More Than Music: Yale Strom Documents Disappearing Jewish Cultures

Nov 5, 2015

A Synagogue in Birobidzhan, Russia (taken by Yale Strom in 2000)
Credit Courtesy Yale Strom

For nearly 30 years, artist Yale Strom has made visit after visit to Eastern Europe. He documents life inside tiny Jewish villages, many of which were decimated by the Holocaust. A sampling of Strom’s collection -- including photographs and sheet music -- will be on display at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum on November 6th  as part of an exhibit called “Fragments: Jewish Life in Central and Eastern Europe, 1981-2007.”

  

While Strom may document Jewish culture, he is not what you imagine when you think of an historian. He’s a musician, first and foremost. And it’s the music that first took Strom to Eastern Europe.

It all started one night in college. Strom had been studying to be a lawyer. But that night, he saw a klezmer band perform at a dance. And he was enthralled with the swooping melodies and sounds.

“And really that night, at around 3 a.m., when I got home, I realized, I like the concept of law but to study 3 years, you know, this is maybe not what I want to do," Strom says. "So I said I'm going to form my own band!"

"Havdalah in Budabest, Hungary, 1985" by Yale Strom.
Credit Yale Strom

  But Strom didn’t want to form just any band. He wanted to perform traditional Jewish klezmer music, and he wanted to perform it right. To do that, he was going to finding original klezmer melodies, from their Eastern European source.  

“So that was the impetus to go and seek out klezmer and Yiddish songs in then what was the East Block,” Strom says.

With his violin in hand, Strom headed out on a journey to Eastern Europe, to countries like Belarus and Poland. Strom says he didn’t plan too much. He just started asking around -- where could he find the Jewish villages?

It was a little awkward, and Strom says it made him feel like an outsider in a new world. But he says with his violin, he could gain some trust.

"The language that really opened the doors and invited me in and got me many a free meal was my violin," Strom explains. "I was very honored and happy to play for these people! The Jewish tunes that I had been learning, that I'd learned from home. Just local tunes of the local indigenous folk music."

"I visit these people, they don't know who I am," he continues. " So you don't just start taking pictures. You sit down. You start to talk. As we say in Jewish, you start to schmooze. And if I’m speaking Yiddish to a Jewish family or individual, that puts them at ease. I'm speaking the mother tongue. We start to talk, ask questions.

"They see the violin there, they say 'Hey, what kind of music? Jewish music? I love it! Can you play such and such melody? Sure!' And I do that. And then in the crux of that, I put the violin down. I start talking. They start to prepare some food, get a book from their library or some photographs."

For a year, Strom repeated the process, over and over throughout Eastern Europe. And even after he returned to the United States, he still kept heading back, again and again and again. Strom says the experience became about something far more than music. It turned into new passion for him -- to preserve the cultures that had been nearly lost to the Holocaust.

"As they say, the thing about Jewish culture in Eastern Europe is between the two shades," he says. "You have a shade of black, and you have a shade of white. And those are beautiful colors. But everything in between, as you go from white to black, starts getting a little darker, a little darker, a little darker and you get darker shades of grey until black. And the opposite from black to white."

"And I say that's really what Jewish life has been since the Holocaust in Central and Eastern Europe," Strom says. "Where the majority of the Jewish populations were decimated. Nothing is completely black. Nothing is completely white. It's these permutations of grey. Because of the Holocaust, because of the Stalinist regimes, because of the wall going down, because of the revival of Jewish life in these countries. And these personal histories."

With “Fragments,” Strom says he wants to show the black, the white and all those shades of greys. That means his photographs show the struggles of tiny villages, but also the life and vibrancy of the young Jews who are growing and thriving there.

Yale Strom taking pictures of two girls in Cluj, Romania (1996)
Credit Yale Strom

But for all his optimism, Strom still worries that the Jewish populations in some of these villages could disappear. And if that happens, he says, the remaining synagogues and brick buildings wouldn’t mean what they once did. That makes preserving culture that much more important.

"And I do feel strongly that to preserve a culture, it can't just be the building blocks, you can't just preserve that. I can't just preserve this piece of music, this photograph, this synagogue," he says. "That's beautiful, but if you don't have people, Jewish people, to breathe life to be a part of that local community, then it becomes like going to a native American folk culture fair in parts of the West where there are very few Native Americans there. Yes, there are a couple selling some trinkets. But it's so devoid of what Native American culture was."

Strom sums up the dilemma this way: "We’re preserving parts of Jewish culture, but really it’s the people that will make the difference."

Yale Strom’s exhibit “Fragments” will be on display at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum on November 6th at 5 p.m.