Rolling Stones in Yiddish?

Clubs in Tel Aviv are being rocked by an all acoustic klezmer band called Oy Division seeking revive the music their grandparents listened to.

Ben Bresky , | updated: 11:58

Oy Division
Oy Division
Photo credit: Oy Division

If you think a club in Tel Aviv is no place to find a rocking acoustic klezmer band, then think again. On any given night, Oy Division is playing to an enthusiastic group of young Israelis. The rockers, jazz musicians, and world beat singers who make up the group have never done Jewish-oriented material before. But they’re now dedicated to the music their grandparents played, as demonstrated on their new CD which features accordions, clarinets and singing in Yiddish and Russian.


Israel's Oy Division performing live in Poland at the annual Krakow Jewish Culture Festival
Clarinet player Eyal Talmudi talked about the group's thoughts on klezmer, Yiddish culture in Israel and their unprecedented Rolling Stones cover on Israel National Radio's 'The Beat with Ben Bresky.'

Question: So tell us about Oy Division.

Answer: We are a meeting of musicians who usually do other stuff. Two and a half years ago we met under the combined will to play the old music as people used to play it. Nowadays I can surely say our mission is to bring back the music that was usually played in simchas and other cultural and religious events around eastern Europe, both in the shtetl and in the big cities. We just try and be loyal to the source but still have it done in a modern attitude.

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Question: Some of the songs are traditional standards and some are originals.

Answer: On the debut album, most of them are traditional standards. We try to choose carefully and discover either the ones that were played less or if they were played a lot, try to express our vision about them. Some are taken from the Yiddish theater or folk singing and dance. Except for a Russian soldier's song from the 1930s or 1940s. That's our newest song.

Question: You have a couple Russian songs on the album too.

Answer: Our violinist was born in Russia, as a lot of Israelis were nowadays. He brought some of his own folklore from his parents and grandparents. At the end is a "Lubavitcher Redl" which implies it's either a very heavy drinking song about vodka, or a very heavy faith song about G-d and the Rebbe. All of these are taken from the repertoire of Jews who played and sang while living in Eastern Europe.

Oy Division live at Levontin 7 in Tel Aviv.
Photo credit: Uri Marshski

What are your concerts like? You play rock clubs in Tel Aviv?

Answer: We released our album with the great help of Levontin 7, which is our home club where we play. If we start an early show, we do a bit more singing and heavier stuff. Then eventually everyone is going to dance. If we start late, everybody is already drunk and we can just dance all night long. Before electricity was invented people would dance and even trance on this kind of music. We try to re-do this option of a live trance played by acoustic instruments and participation of the audience with clapping and dancing and making a lot of noise so it gets to a either a circle or a crazy dance. We had a Purim show where we played faster then usual and people just danced for a whole hour. We usually don't use any drums unless we invite a musical guest, so hand clapping and whistling and other cries in the air make the whole atmosphere.

Question: How did you start?

Answer: We started played at Levontin 7 just in the bar for fun. Israelis who have no obvious connection with their Yiddish-speaking ancestors, just sitting at the bar drinking were all of a sudden realizing that this is what their grandparents used to hear when they would sit and drink or just have fun.

Oy Division's clarinetist Eyal Talmudi: "Most of my parent's generation who were born in Israel were ashamed of their parents speaking Yiddish."

Question: Some people say to me that Yiddish isn't spoken in Israel, only Hebrew. We did an interview with Mike Burstyn who talked about how Yiddish wasn't spoken in Israel in the early days. But now I keep finding all these young bands like you who use Yiddish.

Answer: I've been reading about this and talking to people about it. Artists, especially musicians as well as comedians and actors that came from Eastern Europe had to pay a much bigger tax. The State of Israel made it difficult and tried to prevent people to speak Yiddish other languages spoken by other Jews around the world in order to have everyone speak Hebrew. It might sound logical in a situation where you have to promote the State from scratch. But what happened, most of my parent's generation who were already born in Israel were ashamed of their parents speaking Yiddish or other languages. Therefore this culture either disappeared or people heard in advance that they shouldn't come over here with the klezmer music or Yiddish theater music and either moved to the States or went back to Europe.

Mike Burstyn, I assume you mean the son of Pesach Burstyn, the actor. I saw a TV documentary about what was done to his family. They had a small theater in Poland and it was doing very well before the war. They came here [to Israel] and didn't make it so well and had to move to the States because they couldn't afford being here with the Yiddish theater. It's a sad thing. 

Oy Division's Rolling Stones cover is one of the most authentically klemzer sounding track on the newly released CD The Rough Guide to the Klezmer Revolution.

But today you can still have a connection with people that came from the old country. What we and other bands are doing is just trying to save the end of the culture before it goes away. We are going to save as much as we can and record it into a form that younger generations can listen to. We have been traveling around the world and meeting other bands, Jewish musicians and artists who were involved in this genre; even Gypsy musicians who used to play with Jews in Eastern Europe used to know the repertoire of what we play. They all remember in a glimpse of nostalgia how it was so developed. Nowadays it has almost reached the end. We are trying to save a piece of what's left.

People who went to the U.S. and Europe tried continued the culture. What happened was it melted it into the more American music or jazz and therefore there's almost nothing left of the original form of this music. We are trying to do it but it's still through the filter of what happened in those 50 years. 

Oy Division's 2008 debut CD.

Question: How did you come up with the name?

Answer: Should I mention Levontin 7 again? I have a very good friend who is absolutely a punk rocker and has nothing to do with klezmer. But once he heard we are playing some klezmer stuff he came up to me at the bar and told me, "look I got the best name for a klezmer band!" This of course is from the group we all loved, Joy Division. We're hoping to make a cover version of Love Will Tear Us Apart in Yiddish.

Question: Speaking of cover versions, you have a cover version of Sympathy for the Devil by the Rolling Stones. I didn't even realize it was the Rolling Stones because it sounds so authentically klezmer.

Answer: Rakhmones afn Tayvl is a collaboration with Daniel Kahn from the U.S. and his roommate for thought Psoy Korolenko from Moscow. They sing in Yiddish, English and Russian. When they came to Israel we recorded together. Another side of the Yiddish culture of propaganda of all kinds of Jewish ideology from the left to the right and back which implicates the variety of opinions of Jewish people and of people in general. This is the most modern Yiddish creation where you take up-to-date songs done by modern bands and put them into the Yiddish laundry and what comes out is an all-new expression of the Yiddish culture and a general artistic point of view on life.

Psoy Korolenko, (left, with long hair) and Daniel Kahn (right, with mask and accordion) performing the Rolling Stone's Sympathy for the Devil in Yiddish backed by Oy Division live at Levontin 7 in Tel Aviv.
Photo credit: Yutsis

The Unternationale, featuring Daniel Kahn, Psoy Korolenko and Oy Division features old Yiddish political songs from different ideological viewpoints.

Question: Any final words about klezmer or Oy Division or klezmer in Israel?

Answer: Not so long ago and maybe still today, people think klezmer music is like the Holocaust soundtrack. We get that a lot. People say, 'Oh no, klezmer music? It's too depressing and I don't think I would go out dancing for klezmer music.' I would invite everybody to watch an Oy Division show as soon as they can because what we try to do is put on dancing shoes, and try to relate to another era in history where Jews used to suffer. Not that other people didn't suffer too, but we always used to suffer and complain about it in a happy way. You can party your miserability. So I invite everyone to come over and dance with us and if you didn't enjoy we'll give you the money back.

Oy Division's next show will be July 15th at Levontin 7 in Tel Aviv. They will play the Festival Paris Quartier D’ete in France from July 22- July 26th and then head to Budapest, Hungary before returning to Israel.

Ben Bresky is a music critic based in Jerusalem and host of the Israel Beat Jewish Music Podcast on Israel National Radio.