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What do we mean by “the Yiddish folksong?” This powerful and poignant form of expressive culture lies at the intersection a set of overlapping forms of expression of the Jews and the “co-territorial” cultures of the surrounding ethic groups. Below, Zev Feldman’s essay pinpoints the location of this rich repertoire within the Jewish and wider European worlds. A quick statement about “folksong” might be in order. Across Europe, this word emerged around 200 years ago from circles of intellectuals, activists, and nationalists as an emanation of das Volk, the German term that inspired English “folk” studies. Since most of Europe was peasantry, the idea was that those landed people embodied the soul of “the nation” and expressed it in their songs, dress, vernacular architecture, crafts, dialect, and so on. (For more on this, see Slobin, Folk Music: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2010.) This construct simply doesn’t fit the eastern European Jewish song world and folkslid is not a traditional word in Yiddish. A lid can be a song or even a published poem with no melody. It can be created by anonymous small-town singers or, in the famous case of Mark Varshavski, by a Kiev lawyer.

But there are overlapping histories. As with all European ethnic traditions, songs in Yiddish moved from local social circles into city entertainment, print, and other mechanisms of modernity that pushed them into circulation systems outside the original community contexts. New ways of using the folksong--commercialism, revivalism—have layered on older contexts, like celebration, entertainment, religious practice, and social movements. The Jews were always urban. Even the shtetl was an urban environment in contrast to villages, and there was always interplay between oral and written versions. 

We know comparatively little about the Yiddish folksong before the twentieth century, which began with the publication of a ground-breaking collection by Ginsburg and Marek in 1901. But those enthusiasts did not include melodies, just words. It took decades for anyone to collect a body of folksongs from oral tradition and to carefully transcribed them from field recordings, rather than just remember a tune and publish it with an often arbitrary and misleading piano accompaniment that reduced the vitality of the original performance. We don’t know all that much about the folksong as a thread in the fabric of daily life in eastern Europe, but some evidence will emerge with the forthcoming publication of materials from the 1970s YIVO Yiddish Folksong Project, directed by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. Here’s a small example: a woman singer – call her Rokhl- said that in her hometown, all the women would be plucking chickens for a holiday at the same time. They would gather to do this and they told her “Rokhl, you’re a good singer. Sing while we’re working, and we’ll pluck your chicken.” A counterpart story comes from a man, call him Mordkhe. At Passover, making matzo has to be done quickly to be kosher, in exactly 18 minutes. A group of men would do this jointly and they said: “Mordkhe, you’re a good singer. Sing while we’re working, and we’ll make your portion of matzo.” This tells us a lot: people liked singing while working, they recognized the good singers in their circle, and were willing to informally reward them for the aesthetic satisfaction they provided. It’s tragic that we can’t gather this kind of insight from the liquidated millions of Jews in eastern Europe. We just have crumbs from the banquet, but it’s enough to savor and analyze one of the richest folksong storehouses of world music.

Today, it’s easy to think of the Yiddish folksong as a canon, a fixed set of texts from the past. That’s too bad. It limits the imagination. What is a canon? The Jews had a bunch of sacred texts that kept piling up, and the authorities decided which ones would be the official set of stories about the people, history, and God. All the other writings became marginal, less defining. That doesn’t work for the song tradition. True, we have only a limited set of items that were written down or recorded when Yiddishland was more of an everyday reality than a memory. So what we have is an unsystematic collection, not a stringently selected, authoritative source. Here are three reasons for why the idea of a canon is limiting:

What is a “song.” A Yiddish song is not written in stone, like the tablets of the law. It’s an assemblage of assorted textual and melodic materials uniquely joined into a recognizable and memorable structure that stays in the mind of people who’ve heard it and sing it, always differently. Single singers vary their versions, and over time, like any living thing, the song grows, changes, ages, or even (kholile) dies. 

Let’s use the metaphor of a patchwork quilt. Selection and stitching create something that looks solid but is actually just a temporary joining of very different materials. You can look at it as a static object, but it pulsates with the histories of each of its parts, which had other lives in many places. To learn quiltmaking or analyze a given example, you have to know how its makers planned, selected, and joined the very different pieces. Songs are a lot like that. Like quilts, Yiddish folksongs are mostly made by women. And, like quilts, they kept the Jews cozy and warm in hard times.

The illusion of wholeness. You can absorb the whole of a song version--an item in a canon--to learn, perform, and use it as a springboard for creative work. That’s mostly about memorizing text and tune. But in performance the folksong offers much more, blending many features we’ll discuss below, such as: voice quality, microtonal variation, small expressive gestures, breath, pacing, repetition, and internal variation from verse to verse, all within the imaginative world of an aesthetic, personal and communal, an agreement of taste, “what I/we like,” and a shared understanding of the song’s emotional significance to singer and listener. Age and experience work on the way people remember and re-imagine songs over time. Many singers go through life-changing moments: war, dislocation, emigration and immigration are hardly unusual, or just the impact of what they’ve heard over the years from other song sources.

Bottom line: the less you think of the folksong as fixed, the better you can grasp its essence.​

Part One: Genre

Inside the Yiddish Folksong LAST.png

Glossary of Terms

badkhn (pl. badkhonim):                             

baltfile (ba’al tefilah):                                   




dveykes nign:                                               


gas nign:                                                      








kavone (kavanah):                                     




khazn (khazzan):                                         




klezmer (pl. klezmorim):                        



loshn koydesh:                                        










nign (Heb. niggun):    




















Rus Language:         





tish nign:                





wedding jester, orator, and master of ceremonies. Always appeared with the klezmer kapelye. His art was called “badkhones.”



“master of prayer”; lay prayer leader among East Ashkenazim.




musical and partly improvised recitation of the statutory prayers among East Ashkenazim.



Greek translation of Hebrew “Galut” (Exile). Jewish populations living outside of the historical Kingdom of Judah. The first Exile from Judah began in 597-86 B.C. to Babylonia. Some Judeans returned under the Persian imperial rule (539-333 B.C) but others remained in the East.
During the Second Temple period, some Judeans emigrated to Egypt, Anatolia or Greece. Another group was exiled after the two Revolts against Roman rule in 70 and 132 A.D.

 (E. Slavic “good morning”) metrical klezmer melody (usually in ¾) performed outdoors at dawn, on the morning of a wedding. In the North usually termed “volekh.”





lit. “melody of clinging to God.” (Heb. dveykut) . Slow Hasidic wordless tune of mystical intention.





(Yid.) “street melody”. Metrical klezmer melody played to escort the guests home through the streets. Sometimes related musically to the dobriden.



early East Yiddish term for Jewish song


 follower of a rebbe, representing one of the lines of the Hasidic movement, originating in the eighteenth century.

klezmer ensemble, also called “kompaniya”. In Europe usually led by the first violinist. 

“intention.” Focusing of the mind and heart during prayer. 

Turkic Empire of the Northern Caucasus, Crimea and Ukraine, from the 7th to the 10th centuries A.D. The ruler and most of the aristocracy converted to rabbinic Judaism in the mid-8th century.

professional synagogue cantor. His art was called “khazzones”. 



member of the Jewish musicians’ guild. Originating in 16th century Prague, and spreading to Poland-Lithuania, Ottoman Moldova and their successor states. Their entirely instrumental music conducted the stages of the Jewish wedding, and also was the accompaniment for dance. 


“Canaan.”  medieval rabbinic term for the Slavic-speaking territories, from Ukraine in the East to Bohemia and Thuringia in the West. Referring to “Canaanite slave,” from the widespread trade in Slavic slaves (i.e. the pan-European word derives from Slav). 


“Holy Tongue”, refers to both Hebrew and Aramaic components in the Yiddish language. 


Became a Grand Duchy in mid-14th century. Remained pagan until conversion to Catholicism in 1386 of Prince Jagiello, who became King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania.  Native Jews were expelled a century later, in 1495. Jews returned in less than a decade, leading to immigration of Ashkenazic Jews into all the territories from Lithuania and Latvia to Ukraine in the South. After Partition of 1795, most of these territories were annexed by the Russian Empire.


follower of the East European branch of the Haskalah (haskole), Jewish “Enlightenment”, originating in late eighteenth century Germany, but taking its own form in Eastern Europe during the nineteenth century. 


originally a Lithuanian opponent of the Hasidic movement, but here non-Hasidic traditional Jews anywhere in Eastern Europe. 



modern vernacular language of Christians and Jews, mainly in or from Northern Iraq. To the latter, known as Targum (“translation”). 



wordless melody, usually metrical, sung mainly (but not exclusively) by Hasidim. More broadly, any rhythmic tune. (pl. niggunim).



Heb. “order”, “version.” In Ashkenazic prayer, the traditional way of singing according to the given liturgical function, modality and local custom, always in flowing rhythm. It formed the basis for both davenen and khazones

religious loshn-koydesh repertoire sung at home, on the Sabbath, Peysekh and other   holidays. 




Kingdom established in the 10th century, first capital Krakow. Jews resided there since the 11th century. Joined with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1569 as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzeczspolita). Maintained its independence until the Partitions between 1772-95. 


Originally an offshoot of Khazaria, but ruled by an independent kaghan since the middle of the 10th century, first on the middle Volga, and later in Kiev. In 988 Kaghan Vladimir accepted the Christian religion in its Eastern Orthodox form. After the Mongol sack of Kiev (1239-41), the Rus established a less centralized kaghanate in Volhynia and Galicia, until 1349, when it was annexed by the Kingdom of Poland. Jews continued to live in Kiev and Volhynia during this era. 


East Slavic language spoken throughout the Rus territories, antecedent to the modern Ukrainian and Belarussian languages. Jews in Kiev and elsewhere in the Rus Kaghanate and later in the Duchy of Lithuania spoke it, and wrote it in the Hebrew alphabet until the 16th century, when it was replaced by Yiddish.  



Heb. “song.” Term used for religious song in Yiddish



(Yid.) small town, typically on the estates of East European nobility with a majority Jewish population.



lit. “table song”; wordless melodies sung either individually or communally at the table of the Hasidic rebbe. Melodies usually featured long phrases in irregular meters. 


loshn koydesh paraliturgical hymn, sung at occasions other than Sabbath (from Heb. zemer=”song”). 



hymn sung around the Sabbath table. A large and diverse repertoire, some of which were of earlier instrumental origin. Others featured changing rhythmic structures, more akin to tish niggunim, but employed loshn koydesh prayer texts (zemirot). 

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