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Cahan, Yehudah Leib


(1881–1937), Yiddish folklorist. Born in Vilna, Yehudah Leib Cahan moved to Warsaw in 1889. He studied in heder and later learned watchmaking. At a young age he began to collect and notate Yiddish songs. In 1899 he became a frequenter of the Saturday gatherings in the home of the writer Y. L. Peretz, who encouraged him in his interest in gathering folk songs. In 1901 he moved to London, where he founded the Zionist labor union Forverts (Forward), gave speeches for proletarian Zionist groups, and continued to collect songs.

In 1904 Cahan moved to New York. His first research paper on the Yiddish folk song was published in the compilation Literatur in 1910. In 1912 his two volumes of Yidishe folkslider mit melodyen (Yiddish Folk Songs with Melodies) were issued by the International Library, New York–Warsaw. These constituted the first major collection of Yiddish folk songs with melodies. He published another collection in the Pinkes, New York (1927–1928). He also founded the Yiddish publishing house Naye-tsayt (New Time), which issued Yiddish literary works as well as Yiddish translations of world literature.

When the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research was founded in Vilna in 1925, Cahan organized the American branch, serving initially as its treasurer, then chairman; he was also selected to be the head of the Folklore Committee. In 1930 he was invited by YIVO to conduct a seminar for folklore collectors in Vilna and inspired a group of new collectors and scholars to engage in the fieldwork and study of Yiddish folklore. Later he went to the Burgenland region of Austria to collect local dialect and folklore materials. Cahan edited the fifth volume of YIVO’s Filologishe shriftn (Philological Studies) devoted to Yiddish folklore, which appeared posthumously in 1938, dedicated to his memory.

After Cahan’s death YIVO prepared to issue all of his works in six volumes (three volumes of folk songs, one of folktales, one of parallels and notes, and one of theoretical studies). Only one volume, of folktales, appeared in 1940. The materials for the other volumes were destroyed in World War II, save for the materials on theoretical studies that were kept in New York. In 1952 YIVO published a volume of Cahan’s theoretical studies on folklore, Shtudyes vegn yidisher folksshafung (Studies on Yiddish Folklore), consisting of articles, reviews, correspondence, notes, and bibliographies. Five years later YIVO published 560 folk songs (Yidishe folkslider mit melodyes [Yiddish Folk Songs with Melodies]) from the four collections of Cahan’s folk songs. Both volumes were edited by Max Weinreich.

Cahan maintained rigid qualifications of what he deemed the authentic folk song, based on form, vocabulary, rhyme, dialect, and the integrity of the informant. He was concerned with the interdependence of the folklore of different people, the dissemination, age, and folklorization of songs. He analyzed coterritorial variants and found survivals of old love songs preserved in children’s songs. Contemporary, workers’ songs, songs of the badkhn (wedding entertainer), and religious and holiday songs he found inadmissible as authentic folk songs. He believed that folklore emanated primarily from the lower social classes, but later conceded that the higher classes were also creators and transmitters of Yiddish folklore.