Then what, after all, is a sister?

Then what, after all, is a sister? A constellation of organic compounds suspended in celestial fluids, cinched in a membrane and heated to a certain temperature, animated by potential vectors invisibly aswarm in the air? Hurry, speak now. No, in fact, a sister is not a constellation, for a constellation is a map without legend or scale, pickled in historical brine, designed by men and set wheeling over the earth like carrion birds; a scrap of pin-pricked black felt stretched across a weak bulb. Then what, after all, is a sister? A long symmetrical stalk with two roots and two leaves, capped by a blossom, which might rustle in a breeze or be halated in sunlight; or a book laid open on its spine, leaves ruffling in this same breeze, flickering in this same sunlight? Hurry, speak now. No, in fact, a sister is not a stalk or book, for a stalk is an anchor that plunges into the dirt, and a book is a splintering vessel lashed to a gnarled ocean of wrought iron. Then what, after all, is a sister? A glimmer that traces a radiant arc across a darkened field; a tracer that splits a ringing curve in the night's indefinite distance, accompanied by a silvery intuition of bells; or an anthropomorphic sunspot, a chaotically shifting quantum event erupting amid an otherwise orderly grid, which might be colored in iridescent braids of fire and gold, or cool futuristic greens delineating a serial space? Hurry, speak now. No, in fact, a sister is not a bright tracer or vertex on a grid, for a tracer is a shimmering mirage that recedes as it is approached, and a grid is a logical span beholden to elementary principles of tension and weight. Then what, after all, is a sister? A chrysalis that is larger on the inside than the outside, perpetually replenishing what's disgorged; or an echo that gets broader as it pans to and fro? A concentrically pulsating waveform? A flash of light, a gust of wind, a rainsquall, a sudden sound? A limbed and sentient calamity of hieroglyphics, with the body of a woman and the head of a bird? A cenacle of smoke and light; a diffraction of elements across gossamer planes of flowing fabric; a cabal of rogue particles swarming the hive of the body? Hurry, speak now. No, in fact, a sister is none of these, for a sister effloresces into meaning as the seasons turn inside her like a flaming wheel.

This weekend I was at a holiday concert, listening to a children's choir sing songs like "Hanukkah Nagilah":

light the menorah

dance the hora

The hora is one of those dances that everybody has and calls by a different name, the way you can buy Greek Delight or Israeli falafel. The harpsichordean tones you hear come from the cimbalom, a kind of hammered dulcimer common to both Roma and Jewish music. (It's related to the Persian santour and the Greek santouri.) The Roma play with the standup version, which is sort of like a piano stuffed in a rectangle. Klezmorim often used an economy-sized cimbalom called the tsimbl, which hung from the shoulders.

We'll let the gypsies take it away, while I tell you a story.

Imagine your dilemma: you're a Polish aristocrat in the 1800s. You're throwing a party and you want some lively gypsy music to entertain your guests. But gypsies are scary. They drink too much and rape Polish women. What should you do? You ask a Jew instead. They play the same music, but they are less drunk and they don't like goy women.

Minstrelsy begins at home. And what the Jews did for the gypsies, later they'd do for the blacks.

The gypsies were used to these sorts of slights. They were slaves in Romania until 1864. (Blacks in the U.S. were allegedly freed in 1863.) But Jews and gypsies both did their share of shucking and jiving to get by. For extra entertainment value, tsimbl players performed with a chained bear. When bears were hard to come by, audiences opted for a Jew in a bear costume. The point, really, was to humiliate the Jew. But a musician doesn't turn down work. Every so often a Jewish song would catch on among the goyish public, who imagined it expressed the very essence of this strange people. The sabbath song "Ma Yofis" was one of these early Jewish hits. Its melody was taken from a popular Polish song; maybe that explains its crossover appeal. This song was so widely requested during these minstrel-show performances of Jewishness, that it dropped out of the Jewish repertoire entirely. "Mayofisnik" became an insult, roughly translated as "goy-pandering sell-out." Like calling a black man an Uncle Tom. In today's world, mayofisnik might translate as "Jewface."

Of course one man's sell-out is another man's Borat. Or vice versa.

Things were different after the Holocaust. In Hungary, Jews were slaughtered so effectively that only a handful of gypsies who'd played with klezmer bands were left to remember the music. (I don't know if Jews returned the favor elsewhere in Europe.) With the help of Roma consultants, the Hungarian band Muzsikas recreated some of these Hungarian Jewish songs on their album Maramaros. It was largely this sense of a lost tradition that fuelled the klezmer revival to begin with. So many local forces drove this phenomenon: interest in folk music, Holocaust tourism, discomfort over Zionism and religious orthodoxy among secular Jews, Holocaust guilt among Europeans. Mark Slobin calls this movement a "nostalgic diasporism," which substitutes a carefully preserved, static past for a living culture grounded in social practice. And through the proliferation of graduate programs, arts festivals, historic tours, and audio recordings, some version of these once-vibrant traditions is kept alive.

Based on the comments to the first installment of this series, many of us agree that culture is not static and, as one reader put it, miscegenation is inevitable (even desirable, I might add). But when does culture become kitsch instead? Is it when Oprah gets involved? Is it when folk goes electric? Is it when things get too hip for their own good? Or is it just when we lose too much of what made it all meaningful to begin with?

It's been a long journey these past two weeks. I'll stop here and rest for a while. Thanks for your company.