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Jewish Journal

Mark Kligman fills new Mickey Katz chair at UCLA

by Jonathan Maseng

August 13, 2014 | 12:01 pm

Mickey Katz is a name not well known to most young Americans, or even young American Jews, but his influence on popular culture has been significant. The father of Joel Grey and grandfather of Jennifer Grey was a man ahead of his time, a comedian and musician who eschewed assimilation in favor of emphasizing his Jewishness at a time when to do so was considered out of style. Now, in death, he will continue to leave his mark in music, as his son Ron Katz and Ron’s wife, Madelyn, have endowed the new Mickey Katz Chair in Jewish Music at UCLA, which will be filled by Mark Kligman, a professor of Jewish musicology for whom Los Angeles represents both a homecoming and a new horizon.

Kligman was born in Santa Monica in the 1960s, grew up in Northridge and had his bar mitzvah at Temple Ramat Zion. He and his wife met at California State University, Northridge, after both attended the Brandeis Collegiate Institute, and Kligman was, for a time, music director at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades. All of which is to say, his roots run deep.

“I would say that I credit a lot of my success to my rich upbringing, eclectic upbringing in Los Angeles,” Kligman said, speaking by phone from his soon-to-be-former home on the East Coast.  

Kligman spent many years in New York, first as a graduate student at NYU, where he earned both his master’s and doctoral degrees and studied the music of the Syrian-Jewish community in Brooklyn, and later as a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). At HUC-JIR, Kligman spent a lot of time helping to digitize the archives of Eduard Birnbaum, who left the school what may be the largest collection of Jewish music in the world, a collection spanning three centuries.

Kligman plans to continue his work on Birnbaum’s archives at UCLA, but the appointment also opens up a new world for Kligman. “From an academic standpoint, I really thought that this was an extraordinary opportunity to advance Jewish music,” Kligman said of the new position. “This is the first endowed chair in Jewish music in the United States. ... There is no other position like this.”

Daniel Neuman, interim director of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, as well as the holder of the UCLA Mohindar Brar Sambhi Chair of Indian Music, expressed excitement at Kligman’s appointment. “Mark Kligman at HUC-JIR occupied the chair that was held by Eric Werner, who along with Abraham Idelsohn, are the two major figures in ... early- to middle-20th-century Jewish musicology,” Neuman said. 

“So Mark stepped into a very important seat, even there. ... Here, with establishment of a chair, there’s kind of a permanence, a concreteness and kind of a center for the study of Jewish music in a department that includes both ethnomusicology and musicology, that will provide a kind of academic ecosystem really unparalleled anywhere in the world,” he said.

UCLA has an extensive department of musicology and ethnomusicology, as well as a strong Jewish and Israeli studies program, and Neuman believes that will be of great help to Kligman. “I think this is going to turn out to be an exceedingly important appointment, separate from his occupying the chair,” Neuman said.

Kligman agrees. “The advantage that I have in this position is to really use the resources of a big music school to really look at Jewish music.”

The allure of exploring Los Angeles’ Jewish musical history also appeals to Kligman. “There are many wonderful stories to tell about the uniqueness of the music of synagogues in Los Angeles,” he said, in particular what he called “significant Sephardic communities in Los Angeles.”

While Kligman’s main interest lies in Sephardic and Mizrahi music, he also hopes to explore contemporary Jewish music. “Creating new music is something that I’d really want to see happen, as well, and I really hope that through my connections at the music department we can perform works of living composers and provide opportunities to students to really create their own work.”

Neuman hopes Kligman’s work at UCLA will attract graduate students, specifically to study Jewish music. “Mark Kligman comes from the beginning as a Jewish music specialist,” said Neuman, who pointed out that even Kligman’s mentor, the noted musicologist Kay Kaufman Shelemay, began her career studying Ethiopian music and not specifically Jewish works.  

Kligman hopes that, as the holder of the Katz chair, he can show people that Jewish music has both a great history and a great future. “I have always developed the notion that I want to show Jewish music and culture as a living entity. I am concerned with all aspects of the past and present; all are valuable. My emphasis has been to show the vitality and vibrancy of music in Jewish life.”

It’s a vision of which Mickey Katz certainly could be proud. 

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