N.Y. klezmer group takes musical nostalgia trip to shtetl

A wise man once said, “You can’t go home again.” Nobody knows the truth of that better than the Jews. Kicked out of this place, fleeing from another, they seem fated to wander the planet, homesick, wishing to be back where they had come from, even if that place was a rundown shack in a shtetl in the sticks.

“Homesick Songs,” a new collection by the New York-based six-member klezmer ensemble Golem, speaks to that nostalgic strain. It’s a clever concept and Golem is a skilled ensemble. The singers have something of a hard edge, more like real people singing, rather than entertainers. They call it “Eastern Europe meets the Lower East Side.” It’s not “easy listening” but rather more authentic, something an ethnomusicologist might love. To ears grown accustomed to the more polished, commercial groups like the Klezmatics, it can sound a little rough. The instrumentals, on the other hand, are terrific.

Most of this music is upbeat; some is positively rollicking, such as “Odessa,” the opening number. There are familiar Russian tunes on the album for good measure. The second song, “Chiribim,” is high-spirited, if a little silly. But that fits its allusion to the storied town of Chelm, where everything and everybody are a bit upside-down. It’s set to a jazz beat. Several songs are stories, one of a “greenhorn” cousin and several others about lost love (stretching the homesick concept a little bit thin). Concise and witty liner notes by lead singer Annette Ezekiel, who also composed the song “Bialystok,” tell us what they say.

Best of all is Aaron Lebedeff’s famed “Rumenye,” partially sung in English while the band vamps. Although one might prefer Mandy Patinkin’s equally zany version, this one is pretty funny. “Bukovinsky,” a terrific instrumental follows, as if we needed a rest from all that singing and storytelling. And maybe we do. A couple of Serbian Gypsy songs also are on the disk. (Are there really any Jewish Gypsies?) One has some of the lyrics translated into English, and you won’t want to play them for your grandmother. It’s pretty racy stuff.

Then there are the genuinely “homesick” songs for places like Zlatopol, Bialystok (home of the original bialy) and Belz, with a recurring line: “mein shayn shtetele” (my pretty little shtetl). Well, the album liner is decorated with a couple of photos, courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., that depict a typical shtetl. Wooden shacks and unpaved streets, with a horse grazing in the yard. Not very “shayn.” One wonders if there is or ever was much to be homesick for.

The romanticizing of shtetl life that began with “Fiddler on the Roof” and continued with Barbra Streisand’s “Yentl” obviously is at work here. Nevertheless, if you know somebody who likes Yiddish and klezmer and seems a bit — well — homesick — maybe you should tell them about this recording.

“Homesick Songs” by Golem, (Aeronaut Records, $15).