The fiddler on a Tel Aviv roof
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The fiddler on a Tel Aviv roof

Competing with Greek and Turkish music, violinist Daniel Hoffman dreams of Israelis rediscovering their klezmer roots

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

When fiddler Daniel Hoffman moved to Israel, his mission was to bring klezmer music to the Israeli masses. But the California-born and bred musician hadn’t gambled on Israelis’ bone-deep mistrust of anything smacking of the ‘old country,’ including the music of Eastern European, where many of their parents and grandparents came from.

In the rest of the world, said Hoffman, klezmer is the folk music of the European Jews, something harkening back to Jewish history. Israelis, however, didn’t see it the same way.

“When I came here, I thought they’d like it,” said Hoffman. “I thought I’d get in on the ground floor of something that would be big.”

That didn’t end up happening.

Instead, Hoffman, an American transplant in Tel Aviv, is playing more Turkish and Greek music than anything else. He also joined the orchestra at the Habima Theater for several stage productions, and performs regularly with other local bands.

Daniel Hoffman and his violins (Courtesy Daniel Hoffman)
Daniel Hoffman and his violins (Courtesy Daniel Hoffman)

Then there’s the work on his ongoing documentary film series about the different styles of music that include a violin. Hoffman likes to remind people that the violin is “the most flexible musical instrument in the world used by most styles of music,” he said.

But bottom line, when you’re an immigrant fiddler from California, living in Tel Aviv with your wife and three kids, you play what the audiences want to hear, even if it’s not the music you’d rather be playing.

Greek music, for instance, “is huge in Israel, it’s weird,” said Hoffman.

Even Turkish music, another Israeli favorite right now, was a bit of a stretch at first for Hoffman, who had long played Arab music, after first discovering it for himself at a music retreat in the Bay Area, where he was living at the time.

‘I’ve played with musicians whose politics I can’t stand, but who cares?’

“What inspired me was the beauty of the music,” he said. “For musicians, the most important thing is whether someone can play or not. Who cares about their politics. I’ve played with musicians whose politics I can’t stand, but who cares?”

Like many other Israeli musicians, Hoffman began playing Arab music in the years following the Oslo Accords, when any kind of Arab music became popular. When the peace process fell apart, musicians began veering toward tunes from Istanbul and traditional Turkish music, said Hoffman.

“It started becoming weird to play Arab music in the middle of the Second Intifada and with a bus bombing every week,” he said. “Music is music and it shouldn’t really matter, but it’s there.”

For Hoffman, it’s all been part of the musical journey he’s been making since he was a kid, living in Southern California and playing the violin.

He always felt that classical music didn’t feel natural to him and didn’t allow enough self-expression. He played in rock bands in high school, and it was during his tenure studying at the Manhattan School of Music, with long hours of practice and rehearsal, that he developed tendonitis and began thinking about what he really wanted to play.

Hoffman headed back to the Bay Area, which was where he first heard klezmer music, and fell in love with the violin and clarinet-heavy tunes.

Around the same time, he found himself heading to Israel on a regular basis, where he picked bananas, studied Judaism, sat on a beach and performed with other musicians, including finagling his way into the Jerusalem Music Academy and making connections with other classically-trained musicians.

When he moved to Israel more than eight years ago with his wife, it was tough to find work playing klezmer. Impossible, actually.

“I played weird gigs, at Hasidic weddings,” he said. “They would say that what I was playing was klezmer, and I’d say it was not, it was Hasidic music.”

Klezmer really wasn’t an option at the time, said Hoffman. What he found in Israel was an avoidance of all things Yiddish, despite the heavy presence of many Israelis of Ashkenazi background.

“They don’t know what klezmer is,” he said. “Anything Yiddish is almost an expression of anti-Zionism for the extreme left, because it has a negative connotation here.”

Hoffman, however, isn’t giving up on klezmer in Israel just yet.

Daniel Hoffmann will perform his own klezmer works on July 6 with Illiya Magalnik on accordion, Gilad Ephrat on contrabass and Yair Salzman on drums at Inbal, co-sponsored by Beit Shalom Aleichem. He’ll also be hosting Yiddish vocalist Avishai Fisz, with whom Hoffman will release a Yiddish Baroque album, “Di Tsaytmashin,” in a few months.

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