Straight outta Ukraine: authentic klezmer music in documentary film

Leopold Kozlowski, subject of ‘The Last Klezmer’

You want Ukraine? We’ll give you Ukraine! But the good stuff, music, not the gnarly political-football stuff. A documentary, The Last Klezmer, that celebrates the infectious Jewish soul music, written and directed by artsmeme friend Yale Strom, is having a 25th anniversary screening at Laemmle Ahyra Fine Arts Theatre. It is such an important occasion, as it also marks the death, earlier of this year, of Leopold Kozlowski, the subject of the doc, at age 100.

The music known as klezmer that was played by itinerant bands throughout Eastern Europe before World War II has earned many sobriquets, among them “Jewish jazz.” (I prefer Jewish rockabilly.) The pumping rhythms, modal harmonies and cantorial cry of this European roots music have filtered into much mainstream music.

As many as 5,000 klezmer musicians were performing in Eastern Europe prior to the War. Kozlowski, one of few to survive the Holocaust, went on to perpetuate klezmer traditions, especially in Europe. An indefatigable promoter, he lived in Krakow and taught klezmer and Yiddish songs to students who were not Jewish — but who regarded the music as an indigenous regional style.

1930. courtesy Yale Strom Archive

The Last Klezmer follows Mr. Kozlowski on a pilgrimage to Peremyshlyany, his hometown, south of Lviv in Ukraine. Beginning as an ebullient celebration of klezmer music, the movie gradually changes in tone, as he visit sites of his childhood.

Klezmer is nothing less than the “soul of the people,” Mr. Kozlowski declares. To perform the music correctly, he insists, requires “real Jewish humor and feeling.” With his mutton-chop sideburns and fondness for garlic (he demonstrates his cooking as well as his musical skills), Mr. Kozlowski emerges as an endearingly open-hearted man who had a zest for life.

photo sources: Ha’aretz, Jewish Daily Forward

The Last Klezmer | Laemmle Ahrya Fine Arts Theatre | Sunday, Nov 3, 1 pm

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