“His basic tenet was to concern himself with the relation of man and God”
—Yehudi Wyner (on Lazar Weiner)
Yiddish and Hebrew
“His basic tenet was to concern himself with the relation of man and God”
—Yehudi Wyner (on Lazar Weiner)
This is part two of a multi-part exhibit on the Art of Jewish Song.
Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972) was a well-known thinker and activist who influenced millions through his teaching and advocacy. Born into a Hasidic family in Warsaw, he earned a doctorate from the University of Berlin and succeeded Martin Buber at a Jewish adult school in Frankfurt. After arriving in the U.S., Heschel became a professor of ethics and mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and an activist who advocated for civil rights, peace, and interfaith dialogue. Heschel was also a noted poet and author who published widely about modern humans’ relationship to God and the bible.
Heschel was not the only one so occupied by this. As the second most prevalent theme in The Art of Jewish Song, the Man-God relationship has been a topic of concern for many artists seeking meaning and comfort in an unjust world. Of the twelve songs that fall into this category, seven are by Lazar Weiner.
Yehudi Wyner has referred to Lazar Weiner’s Three Poems by Abraham Joshua Heschel as one of his “most profound achievements.” Included in this section are songs one (God Follows Me Everywhere) and three (God and Man). (The second song has been categorized in this exhibit as belonging to the Existentialism category due to its preponderance with time.) Weiner composed the cycle in 1973, just one year after Heschel’s death.
Heschel (second from right) marches to from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. (Photo Source)
In Gramen geshribn in zamd (Rhymes Traced in Sand), poet Melech Ravitch (Zekharye Khone Bergner, 1893–1976) observes himself writing a poem in the sand, only to tread all over it when he finishes. The poem deals with the duality of good and evil, and the hypocrisy of those who follow God’s teachings in word but not in deed. A gebet (A Prayer), by Joseph Rolnik (1879–1955), frames duality on a very personal plane, with the protagonist begging God to both mend and destroy the pieces of his heart. H. Leivick's Fun vayte teg (From Distant Days) is reverential and joyful.
Melech Ravitch (top right), Montreal, ca. 1948-49. (Photo Source: Yingl Tsingl Yiddish)
“Evil art thou, man, and still you sing to God
About turning the other cheek to the one who strikes— While under your coat, scarcely concealed,
You hold a freshly sharpened ax.”
—from Rhymes Traced in Sand (Melech Ravitch)
Zelaznej Bramy (Iron Gate) Square, gehtto wall and Lubomirski palace. (Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The title of H. Leivick’s poem Yidn zingn “ani mamin” refers to a hymn believed to have been sung by Jews in concentration camps as an affirmation of faith and a tool of hope against all odds. Neil Levin points out that the text is:
based on the twelfth of Maimonides’ Thirteen Articles of Faith, which are recited daily by most observant Jews in the morning service and are also paraphrased in the hymn yigdal.
the melody upon which Weiner’s song is based is believed to have been fashioned . . . in the Warsaw Ghetto by the Hassidic singer-composer Azriel David Fastag. According to that scenario, it would have been spread from there to the camps to which Jews were deported from the ghetto, as well as to the outside world by the small number of Jews who escaped or otherwise survived.
Leivick’s text does not refer specifically to either the Maimonides text or that of the song developed in the Warsaw ghetto. Rather, it evokes an image of concentration camp prisoners singing the song “in the bunkers” and “in the camps.” The music is Weiner’s own, only obliquely related to the melody attributed to Fastag.
Unter dayne vayse shtern, by Avraham Sutskever, is similar in both subject matter and origin. The text expresses the belief in, and need for, a higher power in a time of great despair. The poem was written in the Vilna Ghetto, where it was set to music and sung in a theatrical production. Weiner’s setting is musically unrelated to the Vilna version.
A deeply secular Jew ... a profoundly religious man.
—Yehudi Wyner (on Lazar Weiner)
Sholom Secunda will forever be known primarily as the composer of Bay mir bistu sheyn, but he also composed a great deal of classical and liturgical music. Among his two contributions to The Art of Jewish Song, is Mimma’amakim (From Out of the Depths), another poem from H. Leivick’s pen. (The title is Hebrew but the poem is in Yiddish.) Based on Psalm 130, it is an impassioned expression of longing for knowledge and closeness to the divine.
One of Leonard Bernstein’s earliest compositions, which he never published, was an adaptation of Psalm 148 set for piano and voice. According to Jack Gottlieb, the piece does not reveal much about the compositional style Bernstein would later develop, but he does detect traces of the music of Bernstein’s childhood synagogue in Boston, which Bernstein always credited as one of his strongest and most profound influences.
While five of the six songs in Ofer Ben-Amots’s Shtetl Songs were covered in part one under the “Judaism/Jewishness” category, the song Royz, royz is considered separately here. It is Ben-Amots’s adaptation of a Hasidic song, which itself was derived from a Hungarian shepherd’s song. Neil W. Levin relates the folklore surrounding the tune’s origins and development:
According to the legend, [Rebbe Yitzhak Taub of Kaliv] was walking in a field when, upon hearing a young shepherd singing this tune to the Hungarian words Ruzha, ruzha, yak ti daleka (Rose, rose, how far away you are), he discerned a profound sense of spiritual longing and pain deep beneath its outer layers. The Kaliver Rebbe gave a few coins to the lad as a symbolic ransom to redeem the song—and also to cause him to forget it permanently, which he did immediately. The rebbe then altered and adjusted the words to suit the deeper meaning he intuited in it, connecting it now to the sh’khina (the Divine Presence, or Holy Spirit) who is far away, and to the galut (Jewish exile) that seems so endless.
Abraham Binder is known primarily for his contributions to synagogue music, particularly as one of number of composers who shifted the music of the American Reform movement from its nineteenth century tendency to approximate Protestant hymns, toward a model based on the European cantorial tradition. In this short song, Binder has set the poem A t’file (A Prayer) by Avraham Reisen that pays tribute to the redemptive power of God and faith.
Though he was born twenty years prior, the poet Avraham Reisen (1876–1953) arrived in the U.S. in the same year as Lazar Weiner, 1914. That he became a famous writer and poet was practically predestined, as his father and siblings were all successful in the field. In addition to plays and poems, Reisen wrote many short stories reflecting the lives and times of common Jews in Europe and America. His poems were sometimes set to music, sung at workers’ rallies, and became heavily enmeshed in Yiddish folk culture.
Avraham Reisen (Photo Source: Wikipedia)
With six poems-turned-art-songs, Reisen’s representation in The Art of Jewish Song is second only to that of H. Leivick. Ikh un di velt (The World and I) is emblematic of the Existentialism theme, the songs of which address questions concerning life’s purpose and meaning. Comprising ten total songs, it is equal in prevalence to the category of Longing/Yearning, featured in part one of this exhibit.
In a setting by Maurice Rauch, the protagonist of Ikh un di velt imagines himself as one with a suffering world. Since neither man nor world can offer one another happiness or comfort, they simply commiserate together. Di shmerterling un di blum (The Butterfly and the Flower) is a meditation on time, likening the lifespan of a man to that of a butterfly or a flower. The setting is by Zavel Zilberts, who here proves himself capable of more than the khor-shul liturgical repertoire for which he is primarily known.
This is also the rare category in which Lazar Weiner is not the dominant figure. Khoyves from Three Poems by Abraham Joshua Heschel appears here. As does Tsela, tseldi, a poem by Jacob Glatstein (1896–1971) that deals with aging and loss, where the main character is considered a metaphor for the Yiddish language.
Solomon Golub’s contribution to this category is a meditation on life’s meaning, tellingly titled Ikh ken es nit farshteyn (I Can’t Understand), composed to a poem by Yehoash (1872–1927). The pen name of Solomon Bloomgarden, Yehoash is a curious figure, perhaps more so for the fact that he has but one song in The Art of Jewish Song. A 1923 review of the first volume of his poetry translated into English claimed he was “generally recognized, by those familiar with this literature, as the greatest living [Yiddish] poet and one of its most skillful raconteurs.” He was also an ambitious translator, having translated into Yiddish Longfellow’s Hiawatha, the Old Testament, and the Koran.
Dray feygl (Three Birds), based on a poem by Nahum Yud, features birds pondering the state of the world. Leo Low’s Di zun fargeyt in flamen (The Sun Sets, Aflame) is a setting of a poem by Yitzhak Katznelson in which fading hope is compared to the setting sun.
Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Art of Jewish Song contains only three songs sung in Hebrew, all three of which deal with existential themes.
Max Helfman’s settings of two poems by Hannah Szenesh (1921–1944) betray a straightforward approach to composition that places text and melody at center stage. Kol kara (A Voice Called) builds slowly with intensity, rumbling chords under a slowly rising and strained melody. Ashrei ha-grafrur (Blessed Is the Match) consists primarily of simple arpeggios outlining an unremarkable harmonic progression—a backdrop that allows the melody to soar.
Sholom Secunda’s song Zariti laru'aḥ anḥati (I Scattered My Sighs Upon the Wind) is to a poem by Ḥayyim Naḥmun Bialik (1873–1934), the famous and celebrated poet who helped revive the Hebrew language in the early days of the Zionist movement. But in contrast to the hope and optimism that pervaded much of that movement, the poem is dark and despondent.
Jacob Glatstein, a founder of the Inzikhistn (Photo Source: Yiddish Book Center)
Inzikhistn, or Introspectivism, was another school of Yiddish poets that cropped up in the early 20th century. Like Di Yunge, the Inzikhistn poets avoided addressing real-world social issues directly and focused their writing inward—as their name implies. “[T]he world exists only as it is mirrored in us,” they wrote in their 1920 manifesto.
Poets of the Inzikhistn group featured in The Art of Jewish Song include Jacob Glatstein and Nahum Baruch Minkoff (1893–1958), each with two poems set by Lazar Weiner.
Lazar Weiner dominates again in the category of songs on romantic love and relationships, with four of seven total songs.
Volt mayn tate raykh geven (If My Father Were Rich) is one of two Weiner songs composed in 1918, the earliest year of any of his songs included in the Milken Archive. It was also among three songs Weiner sent to the composer Joel Engel—who had helped to found the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music—who responded: “Young man, judging by your songs, you have talent but no sense of a Jewish melodic line.” The poem, by Aaron Nissenson (1898–1964), is a simple love poem in which a man vows that he would give up all that his would-be rich father’s money could buy for his one true love. Dos gold fun dayne oygn (The Gold In Your Eyes) was composed in 1922 to a poem by Samuel Jacob Imber, brother of Naftali Herz Imber (1889–1942), who authored the words to Israel’s national anthem. Ikh hob far dir a sod (I Have a Secret for You) is dedicated to Weiner’s wife, Sarah Naomi. It was composed in 1945 to a poem by Minkoff.
1965’s Ikh bin der vaynrib (I Am the Grapevine) is an evocative poem by turns tender, erotic, and dark. Yehudi Wyner has noted that his father through-composed the song—each of the poem’s stanza has been set to different music, reflecting their varied sentiments. The poem is by Mani Leib. (Much discussed in part one of this exhibit, this is Leib’s only appearance in part two.)
IKH BIN DER VAYNRIB
I am the wild grapevine.
Rising up the fence of your yard,
I climb, red and wild,
Up to your window,
To lie down on your floor,
Breathe in the rustle of your dress;
Grow pale in your eyes
And be saddened by your words.
To hang from your lamps,
Autumnal and green like a spider,
Ascending pensively like the light of the lamps,
Like ash in the flames of the fireplace.
To lie, pale and dead
On your windowsills in snow.
Snowed in with snowy snow,
Crying to you from the snow.
Avraham Reisen’s poem, Mit oygn farmakhte (With Closed Eyes) imagines two lovers embraced in a kiss, with each recalling their first loves. This setting is by Mark Silver, actually a younger brother of esteemed liturgical composer Zavel Zilberts and an important synagogue composer in his own right. Pinchas Jassinowsky’s Meydl, meydl, to a poem by Joseph Rolnik (1879–1955), is a miniature song in which an elderly man pleads with a young woman to reciprocate his love for her. Jassinowsky was an acclaimed cantor and singer of art songs, as well as a poet. (Hear him sing a Passover song about beets below, with thanks to the Ansky Jewish Folklore Research Project/Yiddish Song of the Week.)
Helen Greenberg’s (1939–2011) Froyen Stimme (Women’s Voices) is a four-song cycle of settings by female poets. The third song, Dremlin feygl (poem by Leah Rudniztky), appeared in part one of this exhibit. Ikh hob a schvalb gezen (I Have Seen a Swallow) is the cycle’s first song. The poem, by Dora Teitelbaum, utilizes various nature-based metaphors to express sorrow and perseverance in the wake of lost love. (The remaining two songs follow below.)
Also from Froyen Shtime are Mit a nar (With a Fool) and Vayber (Wives), which fall into the category of lighthearted and humorous songs. Both are simple commentaries by women who’ve wound up with less than ideal husbands. Greenberg is the sole female composer in The Art of Jewish Song and among the few to actually be born in the U.S., though she spent most of her adult life in Canada.
Nicholas Saslavsky (1885–1965) was born in the Ukraine, grew up singing in synagogue choirs, and went on to study piano and conducting. He arrived in New York in 1907 and became involved with the Workmen’s Circle, and later served as the musical director of the famed Yiddish radio station WEVD. His Dray yingelekh, to a poem by Itsik Goichberg, is a lighthearted play on words modeled on a Yiddish folk poem.
Nicholas Salsavsky with his family. Date unknown. (Photo courtesy of the Salsavsky family)
Lazar Weiner’s Two Humoresques is a rare specimen, given the composer’s tendency toward serious literature and high culture. The poems by A. Lutzky (Aaron Tsuker, 1894–1957) both concern the fate of a piece of paper. In one poem the paper is terrified to be destroyed in a rainstorm. In the other, it lies itself on train tracks in order to commit suicide, but runs off scared. Di mayse mit der velt (The Story of the World), to a poem by Moshe Lieb Halpern, is an astute, humorous commentary on power and class.
Finally, after benefitting so extensively from Yehudi Wyner’s expertise on his father’s songs, we are able to celebrate his own contribution to this volume. S’iz nito kayn nekhtn (There is No Yesterday) is Wyner’s arrangement of a Yiddish folksong about living in the present, composed in 1964 on commission from the Cantors Assembly.
Given the tragic violence that has comprised so much of the Jewish experience of twentieth century, it is perhaps not surprising that there are only two songs on themes of faith and hope. Both are by Lazar Weiner.
Ovnt-lid (Evening Song) was composed in 1968 in dedication to Susan Davenny-Wyner, who had just joined the family as Yehudi’s wife. H. Leivick’s poem contains allusions to a lullaby and paints an image of silver-white fans drifting consolation and faith to the weary and suffering. Dos reyd funem novi (The Words of the Prophet) dates to 1940. The poem, by L. Magister (1887–1965) presents a vision of utopian future in which the travesties of modern life are unimaginable
And we will tell our children tales:
There was a time when there
Were poor people in the world,
And the hungry begged for a scrap of bread.
And the ill ones passed away before their time.
And the blood of the innocent
was spilled over the earth.
Horrible tales we will tell,
But no one will believe them.
Composer Joel Engel (1868–1927), one of the founders of the Society for Jewish Folk Music. Source: Wikimedia Commons
“Young man, judging by your songs, you have talent but no sense of a Jewish melodic line.”
—Joel Engel (response to Lazar Weiner)
Three Poems by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Gramen Geshribn in zamd
Fun Vayte teg
Yidn zingn "ani manin"
Unter dayne vayse shtern
Royz, royz (Part of Shtetl Songs)
Ikh un di velt
Di shmerterling di blum
Khoyves (Part of Three Poems by Abraham Joshua Heschel)
Ikh ken es nit farshteyn
Di zun fargeyt in flamen
Kol kara (Part of Two Hannah Szenesh Poems)
Ashrei ha-grafrur (Part of Two Hannah Szenesh Poems)
Volt mayn tate raykh geven
Dos gold fun dayne oygn
Ikh hob far dir a sod
Ikh bin der vaynrib
Mit oygn famakhte
Ikh hob a schvalb gezen (Part of Froyen shtime)
Mit a nar (Part of Froyen shtime)
Vayber (Part of Froyen sthime)
Di mayse der velt
S'iz nito kayn nekhtn
Liner notes by Neil W. Levin and Yehudi Wyner
Exhibit curated by Jeff Janeczko
Benjamin, Lauren A. “Inzikhism, Imagism, and Visionary Modernism.” Available at: https://picturesplacesthings.wordpress.com/2014/04/11/inzikhism-imagism-and-visionary-modernism/. Accessed January 17, 2018.
Impressions of the Land of Israel. 1923. Review of The Feet of the Messenger, by Yehoash (Solomon Bloomgar-den). Translated from the Yiddish by Isaac Goldberg. New York Times. 24 June.
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.
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