With four uncles and a grandfather who were Jewish wedding musicians and a great-grandfather who was a Yiddish theater performer, Hankus Netsky has Jewish music in his blood. Growing up, however, he never thought that he would play and compose Jewish music. The thought that he would someday be part of the klezmer revival was the furthest thing from his mind.
“I was going to be a musician, it was obvious, but there did not seem anything about what my uncles and grandfather were doing that I could be trained for,” said Netsky on a recent Friday afternoon in a coffee shop in Brookline, Massachusetts. “They were playing for older people and did not think there was a future in what they did.”
Netsky, 60, is a composer, scholar and chair of Contemporary Improvisation at the New England Conservatory in Boston. He plays multiple instruments.
Tall and with a shock of curly salt-and-pepper hair, Netsky is expressive and animated—a way of being that carries over into his music. He changed his own opinion about klezmer and that of a whole generation with his internationally renowned Klezmer Conservatory Band, which, since its founding in 1980, has played at venues like Carnegie Hall with violinist Yitzhak Perlman and at music festivals around the world.
Along with a handful of other bands, Klezmer Conservatory Band not only made klezmer cool, it elevated the dance tunes played at Jewish celebrations in Eastern Europe to a respected art form.
“It is so out there in mainstream America that a show of old-style chazans with a thick East European accent can be broadcast on PBS,” Netsky said. “And it’s not just for the Jewish community, it is for everybody.”
Growing up in 1960s Philadelphia, he witnessed a very different treatment of Yiddish culture. At the time, Yiddish and klezmer were on the verge of extinction, but Netsky found himself drawn to the last generation of Jews who were fluent in both. He gravitated to the older folks in his community—the Holocaust survivors who had worked with his father in the upholstery business and those who attended his family’s Conservative synagogue.
It was not until he got older that Netsky learned that the disappearance of Yiddish language and culture did not happen naturally in the United States. Educators had allowed only Israeli music and Hebrew language into most Hebrew school curricula. “I was upset about it,” Netsky said, “but I didn’t realize how willful it was, how there was a desire that we must forget our ghetto origins. There was not going to be a connection to Eastern Europe.”
Netsky’s music education at home was a lot more free form. “My grandfather was very interested that we all play,” he said. “So he probably shoved a tuba or a baritone horn in my mouth when I was 2 or 3.”
His grandfather, Kol Katz, played in a klezmer band in Philadelphia from the 1920s to the 1950s. When he died, he left behind his instruments. “You would open up a drawer and there would be a clarinet, or a closet and suddenly there would be a saxophone,” he said. “By the time I was 8, I had a trombone, a soprano sax, an alto sax, two clarinets, a violin, a piano and an accordion.”
In high school, Netsky got involved in blues, jazz and Big Band music. But when he moved to Boston in 1973 to attend NEC, he began thinking about Jewish music and eventually made his way to klezmer when he discovered a photograph of his grandfather’s band from around 1925 and learned from his grandmother that one of the musicians in the photo, a distant family member, Uncle Sam, was still alive. In 1974, Netsky met Sam Katz, who introduced him to another uncle, Jerry Adler, who was at one point a renowned clarinet player in Philadelphia. Katz let Netsky record his 78 RPM records, while Adler lent him books on Jewish music.
In his quest for more, Netsky went through archives of Jewish records at Gratz College in Philadelphia and at Hebrew College in Boston, spending his days copying old recordings. “It became an obsession to rebuild this musical world,” he said. “Everyone was like, ‘Nobody’s looked at this stuff for 30 years. What are you doing?’”
In the 1960s and ’70s, the folk music revival had musicians of all backgrounds searching for their roots. “This was a time in my generation for a lot of us to ask questions,” Netsky said. When he saw the Irish music revival happening in Boston through concerts in musicians’ homes, he knew what he had to do. He put an advertisement in a Jewish student newspaper, Genesis 2, inviting musicians to an “old-style Jewish music jam session.” When 30 people showed up, Netsky knew he had done something special.
“It was this moment where klezmer had just disappeared in Boston,” he said. “The last klezmer musician from Poland who played the Hasidic weddings had just died a few months before then. And there was a void.”
Klezmer Conservatory Band was born out of this jam session. In February 1980, the musicians gave their first concert at NEC.
Genesis 2 led to another collaboration. At the 10th-anniversary party of the paper, Netsky met his wife, Beth Brooks, a middle school librarian. They have now been married 26 years and live in Newton. They have two daughters—Leah, 24, and Mira, 20.
When he is not composing or teaching, Netsky prefers to spend time with his family. In their free evenings, he and Beth cook dinner and have friends over or go to the movies. In the summers, they like to get away to Cape Cod.
The same year as Klezmer Conservatory Band performed for the first time, another Jewish culture enthusiast, Aaron Lansky, had embarked on a project to save Yiddish books from extinction. “Hankus was asking the same question I was: ‘How did Jews become so disconnected from their own past?’” said Lansky, founder and president of Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. Since the 1980s, they collaborated on a number of musical and educational projects including Netsky’s work as vice president of education at the center for two years. “Hankus’s greatest accomplishment is not just collecting materials and reviving the past, but using those historic materials as a starting point for new creativity.”
After that first concert at NEC, other invitations to perform began pouring in. The band was the only one of its kind in Boston, playing Yiddish theater tunes and folk music. “I didn’t even know there would be a band, it was the students’ idea,” said Netsky, who at that point had received his doctorate in ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University and was on the faculty of NEC. “I just thought we were playing one concert.”
A Hillel-organized tour brought the band to play at colleges in Philadelphia, where they also did a live radio broadcast. Soon after, they got a record deal.
Klezmer Conservatory Band began creating original music almost as soon as it started performing. And the band’s first major project came in 1990—writing a score for the animated film, The Fool and the Flying Ship, narrated by Robin Williams.
When it comes to composing klezmer, Netsky does not stray too far from tradition. “It’s an art form if you can do it right, so I don’t mess around with it all that much,” he said. He frequently scores film projects, including Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem and The King of Second Avenue.
Netsky recently released his first book, Klezmer: Music and Community in Twentieth-Century Jewish Philadelphia (Temple University Press). He describes the work as an ethnographic study of Philadelphia’s Jewish wedding music, a lens through which to look at 20th-century Jewish history.
Netsky’s talents are not limited to klezmer. While Jewish music is a major part of his performing career, he considers teaching at NEC his “musical world.”
Eden MacAdam-Somer, Netsky’s assistant chair at NEC and musical collaborator, said that since Netsky took over the Contemporary Improvisation department, it has more than doubled in size. As an educator, Netsky has “a unique quality—familiarity with so many genres and styles that he is able to relate to students no matter what their background,” MacAdam-Somer said.
But just as his international students draw on the music of their heritage for inspiration, Netsky often uses Yiddish music as a point of departure.
That is what he teaches his Jewish students, many of whom are learning about klezmer for the first time at NEC. But while more young people are interested in klezmer than 30 years ago, educational opportunities are still scarce. “There is a huge audience but the training system for people doing it is almost nonexistent,” he said.
Throughout his career Netsky has continued to receive his own education from the older generation. From his synagogue, Temple Beth Israel in Waltham (unaffiliated), to Yiddish club meetings at a home for the elderly, Netsky still gravitates toward the Jews of his parents’ generation and records them singing songs and telling stories.
Although with each passing year there are fewer opportunities to do these recordings, klezmer is very much alive, brought into the 21st century by Netsky and his students, many acclaimed musicians in their own right. But beyond the performances and albums, he wants to go deeper and bring Yiddish culture back into the Jewish educational curricula.
Netsky is making steps toward that goal with his Klezmer Conservatory Foundation, a nonprofit that provides financial support for klezmer performances, collects materials on Jewish music and eventually aims to establish a Jewish music institute.
“I did it by accident, I created this thing, the Klezmer Conservatory Band. I wasn’t looking, I didn’t think there was a market,” Netsky said. “But as the years go by, people are more and more hungry for this. People want to know where they came from, what their cultural roots actually are.”
Alexandra Lapkin is a staff writer and community editor at The Jewish Advocate in Boston.