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Rosenberg: Fighting fascism with klezmer

Daniel Kahn (centre with accordion). (Dan Rosenberg photo)

In the wake of the recent attacks on synagogues in San Diego and Pittsburgh, swastikas painted in public spaces in Canada and neo-Nazi marches in the United States, many are left wondering how to respond.

Klezmer singer, composer and actor Daniel Kahn knows that complacency and silence are not options.

“We need to confront them (the fascists) effectively in every way possible. If you believe in non-violent resistance, you go and commit yourself to non-violence. If you want to go bust some heads, you can go and find your crew to do that, and I don’t think those two things work at cross purposes,” Kahn told The CJN.

Kahn’s method of resistance is to create infectious anti-fascist songs that, after just one listen, are nearly impossible to get out of your head. For me, one of those life-changing compositions is “Rosen Auf Den Weg Gestreut,” which is based on a piece that was written in 1931 by Kurt Tucholsky and Hanns Eisler. It’s about how to respond to the sight of Nazis openly marching in the streets.

“The English title I give it is ‘Embrace the Fascists,’  (It is) the lyrical equivalent of sulfuric acid,” Kahn explains. He performs it bilingually, alternating between the original German and his new poetically translated English verses:

“Kiss the fascists where you meet them.

“If they should call for hate and violence, just let them talk, it is their right, and keep your protestations silent, you wouldn’t want to start a fight, for fighting is what they do best. Embrace the fascists and you’ll be blessed.

“And if they fire their guns upon you, is life so precious in your eyes?

“You would be sheep with wolves around you, you would be gladly victimized. And if you feel in your guts the Nazi dagger blade, embrace the fascists, embrace the fascists that you have made.”

The original version of this was written two years before Adolf Hitler came to power, and Kahn began performing his version well before the recent massacres at synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif. Now, whenever I hear “Embrace the Fascists,” I’m left incredibly shaken.


Kahn, 40, grew up in suburban Detroit and now lives in Berlin, where has established a reputation for creating biting new klezmer music in Yiddish, English and German. For Kahn, just like the creators of the comedy web series YidLife Crisis, what’s so refreshing is that his work isn’t a nostalgic exercise buried in the past, but rather completely contemporary in 2019.

Last year, Kahn and his band, the Painted Bird, released their latest album called The Butcher’s Share. While there aren’t many singles in Yiddish music anymore, if there was one that could dare such a distinction, it’s “99% – Nayn-Un-Nayntsik),” which was written by Kahn’s colleague Josh Waletzky and, as the title suggests, is about income inequality.

“Luxury is the new golden calf,” he proclaims in the song that darts between Yiddish and English. “They say you are a dirty bum who takes without restraint. Just make a little donation and they’ll say you are a saint,” is another of the many memorable lines.

Those planning on watching Daniel Kahn and Painted Bird live should expect an evening of anti-fascist political activism, contemporary Yiddish music and raucous klezmer. Toronto audiences will get to hear Kahn and the Painted Bird live on May 30 at the Lula Lounge. Likewise, attendees at this summer’s KlezKanada festival in the Laurentian Mountains near Lantier, Que., which runs from Aug. 19-25, will have an opportunity to experience a full week of Kahn’s workshops and concerts.