Musical Echoes of Ukraine in the American Jewish Experience

By Jeff Janeczko

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IN THE OPENING OF LEONARD BERNSTEIN'S SYMPHONY NO. 3, a lonely voice addresses God directly. Expressing concern about the state of the world and its future, the narrator’s fear is palpable: “I want to pray. I want to say kaddish. My own kaddish. There may be no one to say it after me.” Despite its dramatic and foreboding beginning, the symphony ends on a hopeful note with a pronouncement of faith and unity. But in between, the Kaddish Symphony is a musical and emotional tour de force. It is arguably Bernstein’s most important concert work and his most profound musical expression of his crisis of faith—a term he often used to describe his fear for the future of humankind. But the linchpin of this forty-minute work—composed in aftermath of the Holocaust and at the height of the Cold War—has little to do with the turbulence of the mid-20th century that so troubled its composer. Bernstein’s plea to God on behalf of humankind is actually a variation on a Hasidic legend from Ukraine. This article uses the example of Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony as a jumping-off point for exploring the Ukrainian roots of Jewish music in America—from klezmer and cantorial traditions to Yiddish theater and Jewish art music.

Leonard Bernstein’s third symphony is based on a Hasidic legend from Ukraine.

To be sure, those roots are multifaceted. They include traditions brought by the Sephardi immigrants of the Colonial Era, the German Jewish immigrants that followed in the middle of the 19th century, the Eastern European Jews that arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and Jews from communities throughout the Middle East and North Africa, most of whom arrived after the 1950s. Immigrants always bring multiple traditions to their new homelands, but traditions are not static. Over time, new traditions emerge and old ones are adapted to reflect their new surroundings.

While a Hasidic leader confronting God is part of a broader 18th- and 19th-century Hasidic tradition, the most famous example is that of Levi Yitzak of Berditchev, a rebbe of the Berditchever Hasidic dynasty of northern Ukraine. Known more generally as a din torah mit got, or a court session with God, the Berditchever Kaddish is thought to have originated during a Rosh Hashanah service in which Levi Yitzḥak was serving as cantor. Before chanting the kaddish itself, Levi Yitzḥak addressed God directly and asked him to account for His people’s suffering. He threatened that if God did not keep His portion of the covenant and protect His people, the people might cease to follow God’s way.

Though Levi Yitzḥak’s legendary address was not notated, multiple musical arrangements formed the basis of recordings by such noted singers as Sidor Belarsky, Paul Robeson, and Jan Peerce that had become known in the general musical sphere well before the early 1960s when Bernstein began working on the Kaddish Symphony. In that he retained the overall spirit and intention of the text but refashioned it to suit his own needs, Bernstein’s version departs significantly from the version most audiences would have been familiar with—if they knew of the Berdichever Kaddish at all. While Levi Yitzḥak pleas on behalf of the Jewish people, Bernstein is concerned with the entire human race. Nor is there is any trace of the cantorial motifs that flavored the previously mentioned musical arrangements. Bernstein’s Kaddish contains a broad emotional and dynamic arc, combines serialism and tonality, and even includes some of the additive, dancelike rhythms that flavor much of his Broadway music. As a musical work it is Bernstein through and through. But its identity is ineluctably tied to the Berditchever Kaddish and the environment in which it spawned. That environment also spawned Bernstein’s parents, who emigrated from a nearby region in the early 20th century.

Two versions of the Berditchever Kaddish, also known as “Hassidic Chant” and “A Din Toyre Mit Gott” by Paul Robeson (left) and Jan Peerce (right). The version by Sidor Belarsky with Lazar Weiner can be heard via the Recorded Sound Archives.

“Prince of the Young Hazzanim”: Playbill advertising a cantorial performance by Sholom Secunda, ca. 1908.

Yiddish Theater

Composer Sholom Secunda was born in the Kherson region of Ukraine in 1894, where he became a legendary boy cantor and soloist—to such an extent that his family’s immigration voyage to the U.S. was financed on account of his talent. As Secunda matured in America, he attended the Institute for Musical Art (now known as Juilliard), studied privately with Ernest Bloch, and went on to compose more than eighty shows for the Yiddish theater, a raft of compositions for orchestral and chamber ensembles, and sacred services for the great cantor and opera star, Richard Tucker. Secunda is best known today for the song Bay mir bistu sheyn, written for a 1930s musical called M’ken lebn nor m’lost nit (One Could Really Live, but They Won’t Let You)—officially subtitled in English as I Would If I Could. The history of that song’s meteoric rise to fame (after Secunda and his lyricist partner Jacob Jacobs had sold the rights) is well known. But the song’s popularity and relative simplicity has often overshadowed its composer’s wide range and considerable skill. In Dos yidishe lid from the play In nomen fun Got, Secunda transforms the cantor from a “messenger of the congregation” to the singer of his people, and showcases his ability to make the concert hall and the synagogue meet on the theater stage.

Some have described the experience of attending an early 20th century Yiddish theater production as a quasi-religious experience. With Dos yidishe lid, Secunda turns this analogy into reality in two ways. First, he unabashedly blends theatrical and cantorial styles. It is difficult to imagine someone without cantorial training singing this song properly, but it also has the air of an operatic aria and lasts nearly ten minutes. Indeed, Secunda composed the song specifically to exploit these twin talents of the singer who starred in In nomen fun Got. Second, he incorporates three significant liturgical prayers and their associated melodies directly into the song: hin’ni, kol nidre, and sisu v’simḥu. But the song is actually a meditation on the historical trope of the wandering Jew. By juxtaposing references to religious doctrine with those of perpetual wandering, the text reinforces the notion that the strength for perseverance is to be found in faith and tradition.

Two Versions of The Jewish Song: Cantor Mordechai Hershman for Victor, published in 1908;
Cantor Benzion Miller for the Milken Archive, published in 2005.

To Ukraine we owe not only Secunda, but the Yiddish theater itself. One of the few precursors to Yiddish theater aside from the purimspiel—the Broder singers—originated in the small town of Brody, near present-day Lviv. It was there in the late 19th century that an itinerant group of meshorerim (choir boys) and badkhonim (wedding jesters) began performing folk songs in a quasi-dramatic context for merchants and traders who passed through the town en route to and from the Leipzig fair. Prior to the Broder singers, Jewish theatrical performance had been highly restricted to specific religious and life-cycle occasions.

Later, the cities of Odessa and Kiev provided Avram Goldfaden and Boris Thomashefsky with formative experiences that shaped their lifelong commitment to the genre. Before Goldfaden became the “father” of the Yiddish theater, he observed Jews in Odessa attending opera and theater productions and conceived of a musical-theatrical medium that would reflect Jews’ experiences and speak to them in their own language. In light of the city’s cosmopolitan culture in the late 19th century, Alyssa Quint argues that Yiddish theater was “a product of Odessa and the complexion of this city’s modern Jewish population . . . and the passion of its Jewish residents for the city’s robust culture of theatrical performances and small-scale Yiddish musical evenings.” It is often stated that Goldfaden “invented” the Yiddish theater in Iasi, Romania. But if the Yiddish theater was born in Romania, it was conceived and came of age in Odessa, which in the late 19th century was the fourth largest city in the Russian Empire and boasted a cultural life akin to Paris or Berlin. In addition to the rich life of opera and theater, scores of klezmorim travelled in the less respectable circles of Odessa’s seedy underworld of crime rings and brothels. They, too, helped define American Jewish music, incorporating the rhythms of jazz and popular American song into their traditional repertoire.

This 1919 recording of “Yiddishe Blues” by Lt. Joseph Frankel’s Orchestra illustrates the blending of American and Eastern European Jewish musical styles in the early 20th century.

In the aftermath of the assassination of Czar Alexander II, a general clampdown on cosmopolitanism generally, and Jewish freedom specifically, quelled Odessa’s vibrant Jewish cultural life. Yiddish theater was banned in 1883, forcing those involved in its inception and development to pursue their business elsewhere. Thus, by the time Alexander Olshanetsky, another future great of the Yiddish theater, was born in Odessa in 1894, options for musical performance and training were more restricted. Olshanetsky honed his craft singing in the city’s synagogue choirs and playing violin in the Odessa Opera. It wasn’t until he was touring in Kharbin in northeastern China as a bandmaster for the Russian army that he encountered a Yiddish theater troupe and eventually became their conductor. Olshanetsky immigrated to the U.S. in 1922, where his shows played in all the major theaters of Second Avenue and beyond. He also composed a significant amount of liturgical music and was lauded for his sensitivity to the unique idioms of hazzanut. Like Secunda’s Dos yidishe lid, Olshanetsky’s setting of Adonai z’kharanu elides the line separating the liturgical and theatrical. In Neil W. Levin’s estimation, “if it reflects Olshanetsky the popular Yiddish songwriter, it follows equally in the path of a number of eastern European immigrant synagogue composers whose work was devoted almost exclusively to the liturgy.”

Alexander Olshanetsky’s Adonai z’kharanu illustrates the blending of sacred and theatrical styles.

Lazare Saminsky

Jewish Art Music

In 1882, as Yiddish theater was thriving in Odessa, a future composer was born on the city’s outskirts. Lazare Saminsky’s family had historic roots in the region, where they became successful merchants and achieved a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. Saminsky grew up singing in choirs, attending concerts, and dabbling in composition before he formally began piano studies at age fifteen. After formative years in Odessa, Saminsky set off toward the northern end of the Russian Empire and enrolled in the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1906. His experience there proved transformative, as he helped found the Society for Jewish Folk Music—the first organization to champion the creation of art music based on traditional forms of Jewish music, folklore, and history. Prior to his joining this group Saminsky evinced little interest in anything related to Judaism or Jewish culture, but his devotion to modern Jewish art music would remain a chief cause throughout his life. After graduating from the conservatory in 1910, Saminsky participated in the famous Jewish Ethnographic Expedition and later utilized much of the collected material in his own compositions. While the society eventually disbanded, Saminsky immigrated to the U.S. in 1920 and attempted to carry on with the Society’s mission, through his work with the Jewish Music Forum and as music director at New York’s Temple Emanu-El for some thirty-four years. But his conception of Jewish music as a “national” music was, in a sense, too European for the American melting pot in which, as James Loeffler observes, “Jews were rapidly repositioning themselves as a religious community rather than a national or ethnic minority.” While Saminsky did a great deal to support the development of Jewish music in the U.S., he fell far short of what he had envisioned.

One would be hard-pressed to find much kinship between an elitist like Saminsky and Yiddish theater composers beyond their shared roots in what is now Ukraine. But as Jews of late 19th century in and around the city of Odessa, they all participated in the movement to build a modern Jewish culture out of a folk and religious past—a project they continued in America after life in their homeland became untenable. One way in which this project was pursued involved blurring the line between the sacred and the secular, and music was a medium that lent itself to this particularly well. Just as Secunda transformed sacred motifs in songs like Dos yidishe lid, so did Saminsky in his opera-ballet The Vision of Ariel.

The Vision of Ariel is set against the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition, and deals with the Jews who had converted to Christianity under threat, and who led Christian lives outwardly, but who continued to observe Jewish rituals in secret. These Jews were known as “crypto-Jews” and sometimes called marranos. The term Ariel literally translates as lion of God, and is also understood as a symbolic name for the city of Jerusalem. Ariel also appears in the book of Isaiah in the bible, Isaiah being the prophet who warned of Jerusalem’s destruction.

This scene from Lazare Saminsky’s The Vision of Ariel makes use of the prayer Av haraḥamim at a dramatic climax. The prayer begins around the 5:00 mark.

In Saminsky’s adaptation, Ariel becomes a symbol of resistance against Spanish oppression, and takes on the identity of crypto-Jew named Don Diego. Much of the action occurs in a building that is being secretly used as a synagogue. In a scene near the end of the opera, a large group of crypto-Jews are being led to their execution. As they march, they sing Av haracḥamim, a prayer that is traditionally recited at the end of the Torah service, that eulogizes Jews who have been killed specifically for being Jewish. Don Diego is in the secret synagogue watching them walk by. When they pass, he emerges from the building and begins singing the prayer with them. This act of martyrdom exposes him as a Jew and he is also killed.

Additional Jewish Art Music Composers from Ukraine

Lazar Weiner

Lazar Weiner, known today for a large body of Yiddish art songs and sacred music, was born in Cherkassy and 1897 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1914.

View Artist Page

Jacob Weinberg

Jacob Weinberg, composer symphonic music and opera, was born in Odessa in 1879 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1926.

View Artist Page

Leo Ornstein

Leo Ornstein, a prime-mover of the American avant-garde in the early 20th century, was born in Kremenchuk in 1894 and immigrated to the U.S. around 1906.

View Artist Page

The Cantorate

If Ukraine produced so many figures capable of working across multiple genres in Jewish music, it also produced artists who stayed in their own lanes while still advancing their craft. In the realm of sacred music, there is no figure more well known or highly regarded than Josef (Yossele) Rosenblatt, who was born between Kyiv and Uman in same year as Saminsky and raised there and in the primarily Hasidic environment of Sadagora. Rosenblatt became well established as one of Europe’s leading cantors before immigrating to the U.S. in 1912 to serve in Harlem’s Ohab Zedek synagogue. While he was known to be wary of the potential trappings of secular music, Rosenblatt was not afraid to sing Jewish music in secular contexts, and became quite famous for doing so. He performed in many of the country’s most renowned concert venues and introduced legions of non-Jews to the richness of hazzanut. “Until the early post-World War I years, Rosenblatt pretty much dominated the world of hazzanut in America,” writes Neil W. Levin.

Norms and mores governing the separation of the sacred and secular steered many cantors and synagogue musicians away from extensive participation in secular music. But Rosenblatt’s avoidance of performing secular music did not amount to a disavowal of it. Nor did it signal an antipathy toward change. He is revered today not only for the special quality of his voice and his unique singing abilities, but also because he helped harmonize the Eastern European tradition from which he came with the Western European climate in which he primarily lived and worked. “Rather than resist the features of cantorial as well as secular musical modernity,” writes Neil W. Levin, “he was able to assimilate them—along with other aspects of Western culture—into his otherwise manifestly eastern style of hazzanut and to integrate those elements into his art without compromise to its integrity”. In an era when so many immigrant Jews were navigating the chasm between Jewish tradition and American modernity, Rosenblatt’s music offered a bridge.

Two Versions of Tal: Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt for Victor, published in 1923, and Cantor Benzion Miller for the Milken Archive, published in 2005.

IT HAS BEEN OVER 100 YEARS since these Ukranian-born Jewish musicians immigrated to the U.S. and decades have passed since any of them were alive. But their influence remains. Yiddish theater is enjoying a renaissance few could have predicted after its post-War decline, liturgical music continues to draw on popular and theatrical sources to appeal to worshippers, Rosenblatt remains unsurpassed as the king of hazzanut, and approaches to composing Jewish art music are still largely rooted in the ideas advanced composers like Saminsky and others associated with the Society for Jewish Folk Music.

Pogroms and he Holocaust, followed by decades of oppression and antisemitism in the Soviet era, turned Ukraine’s Jewish community into a shadow of what it once was. But its recent history has been more hopeful, and multiple signs suggest that Ukraine had aimed to build a multicultural environment in which Jewish culture might once again thrive. Presently exiled in Stuttgart, Germany are three members of a Black-Jewish Ukrainian hip-hop group—all children of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants. They reached the semi-finals in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2020, the year after Ukrainians voted in a landslide election for a Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

*References consulted and sources quoted in the this article have been linked directly in the text.


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