Wexler Oral History Project

A growing collection of in-depth interviews with people of all ages and backgrounds, whose stories about the legacy and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture offer a rich and complex chronicle of Jewish identity.

Sruli Dresdner's Oral History

Sruli Dresdner, Jewish musician, scholar, and educator, was interviewed by Christa Whitney on August 25, 2011 at KlezKanada, in Montreal, Quebec. Sruli begins with a discussion of his family origins. Both of his parents fled Europe at the time of World War Two. Sruli tells of his father's early childhood as part of the only visibly Hasidic family in Charleroi, Belgium, where his grandparents owned a kosher grocery. Sruli's paternal grandparents were part of a group of refugees that Eleanor Roosevelt brought to Oswego, New York. Sruli then moves on to discuss his mother's family. He explains how they came from a town called Sanuk, also known as Sonik, in the region known as Galicia, though they had been living in Berlin. They fled Germany after Kristallnacht and his mother was born in Cuba in 1940 before the family completed their journey to New York. Sruli then moves on to discuss his childhood and family. He refers to his childhood as one infused with Jewish music from his paternal and maternal grandfathers. He explains that from them he learned the songs traditionally sung around the Shabbos (Sabbath) table. He describes his maternal grandfather as a "collector of nigunim" or wordless melodies, noting how he would ask visitors to "teach me [him] a new nign from Poland." Sruli describes growing up in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York, which in 1961 had only a small Hasidic community. Because of this characteristic, the neighborhood synagogue he attended attracted a mix of people, not only those sharing one place of origin. In Sruli's words, this was a great benefit because it resulted in his exposure to a variety of melodies from different parts of the Jewish world. Although he found himself questioning his religiosity, Sruli explains how after high school he immersed himself in further religious study, He then relates how he made the choice to give up religious observance, opting to "enter the real world," at the age of twenty-four. Many of the Jewish melodies Sruli knows from childhood are associated with a specific person or holiday. As an example, he sings a Galician march that he learned from his maternal uncle Chaim. Sruli makes a connection between the emotion present in Jewish music and in religious expression, especially on Shabbos, explaining how even after he left religious practice, the music remained a source of connection. "It took hold of me," he says. As parents of young children, Sruli describes how he and his partner have made several recordings of children's music. In their performances and recordings they try to communicate the excitement of the music to young people. The duo bring authentic Jewish music into schools with engaging programs using singing, stories, and dancing adapted to the school environment. Toward the end of the interview, Sruli reflects on his love of Yiddish and Klezmer, nothing that both are ways of "making friends with the culture." He describes what makes a really good nign, noting that the good nigunim have a focal point: "they are not cliché or trite; the good ones hammer a note and the repetition really allows for a meditative quality. They have something that really grabs you." Sruli ends the interview discussing the role of music in transmitting culture to future generations. He views his role as important: "to leave kids with a lingering positive association with the music, and to make it interesting, lively and cool." He explains that he sees himself helping to preserve a culture that has great value and offers this advice: "Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater; music will enrich your life."

This interview was conducted in English.

About the Wexler Oral History Project

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Since 2010, the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project has recorded more than 500 in-depth video interviews that provide a deeper understanding of the Jewish experience and the legacy and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture.

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