After a long hiatus while I finished up my semester (my second-last at Penn!) I’m back at eartotheground.
On Sunday, I had the privilege of playing in my synagogue’s klezmer band for the début performance of the Philadelphia sher at our annual Chanukah party. The sher is a traditional Eastern European/Ashkenazi Jewish social dance in 2/4 time for four couples, with an accompanying set of tunes. Eastern European Jews who came to the United States brought it with them, and by the early twentieth century, Philadelphia had its own characteristic sher medley, as did New York and other major cities.
The sher was hugely popular at weddings and other social events and quickly became beloved by the Philadelphia Jewish community and beyond, eventually becoming the preeminent American sher medley. Unfortunately, widespread performance of the sher died out by the 1960s due to the pressures of Israeli music and dance, assimilation and suburbanization. It is kept alive in klezmer circles at events like KlezKamp, but not often performed at everyday parties and events.
Over the last few months, the Simcha Band, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann and the Religious Life Committee of Kol Tzedek, and I put together a grant application to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Kehillah of Center City to fund an exciting community-based project built around the sher–and we received $2200 from them for this project and a concurrent prayer leader training program!
Sherri Cohen, the Simcha Band’s trombonist, and I have been taking lessons with the eminent klezmer trumpeter Susan Watts, whose family has deep roots in Philadelphia’s Jewish music scene, and learning the sher. Naomi Segal, a member of Kol Tzedek, re-learned the sher (which she danced as a kid growing up in Philly) and taught it to the congregation on Sunday. People had a great time dancing it and the band (featuring Susan and her mom, fantastic drummer Elaine Hoffman Watts) certainly had a great time playing it.
Right now we’re recruiting volunteers from Kol Tzedek, the Philly Jewish community, and beyond to help with this project. Community members can get involved in any number of ways:
- Coming to Kol Tzedek events where we will be performing the sher (TBA here, or if you get in touch with me)
- Learning how to perform it with the Simcha Band
- Volunteering to learn the dance and teach it to others in the area
- Getting involved in the historical and archival research on the sher and on klezmer in Philly that I’ll be conducting beginning next month
- Conducting oral interviews about Philly’s Jewish music scene with members of the Philly Jewish community
- Designing the final web archive, where we will be storing educational materials, video, audio, sheet music and historical and ethnographic information about the sher
By April, we hope to have:
- Published (online and in hard copy) the sher music, recordings, performance notes, video of events at which it was performed, instructional video, and a history/ethnography of the Philadelphia sher.
- Performed and taught the Philadelphia sher medley at area Jewish events and simchas, along with a short historical presentation.
- Established a foothold for the Philly sher as a meaningful, living, breathing part of Philadelphia Jewish life, and self-sustaining methods for its transmission to future generations of musicians, dancers and partygoers.
There might also be a documentary film somewhere in there, depending on how things go. Stay tuned for the launch of the official Philadelphia Sher Project blog within the next week or so, with photos, video and audio of this year’s Chanukah festivities! Drop me an email or comment here if you want to get involved with this project at any level.