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Part Four: Aesthetics in Motion -

Teaching and Learning the Yiddish Folksong

The Solo Singer: Ethel Raim with Mark Slobin

A helpful way to understand the nuances of Yiddish folksong performance and of its transmission today is to watch two master teachers, Ethel Raim and Josh Waletzky, introduce younger singers to the world of unaccompanied song. In the accompanying videos and analysis, Raim works with Eléonore Weill one on one, while Waletzky teaches a group, highlighting two types of pedagogy.

Continuing our interest in Lifshe Schaechter-Widman, we have chosen two songs by this outstanding singer, one as part of a filmed teaching session, the other as a complement to round out the discussion of Lifshe’s aesthetic. As mentioned above, the Yiddish folksong can be thought of as the embodiment, at a particular moment, of a set of many parameters. Each offers a different dimension to the overall unit that we call a performed folksong.

The accompanying video of Ethel Raim teaching Eléonore Weill introduces several concepts of teaching and understanding the detail of Yiddish folk song performance. The student sings by herself and with Ethel. Ethel stops to make suggestions and to illuminate points of practice. As you listen to the lesson, keep in mind some of the major variables that emerge from careful hearing and that shape teaching.

Text articulation

Pronunciation of text, including dialect issues

Projecting the feeling of the text

Implicit meter

Flexibility: compression and extension of meter



Melodic articulation

Vocal gestures

Slides: up and down, narrow and wide

Upward and downward turns

Tuning: not always in the piano’s equal temperament



Melodic variation verse to verse

Pickup present or absent

Syllabic flexibility: music shapes to text, or vice versa

Variation in the refrain



Listen for where the singer takes a breath-a flexible parameter


Voice quality/Timbre

Intensification and release: timbre follows expressive needs



Volume level in the Yiddish folksong tends to be steady, but listen for fluctuations


Some important points revealed in the lesson footage include: freedom of meter (expansive and contractive) as opposed to keeping a regular beat, careful enunciation of consonants, shaping the curve of the melody with several types of slides, subtle melodic variation from verse to verse, stress, phrasing, and overall general shape. 


To complement this teaching session, we follow with analysis of some details in a performance by Lifshe Schaechter-Widman, the subject of the essay above by Itzik Gottesman. We have selected a lyrical love song that Gottesman includes - “In mayn hartsn brent a fayer.” Lifshe sings with a characteristic repeat of the last two lines of each stanza. The song is in a minor tonality, the most common for the Yiddish folksong. However, in terms of intonation, she sings the seventh step consistently between major and minor (a “neutral” seventh).


Some melodic and stylistic gestures of her performance manner to listen for include:

  1. Lifshe becomes very expressive as she repeats the last two lines of each verse, slowing down and intensifying the emotion.

  2. Each verse begins with a characteristic pick-up, from steps 5 up to 1. The pick-up may include an upward slide to the tonal center.

  3. The downward slide is a key component of her sense of melodic shape. She may linger on a note before moving to the slide. The upward slide is another of her expressive devices.

  4. Her turns come on words she wants to emphasize, but they also emerge from the shape of the melody.

  5. She sometimes introduces a short-long dotted rhythm for a word rather than equal lengths of syllables.


Some of what you hear in this song is typical of many of Lifshe’s recorded performances. However, she may shape each song differently depending on how she feels the text and the melody. The melodic gestures in this song appear in the recordings of other fine traditional singers, regardless of place of origin. 


In his teaching, like Ethel Raim, Josh Waletzky does one-on-one mentoring. But he also convenes a regular singing circle at his home, with people of varying backgrounds who all want to advance their understanding and practice of the Yiddish folksong.

Group Singing: The Yiddish Singing Society

Josh Waletzky started the Yiddish Singing Society in January, 2018 with the following invitation:


“I have lived with Yiddish song all my life. Hearing, singing, learning, teaching, performing, composing-- I've been thinking about starting a new Yiddish group singing “society” for some time.


Now I'd like to invite you to join this project. Are you interested?


Maybe you've come to a Yiddish sing-along (zingeray), maybe you've sung in a Yiddish chorus, or sung Yiddish songs at a rally, at a concert, or sung Yiddish songs at home, in school, in synagogue, at Yiddish New York or another workshop/festival. Or maybe you've heard Yiddish songs but never sung them yourself. This is your chance to deepen your knowledge and connection as part of a group.


Do you speak Yiddish? Fluently? Pretty well? Just some? A few words? None at all? Any way you answer this question, you are 100% welcome and encouraged to join the Yiddish Singing Society. (Singing songs is a great way to learn a language.)

“But I don't read music.” – No problem, we will learn everything by ear.

“But I'm not a singer.” – The voice is the one instrument everyone possesses. All balonim welcome. (Everyone who wants to join is qualified and welcome.)


What songs will we sing? Folk songs, composed songs, old songs, new songs... Personal songs, political songs,... any songs that relate to our lives today, whenever they were created.”


A typical session draws from a handful to thirty people, including people who are singing Yiddish songs for the first time to Yiddish singer-songwriters like Semen Paley and Sarah Myerson. The Yiddish Singing Society has continued into the Covid-19 era in an online version and will hopefully resume in-person when safety allows.


In the three excerpts presented here--recorded in 2019--we see (from screen left to right when all six people are visible): Arnold Gore, Emily Collins, Josh Waletzky, Sarah Myerson, Rosza Daniel Lang/Levitsky, Susan Epstein.

A SHADKHN DARF MEN KENEN ZAYN (You Have To Know How To Be A Matchmaker)
at the Yiddish Singing Society, 2019.
Emily Collins speaks about her mother, Esther Drucker, a folk singer, whose recording of "A shadkhn darf men kenen zayn (You've Got To Know How to Be A Matchmaker)" was the version learned in the Yiddish Singing Society.
FUN GROYS DASAD (Out of Great Anguish) at the Yiddish Singing Society, 2019.
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