Inside the Yiddish Folksong
An Online Project by Michael Alpert, Walter Zev Feldman,
Itzik Gottesman, Ethel Raim, Josh Waletzky and Mark Slobin
Before we amble through the inner spaces of the Yiddish song, a question (nu, this is a Jewish project): why are we doing this now? It’s because we’re at an historic moment, for two reasons:
1. Never before have we had the key to the treasure house of Yiddish folksong. Major collections are now a click away online, and the deep data of the work of the 1970s YIVO Yiddish Folksong Project will also be available.
2. There’s more interest than there has been in a generation. People want not just to understand, but to personalize the Yiddish folksong, a gratifying moment in the post-vernacular era.
We think of this project as the opening foray into unoccupied territory: the analysis of the Yiddish folksong tradition. We welcome submissions from people who have been doing parallel thinking over time and want to make their findings public. So we’ve added a couple of new sources and would also be glad to hear about other materials we have missed in the resource section below, whether those are historical or current projects.
If people would like to submit essays about their own findings, please address them to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll look them over and let you know what we think about including them on this site.
Meanwhile, to guide your thinking and practice, we offer a wide range of topics. Authors of each section are indicated; the framing remarks are by Mark Slobin.
First, we identify the genre of the folksong within the culture of eastern Ashkenazic Jews and the surrounding European societies. Second, we spotlight structure, zooming in on the details of text, melody, and their intense interaction in performance. Analytically, we’re interested in what’s more fixed and what gets varied, the interplay of the stable and the shifting or, to use another metaphor, what’s the skeleton, the hard tissue, with its joints and articulations, and what’s the flesh, the soft tissue that allows for a breathing, sensing body which leads us to: Third, the inner, aesthetic world of the song, beginning with profiles of two figures whose singing and recordings have been influential, and continuing with a close look at how songs are embodied and transmitted live.
To keep it simple, we’re relying on just a few unaccompanied lyric songs that tell moving tales of personal feelings, tapping the deep wellsprings of women’s Yiddish singing. We chose one poignant song of unrequited love as the centerpiece for our analytical framework, and a couple of others for issues of performance practice—aesthetics in action. We combine technical discussion with video excerpts of teaching sessions by two seasoned mentors, Ethel Raim and Josh Waletzky.
THE PARTICIPANTS’ PERSONAL PATHWAYS AND PROJECTS
The authors have been learning, collecting, performing, studying, and sometimes writing Yiddish songs for decades. It’s an aging brain trust that wants to transmit its collective wisdom at this pivotal moment. Let’s get to know the group, gathered under the benign banner of Pete Rushefsky, Executive Director of the Center for Traditional Music and Dance:
Michael Alpert is a National Heritage Fellow of the United States and a pioneering figure of the international renaissance of East European Jewish music and Yiddish culture since its beginnings in the 1970s. He is known worldwide for his solo and ensemble work with Brave Old World, Itzhak Perlman, Theodore Bikel, Daniel Kahn, Frank London and many others. A native Yiddish speaker, multi-instrumentalist, scholar and educator, Alpert is a foremost traditional Yiddish singer and composer of new Yiddish songs and a leading researcher and teacher of Yiddish dance. An important link to Old World Jewish musicians, he has played a key role in the transmission of Yiddish culture to new generations. His ethnomusicological fieldwork archive resides at the US Library of Congress, and he is translator and co-editor (with Mark Slobin) of Jewish Instrumental Folk Music, the pioneering 1948 work on klezmer music by Soviet Jewish ethnomusicologist Moshe Beregovski. Alpert is affiliated with NYC’s Center for Traditional Music and Dance and has taught at Oxford, Columbia, and Indiana Universities. Hailing from California and New England, he lives on the folksong-rich coast of Scotland with literary scholar Emily Finer and two mist-shrouded cats.
Walter Zev Feldman
Coming from an immigrant landsmanshaft culture, there was no opposition between the world of prayer and the world of dance; most Jews davened in shul, and danced at weddings. But Yiddish lyrical song was part of a women’s world that I never entered. It was only decades later that I came to know and admire the brilliant poet and song-writer Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman—originally from the former Austrian zone of Historical Moldova, and long resident with her family in another part of the West Bronx. It was largely through her and the rich cultural environment she created that I came to appreciate the depth and beauty of Yiddish song.
I grew up in the Bronx in a house that became a gathering place for fine Yiddish singers in the neighborhood. "Leading the pack" were my grandmother Lifshe Schaechter-Widman who learned her repertoire in her small shtetl, and my mother, the poet and artist, Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman who came from a bigger city. They inspired me to study folklore and to record Yiddish singers and songs wherever I traveled. Fortunately, I can feature their singing and my field recordings on the blog "Yiddish Song of the Week". Not only can much about Jewish life in Eastern Europe and immigrant life be learned from these singers but the women's voice, so suppressed in traditional Jewish life, takes front and center when it comes to the Yiddish folksong.
Ethel Raim has been singing Yiddish folksongs her entire life. The daughter of immigrant parents from Poland, she grew up in The Bronx in the 1940s. Her parents were part of a thriving, working-class, Yiddish speaking community that created institutions and organizations designed to sustain the Yiddish language and culture well into the future. In addition to establishing a network of folkshuln (Yiddish "folk schools"), the community founded a children’s summer camp (Camp Kinderland) and a Yiddish summer retreat (Camp Lakeland) that primarily served an adult population of garment workers, furriers and milliners, among others. She learned her early repertoire of Yiddish songs as a camper at Kinderland and from attending her local folkshule. While still in her twenties, Raim went on to co-found and direct the Pennywhistlers, an all-women’s a cappella singing group which performed a rich mix of Slavic and Yiddish folksongs. She has had a distinguished career as a performer, workshop leader, master singing teacher, and recording artist for the Elektra and Nonesuch labels. In the 1980s she worked extensively with Feygl Yudin, a traditional Yiddish singer originally from Grodna (Grodno) Gubernia, now in Belarus, from whom renowned Canadian-born folklorist Ruth Rubin had, in the late 1940s, collected and recorded numerous songs. In the early 1990s Raim had the good fortune of working intensively with Yiddish singer, poet, and NEA Heritage Fellow, Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman. Over the past two decades, Raim has taught traditional unaccompanied Yiddish singing at Yiddish Summer Weimar, KlezKamp, KlezKanada, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and at Yiddish New York. She continues to conduct singing workshops and master classes at universities and community centers here and abroad. Raim received the NEA Bess Lomax Hawes Fellowship in 2018.
My mother and her family immigrated from Uman, Ukraine, to Detroit in 1922. Mom and my Detroit-born father loved to sing in Yiddish and other languages at gatherings and on the long summer car rides we took in the 1950s. From 1973 on, I was drawn to YIVO’s storehouse of Yiddish songs--European, American- and have authored, edited, and translated books based on historical sources and fieldwork about the music of the eastern Ashkenazic Jews.
Mark is the curator of the Folksong project. Read his introductions by clicking through the menu headings!
I was born in 1948 and grew up in New York City in an extended family and community that was deeply engaged in Yiddish cultural activities. For example—my grandfather was an early supporter of the YIVO in New York; my parents met in the youth organization of the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute, whose summer camp, Boiberik, was an important part of my growing up. From my earliest years, I was hearing, learning, singing, performing, then teaching, and writing songs in the Yiddish song style—at first settings of existing texts, and eventually both text and music for new Yiddish songs. I have released two CDs of original Yiddish songs—Ariber di shotns / Crossing the Shadows (2001) and pasazhirn / Passengers (2017), and recently I wrote a Yiddish song cycle, pleytem tsuzamen / Refugees Together (2019), commissioned by Yiddish Summer Weimar. I've benefited from many mentors in the world of Yiddish song—including Vladimir Heifetz and Chana Mlotek—and have in turn become a teacher and mentor, today as the leader of the Yiddish Singing Society. In the late 1970s, I was one of the founding members of the klezmer revival group Kapelye, and it was then that I met two treasured colleagues who have joined me in the Inside Yiddish Song circle—Michael Alpert and Ethel Raim. The origins of my essay on rhythm in Yiddish song reach back to my high-school years, when I purchased a copy of The Rhythmic Structure of Music in the Juilliard bookstore (I was studying at the Preparatory Division at the time). A decade later, as an auditor in Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett's Yiddish Folk Song seminar at YIVO, I made a presentation on this very topic. Nearly five decades and some many words and pictures later, I have lived to complete the thought.