Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Jews in Eastern Europe began to develop a distinctive new secular musical culture. Whereas the locus of musical activity had been synagogues and the religious life or the home, the new Jewish progressive organizations taking root in cities made music accessible to people in a wide variety of communal and public settings. Describing the entire scope of these undertakings is impossible, owing to the scarcity of documentation. This article describes some characteristic musical activities by offering “snapshots” of Jewish communal music in Łódź, Warsaw, and Vilna and explaining how such pursuits fit into the broader Jewish context.
The growth of Jewish communal music was a consequence, first, of the urbanization of Jews in the late nineteenth century. In cities, new conditions paved the way for novel forms of communal organization—fraternal societies, trade unions, and workers’ clubs—that attempted to fulfill Jews’ needs for cultural activities outside the religious sphere. In addition, progressive, secular Jews believed that song—and, particularly, song in Yiddish—had the power to elevate and cultivate the sensibilities of the Jewish proletarian population. The Bund created a network of organizations that promoted the use of Yiddish as the national language for Jews in the Diaspora and developed secular Jewish culture and education, including an extensive Yiddish secular school system, a Yiddish press, networks of dramatic and literary societies, and choral groups. There was a conscious interest in Yiddish song on the part of intellectuals such as Y. L. Peretz (1852–1915), who promoted its dissemination among the Jewish working class.
Hazomir Choral Society after a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Łódź, 1925. (YIVO)
Finally, the appearance of Jewish communal music organizations may be seen as a manifestation of the rise of a Jewish “memory culture.” The increasingly cosmopolitan young Jewish men and women who stemmed originally from towns but sought their fortunes in the burgeoning cities, developed a sentimental attachment to their shtetls and to their remembered childhood songs, even as they abandoned many of the customs of the Jewish milieu in which these songs had originated. The emerging repertoire of “folk songs” in Yiddish, many of which were actually original compositions, helped to fuel the growth of a particularist, Yiddish-centered Jewish identity within the emerging modern city.
The primary vehicle for this new genre of “folklorized” music—and in itself a source of solidarity among progressive, cosmopolitan Jews—was the Jewish folk chorus. In the period from the 1880s to the 1920s, leaders of Jewish fraternal organizations founded such choruses as part of their efforts to disseminate music in Yiddish, along with Western classical music, to the uneducated immigrant masses. The Jewish workers’ chorus initially modeled itself on the workers’ singing societies in Germany (Gesangvereinen) that expressed a vision of social harmony and unity by incorporating a broad range of voices and singing skills into a four-part texture. In their early days, these groups reflected a tendency toward assimilation (especially in Warsaw, where German influence was dominant). Later, under the influence of the Yiddishist movement, they began to include Yiddish songs in their repertoire. According to historian Isakhar Fater, hundreds of Jewish choruses existed in Poland between the wars.
Within the volatile world of progressive Jews in Eastern Europe, singing in mass choruses had an element of subversiveness that helped feed that culture’s revolutionary, anticlerical underpinnings. Within the framework of normative Judaism, group singing took place mainly in the synagogue in the context of worship, and was performed by all-male choirs. The rabbinic proscription of kol ishah (which forbids men from listening to the sound of a woman’s singing voice, and was usually, though not always, applied to mixed choral groups) confined men’s and women’s singing to separate spheres, both in worship and in everyday life. Because most Jews in the Bund and other progressive movements were from traditional backgrounds and aware of such proscriptions, mixed-gender Yiddish choral singing offered participants an added dimension to transgressive activity. By singing in such groups, they could not only show their solidarity with other workers, but could also display their rejection of rabbinic authority.
During the interwar period in Poland, the Jewish community was engaged in a wide range of musical activities. Jewish musicians were active in orchestras and opera houses; and even as conservatory-educated Jews fanned out into the mainstream of musical life, they also maintained links to the music of their own culture. Meanwhile, Yiddish schools and youth organizations, intent on encouraging Yiddish culture among the young, served as important conduits for folk music. In Radomsk, for example, where the group Kultura organized lectures, libraries, and discussions for Jews on the most pressing issues of the day, Avrom Zaks (1887–1942), a young musician trained as a cantorial apprentice, started a music section of Kultura, which organized high-quality symphonic and choral concerts.
Łódź, a manufacturing town, had a more confined Jewish cultural sphere than Warsaw, but communal organizations and schools nonetheless supported considerable musical activity. Soon after the First Zionist Congress in 1897, a number of Zionist societies were organized there. Hazomir (Heb., Ha-Zamir; The Nightingale), founded in 1899, launched a number of cultural activities: a drama circle, a choir, and a philharmonic orchestra (formed in 1915).
The founder of the Łódź Hazomir chorus in 1899 was the 19-year-old composer and conductor Joseph Rumshinsky (1881–1956), who later became the leading creator of Yiddish operetta in New York City and wrote the words and music to several popular Yiddish songs. Rumshinsky’s memoirs describe his efforts to shape a group consisting of Jews from many backgrounds—Hasidim, maskilim, factory workers, and professionals—into a cohesive four-part ensemble capable of singing formal arrangements in public. He also recounted his initial terror of scandalizing traditionally minded Jews by presenting a mixed chorus. But their debut concert turned out to be wildly successful, with the chorus breaking out into an ecstatic circle dance as a finale.
After Rumshinsky left for America, his chorus floundered and lost a number of members to conductor Yisra’el Feyvishes (1882–1942) and his splinter group of singers, who insisted on maintaining a Hebrew repertoire. (Hazomir was, after all, a Zionist organization.) Avrom Zaks took over the group in 1935 and established a classical repertoire, though he also incorporated his own arrangements of Yiddish songs. A year later he paired the chorus with a symphony orchestra and produced a performance of Bizet’s Carmen with full costumes and orchestra.
Jews were active participants in Warsaw’s vibrant musical life, and many seasoned Polish Jewish musicians enhanced their reputations, and their incomes, by taking part in Warsaw’s Jewish communal music societies.
Resolution of attendees at a meeting of the Hazomir Chorus at the home of its director, Leo Liow, 29 September 1917, to take part in a Hazomir jubilee concert. A proposal for the program is included. Yiddish. RG 1140, Leo Low Papers, F2. (YIVO)
Warsaw’s Jewish writers and poets in the early 1900s—most notably Y. L. Peretz—took a strong interest in folk song and in folk choruses. Peretz organized a Hazomir chorus in Warsaw: Matisyohu Bensman (1871–1922) served as its first conductor, and Leo Liow (1878–1962), a synagogue choir conductor in Vilna and Bucharest and choral director of the famed Tłomackie Synagogue in Warsaw, took over the group in 1908. Under Liow’s guidance, the group became the most prominent Jewish secular chorus in Eastern Europe. Its mark of distinction, one that made it a key part of Warsaw’s Yiddish cultural renaissance, was its devotion to performing Yiddish folk songs in sophisticated arrangements by Liow himself—over the objections of those in the group who were proponents of Hebrew.
The Bund in Warsaw also supported and stimulated musical activity. Recalls Shifra Mendelssund, a former activist who grew up in a Bundist family, “At demonstrations and wherever Bundists met, they were singing beautiful songs. We had . . . not just . . . ‘Di Shvue’ [the Bundist anthem], but songs sung by all kinds of people. The Bund was spreading folk songs from the provinces all over Warsaw” (personal communication, 15 June 2003). The Bund encouraged singing through its children’s organization, Sotsyalistisher Kinder Farband (SKIF; Union of Socialist Children), and a mandolin orchestra. After the Bund went underground in 1939, Mendelssund recalls, singing Yiddish songs was a common practice at clandestine meetings.
Tsukunft (The Future) was the Bund youth group, as well as the name of its chorus. It was conducted by Yankl Trupianski (1909–1944), a popular and charismatic young teacher in Yiddish schools who offered classes in music, French, and gymnastics. Trupianski also served as music director at the famed Medem Sanatorium, established for Jewish children suffering from tuberculosis. There he composed songs, taught singing, and wrote the music for the puppet operetta Lyalkes (lyrics by “Batke” Gilinski).
Working independently from the Jewish ideological movements, a group founded in Warsaw by Moyshe Shniur (1885–1942), known as the Shniur Chorus, created a varied repertoire made up of compositions drawn from Yiddish folklore and literature along with oratorios, cantatas, and prominent works of Western classical music. Fater observes that “[a]lthough [the Shniur Chorus was] not a professional group, but [rather] made up of laborers, Shniur worked his magic on them with his musical perfectionism, and they presented the most difficult works with famous symphony orchestras in Warsaw” (Fater, 1970, p. 224).
In Vilna, the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” there were several large groups of lay singers devoted to Yiddish folksinging and Western art music, including the Vilna Education Society (Vilbig), conducted by Avraham Sliep (ca. 1884–1942). Yakov Gershteyn (d. 1943), a teacher in Yiddish schools, conducted an intergenerational chorus. Elye Teitleboym (1910–1967) collaborated with Sliep and composed for choruses. He conducted the Hazomir chorus in Vilna during the 1930s and served as a music teacher in Yiddish schools.
After the outbreak of World War II, official organized musical activity such as that put together by the Bund came to a halt. In the ghettos, surviving musicians organized what they could, sometimes with the encouragement of Nazi officials but usually without it. The anthem “Zog nit keynmol,” (Never Say) written by Hirsh Glik (based on a tune by Dmitrii Pokrass), which became the hymn of the United Partisan Organization in 1943, suggests the unique and durable power of singing as a form of resistance.
That power was also captured in Vladimir Heifetz’s choral cantata Di lererin Mire (The Teacher Mira), based on a narrative poem by Avrom Sutzkever and composed in the Vilna ghetto in 1943. This piece, subtitled “A Ghetto Cantata,” documents the musical activity of real-life Vilna ghetto children, mobilized by their courageous teacher Mire Bernstein, who later died in Treblinka. In one section, Gershteyn makes an appearance to lift the children’s spirits through group singing. Their choice of tune, quoted in Sutzkever’s text, is the melody of Peretz’s “Hof un gleyb” (Hope and Faith), a popular workers’ song laden with images of spring and renewal, which was widely sung at May Day demonstrations in Europe and America:
When the sun dried up the blood, with branches green
She trimmed the orphaned room, so neat and clean.
Gershteyn the teacher came and we shall sing
Over the walls, our children’s choir will ring.
They sing, “Not far is spring” But in the street,
Axes and bayonets smash, crush and beat.
They drag from cellars, hiding, but the choir
Sings on: “Not far is spring,” sings higher, higher.
(Barbara Harshav and Benjamin Harshav, trans., notes to Sutzkever and Heifetz, 2002)
The hope for continuity in the Yiddish choral tradition, expressed so vividly in this song, was not to be fulfilled in Eastern Europe, but voluntary societies in New York and other American cities subsequently established a vast network of choruses and lay musical groups. Leo Liow immigrated to the United States in 1920 and became director of the Paterson, New Jersey, Choral Society and of the National Workers Farband Choir (the socialist labor-oriented chorus in New York), and helped to build the Yiddish choral movement in the United States.
Communal Music Making in the Soviet Union and Post-Soviet States
After the 1905 Revolution, many communal musical organizations dissolved. Their members fled, or groups lost their autonomy and were absorbed into the Soviet system. The Commisariat of Enlightenment took on the responsibility of organizing cultural activity and at times presented a façade of tolerance for Jewish music. During the 1920s and 1930s, Jewish Bolsheviks saw Yiddish songs as powerful propaganda tools. Songs were disseminated through newspapers, magazines, books, and official publications, and their performance, presented as representative of Jewish cultural life, was intended to constitute living proof of the existence of such cultural life. Many popular Yiddish songs were retrofitted with new, more “government-friendly” lyrics and performed by Soviet youth groups and factory choirs. After 1948, however, most of these groups ceased to exist.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the major force in shaping Jewish public cultural life has become the international Jewish organizations, with their own respective ideological, religious, and cultural agendas. Each year, these organizations sponsor festivals, concerts, plays, and other events of Jewish cultural significance in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
The city of Saint Petersburg, where Jewish composers and musicians developed a new style of Russian Jewish music at the turn of the twentieth century, has witnessed the rebirth of Yiddish culture. The city has established its own communal institutions and has cultivated an explicit identity as a Jewish “cultural capital.” KlezFest Saint Petersburg, sponsored by the city’s Jewish Community Center, was first conceived in the 1990s as a program for musicians from Jewish communities of the former USSR, and has developed into an integral part of the summer cultural life of the city. Participants and workshop leaders in this festival include international performers of klezmer music from the United States and Western Europe, along with bands from Moscow, Khar’kiv, Riga, Chişinău (formerly Kishinev), and other cities of the former Soviet Union.
The Jewish Community Center of Saint Petersburg caters to a growing constituency of people who aim to deepen their understanding of Jewish musical culture and to participate in the city’s Jewish cultural life. Two Yiddish singing groups—Nign, a children’s chorus, and Zmiros, a women’s choir—showcase contemporary Yiddish song compositions by artists such as Michael Alpert (Brave Old World) and Lorin Sklamberg (the Klezmatics), in addition to traditional Yiddish folk songs. KlezFest has become an important site where emerging artists, such as Yiddish singer and arranger Polina Achkinazi-Shepherd, a graduate of the Kazan Music Conservatory and a noted Yiddish choral leader, have found new audiences for their work. The festival has also featured the music and poetry of Masha Rolnikayte, a survivor of the Vilna ghetto who describes the ghetto’s Hebrew choir and Yiddish theater in her lectures, songs, and poetry. In addition, Eva, a grassroots organization founded in 1992 as a recreational program for the elderly, organizes two choruses in Saint Petersburg.
Beyond the large cities, the Jewish communities of many small towns and cities in the former USSR support ongoing Jewish cultural activity. In Chernihiv (Ukraine), for example, the men’s chorus Di Goldene Mener performs a mix of Russian, Yiddish, and Hebrew music. Each of the smaller communities of Korsun, Zvnigornida, Brovary, Boguslav, and Pereyaslav sponsors choruses along with Yiddish clubs (yidishkrayzn).