Like many traditional societies, Jewish communities had their singers, popular writers, and entertainers. Such figures, known as badkhonim (sg., badkhn), appeared at domestic celebrations, primarily weddings or holidays such as Hanukkah and Purim.
Originally, this tradition was linked to fulfillment of the commandment to delight the bride and groom and dance with them on their wedding day. Badkhonim were also called marshelikes, leytsim, letsonim, narn, lustik-makhers, katoves-traybers, and freylekhe yidn, all terms evoking laughter, jokes, and comic songs. Some of the performers were simply jesters in the spirit of Jewish popular culture, appreciated for their humor, their gift for joke telling, and their clowning or comic improvisation. Others were poets or musicians, whose main function was to recite epithalamia (gramen zogn; lit., “saying rhymes”)—that is, poems in honor of the bride and groom. The badkhn was therefore a repository of Jewish religious culture and oral tradition, invested with the role of transmitting songs and music, moral messages, and wise counsel along with the fundamentals of Judaism.
"Kale bazetsn." Words and music: Traditional/Zalman Kaplan. Performed by Zalman Kaplan (voice and clarinet). Recorded in Ingulets (Kherson region, Ukraine), 1939. Treasure of Jewish Culture in Ukraine, Institute for Information: Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine, Kiev, 1997. (The Phonoarchive of Jewish Folklore at the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine)
Generally, badkhonim learned their art by listening to other badkhonim and attending weddings. Less commonly, they belonged to family dynasties, which carried on the art of badkhones for generations from father to son. Most commonly, they were itinerant versifiers frequenting ceremonies from one community to another, often accompanied by klezmorim (instrumental musicians). During the wedding dancing, for example, the badkhn might turn to the orchestra and say, “You musicians play really badly—I mean, well” (“Gor zeyer mis, meyn ikh zis”).
Some large Jewish communities and some Hasidic sects maintained official badkhonim, who were either paid by the ceremony or held permanent office. The latter situation was characteristic of some Hasidic communities in which the badkhn might also function as genealogist, narrating legends about the rebbe and his ancestors and transmitting the customs (minhogim) of that particular sect. The legendary Hershele Ostropolyer was Barukh ben Yeḥi’el of Mezhbizh’s hoyfnar or lets he-ḥatser (court fool), while Yosl Broder ended his career playing a similar role in the court of Yisra’el of Ruzhin. We also know that some tsadikim, such as Ya‘akov Yitsḥak Horowitz, the Seer of Lublin, themselves acted as badkhonim at marriages. Most commonly, however, the badkhn and klezmorim were paid by the groom’s family, who agreed upon a sum in advance; the performers could also receive supplemental gifts from the guests.
With a few exceptions, badkhonim were far from well-to-do and lived on the poor, sometimes abject, margins of Jewish communities. They occasionally employed pseudonyms (some of which were parodic), such as Shimen Nar (Fool; 16th century), Mordkhe Umglik (Misfortune), Oyzer Marshelik, Sender Badkhn, or Motke Khabad (19th century). In modern times, some, such as Elyokem Tsunzer (1836–1913), published their badkhones. Traditionally the badkhn announced the wedding presents (droshe-geshank) given after the groom concluded his Talmudic discourse (droshe; Heb., derashah).
The badkhn participated in all the principal ritual stages of the wedding, beginning with the welcome ceremony or invitation to guests (kaboles-ponim), which inaugurated the wedding week, and continued with the various meals, including the groom’s (khosn-mol) and that of the poor (sudes aniim). The badkhn at times composed verses for the ceremony in which the bride was escorted to the bridal chair (bazetsns) and then veiled (badekns). He might have recited an ethical verse just before the private meeting between bride and groom (yikhed): for example, “On the day of your wedding you must remember all your sins from the day you were created.” But above all, the badkhn was present at two ritual moments: just before the ceremony of the wedding canopy (khupe) and at the ritual dance (mitsve-tants or kosher-tants) that ended the ceremony and was considered to have profound mystical significance.
The poems the badkhn recited brought together various oral and written traditions, using fragments of biblical and postbiblical sources, prayers, piyutim (hymns), and zmires (Heb., zemirot; table hymns [sung on the Sabbath after meals]), in Hebrew and Aramaic as well as various forms of Yiddish literature, including religious poems such as muser-lider (ethical poems) and tkhines (prayers of supplication). The performances were based on alternation between joyful (lustik un freylekh) and serious intervals. In the latter, the badkhn might narrate the family history, offer ethical advice to the bride and groom (muser zogn), and draw tears from the audience.
There is testimony to the presence of entertainers at domestic ceremonies starting in the Talmudic era (BT Gitin 7a, Ta‘anit 22a). There are medieval Ashkenazic pinkasim (record books), responsa, and manuscript illustrations that evoke the entertainers’ art and sometimes condemn it for encouraging contact between the sexes and indecent behavior. However, beginning in the Haskalah period, badkhones began to change slowly, as ancient practices were transformed and new forms emerged. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, poetry of the badkhonim, printed in inexpensive popular pamphlets, became a vehicle for new themes, such as criticism of traditional Jewish society, mockery of holy texts, and recounting of historical events and current affairs. In Hasidic circles, however, the traditional art of badkhones has persisted.
Jean Baumgarten, “Les traditions orales des bathonim en langue yiddish,” in Linguistique des langues juives et linguistique générale, ed. Jean Baumgarten and Frank Alvarez-Péreyre, pp. 349–384 (Paris, 2003); Ariela Krasney, Ha-Badḥan (Ramat Gan, Isr., 1998); Ariela Krasney, “The Badkhn: From Wedding Stage to Writing Desk,” Polin 16 (2003): 7–28; Y. Lifshits, “Badkhonim un letsim bay yidn,” in Arkhiv far der geshikhte fun yidishn teater un drame, ed. Jacob Shatzky, vol. 1, pp. 38–74 (Vilna and New York, 1930).
RG 125, Folklore, Jewish, Collection, ; RG 266, Israel Kessler, Papers, 1880-ca. 1900; RG 272, David Lindy, Papers, 1870s-ca. 1900.
Translated from French by Cecilia Grayson