Clarinet virtuoso comes home for KlezCalifornia Yiddish fest

Joel Rubin’s upcoming performance at KlezCalifornia’s Yiddish Culture Festival isn’t so much a concert. It’s a homecoming.

The klezmer clarinet virtuoso lived in the Bay Area in the mid-1980s. Back then, after finishing a shift at his Exploratorium day job, he would make music with like-minded klezmer visionaries such as Josh Horowitz, Stu Brotman and Cookie Segelstein.

Joel Rubin will perform and teach. photo/david kaufman

Those three went on to form Veretski Pass, one of the top klezmer ensembles in the country. Fittingly, they will accompany Rubin at his KlezCalifornia weekend stint at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto Nov. 1-2, including the opening night dance party.

Rubin, 59, not only performs opening night; he will lead a klezmer workshop and clarinet masterclass the next day. Attendees may run the gamut from skilled professionals to absolute beginners on the licorice stick. It’s all part of the fun for Rubin.

“I had a guy last year from Seattle Opera,” he recalls. “Then you get people who played clarinet 25 years ago and dusted it off last week. You’ll get usually a mix at all of them.”

In addition to the dance party and Rubin’s workshops, on Nov. 2 the festival will feature five other events at 11 a.m. and four additional workshops at 3:15 p.m. Among them, poet and performer Jake Marmer, who teaches at Kehillah High School in Palo Alto, will present “Golem as a Poem: A Being of Letters” in the morning timeslot. His recent jazz-poetry album “Hermeneutic Stomp” (Blue Thread Music, 2013) features jazz-klezmer luminaries and brings together diverse poetic and musical traditions, as well as new and ancient improvisation techniques. Participants will read ancient and contemporary riffs on the golem legend and try to write a poem summoning the mystical being.

In an afternoon workshop, Gabriella Safran, a professor of Russian and Yiddish literature at Stanford, will discuss “The Irritating Jewish Voice in Sholem Aleichem’s Stories.” Some stories will be read in English, featuring particularly annoying characters, and participants will consider why they have so much power.

Other workshops feature singing, dancing and klezmer improv, plus two “Sing/Act/Dance/Draw” events with Gerry Tenney for kids and their families.

For Rubin, the festival may be a homecoming of sorts, but for many years he has divided his time between Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, where he teaches, and a village near Zurich, Switzerland, the hometown of his wife.

Much of the year, Rubin travels the world performing, recording and teaching. The secular Jewish kid from Los Angeles ended up becoming one of the world’s foremost klezmer musicians and academics.

Music is part of his DNA. Rubin’s great-grandfather was a klezmer violinist in Kiev. Rubin remembers his grandparents singing Yiddish songs to him, though their significance didn’t strike him when he was young.

Enthusiasts dancing at last year’s Yiddish Culture Festival.­ photo/lea delson

He took up the clarinet, attending California Institute of the Arts, intent on becoming a classical musician. He studied with clarinet virtuoso Richard Stoltzman for a time and later earned a degree from Purchase College, State University of New York.

While working in New York’s classical music world in the late 1970s, Rubin noticed a poster advertising an upcoming concert. The 20th-century klezmer clarinet master Dave Tarras was coming to town. Once he heard Tarras play, his life changed forever. “I liked the way it sounded,” he recalled of klezmer. “It’s very expressive.”

Rubin began a klezmer-fueled odyssey that continues to this day. He lived in Boston and the Bay Area. He lived in Germany and England, earning his Ph.D. with the first doctoral thesis on ornamentation in klezmer clarinet. He played with the Klezmer Conservatory Band, Brave Old World and the Klezmatics, and has toured the world several times over.

He also taught music at Yale, Syracuse and Cornell universities and wrote several books, as well as papers for academic journals.

“There was so little information about klezmer when I started,” Rubin says. “The public had zilch on this music. There was nothing published on American klezmer. The only ones who knew were little old Jews from Russia or Poland.”

The klezmer revival that began 30 years ago swept through Europe as well as the Americas. Rubin was a big part of that, routinely performing and leading workshops at such events as KlezKamp and KlezKanada.

But Rubin, who spends much time in Europe, where he has played countless concerts, says he has noticed a decline in the number of klezmer events there, a trend he attributes in part to resurgent anti-Semitism.

“When I first moved [to Germany], there were taboos against being openly anti-Semitic,” he recalls. “It was worse than being outed as a racist. Things started heating up after the second intifada and 9/11. That let loose a lot of feelings. Interest in klezmer and Jewish things in general has definitely declined in the last 10 to 15 years.”

Fortunately, the revival has not stalled in North America. Even with a plate as full as his, Rubin hopes to branch out, perhaps creating a new Yiddish theater someday. Meanwhile, first things first.

“I don’t know all that much about KlezCalifornia,” Rubin said. “But I know it’s going to be fun.”

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.