TRUE TALES OF CHUTZPAH: Geoff Berner wields mean accordion, satire

Geoff Berner got banned from the Chutzpah Festival for having “too much chutzpah” – is that Jewish enough for you?

The gig in question was at a Jewish community centre in Vancouver in 2004, where Berner brought up a guest rapper who happened to be a member of “a peace group” that the Chutzpah Festival had previously banned, for reasons unexplained. Organizers later said Berner had been “unprofessional,” and now won’t even return his calls, he says.

It is at this difficult time, of course, that we vicariously celebrate with our Jewish friends the holiday of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, where they have EIGHT days of getting presents, starting this Saturday, Dec. 8. Then again, it might be dreidels. Berner, a neo-klezmer artist who wields an accordion as mean as his satire, will be in Edmonton on that night, at the New City Legion for a show he’s calling a “Chanukas Party.” (There is no proper English spelling of the seasonal Jewish holiday, he says.)

The incident above illustrates that there are many sides to Judaism. Not all Jews agree with the Israeli government when it comes to Palestine.

Says Berner, “There’s a lot of different traditions in Judaism, and I’m trying to be part of the long standing tradition of Jewish radical left wing culture. So that means when I go up there and do my ‘Fuck the Police’ song, not only do I have the anarchist kids singing along, but 80-year-old communists and trade union fighters coming up to me. It’s not as much an old and young kind of thing. There’s a strain of right wing Judaism and conservative Judaism that’s not too keen on what I’m doing.”

But it’s OK. There’s a healthy tradition of debate in Jewish culture, Berner says, because there is no pope at the top of the religious hierarchy. “There are always people arguing over stuff,” he says.

Another hallmark of Jewish culture is their sense of humour. If you listen closely, you might detect it in Berner’s music. Victory Party, his latest album, is loaded with a rich mix of black comedy and the authentic, joyous sounds of Eastern European folk music. Key tracks include “Laughing Jackie the Pimp,” one of the darkest yet most bubbly songs ever written on the subject of prostitution: “See his cane, it spins and twirls, laughing as he beats the girls, if he got a broken one, there’s always more where that came from.”

Berner is perhaps best known for the song that became his namesake: Whiskey Rabbi, whose first line is: “You’ve all been worshipping a false messiah.”

Long before there was such a thing as punk rock, there was also a long-standing tradition of Jewish folk songs that “gloat over the defeat of the local tough guy,” Berner says, while humour “is deeply ingrained in Jewish culture, especially in Ashkenazi culture, the Eastern European Jews.

“There’s a lot of misfortune and a lot of sadness in Jewish history,” he says. “but there’s also this heavy emphasis on the value of education, so you wind up getting pushed around by people who are dumber than you, but bigger. So maybe that creates this setting for dark humour, maybe that engenders it.”

There are a lot of ways to grow up Jewish, he says. Living on Vancouver’s Eastside – where one might occasionally see someone like Jackie the Laughing Pimp – Berner says he’s started to miss the culture he grew up with. Victory Party is probably his most distinctive nod to his roots yet.

“My music is my way to connect to my Jewish heritage,” he says. “I miss that aspect of life sometimes, and to me, being involved in Klezmer music and starting to learn Yiddish is a way to connect to that part of me. Corby Lund goes out there and sings about farming and cows and things of that nature. He is neither a farmer nor a rancher – but he’s connecting with his culture where he comes from as an artist. And I’m trying to connect in that way to Jewish culture.”

Along with his musical direction, his politics have become pretty clear, too. Berner doesn’t hesitate to offer his opinion on the current crisis in the Middle East: “I think the current Israeli government is the main barrier to peace in that area right now. I don’t think they’re interested in negotiating a solution with the Palestinians.”

He’s got a new song called “Thank You No Thank You” you may hear at the show, on the subject of how “right wing bastards” throughout the world have been clumping together for a common cause. It’s worth quoting a brief lyric: “You see, for Jesus to return it is imperative that we be the center of a war that will destroy the world entire, then they’ll laugh and dance and sing, as we fall, with the Six Million, into their lake of fire.”

Oy, now that’s chutzpah.