January 16, 2019

Cantor at The Jewish Center Shares His Love of Klezmer

MUSIC OF THE SOUL: Cantor Jeff Warschauer of The Jewish Center of Princeton and his wife Deborah Strauss, known as The Strauss/Warschauer Duo, will bring an evening of klezmer music and culture to the synagogue on Saturday, January 26.

By Anne Levin

Jeff Warschauer spent years playing bluegrass, country, folk, rock, soul, and rhythm and blues before he discovered the music that spoke to him. It was klezmer, a musical tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe, and he was hooked.

“I was playing everyone else’s ethnic music but my own,” said Warschauer, who has been the cantor at The Jewish Center of Princeton since last July. “Then one night I went to a concert by the Klezmer Conservatory Band, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is my music.’ I had my ‘aha’ moment.”

Since then, Warschauer has immersed himself in the culture of klezmer. On Saturday, January 26, he and Deborah Strauss, his wife and collaborator, will present an evening of klezmer music and dancing, joined by clarinetist Michael Winograd and violinist Jake Shulman-Ment, who happen to be Warschauer’s former students. The event, which will also include dessert, is open to all.

Both Warschauer and Strauss are fluent in Yiddish. He plays guitar, mandolin, and does vocals; she plays violin, accordion, and sings. They were both longtime members of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, the troupe Warschauer heard at the fateful concert more than two decades ago. They list the Philadelphia Folk Festival, Great Britain’s Fiddles on Fire, and the Jewish Culture Festival in Cracow, Poland, among their performance credits.

Warschauer grew up in Boston, making a lot of trips to Philadelphia to visit members of his extended family. “My grandparents had the classic Jewish chicken farm in South Jersey,” he said. “So we were in the area a lot.”

He discovered his affinity for music early, playing a variety of styles on guitar, mandolin, and other instruments. He even worked for “a semi-famous rockabilly guy,” he said.

Once he decided to devote his energies to klezmer, Warschauer began to learn to speak, and then sing, in Yiddish. “That evolved in me wanting to become a cantor,” he said. “I only graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2015.”

Klezmer “is really good music,” Warschauer said. “It’s very emotional. At its best, it’s very soulful. It is transcendent. It takes you to another place. It’s full of surprises, and full of life. As the New York Times critic Jon Pareles once wrote, ‘it has a way of expressing the deeply sad and the very happy at the same time.’ ”

The traditional klezmer, usually performed by a clarinetist, violinist, and vocalist, is “the tip of the iceberg,” Warschauer said. “There are now so many types of music under the heading.” The two guest artists at the upcoming concert “are a world class clarinetist and violinist, and a newer generation of the klezmer phenomenon. We’ve played together a lot, but to actually have a concert here at The Jewish Center is very exciting.”

Participants at the concert will be invited to join Strauss in some traditional klezmer dancing. “Deborah is a master teacher of this,” Warschauer said. “When people think of Jewish dance, they think of Israeli dance, which is wonderful — but there is a style of group dancing which is related to klezmer music and Yiddish song. It’s different, and really fun. It’s not difficult. We always say, all you have to know how to do is walk. And if you can’t, you can do it sitting in a chair. But people should come to the concert even if they don’t want to dance.”

The concert begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $18 for members of The Jewish Center, which is at 435 Nassau Street; $25 for others. Visit thejewishcenter.org.