“All my life it was Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Schubert…Here in America I discovered the Yiddish song!”
Yiddish and Hebrew
“All my life it was Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Schubert…Here in America I discovered the Yiddish song!”
This is part one of a multi-part exhibit on the Art of Jewish Song
The meaning and impact of a good song depends upon the delicate interdependence of music and words. Melody and musical "accompaniment" carry and nuance a text’s meaning, and words can influence how we hear the music to which they are paired. The Milken Archive’s Volume 9, The Art of Yiddish Song: Yiddish and Hebrew Lieder, presents a collection of evocative Yiddish and Hebrew poems set for voice and piano that follow in the tradition of lieder, or art songs.
The Jewish art song arose in the early 20th century and can be traced to the emergence of the Society for Jewish Folk Music. Founded in St. Petersburg in 1908, the Society for Jewish Folk Music collected and preserved Jewish folk music and advocated for the creation of a "national" Jewish music. Neil W. Levin has observed that composers affiliated with the Society "began the road from folk to art song by fashioning artistic piano accompaniments to well-crafted arrangements of Jewish folksongs that were known throughout large swaths of the Pale of Settlement." Art songs were one of many genres in which these composers worked as they aimed to create art music based on Jewish folk and religious musical traditions.
Though its roots lie in the Pale of Settlement and the urban centers of Russia, the Jewish art song followed the migratory paths of the majority of Eastern European Jews. Its development is thus most productively viewed through a triangle connecting the Russian centers with Israel and New York.
The corpus of songs featured in Volume 9 can be viewed from any number of angles. The volume’s current structure is organized primarily by composer, with Lazar Weiner comprising roughly the first half of the volume. The songs could also be arranged chronologically or according to the author of the poems. This exhibit takes a text-centered, thematic approach in an attempt to look more broadly at the milieu in which the majority of these songs—and the poems that supply their texts—were composed. It aims to address such questions as:
Though not exhaustive, a thematic approach can shed light on such questions, or at least compel us to view the repertoire in a new light.
Painting by Ralph Gilbert
Volume 9 comprises 68 individual songs by 20 composers, with texts written by 39 separate poets. (Two additional text sources, folksongs and the bible, account for six of the songs.) A cursory analysis of the poems’ texts reveals eight primary themes, loosely defined below.
• Judaism/Jewishness: Texts that make references to specific aspects of Jewish culture or religious practice.
• Man-God: Texts that explore the relationship between man and God.
• Existentialism: Texts that ponder questions concerning the meaning and purpose of life.
• Longing/Yearning: Texts that express longing or yearning for particular times, places, or circumstances.
• Light-hearted/Humorous: Texts that relate simple, often silly themes.
• Love: Texts on romantic love and relationships.
• Lullaby: Songs based on lullaby texts or melodies that would be sung to children.
• Faith/Hope: Texts that express optimism and belief in a brighter future.
Figure 1. Visualization of the themes of The Art of Jewish Song weighted according to frequency of occurrence.
The largest group comprises songs that make specific references to Judaism or to various aspects of Jewish life and culture. References to the Hasidic culture, to the Sabbath, and to music in the context of weddings are common.
Weiner’s Yosl klezmer (Little Joseph the Klezmer), to a poem by Naftali Gross (1896–1956), extols the virtues of the klezmer (musician), whose infectious playing whips the wedding party into a frenzy. Similar themes occur in Oif mayn khasene (At My Wedding) by Leonard Bernstein. This poem, by Yankev-Yitskhok Segal [Jacob-Isaac Segal] (1896–1954), takes pity on the klezmer’s impoverished lifestyle while marveling at the “young redhead’s” immense skill. “At my wedding this youngster played/So that people were lifted from their seats/Feet wanted to take off/Ears were sharpened like spears.” But in Der yid mitn fidl (The Jew with the Fiddle), Weiner’s setting of a poem by A. Lutzky [Aaron Tsuker] (1894–1957), the musician protagonist must justify his chosen path to his wife, who pleads with him to seek more gainful and practical employment as a tailor. The wedding jester is the central character in Henoch Kon’s Der badkhn (poem by Itzik Manger), though the text is more of a meditation on aging and the passage of time.
Yidish, composed by Weiner in 1946, is one of four songs in this group that refer to Hasidism. Yankev-Yitskhok Segal’s poem names four well-known Hasidic rebbes and celebrates the Yiddish language as the “golden well” of both spiritual leaders and “plain, simple, poor Jews”; and A nign (A Melody), to a poem by L. Magister [Leibush Lehrer] (1887–1965), calls out the Hasidic practice of singing for spiritual elevation. Shtil likht (Quiet Candles) and Baym bentshn likht (When Lighting the Candles) are among the few songs whose poems reference mothers (or women more generally). Both do so in the context of lighting the Sabbath candles, highlighting the role Jewish mothers play in transmitting religious rituals and traditions. The former, to a poem by Mani Leib [Mani Leib Brahinski] (1883–1953), was originally composed for Weiner’s opera, The Golem, while the latter, to a poem by Joseph Rubinstein (1905–1978), was dedicated by Weiner to his mother and mother-in-law.
Two more songs by Weiner deal with the relationship between fathers and sons. Der sholem zokher (The Son-Welcoming) is about the formal “son-welcoming” ceremony held on the first Friday night following the birth of a male child. The poem by Itzik Manger references myriad customs associated with this ritual in different Jewish cultures. It comes from a larger cycle of poems called Khumesh lider (Songs of the Pentateuch; 1935), which recasts biblical events and figures in a nineteenth-century Eastern European context. ( See Neil W. Levin’s editorial note for more on Khumesh lider). A foter tzu zyn zun (A Father to His Son), to a poem by Jacob Glatstein (1896–1971), reflects ongoing concerns about assimilation. It is essentially a lament for a child that has been “pulled away” by the outside world and chosen not to lead a Judaically observant life, despite his father’s best efforts—a theme that surfaced several times throughout Weiner’s life.
Though raised in a moderately observant family, Weiner showed little interest in maintaining any connection to Jewish observance. His son, Yehudi, described him as “a profoundly religious man,” but one that harbored “very strong anti-clerical feelings” throughout his life. Yehudi also experienced doubts about Jewish identity and observance as a young man. Yet both became committed to the development and continuity of Jewish culture and remained so throughout their lives.
Picture: Lazar Weiner and Yehudi Wyner
“Yiddish was known to me . . . erroneously as a ‘vanished tongue’ of a bygone era and a distant place.”
If there’s unlikely candidate in this group of Yiddish art song composers it is Ofer Ben-Amots. Born in Israel to Sephardic parents (long after initial waves of immigration from Eastern Europe), Yiddish seemed as foreign to Ben-Amots as Latin—what he described as “a ‘vanished tongue’ of a bygone era and a distant place.” Which, in many ways, was what the State wanted as it forged a new identity with Hebrew at its center.
It was during a period of study in Germany early in his career that Ben-Amots began to acquaint himself with Yiddish. And in the process of discovering the wealth of Yiddish literature, he came upon a decades-old collection of Yiddish folk songs, nine of which he later fashioned into a cycle of new arrangements he titled Shtetl Songs.
“The work portrays aspects of the daily life of those inhabitants,” he has remarked, “which encompasses their happiness as well as their pain and daily struggle, their hopes as well as their despair.” Virtually all of the texts in Shtetl Songs refer to aspects of Jewish life, especially in Hassidic contexts. Four of the settings are from folk sources, while the other two are on poems by Isaac Leyb Peretz and Zalmen Rozental.
The genre of art song depends heavily on the existence of a body of poetry suitable for musical settings. As such, Weiner and other composers depended upon Jewish poets writing in Yiddish.
Along with massive waves of immigration, the first decades of the twentieth century bore witness to the emergence of two artistic movements in Jewish literature. The first of these was a group of writers who referred to themselves as Di Yunge, or The Young. Di Yunge consisted of working class artists who, influenced by aestheticism, sought to turn inward. Scholar Ruth R. Wisse explains that they “insisted on . . . the pursuit of beauty as the highest human ideal . . . [and] defined poetry as personal, not public, not a call to others, but a probing into self.” Unlike their “sweatshop poet” predecessors (and despite the fact that they were laborers), Di Yunge more or less avoided engagement with political agendas. Their work was about inner subjectivity rather than external social concerns.
A significant portion of the poems reflects themes of longing or yearning—for a far away lover, a distant place, or simply a vision of happiness. At first glance, they reflect aestheticism’s disengagement from the social realm. And yet, some contain political undertones that seem more than coincidental.
H. Leivick’s Ergets vayt (Somewhere Far) projects images of a faraway, snow-covered land where treasures await discovery. But the reference to a prisoner that lies alone alludes to the Siberian exile of political dissidents during the pre-Soviet era. Leivick wrote the poem on a cold wintry night, looking out from the comfort of his modest attic room. As he peered through the window he envisioned the cold Siberian landscape where he had very recently served several years of hard labor for his involvement with the Jewish Labor Bund. Di Yunge scholar Ruth Wisse has referred to the recurring image of the window in the group’s poetry as “Their most characteristic prop . . . separating the inner from the outer world, creating either a sheltering haven or a cell of isolation.” The setting here by Lazar Weiner came some twenty years after Leivick wrote the poem, reflecting what Weiner’s son has called his “deepening awareness of social and political crises as they affected the Jews of Europe and the Soviet Union.”
The topic of Leivick’s A shtikl papir (A Little Piece of Paper), set here by Mikhl Gelbart, is more benign, expressing the longing and despair of a jilted lover.
Other settings by Weiner in this group include Toybnshtile (Hushed Doves) by Mani Leib, Shtile tener (Hushed Tones) by Nahum Baruch Minkoff, and Ikh hob dikh shoyn lang (Long Haven’t I) by Rajzel Zychlinska.
With the titles like “The Unrest” and “The Night Watchman,” one might justifiably assume the two songs by Paul Lamkoff pertain also to the political climate of their time. But Der nakht vekhter, by Avraham Reisen, is a poem about a tired watchman who envies the residents of houses over which he watches. Though it is possible to also read it as a commentary on inequality, the longing expressed is for a better life. And the “unrest” expressed in Di umru is emotional rather than social, even though Lamkoff—a child of Eastern Europe—certainly could have related to any political connotations suggested in the poems.
Two settings by Solomon Golub close this group of songs. Baym taykh (By the River), by Mani Leib, is a poignant description of a young woman’s search for happiness and reciprocal love. Toybn (Doves), by Zishe Weinper, explores the moods of loneliness and gloom mediated by the cooing of two white doves.
“I felt a yearning for something emerging within me—a fresh start, going to that whiteness as to an untrodden forbidden land.”
The name Lazar Weiner name is virtually synonymous with Yiddish art song today, but his ascendance to the genre’s throne was far from a foregone conclusion. Indeed, had a series of circumstances largely beyond Weiner’s control not occurred, the face of Jewish art song might look quite different today.
First, the deteriorating situation for Jews in Eastern Europe led the Weiner family to emigrate to America. Weiner’s father and older brother left in 1913 and the rest of family followed the next year. They settled in Brooklyn, where his father opened a shoe repair shop in the basement of their building. Prior to his immigration, Weiner's musical pursuits did not involve the Jewish world in any way. As he observed near the end of his life: “All my life it was Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Schubert. Here in America I discovered the Yiddish song!"
Second, though Weiner’s first job was playing live music to silent movies, he soon became the accompanist for a famous voice teacher whose studio was in Carnegie Hall. This exposed Weiner to a broad repertoire of classical vocal music and a virtual daily master class in art song composition and accompaniment.
Finally, Weiner was once asked to personally deliver a letter to the director of a Brooklyn-based amateur orchestra—an encounter that led him to join and, eventually, take over the orchestra. One of the orchestra’s violinists was Nahum Baruch Minkoff, a prominent poet in the city’s Yiddish literary scene and founding member of the In Zikh poets. It was through Minkoff and others in the In Zikh group that Weiner became familiar with the growing body of Yiddish poetry and began to associate with artists committed to creating a vibrant, contemporary Jewish art world based on Yiddish and Eastern European Jewish culture.
In her doctoral dissertation on Weiner’s life and work, Judith Tischler remarks that by his late teens, “Weiner had begun...a process of assimilation that might have triumphed if not for the acquaintances he made later with people who were committed to Jewish culture” (Tischler 1989: 19).
Five of the songs in Volume 9 are lullabies, four of which are standalone and one of which appears in Helen Greenberg’s four-song cycle, Froyen Shtime (“Women’s Voices). The texts are mostly written from a mother’s perspective and—with some exceptions—follow typical lullaby conventions, including images of animals, parental protection, and a calm, peaceful world. Exceptions include Greenberg’s setting of Dremlin feygl by Leah Rudniztky, in the which the child appears to have been somehow abandoned by the parents; and the Peretz Markish Viglid, set by Weiner, in which the child has absconded and the mother rocks an empty cradle.
Neil W. Levin’s editorial note to Peretz Markish’s Viglid offers an insightful discussion of common lullaby themes and symbols:
The little goat under a baby’s cradle, as found in this Viglid—which, in some cases simultaneously goes off to “trade in” the symbolic confection of raisins and almonds, presumably for the child’s benefit—is a ubiquitous motif in European Yiddish folklore, and specifically in lullabies. More than sixty variants of Yiddish lullabies with this theme have been identified, as well as a good number in Hebrew. On the surface, the goat image has been perceived either as a companion or as a symbol of protection for the baby. Among various other more probing constructions, the goat has been interpreted as representing the father, who, on one level, is necessarily away earning a livelihood, but, on another, metaphoric plane, seeks to ensure not only a sweet future for his child but also a better world in the form of national or spiritual redemption, or both—all of which, in that scenario, may be symbolized by the acquisition of raisins and almonds. The goat itself may have been derived from earlier Jewish sources (predating Yiddish folklore), in which the kid symbolizes the Jewish people and its determination for, as well as faith in, redemption and survival. In the Aramaic-Hebrew seder song ḥad gadya (A Single Kid), for example, the story of the goat has been viewed as an allegory for Divine retribution for the persecutions of the Jewish people—although some literary critics insist that it is simply children’s verse based on a popular French ballad. Its refrain about the goat has also been interpreted as a metaphor for God’s having taken the people Israel as “His own” through the Decalogue of the Sinaitic covenant. The song was appended to the Passover Haggada, or fixed narrative, by the late 16th century.
Along with a part of the tune archetype for many of the Yiddish folksong variants—among which the best known ones are probably Unter yankeles vigele (Under Little Jacob’s Cradle), Unter soreles vigele, and Unter dem kinds vigele—this motif found expression in the theatrical song Rozhenkes mit mandlen (Raisins and Almonds), which Abraham Goldfaden (1840–1908) apparently stitched together from mulitple folk sources for his famous 1904 operetta Shulamis. That song became one of the most widely known Yiddish songs in America as well. In most variants of the actual folksong, however, the mother remains at home to sing the lullaby to the child. She goes on to express the prototypical hope that he grow up to be Judaically learned—even a scholar of renown—and pious, reflecting the emphasis of traditional Jewish values of that environment. In this later original poem, Peretz Markish has provided a fresh twist to the image and to the situation, which invites further interpretive exploration. Here, the mother sings to an empty cradle.
This group includes four pieces titled Viglid (Yiddish, lit: lullaby), so distinguishing among them can be difficult. In addition to the two already mentioned are an additional setting by Weiner to a poem by Esther Schumiatcher-Hirshbein, one by Maurice Rauch to a poem by Wolf Younin, and one by Samuel Bugatch to a poem by Avraham Cahan.
Oif mayn khasene
Der yid mitn fidl
Baym bentshn likht
Der sholem zokher
A foter tzu zyn zun
A shtikl papir
Viglid (Peretz Markish)
Viglid (Esther Shumiatcher-Hirshbein)
Viglid (Wolfe Younin)
Viglid (Avraham Cahan)
Liner notes by Neil W. Levin and Yehudi Wyner
Exhibit curated by Jeff Janeczko
Loeffler, James. 2010. The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire. Yale University Press: New Haven, Connecticut.
Tischler, Judith. 1989. "The life and work of Lazar Weiner, master of the Yiddish art song." Ph.D. diss. The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
Wisse, Ruth. 1981. "Di Yunge: Immigrants or Exiles?" Prooftexts 1(1): 43–61.
_______. 1976. "Di Yunge and the Problem of Jewish Aestheticism." Jewish Social Studies 38(3/4): 265–276.
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