Music from the Yiddish film Der dibek (The Dybbuk). "Badkhones and Dance of Death." Words and music: Traditional/Henekh Kon. From the Yiddish film Der dibek, Poland, 1937. (YIVO)

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Songs and Songwriters

The notion of a Yiddish popular song is clearest in an example such as the 1947 hit “Rumenye” [listen to a recording] popularized on stage and through recordings and sheet music by a professional singer, with a text by a professional lyricist and music by a professional composer—in this case all three in the person of Aaron Lebedeff (although here the music was reworked rather than composed by him). Before all these elements of a mass musical culture were present, however, the second half of the nineteenth century brought the appearance of something different from the traditional East European Yiddish folk song. Although folk songs presumably originate as products of individual creativity, as they spread, they lose connections with their creators and become anonymous. What was new in Austrian Galicia, Romania, and Russia was the development of a group of professional or semiprofessional songwriters and performers who produced songs that began to be identified with their authors or performers. Also new was the context of performance, no longer limited to the family circle or to ceremonial occasions such as weddings. Now songs began to be performed to entertain customers—in taverns, wine cellars, and restaurant gardens.

The pioneers of this innovation were probably the so-called Broder Singers, itinerant performers originally from Brody in Galicia, of whom the best known (and perhaps the first) was Berl Margulies, known as Berl Broder (ca. 1817–1886). The significance of Brody was that it was a stopping point on the travels of Russian Jewish merchants to and from the Leipzig fair. Later the term Broder Singer was applied to performers who had no connection with Brody. Among them (and among the original Broder Singers) were former or current badkhonim, traditional wedding entertainers, and meshorerim, singers in a cantor’s choir. Another important early songwriter and itinerant performer was Benjamin Wolf Ehrenkranz (d. 1883), known as Velvel Zbarzher from his birthplace, Zbarazh. Ehrenkranz’s Haskalah-influenced songs included the anti-Hasidic satire “Der filozof” (The Philosopher [listen to a recording]), which is still sung today, often identified as a folk song and sometimes misunderstood as a Hasidic song. Broder, Ehrenkranz, and some later songwriter-performers are often described as folk poets since they came from the folk, wrote in the style of traditional folk songs, and had not yet become full-time, professional musicians.

The Broder Singers often put their songs into a minimal dramatic context with simple costumes and prose introductions. One such performance, by Yisroel Grodner, of the song “Dos freylekhe khosidl” (The Merry Hasid [listen to a recording]) by Avrom Goldfadn, inspired Goldfadn, according to his autobiography, to try to create a Yiddish theater. (Grodner’s performance saved the day after Goldfadn had disappointed the audience by reciting long poems.) Goldfadn’s numerous operettas contributed to the Yiddish popular song repertoire; his most famous song, based in part on a folk melody, is the lullaby “Rozhinkes mit mandlen” (Raisins and Almonds [listen to a recording]).

Another transitional figure was Shloyme Prizament (1889–1973), who early in his career wrote songs for the last of the Broder Singers (including Pepi Litman [1874–1930], who was characterized as “a Jewish chanteuse in Hasidic trousers”), later collected and arranged songs from other surviving Broder Singers. He also acted, directed, and wrote plays and wrote song music and lyrics. Among Prizament’s songs were “Lomir beyde davenen fun eyn makhzer” (Let’s Both Pray from One [Holiday] Prayer Book [listen to a recording]), written for Litman, and “Bin ikh mir a klezmerl” (I’m a Little Musician).

Mark Varshavski (Warshawski; 1840–1907) was a Kiev lawyer whose songwriting gifts were discovered by Sholem Aleichem. Among Varshavski’s most popular songs—up until the present day—are “Afn pripetshik” (On the Hearth), also called “Der alef-beyz” (The Alphabet—about children learning letters in heder [listen to a recording]); “Di mizinke” (The Youngest Daughter—about marrying off the last daughter [listen to a recording]); “Dem milners trern” (The Miller’s Tears—about a miller forced to leave the village by a tsarist ukase [listen to a recording]); and “Tayere Malke” (Dear Malke—a drinking song [listen to a recording]).

Many of the most talented composers, musicians, lyricists, and singers, including Goldfadn, made their way to the United States, where they helped create a Yiddish musical theater that flourished in the first half of the twentieth century. Songs from the American Yiddish theater and concert stage were popularized in Europe through phonograph records, sheet music, European productions of American Yiddish musicals, and tours by American performers—and, later, by Yiddish films. For example, Alexander Olshanetsky’s hit “Mayn shtetele Belz” (My Town of Belz [listen to a recording]), words by Jacob Jacobs, written for the 1932 play Dos lid fun der geto (Song of the Ghetto), was published in New York in 1933 and by 1935 had appeared in Polish-language sheet music in Poland. Even earlier, Solomon Smulewitz’s 1908 song “A brivele der mamen” (A Letter to Mama [listen to a recording]) served as the basis for a 1911 silent film in Russia, and in that same year Metropol Records in Moscow offered a recording of the song, performed by the Viennese singer Leon Kalisch. (It was also the centerpiece of the last Yiddish film made in Poland, A brivele der mamen [1938].)

Meanwhile, the tradition of folk poets continued in Europe. In Poland, Mordkhe Gebirtig (1877–1942) wrote words and music (sometimes adapting Slavic melodies) to songs that became popular in Poland, in part through cabaret performances, and throughout the Yiddish-speaking world. Although legend portrays him as a “carpenter-poet,” writing songs as he built furniture in his workshop, his biographer Natan Gross has convincingly argued that Gebirtig worked in his brother’s used furniture store in Kraków as a polisher, not a carpenter. Gebirtig’s songs include “Reyzele” (or, in Gebirtig’s dialect, “Rayzele”—about a boy waiting for his girlfriend to come outside to meet him [listen to a recording]), “Yankele” (a lullaby in which a mother’s dreams about her son’s future as a successful merchant and learned scholar come up against the fact that he is lying in the crib “as wet as in a river” [listen to a recording]), “Avreml der marvikher” (Avreml the Pickpocket—about an impoverished orphan driven to crime but careful to rob only the rich [listen to a recording]), “Dray tekhterlekh” (Three Daughters—about the joy mixed with sadness at marrying off the last of three daughters [listen to a recording]), and “S’brent” (It’s Burning—a call for self-defense written in 1938 in response to a pogrom in Przytyk and mistaken by many as a song about the Holocaust [listen to a recording]).

The Yiddish cabarets and revue theaters of interwar Poland, known as kleynkunst, were the source for other popular songs. Among the best-known venues were Azazel and Sambatyon in Warsaw, Ararat in Łódź (and later in Warsaw), and the puppet theater Khad-gadye in Łódź, but there were also similar places in Vilna, Kraków, Lwów, Grodno, and other, smaller cities. We know the names of performers, composers, lyricists, and writers whose work was featured at the Polish revues and cabarets, and titles of some of their programs, but their music is less well documented. Azazel’s theme song, the “Azazel-Shimmy” (words by Moyshe Broderzon [1890–1956], music by Henekh Kon [1898–1972]), was said to be so popular that people were whistling it on the streets of Warsaw. Among Broderzon’s other popular songs were “Klingen gleker” (Bells Are Ringing—about the end of the Sabbath [listen to a recording]), with music by Yisroel Glatshteyn (1894–1942), and “Ikh ganve in der nakht” (I Steal at Night—an underworld duet written for the Ararat theater in Łódź), with music by Dovid Beygelman (1887–1944).

Beygelman and Kon were two of the most important composers of Jewish popular music in interwar Poland. Both wrote popular settings for “Yosl Ber,” the comic poem about a Jewish soldier by Itsik Manger (1901–1969) [listen to recordings]. Kon also wrote film music, including the music to “Yiddish tango,” which continued to be sung with new texts during the Nazi occupation of Poland and in the Soviet Union [listen to a recording]. Among his most popular theater songs were “Loz mikh geyn, du shlimazl” (Let Me Go, You Shlimazl) and “Oy, vi sheyn” (Oh, How Beautiful [listen to a recording]), as well as “Der Neger Dzhim” (The Negro Jim) from Leyb Malakh’s play Misisipi, a song about a Jewish girl in love with a black dancer—a forerunner of Janis Ian’s 1966 song “Society’s Child.”

Among Beygelman’s other popular songs were three more with texts by Broderzon: “Hirsh-Dovid” (a humorous dialogue between two friends about business and family [listen to a recording]), “Nisim-nisim” (Miracles, Miracles—a satirical song in the form of a dialogue between a Hasid and a Litvak [listen to a recording]), and “Yidn shmidn” (Jews Are Forging—a song about Jewish blacksmiths, whose “steel and iron limbs kindle [Jewish] courage” [listen to a recording]). The last of these was probably his most famous prewar melody; he continued to write songs in the Łódź ghetto that became famous there and beyond.

Jewish popular music in Russia and the Soviet Union is even less well documented than in Poland, particularly in terms of identifying authors and composers of popular songs. There was and is a tendency on recordings and in collections to identify almost everything, including theater songs from America, as a “folk song.” Listings of recordings produced in the years before World War I show numerous “Jewish” items: some of them instrumental, others songs performed in Russian or Yiddish. The language of performance is not always clear from the title, and some of the items were undoubtedly attempts at ethnic humor aimed at a Russian audience. Around 1911 there are a few recordings of something called “Yidl mit zayn fidl” (Yidl [or: The Little Jew] with His Fiddle), presumably different from both Irving Berlin’s 1909 “Yiddle on Your Fiddle, Play Some Ragtime” and Abraham Ellstein’s 1938 “Yidl mitn fidl” [listen to a recording]. The emphasis in this period (1899–1914) seems to be on humorous songs, judging from such titles as “Ot azoy, ot azoy nart men oys a khosn” (This Is How, This Is How One Swindles a Bridegroom), “Zayt nisht keyn yold” (Don’t Be a Sucker), and “Der khokhem fun ma-nishtane” (The Sage of the Four [Passover] Questions).

Jewish popular songs of the Soviet period also existed in both Yiddish and Russian, as well as in mixtures of the two languages. “Itsikl hot khasene gehat” (Itsikl Has Gotten Married [listen to a recording]) is usually listed as a folk song, but has been attributed to the composer David Nisnevich (1893–1963). “A gut morgn, Feyge-Sosye” (Good Morning, Feyge-Sosye) is in Yiddish, but all the rhyming words are Yiddishized Russian words. Also anthologized as a folk song, the text has been attributed to the poet and literary critic Yekhezkl Dobrushin (1883–1953). The drinking song “A glezele lekhayim” (A Toast to Life [listen to a recording]) has words by Boris Bergolts and music reworked by Lev Pulver (1883–1970) from a 1913 song of the same name by the American composer Joseph Rumshinsky. “Dzhankoye,” about Jews happily working on a collective farm in Crimea (the title comes from the name of the railroad junction town Dzhankoi [listen to a recording]) and thereby disproving negative stereotypes about Jews, is inevitably listed as a folk song but seems more like a composed song whose authorship is unknown.

The Black Sea port of Odessa was the point of origin of numerous Jewish popular songs in Russian, often with an admixture of Yiddish. Among them were “Svad’ba Shneersona” (Shneerson’s Wedding), written by Miron Iampol’skii; “Zhil na svete Khaim” (There Once Was a Certain Khayim); and “Sem’ sorok” (7:40—according to one story—to the scheduled arrival time of a train to Odessa, although a 1910 instrumental recording has the subtitle “7 rubles, 40 kopecks”; the title was also used as a generic Russian term for a freylekhs, the common Jewish line or circle dance that is often seen at weddings). “Bublichki” (the title is often translated as “Bagels” but actually refers to smaller, harder, ring-shaped rolls) by Iakov Iadov (1884–1940) had no explicit Jewish or Yiddish content, but came from the same Jewish Odessa milieu and was later popularized in the United States by the Barry Sisters as “Beygelekh.”

In the 1920s and 1930s in Poland and the Soviet Union, as in the United States, Jewish composers and lyricists were among the most prominent creators of popular music for the general (that is, not specifically Jewish) public, and their songs were often popularized by Jewish singers. One of the most successful of the Polish Jewish composers was Jerzy Petersburski (born Jerzy Melodysta, 1897–1979), whose 1929 hit “Tango Milonga,” renamed “Oh, Donna Clara,” swept Europe (with lyrics in German, French, and other languages) and the United States, where—with English lyrics by Irving Caesar—it was sung by Al Jolson in the 1931 Broadway show The Wonder Bar. Another Petersburski favorite, “To ostatnia niedziela” (It’s the Last Sunday; text by Zenon Friedwald [1906–1976]), was popular in the Soviet Union under the title “Utomlennoe solntse” (Tired Sun).

The original Polish text of “Tango Milonga” was written by Andrzej Włast (born Gustaw Baumritter, 1885–1941), one of the best-known lyricists of the interwar period, who wrote other hit tunes with melodies by Petersburski (“Już nigdy” [Never Again], “Ja się boję sama spać” [I’m Afraid to Sleep Alone]), and by other Jewish composers, such as Henryk Gold (1899–1977; “Szkoda twoich łez” [Don’t Waste Your Tears]), Artur Gold (1897–1943; “Przy kominku” [By the Fireplace]), Zygmunt Białostocki (1897–1942; “Rebeka”), and Fanny Gordon (pseudonym of Faina Markovna Kviatkovskaia, 1904–1991; “Pod samowarem” [By the Samovar]).

Two other important Polish Jewish composers of popular music were Henryk Wars (born Warszawski, 1902–1977; “Umówiłem się z nią na dziewiątą” [I Have a Date with Her at Nine], text by Emanuel Schlechter [1906–1943]; “Miłość ci wszystko wybaczy” [Love Will Forgive You Everything], text by Julian Tuwim [1894–1953]) and Szymon Kataszek (1898–1943), who together with Zygmunt Karasiński wrote the music for “Serce matki” (A Mother’s Heart; words by Ludwik Szmaragd [pseudonym of Ludwik Sonnenschein, 1913–1977]), a song that was also popular in Yiddish and Russian versions.

In the Soviet Union, the Pokrass brothers, Daniil (1905–1954) and Dmitrii (1899–1978), composed many important Russian songs; their older brother, Samuil (1897–1939), also had numerous hit tunes before he emigrated in 1924, including “Chto mne gore” (What Do I Care about Trouble). His brothers’ melody for “To ne tuchi—grozovye oblaka” (Those Are Not Storm Clouds; written for a 1938 film), with new words by Hirsh Glik (1922–1944), became the hymn of Jewish ghetto and partisan fighters, “Zog nit keynmol az du geyst dem letsn veg” (Never Say that You Are Walking the Last Road). Matvei Blanter (1903–1990), after writing popular fox-trots, tangos, Charlestons, and shimmies in the 1920s, switched to so-called “mass songs” in the 1930s and in 1938 wrote the world-famous “Katiusha” (text by Mikhail Isakovskii). Isaak Dunaevskii (1900–1955) wrote music for more than 40 films, including some of the most popular Soviet songs, such as “Serdtse” (My Heart) and “Pesnia o kapitane” (Song about a Captain), both with texts by Vasilii Lebedev-Kumach.

Other than the relatively frequent use of minor keys, there is nothing obviously Jewish about the Polish and Russian songs mentioned above. Soviet critics spoke of these composers as having introduced “Ukrainian melodic elements” into the Russian song repertoire, and some post-Soviet writers have heard echoes of Jewish motifs in their works. One clear example of Jewish influence is Białostocki and Włast’s “Rebeka,” which is based on a Hasidic musical motif and uses a recognizably Jewish name to identify its heroine. Another is Dunaevskii’s “Rybatskaia” (Fisherman’s Song) from the 1936 film Iskateli schast’ia (Seekers of Happiness, about Jewish settlers in the Jewish Autonomous Region of Birobidzhan), which he adapted from the Palestinian Jewish dance song “Kuma ekha” (Arise, Brothers) by Shalom Postolsky (1893–1949).

Suggested Reading

Tomasz Lerski, “Indeks osobowo-rzeczowy: Index—Persons and Problems,” in Syrena Record: Pierwsza polska wytwórnia fonograficzna. Poland’s First Recording Company, 1904–1939, pp. 575–802; Eleanor G. Mlotek and Joseph Mlotek, comps., Songs of Generations (New York, [1997]); Ruth Rubin, Voices of a People: The Story of Yiddish Folksong (New York, 1973).