Authentic Jewish band makes klezmer weird again

Klezmer went through a boom about a decade ago, and the melodies of Judaism past took on a particular resonance as they emerged from their dusty archives into JCC performance halls around the country. The fast and emphatic tunes embody an Ashkenazi spirit that was less shmaltzy than “Sunrise, Sunset.” Bands like the Klezmatics fuse the old country music with progressive politics.

Jews have gone cuckoo for klezmer.

Key to this embrace is a renewed sense of ethnic identity. For Ashkenazi Jews feeling less and less attached to their religion, culture and history, the clarinets and accordions conjure up a shtetl of the imagination that provides a catchy vision of life for some people’s great-great-great-grandparents.

The ensemble Veretski Pass doesn’t call itself klezmer. The tagline on its eponymous recording is “Traditional Eastern European Jewish Music.” Upon hearing the CD, the distinction is clear. If most contemporary klezmer is warm and fuzzy, the sounds of Veretski Pass are really, really weird — and great.

Veretski, whose members are Joshua Horowitz and Stuart Brotman, both of Berkeley, and Cookie Segelstein of Madison, Conn., uses authentic instruments that the band members have meticulously researched and in some cases physically reconstructed from oral research. The sounds that come out of the basy (bass/cello hybrid), the baraban (a cymbal/bass drum combination) and the tsimbl (a Jewish hammered dulcimer) are not always pretty to the unaccustomed ear, but they transport the listener to far-away places. There is a tinge of mysticism and melancholy in even the most raucous of songs on the disc, which is made up of 30 cuts, none of which is more than five minutes long and some of which are as brief as 24 seconds.

The bits of music cover a near mythical geography. Have you ever heard of Bessarabia, Ruthenia or Bukovina? These are some of the regions that come screaming out of the stereo. The tunes are at once familiar and from a strange other world — compelling in the same way that visiting a synagogue in a city where you can’t speak the language would be.

This is part of what makes this recording more than just a powerful set of unusual and archival melodies passionately performed. Veretski Pass reminds you through its slightly jumpy dissonance that our Jewish past isn’t necessarily knowable. Life in Europe for Jews 200 years ago is so far removed from our modern experience that perhaps the best vessel to understanding their lives is by submitting to a kind of confusion.

A Jewish teacher once said that Judaism is the practice of trying to grasp the ineffable. Veretski Pass is a fun way to start the journey toward grasping our ineffable Jewish history.

Veretski Pass will participate as teachers in KlezCalifornia, a weeklong day camp for all ages featuring klezmer music, Yiddish language and folk arts. The program runs from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. June 20 to 25, at Jewish Community High School of the Bay, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. The ensemble will also participate in a concert on June 21. Information: (415) 456-7547, or