Since the klezmer revival exploded a quarter century ago, the Ashkenazi musical tradition has experienced more variations than deli sandwiches. There has been klezmer-infused jazz, hip-hop, bluegrass and most any other permutation one can imagine. But as klezmer has morphed from shtetl to nightclub fare, one of the most unusual things it has added is women, said musician-scholar Yale Strom.
"Traditionally, the purveyors of Yiddish songs and culture were women, but that didn't occur outside the home," said Strom, author of "The Book of Klezmer" (Chicago Review Press, 2002). "Women did not play in klezmer bands because of the Orthodox prohibition against hearing a woman's voice and because nice Jewish girls stayed home."
"Even today, women are underrepresented," violinist Alicia Svigals said of klezmer. In recent years several all-female groups have sprung up, including Mama Labushnik and the playfully named Isle of Klez-bos. Perhaps the most accomplished of them all, Mikveh, named for the ritual bath, performs at Temple Israel of Hollywood on Sunday.
The quintet brings together some of the best klezmer musicians anywhere: Svigals, a founding member of The Klezmatics; vocalist Adrienne Cooper, a premiere interpreter of Yiddish song; bassist Nicki Parrott, who has worked with David Krakauer's Klezmer Madness; accordionist Lauren Brody; and trumpeter Susan Hoffman Watts.
If these maidlech had united two decades ago, they "might've had to skulk around under a banner like 'The All-Girl Klezmer All-Stars,'" Rolling Stone noted in 2001. Having come together in the more empowering 1990s, the 5-year-old group has been widely lauded for its musical virtuosity and its fresh, feminist take on traditional Eastern European songs.
In "A gutn ovnt Brayne" ("Good Night Brayne"), a battered wife tells her neighbor about the abuse; "Sorele's Bas Mitsveh" honors the girl's rite of passage; "Borsht" extols the virtues of, well, borsht, and "Yosemame" ("Orphan Mama") describes the quiet grief of miscarriage.
Mikveh's musical voice fills a void, according to Svigals: "I can't think of another song about miscarriage, although it's such a universal experience," she said. "We've had elderly women come to us in tears after our concerts, talking about their miscarriages which occurred 60 years ago. The material has just had such a tremendous impact."
Mikveh began making an impact back in 1998 when playwright Eve Ensler asked Svigals to put together a klezmer ensemble for a performance of her "Vagina Monologues," to benefit battered women.
"Afterwards, we looked around at each other and said, 'This is the start of something good,'" Cooper recalled. "It wasn't so much that we were all women as the fact that we had such a fabulous front line of players."
Nevertheless, each of the performers had experienced "being the only woman in the band," Svigals said. "There was this huge repertoire of women's folk songs out there, but they weren't the songs the male-dominated groups were choosing to revive," she added. "As an all-female group, this was the area in which we felt we could make a difference, so Adrienne went out of her way to find [such] songs."
Cooper discovered "Good Night Brayne" in an obscure library anthology published in Jerusalem; she borrowed "Borsht" from a Ukrainian Jew who had brought the tune with her to Brighton Beach and adapted "Sorele's Bas Mitsveh" from a piece about a bar mitzvah. Band members have also helped compose original songs such as "Orphan Mama," which uses imagery from a Yiddish poem by Itzik Manger.
The goal is to help nurture and evolve Jewish culture: "We don't want to just recreate the old 78s," Cooper said. "We want to bring the music forward to the audience, not bring the audience back to the music."
Mikveh members intend to do just that when the group performs at The Nimoy Concert Series at Temple Israel of Hollywood on Sunday; June 20 happens to be Father's Day and the irony hasn't escaped Svigals.
"Of course, we all have fathers, so we will rock the house," she said.
Yet when asked if there is a daddy version of the classic "My Yiddishe Mama," the violinist was temporarily stumped.
"There is no 'My Yiddishe Tateh," she replied after a pause. "But that should give us some food for thought. We'll have to work on that and see what we come up with.
The result could be one more variation on the seemingly endless klezmer theme.
For tickets, $8-$25, and information about the concert, June 20, 3 p.m. at Temple Israel, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., call (310) 478-6332. Tickets can also be purchased at the temple's box office, which opens Sunday at 1:30 p.m.