Jewish Bluegrass

Lovers of the banjo, fiddle and mandolin blend cultural identity and religious faith to create a uniquely American sound

“Jewgrass" is the fusion of bluegrass music with Hebrew lyrics and is played by a diverse group of old-time and bluegrass musicians. (iStockphoto)

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Religious restrictions also make it difficult for some Jewish bluegrass musicians to build a career. Judaism forbids playing musical instruments on Shabbat, which spans from sunset Friday evening through sunset Saturday evening. This is especially problematic in the summer months, when most of the bluegrass and old time festivals are held and the days are longer. Because of these restrictions, Lucky Break and The Zion Mountain Boys play most of their performances at Jewish venues and occasionally reach broader audiences.

Margot Leverett and the Klezmer Mountain Boys, a klezmer-bluegrass fusion band based in Manhattan, play various venues around New York City. Klezmer is the secular, festive music of Eastern European Jews, and its sound has much in common with fast-paced fiddle tunes of old-time music and the hard-driving banjo of bluegrass. Margot Leverett, the band’s clarinetist, calls it “dancing music.” It’s hard to feel unhappy—or sit still—when listening to a live performance. But Hassidic niguns and old-time ballads that Leverett also loves, share a darker connection.

Historically, she says, “Jews and Southern Appalachian people have a lot in common. They’ve been driven out of their homes, have lived hard lives, and have used music for strength.” Leverett’s vibrant blue eyes tear up when she talks about the displacement that poor Southerners experienced in the 1920s, when they were forced to leave their homes and seek out work in the cities. “There’s the same homesickness in Jewish folk songs,” she says.

“American life allows different groups to be inspired and influenced by one another,” Wicentowski says. “This isn’t an uncommon thing in American experience and it’s not uncommon in the Jewish experience,” he adds. “Jews have done this wherever we’ve gone over the millennium.”


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