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Study of Jewish Music

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Concert Music 

The idea of studying the musical expression of East European Jews did not emerge until the twentieth century, when serious work began on several fronts simultaneously—among Polish Jewish folklorists, Russian Jewish music activists, and Jewish immigrants, and in the grand survey of Jewish music undertaken by Avraham Tsevi Idelsohn. Each research project followed its own ideology and approach, sometimes leading to energetic internal disagreements and polemics. It was a period of intense ferment and activity around the question of the significance of the Yiddish language and the “folk,” so it is not surprising that those studying the music regarded it in the light of larger concerns. Almost all of the research conducted until the end of the twentieth century was on folk materials, rather than on concert music or popular music.

In Russia, Sha’ul Ginsburg and Peysekh Marek oversaw the first published anthology of Yiddish folk songs in 1901, a selection that included only texts. The omission of musical notation characterized much of the early work, a notable exception being Yehudah Leib Cahan’s New York-based anthology of 1912–1914. Even Cahan did not record or directly transcribe informants’ melodies.

The founding of the Saint Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music in 1908 provided an impetus for the appreciation of folk music, leading to the 1912–1914 expedition sponsored by Baron Horace Gintsburg and its unprecedented fieldwork in the countryside, directed by S. An-ski and executed by Zusman Kiselgof (Sussmann Kisselhof) and Yo’el (Yoyel) Engel, among others. One aim was to uncover thematic material for Jewish art music composers.

In Warsaw, the leading writer Y. L. Peretz’s interest in folk sources found an echo in the widespread collecting and publication undertaken by Noah Pryłucki (Noyekh Prilutski), Pinkhes Graubard, and Shmuel Lehman, which extended to folk and literary songs included in anthologies of oral expressive folklore traditions. Bay unz yuden (Among Us Jews) of 1923, edited by M. Vanvild, was a high point in the publication of their work. Lehman’s anthologies Arbet un frayhayt (1921) and Ganovim-lider (1928) broadened the definition of folk music to include the folklore of the working class and the underworld. In Vilna, music collection and publication flowed from the work of the Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society of Lithuania and Belorussia, founded by S. An-ski. In 1927, the Society published the Muzikalishe pinkes (Musical Record), a landmark collection of melodies, edited by Avrom-Moyshe Bernshteyn and oriented toward the religious folk repertoire. Shmuel Zaynvl Pipe’s meticulous work is also noteworthy. The founding of YIVO in 1925 provided a centralized place for research in Jewish folklore, linguistics, and ethnography, including music.

The work of the first 20 years of the century was continued in both Poland and the Soviet Union in the years prior to World War II. Collectors from Warsaw and Vilna continued their work even into the ghettos under German occupation, but the fruits of much pre-Holocaust fieldwork were lost in the general destruction of Jewish culture. In Kiev, Moisei Beregovskii carried on folklore fieldwork from the mid-1920s through the 1940s, managing to publish only two of his projected five-volume series before censorship and war intervened. His wax cylinders have survived in an archive in Kiev. State-funded Soviet Jewish music research followed shifting Communist Party lines on the development of “national” music cultures. 

Idelsohn’s monumental Hebräisch-Orientalischer Melodienschatz (Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies, 10 vols.; 1914–1932) was designed to reveal the wealth of the Jewish music cultures of North Africa and the Middle East. The author belatedly added three volumes of East European Hasidic, liturgical, and folk materials largely drawn from archives and memory rather than fieldwork. His book Jewish Music in Its Historical Development (1929) remained for decades the most popular and accessible introduction to Jewish music—though many of Idelsohn’s generalizations and speculations have since been challenged.

In the United States, Ruth Rubin (as well as Ben Stonehill) continued the work of Cahan by collecting folk songs from early post–World War II immigrants, at a time when Yiddish oral culture was otherwise neglected in North America. Rubin issued recordings and published books; the tapes of both collectors are housed at the archives of the YIVO Institute. Chana and Joseph Mlotek collected and wrote extensively about the Yiddish folk song, using the readers of the Forverts newspaper as informants.

Beginning in the 1970s, younger scholars began an active process of reviving the instrumental and vocal folk tradition as part of the emerging klezmer movement. Michael Alpert, Walter Zev Feldman, Hankus Netsky, Henry Sapoznik, and Andy Statman were among the first wave of those whose fieldwork and re-creation projects laid the foundation for a resurgent interest in East European Jewish music. The YIVO Yiddish Folksong Project of the early 1970s, directed by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, offered the most thoroughgoing research protocols along with its collection of songs from older folk singers. Mark Slobin studied the metamorphosis of East European music among early American immigrants in Tenement Songs: The Popular Music of the Jewish Immigrants (1982). Netsky’s 2004 dissertation (Wesleyan University) is the first history of Jewish instrumental music and musicians about a given locale (Philadelphia); it complements Joel Rubin’s dissertation on klezmer style (University of London, 2000). Robert A. Rothstein produced a series of studies on Jewish popular songs that were characteristic of the early twentieth century. The work of these scholars is sampled in American Klezmer: Its Roots and Offshoots (Mark Slobin, ed.; 2002).

The arrival in the 1980s and 1990s of new immigrants from Eastern Europe with older repertoires has encouraged new studies. Interest in Jewish music spread to Europe with the export of klezmer bands and recordings, sparking new research in both Western and Eastern Europe among both non-Jews and Jews in the former socialist states. In Israel, Idelsohn’s interest in adding East European traditions to the study of “oriental” Jewish music cultures was posthumously fulfilled in the 1970s, when Ashkenazic culture became a new focus of musicological study. Studies and anthologies of a variety of secular and religious Jewish musical repertoires have resulted from the work of Ya‘akov Mazor, Eliyahu Schleifer, Uri Sharvit, André Hajdu, Joachim Stutschewsky, Judit Frigyesi, Gila Flam, and Dov and Meir Noy, among others, much of it published by the Jewish Music Research Center at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where the National Archive contains immense holdings of recorded music. Topics range from the history of the Saint Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music to music in the Łódź ghetto during the Holocaust to the modern heritage of Hasidic music in Israel.

Suggested Reading

Shoyl Ginzburg and Peysekh Marek, Yidishe folkslider in Rusland, ed. Dov Noy (Ramat Gan, Israel, 1991); Itzik Nakhmen Gottesman, Defining the Yiddish Nation: The Jewish Folklorists of Poland (Detroit, 2003); Eleanor G. Mlotek and Joseph Mlotek, Perl fun der yidisher poezye (Tel Aviv, 1974); Eleanor G. Mlotek and Joseph Mlotek, Perl fun Yidish lid (New York, 1989), includes an introduction and translation in English; Mark Slobin, ed., Old Jewish Folk Music: The Collections and Writings of Moshe Beregovski (Syracuse, N.Y., 2000); Mark Slobin, Robert A. Rothstein, and Michael Alpert, eds., Jewish Instrumental Folk Music: The Collections and Writings of Moshe Beregovski (Syracuse, N.Y., 2001).