yiddish music

Getting a bit inebriated is usually discouraged by Jewish law but it is considered a mitzvah – religious duty – to drink alcohol on the Yiddish Purim holiday although followers are still expected to perform all other duties of the day festival.

As well as parades and fancy dress, Purim is celebrated by the giving of food and drink to other Jews and through charity to the poor. Yiddish music is usually there to not only accompany but enhance the merriment of the Purim celebrations.

Scroll of Esther read during Purim

Traditionally, there is also a celebratory meal and a public recitation of the Scroll of Esther which every Jew must hear once during the day and once at night. But the day is an excuse for some great private parties, particularly to be enjoyed by members of younger Jewish community who usually don fancy dress.

There are four main parts to the typical Yiddish wedding celebration – the ceremony, usually in a synagogue, the drinks reception, the meal, and the after dinner dancing. Couples usually choose to have live Yiddish music at one or all of these. At the marriage ceremony the bridge and groom may ask for some informal music as the guests are gathering. This may be provided by only one or two musicians – perhaps a fiddler, clarinettist and accordionist.

Yiddish music for bride’s procession

There might then be a request for specific Yiddish music for the procession of the bride to the Khupe, or marriage canopy. Typical songs can often be Sunrise Sunset, Erev Ba, Erev Shel Shoshanim, Eshet Chayil (Woman of Valour) or Baruch Chaba (Blessed Is He), and  the Sheva Brachot (Seven Blessings). At the conclusion of the ceremony the groom breaks the toast glass and the musicians launch into a lively medley of horas, usually starting with something like Simentov Mazeltov (May Good Luck Come To Us) and they will continue playing Yiddish music as the guests leave.

At the drinks reception there is usually light background music – a mixture of cocktail jazz and some klezmer instrumentals and song, adding to the atmosphere but not intruding too much over the chatting, nibbling and clinking of glasses that goes on. As the guests go in to dinner the band will have already set there, often expanded to a four or five-piece ensemble. While the guests are eating, the band will likely play mellow jazz and Latin numbers and perhaps some Russian, gypsy and other east European music. Some of the band may even play around the tables, thrilling the guests with gypsy, klezmer and romantic music, usually played out on fiddle and accordion.

Hora dances

Between courses, if there is space in the room, the guests will often get up for a series of horas or circle dances. These can either be informal and improvised, or may be more organised – such as where the couple is lifted on chairs and paraded around the dance floor. There may be a selection of bizarre line dances, bottle dances, tray dances and handkerchief dances, some traditional and dating back to ancient times in Yiddish music.

The music for horas is usually a long medley of Israeli music – often starting with Hava Nagila or Siman Tov and including such favourites as Khosn Kale Mazeltov, Od Yishama, Tzena Tzena, Ufaratsa and Tzadik Katamar. The music may speed up towards the end until the dancers collapse exhausted on the floor. Order is then re-established and the guests return to the next course.

After the meal, the band line-up will have changed yet again to include a drummer and a singer. They’ll play more modern dance rock and roll, 60’s and 70’s covers, Latin and jazz numbers. The more elderly guests might retreat a bit at this stage while the youngsters are up and boogying on down like there’s no tomorrow.