Ben­ny Feld­man’s All-Star Klezmer Band

Alli­son Marks, Wayne Marks

  • Review
By – May 10, 2021

One rather suc­cess­ful for­mu­la for mid­dle-grade books is the sto­ry of out­siders who tri­umph; a group of friends who are not among the most pop­u­lar stu­dents, who per­haps lack con­ven­tion­al accom­plish­ments in sports or social activ­i­ties, sup­port one anoth­er and stand up to those who look down on them. Alli­son and Wayne Marks’ new nov­el fea­tures that basic plot, but also tran­scends it by focus­ing on a par­tic­u­lar obses­sion that does not play a big part in most mid­dle schools: tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish klezmer music. The pro­tag­o­nist Benny’s odyssey fol­lows his progress from gan­g­ly kid tor­ment­ed by his neme­sis, Jason, to con­fi­dent vio­lin­ist backed by a tal­ent­ed band of all-stars.” Mid­dle-grade read­ers will iden­ti­fy with Benny’s fears, iso­la­tion, and roman­tic crush on a girl as lov­ably odd as he is, and they will also learn a great deal about the music that accom­pa­nied Jew­ish life for over two cen­turies and still has a vital pres­ence today. Ben­ny Feld­man is a won­der­ful reminder that authors need not lim­it them­selves to the most eas­i­ly iden­ti­fied cul­tur­al ref­er­ences when writ­ing for children.

Eleven-year-old Ben­ny lives with his par­ents and his younger broth­er, Sam, and is a stu­dent at the Sieber­ling School. When the book opens, he and his class­mates are prepar­ing for a class trip to the local pota­to chip fac­to­ry — not evi­dent­ly of the great­est edu­ca­tion­al val­ue. Through­out the book, humor­ous details about the odd­i­ties of life in mid­dle school mix with an authen­tic sense of dread, as Ben­ny strug­gles to cope with typ­i­cal prob­lems of his age group. His pub­lic school par­al­lels the Hebrew school that he and some of his Jew­ish class­mates attend. One fel­low stu­dent, Jason Con­roy, is deter­mined to resolve his own emo­tion­al issues by relent­less­ly bul­ly­ing Ben­ny, remind­ing him of every cat­a­stro­phe that Ben­ny has ever expe­ri­enced. An ear­ly dis­as­ter in a Hebrew school play has left Ben­ny with the cru­el nick­name the Amaz­ing Explod­ing Grape,” and it seems that he will nev­er live it down.

Yet Ben­ny has a much rich­er com­po­nent to his life. He loves music and takes vio­lin lessons with his empa­thet­ic Uncle Maxwell, who brings Ben­ny in touch with his family’s past by relat­ing sto­ries of Great-great-grand­fa­ther Moshe, a hum­ble musi­cian who per­formed every type of com­po­si­tion, from freylekh to doina with incred­i­ble verve, in spite of many set­backs: They called him tshudne. That’s Yid­dish for weird.’ He could not have cared less.” Moshe becomes a sym­bol of courage for Ben­ny, who imag­ines his ances­tor speak­ing to him and encour­ag­ing him in chal­leng­ing sit­u­a­tions. When intro­vert­ed Ben­ny signs up for the school’s tal­ent show, promis­ing to per­form with a klezmer band, which as yet does not exist, he needs all the encour­age­ment he can get.

Ben­ny suc­ceeds in putting togeth­er his dream band, the great­est ensem­ble of young musi­cians, each with his or her own quirky back­sto­ry. Jen­nifer Komin­sky is Benny’s per­fect match, a smart, wise­crack­ing, and tal­ent­ed drum­mer with a great voice as well. Oth­er band mem­bers are not Jew­ish, prov­ing klezmer’s uni­ver­sal appeal and the con­nec­tions that unite kids who crave accep­tance but refuse to com­pro­mise their true selves. There is African-Amer­i­can Royce, a gift­ed clar­inetist as well as a spelling maven, and Stu­art, an ini­tial­ly hos­tile accor­dion­ist who just needs a chance to thrive.

The sto­ry of Ben­ny and his friends proves how mid­dle-grade fic­tion can be ver­sa­tile, deliv­er­ing believ­able char­ac­ters in acces­si­ble sit­u­a­tions that appeal to read­ers, while also open­ing a win­dow to new worlds. While klezmer music may not be cen­tral to most children’s lives today, after read­ing this book, they may want to down­load Abe Schwartz and his orchestra’s ren­di­tion of Tantz, Tantz, Yiddelech.”

This rec­om­mend­ed sto­ry includes a help­ful glos­sary of Klezmer Terms” as well as all the musi­cal forms ref­er­enced in this review.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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