Cruising with the Jews, klezmer style

Since joining the Red Hot Chachkas five years ago, Berkeley clarinetist Barbara Speed bandies about Yiddish words with the ease of a Crown Heights resident. Of course, most of her vocabulary has to do with music.

Like “kreksin,” which refers to the musical ornamentation she adds when playing her clarinet.

“It actually means a little chirp, wail or cry,” she said. “Kreksin is an attempt to recreate the cantor chanting holy texts. Even though klezmer is for the most part secular music now, religious tones have been extracted. That ecstatic communing with God is made into music.”

Klezmer (and Chachkas) fans will have a chance to party hearty on June 10 at Klezmer by the Bay, a three-hour cruise for Jews with kosher-style food, great views and, of course, live klezmer. The event is co-sponsored by the Peninsula Jewish Community Center and the JCC Jewish Cultural Collaboration.

Speed can’t wait for the floating gig, though she hopes any rocking and rolling they do is limited strictly to the music. “I’ve played on one of those boats before,” she says of the upcoming performance on the Royal Prince ferry. “People can lose their equilibrium. But when you play a woodwind, you continue to breathe deeply.”

Once at sea (or is it at bay?), the Red Hot Chachkas will mix it up with a combination of originals and traditional Eastern European klezmer tunes. Such mixing is standard these days for bands like hers. The klezmer band Brave Old World calls it ‘new Jewish music’ instead of klezmer,” she said.

Still, she adds, “Even the new material will be grounded in the spirited cadences of klezmer.”

Although she’s not Jewish, Speed locked on to klezmer’s Yiddish vibes the moment she heard it. “Klezmer is a very free music, with a lot of improvisational aspects. Musicians are attracted to the kinds of scales it has: the harmonic minor scale or the ‘freygish’ scale.”

Speed grew up in Washington Heights, as Jewish a neighborhood as one could find in uptown Manhattan (“Whenever there was a Jewish holiday, there was only three of us in the classroom,” she said). She studied classical piano and flute, but took up jazz saxophone after moving to Berkeley in 1979.

Her participation in the Westwind International Folk Ensemble exposed her to klezmer, and she promptly fell in love. It was a musical shidduch made in heaven. “I see klezmer as very much like old-style Dixieland improvisation. Dixieland had group improvisation like baroque, where everyone had an equal part and every part was interesting.”

The same is true for klezmer, which is why Speed is sticking with it for the long haul. How does it feel for a non-Jew to make traditional Jewish music her stock in trade?

“Pretty natural,” she said. “I still don’t know what’s going on in the service, but having grown up as an ethical culturalist, I’m at home wherever. All religions are good, and people are what’s important. Judaism is very people oriented, certainly around here.”

“Klezmer by the Bay” takes place 5:45 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday, June 10. Passengers may board at Golden Gate Ferry in Sausalito or Pier 43 1/2 in S.F. Tickets: $45-$50. Information: (650) 212-7522 or online at

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.