Golem puts a punk spin on klezmer

While forming her band Golem a few years back, Annette Ezekiel didn’t seek inspiration in Manhattan rock clubs. Instead, she hung out in nursing homes.

It was part of her quest to uncover lost Yiddish tunes. Going straight to the source, she interviewed institutionalized Jewish seniors to probe their musical memories of a bygone time.

That she is fluent in Yiddish didn’t hurt either.

These days, Golem is one of the more popular neo-klezmer bands on the circuit. On the lineup of this year’s Jewish Music Festival, the band will play the Rickshaw Stop in S.F. on March 26.

This is not Golem’s first show in the Bay Area. Over the years, they’ve played Amnesia, Cafe du Nord and the 12 Galaxies bar, none of them exactly B’Nai Brith mixers. Ezekiel says her band has always tried to appeal to a broad audience.

“The reason we love San Francisco so much is it’s always a really mixed crowd,” said the singer-accordionist. “There’s a Jewish crowd, and then we get the hipster weirdoes. From the beginning, I wanted to play for people of my own age and interests, and not necessarily just Jews.”

The New York-based sextet sports an eclectic instrumentation: accordion, trombone, violin, bass and drums. And singer Aaron Diskin, described on the band’s Web site as a five-foot-tall tambourine-wielding “crazy man.”

Though they write some originals, the band members play mostly classic klezmer tunes from the 19th and 20th centuries, singing in Yiddish, Russian, Polish, English or whatever language gets the job done.

Three of the members are Jewish. That, too, was by design. “I wanted a mix of perspectives,” Ezekiel says. “This music has some baggage. It reminds us of our families and our grandparents. But for half the band it’s nothing but music. It doesn’t have these associations.”

For Ezekiel, the music definitely does. She grew up outside of Boston in a culturally rich Jewish home. Her Russian-born, Yiddish-speaking grandfather lived with the family, so Ezekiel was exposed to these languages early on.

As a child she joined a Ukrainian dance troop and studied classical piano (a skill she eventually transferred to the accordion). Later, she studied French literature as a graduate student in Paris.

As much as she loved reading Marcel Proust in the original, somehow the inveterate over-achiever hit a wall. “I was suffering in grad school,” she recalls. “I wanted to be an artist, not a scholar.”

To tide her over, Ezekiel taught herself Russian, even attending an extended Russian language workshop.

“There were musicians there,” she says. “I started playing these Russian songs and suddenly there was a crowd of 100 people around me. These people said, ‘You’re a singer.’ I said, ‘No, I’m a ballet dancer,’ and they said, ‘No you’re not.'”

She took their advice, and plunged into music. As for the kind of music she would make, she knew only that she wanted “to do something that was mine. I remembered these klezmer records and I realized that was mine. I started learning Yiddish, and I fell in love.”

With Yiddishkeit, that is. After an apprenticeship in a punk klezmer band in Brooklyn, she formed Golem in 2001. The band has since released several CDs and is now signed to JDub Records. But Ezekiel and her colleagues decided from the outset to “play this music as if it was written today, and not worry about authenticity. I really wanted a lot of theatrics.”

Maybe that explains why Ezekiel and violinist Alicia Jo Rabins often perform in spangled tank tops rather than faux shtetl garb.

Performing traditional Jewish music, however untraditionally, has had the added benefit of bringing Ezekiel closer to her Jewish roots.

“I have definitely learned so much about Judaism. I’ve come to respect it a lot more than I did growing up.”

Golem plays 9 p.m. March 26 at The Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell, S.F. Tickets: $18. Information: (415) 800-838-3006

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.