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The Laughing Clarinet
By Keith Bloomfield
Central Park cuts a narrow swatch of green through the asphalt black and concrete gray of Manhattan. When Olmsted and Vaux proposed their design for the park in the middle of the 19th century, New York City was a shadow of her current self. Four east-west passages permit traffic to fleetingly enjoy the verdant oasis in a sea of chaos. Despite the goliaths surrounding the park, it's still possible to lose yourself in the designers' vision. A Younger Man sought the park's tranquility each Sunday morning when he jogged east to west along her tree-covered paths.
November is a fickle month. Sometimes her days are bright and sun filled, and sometimes steel-gray clouds, oozing a cold sprinkle, dampen the Great Lawn and the meandering trails. He first heard the sound wafting along with the breeze as soon as he entered the Park at 79th Street. He mistook it for the trailing honk of a car horn. It was there, and then it was gone.
When he heard it again, it reminded him of the gentle niggun his grandfather used to sing to him when his parents were away and grandpa volunteered to look after him. In his mind's eye, the Younger Man could still see his grandpa hovering over his crib, rocking back and forth, as his voice filled the family's tiny apartment. A niggun is usually a wordless melody hummed by Jews that bridges the expanse between above and below. Its tune is often filled with the nonsense syllables that only a parent can understand when uttered by an infant. Some call it a song of supplication that only a heavenly parent can fathom and appreciate.
The Younger Man continued his jog past Cedar Hill and Still Hunt and when he was within sight of Belvedere Castle, he heard it again. It was like an elusive radio station that refused to be tuned in. It was the plaintive voice of a clarinet. He recognized the melody this time:
"Shalom aleichem malachei hasharet - Malachei elyon."
"Peace upon you, O ministering angels - Angels of the exalted One."
The tune was mixed with an almost guttural giggle so brimming with emotion that the Younger Man could do little more than smile along with the instrument and its player. In the distance, he saw the Musician seated alone on a park bench. A coffee cup sat on the blacktop between the toes of his scuffed brown shoes. The Younger Man sat on the bench across from him. The Musician knew he was there, but his eyes were shut in a rapture of his own making. When he tilted back his head and raised the instrument's bell toward heaven, faded numbers peeked out from beneath a frayed cuff as his sleeve hiked up on a frail arm. Lying on the bench next to the Musician was the clarinet case. Its black leatherette was peeling and the underlying wood was chipped and splintered. The hinges that joined the top to the bottom were scratched and corroded.
The Musician stopped playing and removed the clarinet from between his lips. "Ah gut morgen fraynd," he sang as he opened his eyes
"Good morning to you friend," replied the Younger Man. "I could hear your instrument as soon as I entered the park. Why does your clarinet laugh?"
"Lakhn mit trern. Laughing with tears. It's what we Jews do so that we don't cry," he replied slyly.
"For whom do you play?"
"For anyone with the ears to listen. My name was Baruch Kleinman, but you can call me Barney. As a child in Radzilow, Poland, there was always music in my home. Between my parents, and my brothers, and sisters, we had the makings of an orchestra. I chose the clarinet; because no one else did," he said with his head cocked to one side and a simple shrug of his shoulders. "I could play anything - the classics, popular songs, and tunes of my own design. If the war hadn't started, I would have gone to Prague to study at the Conservatory. I liked to watch people's faces when they listened to me play. When I learned to make the clarinet laugh, I could coax a smile out of anyone, no matter what his mood." With that, he raised the instrument to his lips, threw back his head, and let loose with a glissando that could have brought down the walls of Jericho. A sound with all the power of the Tikiah Gadolah that reverberates through shuls around the world as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, comes to an end. He withdrew the mouthpiece from between his lips and nodded self assuredly. He continued, "One day soldiers came to the village and herded us into railcars. I had nothing with me except my clarinet. I squeezed past my neighbors and found a space in the corner of the crowded car. The sounds of anguish, fear, and suffering filled my ears. I assembled my clarinet and began to play. I played a tune that everyone knew and they clapped in time to the music. When I played a simple folk song, they sang along. When I made the clarinet laugh, even on a train to the camp, I could see smiling faces. When we finally reached Treblinka, a guard who played the violin spared my life. We would teach each other songs and he would give me extra food, a warm shirt, or a pair of shoes. I of course gave them to people who really needed them. That was how I survived." The Musician laid the clarinet across his thighs and leaned over to retrieve his coffee cup. "Until the guard was transferred. He tried to have me transferred as well. It was not to be. His replacement broke my clarinet and my special treatment ended. The people I had helped; helped me, and that was how I finished the war.
"Then that's not the clarinet that you had in the camp?"
"No, the guard turned it into kindling. But the case is the original. After Treblinka, I was taken to England with dozens of orphans. A family who lived just outside of London took me in. Once when we were on holiday in London, we walked past a music store and I saw a clarinet in the window. It wasn't new. The ebony was worn away. The bell was split and the keys were tarnished. It was beautiful! I wouldn't budge from the window until Mr. and Mrs. Black bought me the instrument. When the man in the store asked if we wanted a case for it, Mr. Black said 'we have the case, we just needed something to put into it.' They really couldn't afford the clarinet, they paid for it on tick, but they knew how badly I wanted it." He took a long sip of coffee and returned the cup to the ground. "We were inseparable. I played my clarinet at every opportunity. Even during the dark days after the war, I made the clarinet laugh and people laughed with her. One of my teachers, an amateur musician herself, taught me to read music. I played everything I could get my hands on and one day she introduced me to the head of a conservatory. I played for him from sheet music and he stared down at me over the top of his eyeglasses. When I played for him from my heart and made my instrument laugh, he invited me to come and study at his school."
"So you finally had a chance to study?" asked the Younger Man.
"For a while. One day, I met an old friend from Radzilow. He too had survived the war, but he soon found himself in Palestine. He told me wonderful stories of the land of our ancestors and the struggle to make it our own. I returned with him to Palestine and while I never fought, my music spoke for me. I entertained the freedom fighters and my music went with them into battle." The old man slowly closed his eyes as though he was reliving a moment that happened so very long ago. "After independence, I traveled the world playing for whomever wanted to listen and making the clarinet laugh for whomever needed to grin. I've played in cabarets, concert halls, and sitting on park benches."
"And your favorite memory?"
"There are so many, so very many." The Musician paused for a moment and raised a finger to his lips. "I was touring Eastern Europe with a jazz band. A name I'm sure you would recognize. We played a concert in Prague and the following afternoon I was walking through Josefov, the old Jewish ghetto. I had my clarinet with me when several young men stopped me. They said that they heard me at the concert and asked if I would come and play with them. Ordinarily, I would have thanked them and gone on my way, but something told me not to refuse their invitation. I followed them through the narrow streets and into an open square. It was a market square with crowds of people milling around the stalls scattered around the plaza. There were other young men sitting on the hood of a station wagon and when they saw us approaching they began removing instruments from the back of the vehicle: a violin, a tsimbl, a bass, a cello, a flute, a trumpet, a trombone, a snare drum. With my clarinet, it was obvious that we were going to play klezmer. You know about Klezmer?"
"Well, it's sort of like Jewish jazz."
A raucous laugh emerged from deep down in the Musician's belly. "Klezmer is at the heart of every Jew."
"I never told you that I was Jewish."
The Musician threw his hand heavenwards. "You didn't have to. We don't have secret handshakes or passwords. A Jew knows when he talking to another Jew. And on those rare occasions when we make a mistake, we know that there is really a Jewish soul lurking beneath their skin and looking for a way out. Am I right?" The Younger Man's lips broadened into a smile. "Of course I'm right. Now Klezmer is more than just Jewish jazz. It's locked up in the heart of every Jew. Klezmorim play everything from hazanut to dance music. That's what happened that morning in the tiny square in Josefov. I too became a Klezmorim, and we played I until the streetlights came on. We played freylekhs that had the crowd tapping their toes. Then bulgars, khosidls, and horas for them to dance to. A Russian kasatchok for the brave hearted. There were many times that I did not know the music, I simply followed along. That's when I began to understand. The music that I play that's written on sheets of paper is fine, but the music that I play from the heart, comes from somewhere special." The Musician beat his chest with his fist as the Younger Man had seen his Grandfather do during Ashamnu on Yom Kippur. "Not from me, but from heaven. I never saw those young men again. I tried to contact them, but failed at each attempt. Perhaps they were angels sent to help me to understand my true calling." The Musician wiped a tear from the corner of his eye. "I've learned fraynd, that in this world, there is a place for everyone and everyone has something that they can do to make this a better place in which to live. In my case, I can make my clarinet laugh and bring a smile to the face of someone who needs to smile."
"And that's what you do?" asked the Younger Man.
" I lived a wonder life fraynd. But now, on Sunday mornings I play in the parks and always attract someone like you, to listen to my story."
"Where will you be next week? There are people I would like you to meet. Friends who would like to hear your story."
"I never know from one week to the next. The music will find you as it did this morning. Now, it's time for you to go. You have things to do and people to meet."
The Younger Man reached into his pocket and withdrew several crumpled dollar bills. As he reached out to offer them to the Musician, the Musician raised his hands in protest. "Thank you, but I don't need your tzedukah. I am wealthy in ways you could never imagine. Find a pushke and give your money to someone who really needs it." The Musician brought the clarinet to his lips and began to play.
The Musician was correct, the Younger Man was to meet a friend for brunch on Columbus Avenue. He started to jog, then stopped and turned back. The Musician and his music were gone. "A nice touch," he thought. "The Musician vanished. Feeds the mystery. He's probably just over the top of the next hill and I just can't see him. He didn't disappear." The Younger Man slowly walked back to the place he had left the Musician. On the bench, the Younger Man found the case for the Musician's clarinet. The case was empty. He pulled the cloth tabs and opened a series of tiny storage compartments in the body and lid. In one compartment, he found the name "Baruch Kleinman" written in an elegant script, but the name was crossed out and beneath it in large print, it read "Barney Black." He took the case home with him and it lay on a coffee table to be covered with newspapers and magazines.
In time, the Younger Man found the case and began to research the mysterious person whom he had met that morning in the park. He learned that there really had been a Baruch Kleinman at Treblinka. After the war, he did indeed study music and made aliyah to Palestine. He had changed his name to Barney Black, a tribute to the family who befriended him after the war, and he performed throughout the world. Barney went out of his way to visit the most strife torn places on earth. He toured through Europe and the Far East, visiting the cities decimated by the carnage of war, poverty, and inhumanity. He visited Africa and Russia, South America and the American South, the Middle East and the sites of the camps of Germany and Poland. He found that his instrument, at least for a brief time, could heal the broken souls of those who took the time to listen to it.
Nearly everything that the Musician had told him, the Younger Man could corroborate. Much of what the Younger Man learned was from Barney Black's obituary. What Barney had failed to mention, was that he had died as the new century was just beginning.
The Younger Man never learned if he had actually met Baruch Kleinman, Barney Black, that rainy morning in November, or someone who liked to retell his story. Neither did we. Does it really matter?
from the December 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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