco classics.  

Given the hit and miss ratio of the recent onslaught of Semitic shows, it made a refreshing chance to come across one which didn't play its subject matter for laughs or cheap thrills but actually took it seriously, complete with interesting guests who actually had something to say for themselves beyond the usual oft-repeated anecdotes about dancing to Hava Nagila at weddings (although admittedly there was some of that too).

The result was a fascinating and highly enjoyable hour, which actually left the viewer feeling as though they had learned something, and proving that with a little thought and dedication it actually is possible to make good quality programming of a Jewish nature. Are you listening, Jews at Ten et al?