1. What instruments do you play and when did you start learning about klezmer?
Wayne: I began playing the violin in second grade at Case Elementary School in Akron, Ohio. The instrument was an obvious choice since my Uncle Stanley, who repaired violins, had dormant fiddles around his shop waiting for eager students to breathe life into them. My parents gave encouragement even when my initial attempts sounded like the soundtrack to a Stephen King movie. School holiday performances often had a single klezmerish-sounding tune wedged between Christmas songs, though the word ‘klezmer’ (Jewish instrumental music from Eastern Europe) wouldn’t become part of my musical interests for several years.
As an adult playing in folk, bluegrass and Irish bands, I introduced an occasional klezmer tune, such as ‘Tantz, Tantz Yiddelech’ (prominently featured in the novel), to the other musicians. For inspiration while writing the book, I’d pull out my mandolin and play Andy Statman’s ‘Flatbush Waltz’, my favourite modern klezmer composition. Other instruments in our home which get a workout from time to time include a guitar, a piano and my late grandfather’s Italian-made cello. As it is for our book’s main character, Benny Feldman, playing music – whether alone or in a band – will forever be an oasis from life’s troubles.
Allison: My musical inclinations failed to go any further than three short lessons on the flute and being able to pound out ‘Chopsticks’ on my mother’s baby grand piano. I’m much more comfortable sitting back and being an enthusiastic member of any audience.
As I grew up in rural Ohio in pre-internet days, the word ‘klezmer’ wasn’t a part of my vocabulary. My first introduction to it occurred much later when Wayne and I saw a dinner theatre production of Fiddler on the Roof. I recall that one of the items on the menu was ‘Lazar Wolf’s Pork Chops’. I ordered the salad.
Which books with Jewish interest did you read when you were young?
Wayne: Chaim Potok’s The Chosen was a game-changer for me. Being both a baseball fan and a young Jewish boy, I was floored by the opening chapter in which a contentious ball game sets the stage for an awkwardly developing friendship and a clash of cultures. I charged through Potok’s other books as well: The Promise, My Name is Asher Lev (a primer for when our twins both received degrees in art) and, particularly, In the Beginning. Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant and The Fixer are also etched in my memory, as well as a biography of Sandy Koufax which proudly sat next to books about Frank Robinson, Gaylord Perry and Carl Yastrzemski.
Allison: The small public library in my hometown did not have any books that were specifically Jewish in nature. However, as a child I gravitated towards books that had messages about kindness and justice, especially Horton Hears a Who, The Lorax, and The Sneetches. Jewish children today have many more options thanks to the hard work and dedication of publishers such as Green Bean Books. Wayne and I are proud that Benny Feldman’s All-Star Klezmer Band will become a part of the growing collection of children’s Judaic books.
When did you start writing Benny Feldman’s All-Star Klezmer Band?
We had been writing picture books for a few years (Og’s Ark, A Gefilte Fishy Tale and The Art Lesson: A Shavuot Story) when we decided some of our story ideas would work better as novels. We began discussing Benny Feldman’s All-Star Klezmer Band in the summer of 2017, pitching the idea to a receptive audience during a family barbecue. Much research and plot outlining came next, followed by the writing and revising (around seventeen versions). To our delight, the next year the manuscript earned an Author Incentive Award from PJ Our Way. One of the great joys of working with the PJ Our Way team is that they seek opinions from young readers early on in the process. We used many of the children’s invaluable insights to improve the text.
Wayne’s parents, Burton and Rita, were successful children’s book authors, having worked with Lothrop, Lee & Shepard and other publishers. Give a Magic Show, their first book, became a popular Scholastic selection and is still available in many libraries. At the time we began writing the novel, Burton was in declining health. Even when his condition worsened, his interest in our book-writing pursuits never waned. Discussions about plot challenges and pacing problems caused his eyes to light up. Even as his memory slipped, he would recall the day he received a New York Times book review (it was positive) and the red-ink-stained pages that came in the mail from his editors. Burton passed away around the time we were preparing the manuscript for submission. Holding the book in our hands is like holding onto a part of him.
Are any characters in the book based on real people?
Though the novel is strictly a work of fiction, people in our familial orbit found their way into the story. Wayne’s mother was a public defender like Mrs Feldman, and his father was notorious for hastily wrapping Hanukkah gifts in the Sunday comics, like Uncle Maxwell does. The game of tossing a frisbee a hundred times without it hitting the ground was a ritual Wayne played with his brother Craig. The Geary Potato Chip Factory is a nod to Akron’s now defunct Salem Potato Chip Factory (Geary is also Allison’s maiden name).
The inspiration for Moshe, Benny’s great-great-grandfather, came from a photograph of Wayne’s great-grandfather, Moshe Marks. He came to the United States in 1899 from Russia. By 1903, he had saved up enough money working as a ritual slaughterer to bring his wife, Minna, and small family, including Wayne’s grandfather, Benjamin, to settle with him in Danville, Illinois. He and Minna (also referenced in the book) are buried in a small Jewish cemetery in Akron.
If readers want to listen to klezmer, who would you suggest they start with?
Benny Feldman’s All-Star Klezmer Band provides young readers with some solid choices to begin learning about the world of klezmer. Early recordings by Abe Schwartz’s Orchestra, a group discovered by Benny while searching through old 78 albums, give listeners a foundation in traditional klezmer before branching out to modern groups, such as the Klezmatics, the band Benny uses to convince a new acquaintance to join up as the drummer. Mickey Katz, the great jazz clarinettist and parodist, is also mentioned. His music was revived in the 1993 album, Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz. Wayne’s own parody song, ‘Eight Days a Year’ (based on the Beatles’ ‘Eight Days a Week’), makes an appearance in the novel. He performed this ode to latkes with his bluegrass band every year during their holiday show (Eight days a year, we eat with Uncle Saul, Eight days a year, we forget about cholesterol!). Our favourite recording of ‘Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn’ (Klezmer Conservatory Band, from the superb album A Jumping Night in the Garden of Eden, 1988) inspired us to make this most famous of klezmer tunes an integral part of the story. Do a YouTube search of the song and listen to the array of musicians who have covered it. Then good luck getting it out of your head!
Did you ever perform in a talent show?
Wayne: In a sixth-grade talent show, I played my violin, doing a medley of tunes from Fiddler on the Roof. Unlike Benny, I didn’t suffer from stage fright, approaching my performance with perhaps too much bravado. Sadly, no one formed a conga line around the gymnasium or begged for an encore, as happens in the novel. A few years later, I performed in a quartet in another school talent show. We did a Vivaldi piece but, as I recall, were eclipsed by a rock band of popular students.
Allison: My experiences performing on stage are much more limited than Wayne’s. I, like Benny, prefer to blend into the background. I do remember mouthing lyrics while standing on bleachers during elementary school choir performances. My only other performance occurred way back in first grade. I ‘accompanied’ a friend playing a piano piece for a school talent show by randomly shaking a tambourine. My gap-toothed grin and enthusiastic gusto far outweighed my talent.
The book includes some klezmer terms. Where do they come from?
We realized early in the writing process that it was important to sprinkle in some klezmer terms that were likely to be unfamiliar to young readers. These include the word klezmer itself, a Yiddish term combining the Hebrew words for ‘instrument’ and ‘song’; freylekh, Yiddish for ‘festive’; niggun, Yiddish/Hebrew for ‘melody’; krecht, Yiddish for ‘sobs’, a klezmer moaning sound; ahava raba, Hebrew for ‘great love’, a common scale used in klezmer tunes; and sher, Yiddish for ‘scissors’, a moderate-tempo square dance.
Which books about klezmer music have you read and enjoyed?
For budding klezmer musicians of any age, The Compleat Klezmer, compiled by banjo player and klezmer historian Henry Sapoznik, is a great starting point for further exploration. It contains thirty-three klezmer pieces with historical notes, photos and information about each tune. As musicians discover when learning to play folk music, the notes on the page will only take you so far. To get the ornamentation and rhythms right, the music must be listened to and absorbed. This is particularly true of klezmer. The book also includes ‘Tantz, Tantz Yiddelech’ – one of the tunes Benny’s band plays for the talent show.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Writing can be challenging work, but it’s important to find joy in your journey, from coming up with the initial concept to completing the final draft. Just as music can be a refuge, so can writing – a chance to flex your creative muscles, escape into a fictional world, experience contentment, laugh out loud and even become verklempt when moved by your own words. As writing partners, we have the benefit of taking this journey together.
Our nuts-and-bolts advice: don’t fall in love with the first few drafts. While intense editing can be painful, it’s always worth that extra bit of effort to take your story from being ordinary to being extraordinary. This is true whether you’re writing a 300-word picture book or a 50,000-word novel.
For children’s books, always keep your audience in mind. Don’t be afraid to challenge them, but avoid didacticism. Let your characters’ decisions speak for themselves. Then trust your readers to come to their own conclusions.