For many decades the composer and conductor Maurice [Moyshe] Rauch was one of the principal figures on the Yiddishist music scene in the United States, in particular in its widespread choral movement.

Rauch was born in Anykst in Kovno Gubernye, then in Russian Poland as part of the Czarist Empire (now Lithuania). His father, shortly after being released from Siberian exile and imprisonment for revolutionary activities and associations, immigrated to the United States prior to the rest of the family, and Maurice was brought to America by his mother when he was nine months old. He had a solid general education at New York City public schools, and he attended Yiddishist cultural schools and summer camps from the time he was nine years old: the Sholem Aleichem Folks Shule, the Arbeter Ring (Workmen’s Circle) mitlshul, the Lerer Kursn, and the Sholem Aleichem Institute’s Camp Boiberik; and he worked at Camp Kinderland.

Upon his graduation from DeWitt Clinton High School, Rauch entered the Institute of Musical Art in New York (later The Juilliard School), where he focused on composition, which he subsequently pursued in Paris for about a year under a private scholarship with the legendary Nadia Boulanger. He related that Mme. Boulanger would simply tell him to leave an envelope on the piano after his lessons, in which he should put whatever money he felt he could afford from the accompanying, coaching, and other work he managed to find in Paris for his subsistence and to supplement his scholarship. In the United States he studied conducting formally with Albert Stoessel; and one of his piano teachers was Lazar Weiner, the supreme avatar of Yiddish art song and himself a brilliant virtuoso pianist. 

Rauch’s father was an ironworker who was involved in labor struggles and protests in New York, and though he quickly thought better of the idea, he even mused aloud about returning to the newly minted Communist state in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution. Both parents were frequently at the forefront of rent strikes and other working-class disputes typical of the time. That family history, the circle of like-minded friends and acquaintances who frequented their home, and young Rauch’s exposure to the moderately leftist persuasions of his Yiddishist schooling cultivated in him a Yiddish-speaking working-class orientation and Volksgeist to which he remained committed throughout his life—long after those currents had lost much of their political viability specifically in terms of Jewish culture. He expressed that sympathy in much of his music—in original compositions and arrangements and in his selections of related repertoire for choral concerts.

In 1945 Rauch became associated with the Jewish Music Alliance (Der yidisher muzik-farband), which, unlike the socialist-infused (but anticommunist) Arbeter Ring, tended toward the extreme left in its support and funding of choruses that were even further to the left, and in the publication of choral arrangements of workers’ and revolutionary songs in Yiddish (some in open praise of the Soviet Union and its leaders). He directed its affiliated choruses in New England. During the 1930s the Alliance had altered its name from the original one, Der yidisher muzikalisher arbiter-farband (the Jewish Workers Music Alliance), to the version without the reference to “workers”; but its mission, character, and political sympathies (though not tied to any one party or party line) remained unchanged. As an organization in which many members saw hope for the future in proletarian internationalism, it generally shied away from overt nationalist expressions and ignored cultural as well as political Zionist repertoires, which, in any case, were in modern Hebrew and thus outside—if not contrary—to the Alliance’s purpose. Nonetheless, the Alliance was also linked to the Jewish National Workers Alliance, which had Labor Zionist leanings and involvements. That connection helped foster in some Alliance circles a measure of pride in the new Jewish state after 1948, and in 1952 Rauch led a combined Jewish Music Alliance chorus on a tour to Israel to appear at the first of many subsequent international choral festivals there, known as the Zimriya. Although the festival certainly could expect to have members of Israel’s labor movements in its audiences, and though a part of the attraction for that tour probably resided in the socialist dimensions of modern Israel’s development, the motivation for the participation of the Alliance was more cultural than political. It was an opportunity to gain greater recognition for the chorus and its cultural endeavors, and to expose uninitiated younger audiences (Israeli and others) to the Yiddish repertoire and its underlying literary elements, to which Alliance members were fiercely devoted as their Jewish identity.

In 1953 or thereabouts (surviving records, which were haphazardly kept, are vague, confusing, and beset by inconsistencies), Rauch became the conductor of the Frayhayt Gezang Farayn (Freedom Singing Society) in New York. Also known as the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus (and, on occasion, out of political expediency or for wider, nonjudgmental public appeal, more naturally as the Jewish Philharmonic Chorus, as at its 1948 Carnegie Hall concert), this was the largest of the far-left Yiddish folk choruses. Many of its members had varying degrees of Communist sympathies, and in some cases outright Communist affiliations, although that characterization could fluctuate in its application from one decade to another; and it became the flagship chorus of a loosely federated network of similar ensembles as well as mandolin orchestras in numerous other eastern and Midwestern cities. Its official founding date is now generally given as 1923. But it had roots in a Yiddish-speaking workers’ chorus that was formed during the First World War, if not earlier, in Chicago, which appears to have been the first city to host such groups—older Yiddish choruses in Jewish farming communities or communes notwithstanding, such as the one in Petaluma, California, which might have been the first Yiddish chorus of any stripe in America. The Frayhayt Gezang Farayn also appears to have sprung in part from an ideological split among a chorus organized even earlier in New York, in which the members became vehemently divided largely over Communist versus non- or anticommunist socialist support and diverging attitudes toward the nascent Soviet Union. After the split, the more moderate, anticommunist faction proceeded to develop as the Arbeter Ring Khor—the Workmen’s Circle Chorus.

Just prior to Rauch’s engagement as its conductor, the Frayhayt Gezang Farayn had merged with the Yiddishist-oriented International Workers Order (IWO) choruses. Begun in the 1920s as well, these also formed a network of more than thirty choral groups spread throughout the Greater New York area, New Jersey, and Midwestern cities such as Cleveland, Chicago, and Detroit. They had also been known in Yiddish as the Ordn-khorn, because of their collective affiliation with the Ordn—the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order, which was itself aligned with the Soviet Union and with Communist Party thought, ideals, and programs, and on some levels with the Party itself. Following the merger, the chorus in New York abandoned its Yiddish name (except nostalgically among longtime and especially prewar members) and was more commonly known thereafter by the English name: the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus. Rauch directed it until his retirement, in 1977, and he composed many cantatas and dramatic chorales for it, frequently in collaboration with Itche Goldberg as the librettist.

Rauch also composed and conducted a good deal for modern dance. His wife, the former Lillian Shapero, was a dancer in the original Martha Graham Dance Company, and she had taught at one of the Yiddishist schools on whose faculty Rauch once served. After beginning his conducting career with ensembles in several small New Jersey towns, Rauch also conducted extensively for the Yiddish theater—both before and during his tenure with the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus. His involvement as a conductor for Second Avenue, however, was marginal. (We can identify at least one related song that he composed, Yidish iz azoy sheyn—“Yiddish Is so Beautiful”—together with one of the principal Second Avenue lyricists.) His theatrical conducting was instead tied to the more sophisticated and less populist forms: the Yiddish Art Theatre; ARTEF (a politically oriented serious Yiddish theater); and the Federal Jewish Theatre Project, an affiliate of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration.

Among Rauch’s many choral cantatas and other larger works—in addition to Oyb nit nokh hekher, which was recorded for the Milken Archive and is included here in Volume 12—are his Esther Hamalka, to a text by Wolf Younin; Gedenk mayn folk; a setting of Yevtushenko’s Babi Yar in Yiddish translation from the original Russian; Fun viglid biz ziglid, a choral ballet; Hudl, an operetta based on the Sholem Aleichem character Tevye; Binyomin hashlishi and Fishke, based on stories by Mendl Mokher Sforim; Bontshe shvayg, to the famous story by Isaac Leyb [Yitskhoh Leyb/Leybush] Peretz, which also formed the basis for Lazar Weiner’s independent cantata in English, The Last Judgment (included in the Milken Archive in Volume 17); and Sholem aleikhem dir, amerike! an operetta based on Sholem Aleichem’s Motl peyse dem khazns.

Rauch also wrote many simple but sophisticated Yiddish art songs, and for that genre he was especially fond of Itzik Manger’s poetry. As a young student, Rauch was introduced to the well-known Yiddish poet Zishe Weinper, who had served in the Jewish Legion in Palestine and was subsequently engaged to teach Hebrew at the school Rauch attended. Weinper invited him to compose a setting of one of his poems, and Rauch selected Loshn mayns iz yidish (My Language Is Yiddish). He set it as a choral piece, which was premiered by the chorus of YKUF (Yiddish Cultural Association) at its annual concert two days after Weinpur had been killed in an automobile crash.

Rauch’s lifelong alignment with the far-left wing of American Yiddishist circles through his work with the Alliance and his dedication to the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus should not demean his personal patriotism or question his (or many of the choristers’) loyalty to the American political system. That type of involvement did not necessarily translate to actual political commitment or activity—other than an abiding sympathy with the working class and its struggles for social justice and economic parity and, of course, a deep concern for the related cultural dimensions embraced by the Yiddish-speaking left.

For many musicians and other artists of Rauch’s generation who flirted far more directly than he did with Communism (some becoming Party members, others confining themselves to talk) and who naïvely harbored admiration for the perceived societal benefits of the Bolshevik Revolution, the appeal was more often emotional than ideological—and typically romanticized. In fact, most such artists (including actors) possessed no intellectual command or historical understanding of political, economic, or social theory, and they could be easy targets for well-aimed and cleverly contrived propaganda—which ignited greater momentum in the context of group psychology and peer reinforcement. Organizations such as the Alliance and the left-wing choruses it supported could thus be witting or unwitting incubators of that slant.

On the other hand, when considered out of cultural context, the political dimensions of the Yiddish choral movement in America, even of its far-left groups, can be easily exaggerated and inflated. Indeed, unlike certain musical organizations entirely outside the specifically Jewish sphere in America during the 1930s (a few of which are now known to have received funding and other support either directly or indirectly from the Communist Party), none of these Yiddish choruses could be characterized as political or quasi-political cells. Nor were they monolithic in their makeup, especially after the initial Communist/non-Communist schism in the 1920s, nor uniform in their voting patterns, although the collective worldview of their members was naturally bound to their working-class status or origins and thus understandably tilted leftward. But individual conscience prevailed; there were no extramusical qualifying tests for membership and no required political standards other than the draw of like-minded people. In reality, the focus of the movement as a whole, including the entire range of choruses and their varying shades, was primarily cultural, and that cultural mission was inseparable from the human values that were tethered to the promotion of social and economic justice. It was through Yiddish language and the humanistic aspects of its literature, which in turn informed their music, that the choristers and the composers who wrote for them expressed those concerns; and it was likely that this combination of cultural and social commitments drove political sympathies rather than that preexisting personal political ideologies generated their articulation as a matter of required doctrine.

At the age of ninety-six, Itche Goldberg, Rauch’s frequent collaborator, reminisced with characteristic erudition about the Yiddish choral movement in America and the far-left folk choruses in particular. Goldberg was a seminal figure in the preservation and promotion of Yiddish culture and had been intimately involved for decades with the Ordn (as head of its culture and education department), the IWO choruses, the Alliance, and the Jewish People’s Philharmonic choruses. “Culturally left, essentially” was how he described them; “That’s the best definition.” But he also stressed that they viewed their calls for socioeconomic justice and their depictions of social struggle as patently American—something they knew they could not have done publicly in Europe.

It is true, and we cannot ignore the fact, that their repertoire included choral settings of such songs as “The Red Army Ballad”; “The Internationale” (in Yiddish, of course), which had been the battle cry of revolutionaries and then of the Revolution and subsequently the national anthem of the new Soviet Union; glorifications of the Bolshevik victory; and even, at one point, odes to Stalin. Yet the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus did not eschew music about America in a positive vein, but did not include such simplistic, saccharine immigrant expressions as Ikh hob dikh lib, amerike or Ikh dank dir got far amerike, which could be heard on commercial Yiddish radio broadcasts as innocent entertainment but were devoid of any social message. Nor did songs such as Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,”the Yiddish version of which became a staple in the repertoire of Workmen’s Circle choruses, hold any interest for the farther left choruses. They preferred to sing about America in more intellectual and literary terms. Under Rauch’s direction, for example, the New York chorus performed Ikh aykh amerike (I, Too, Sing America!)—which took the line from a poem by the eminent black American poet Langston Hughes. Its lyrics contained both praise and constructive criticism, emphasizing the synergy between Yiddish and American cultures and their mutual contributions.

Nor was the chorus’s repertoire confined exclusively to the Yiddish folk idiom, even though that remained its priority. Inspired by Rauch, it made some ventures into the classical music canon, on occasion performing works by such non-Jewish composers as Mendelssohn, Haydn, and even Shostakovich—always in Yiddish.

In hindsight, Goldberg regretted the fragmentation among the Yiddish choral movement; he had come to realize that all the constituent choruses, regardless of individual or differing slants, had basically the same goal of cultural preservation. Also, as mid-century approached, they felt an urgency to maintain through music an awareness of their European as well as immigrant roots—an unfading collective memory of what they had found and experienced in the new land, and an undiluted consciousness of how American society had progressed since those days. The insistence on perpetuating those memories, even if they were not always complimentary toward the United States, amounted to an important statement about America and about the potential of democracy, which had been a new concept to most Yiddish-speaking immigrants. Referring to some of the songs of social protest that the choruses sang long after their applicability had been defused by advances in American society, Goldberg observed that “the groan and hope of a certain period in the life of our people—in Europe and in America—would have been lost if not for the choruses programming such songs as concert presentations.” No longer part of the older political rallies at which they had first been sung, they were now instruments of cultural preservation.

Goldberg was convinced that Rauch was first and foremost devoted to his art. “He came not to the movement, but to the music,” he insisted. Nonetheless, Rauch’s emotional concern for social justice and working-class interests—as a specifically Jewish voice on behalf of Jewish victims of exploitation (not necessarily with any accompanying formal political program)—is expressed with typical nostalgia for past struggles in his retrospective essay “The Yiddish Worker Sings,”in which he looked back over a half century of Yiddish choral activity in America. By then, of course, the urgency of his references to “Jewish masses” in terms of proletarian social and economic battles had become largely obsolete; and the politically as well as socially driven raison d’être for such choruses had faded, upheld by the mid-1970s only by a handful of elderly and aging veterans and longtime choristers for whom past and present were not always easily divisible. For a while these choruses sputtered on in a few cities, primarily in name or as echoes, at occasional social gatherings that provided some internal satisfaction. (The Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus in New York never ceased officially, and eventually it was reinvented and revitalized solely as a Yiddish cultural endeavor, shorn of political ramifications.) For Rauch, however, the old sentiments never lost their currency, and the once real aspirations never became redundant:

Mass oriented, both singers and audience are Jewish workers. The repertoire expresses the needs, the sufferings and the aspirations of the Jewish masses. The musical idiom is the traditional and the folk songs…. And working-man? His state has changed considerably since the labor struggles of fifty years ago in which our songs played so great a part. What has not changed is that the hope of the world still lies in his hands…. These principles have nurtured and sustained us for fifty years. We restate them today to ensure that the voice of the Yiddish Worker will still ring out, strong and clear, in the year 2014. 

By: Neil W. Levin







Volume 9 | 1 Track


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