The Life of the Yiddish Folksinger:
The folklorists who collected, recorded and examined Yiddish folksongs beginning at the end of the 19th and early 20th century thru the 1960s did so with little concern or interest in the life of the singers themselves. They were either looking for materials to give insight into Jewish history or into the "inner Jewish life," as did Peysekh Marek and Shaul Ginsburg for their 1901 collection, or they were seeking "pearls" of Jewish folk poetry, as did I. L. Cahan and Shmuel Lehman. The pioneering folklorist S. An-sky sought the authentic Jewish spirit--the folksgayst-- and the same could be even said about Ruth Rubin after World War Two. They left us treasures of Yiddish songs but relatively little information on the creators of these "pearls."
Through a rare side comment here and there in these earlier printed folklore collections, we can glean important insights about the Yiddish folksinger, but before World War Two, only the Soviet ethnomusicologist Moyshe Beregovski asked questions of the singer about his or her life and analyzed the performance to some degree.
To find ethnographic descriptions of Yiddish folksingers and not just the texts to songs, one can turn to the work of journalists such A. Litvin ( the pseudonym of S. Hurwitz), who traveled through Eastern Europe before World War One and published his six volume Yidishe neshomes [Jewish Souls] in 1916, filling them with accounts of folk street performers. Menakhem Kipnis, based in Warsaw was another noted journalist and writer in Poland, also known as a singer and photographer, who would on occasion write about folksingers, klezmers, and cantors with an ethnographic eye.
The lack of contextual and biographical information on Yiddish folksingers was filled in part by the initiative "The Yiddish Folksong Project," conceived and directed by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett from 1972 to 1975 and conducted through the auspices of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Prof. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett [BKG] designed a lengthy questionnaire to be asked for each song in the performer's repertory. Among the questions for the singer were: when did you last sing the song? what kind of song would you call it? what do you feel about the song?
The Folksinger Lifshe Schaechter-Widman
To write the grant for this project, BKG interviewed my grandmother, Lifshe Schaechter-Widman (1893 - 1974) in New York and recorded her for more than 40 hours during the last years of her life. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has recently donated all the tapes of this project to YIVO. These interviews with LSW provide most of the details of the following examination of the life of the Yiddish folksinger.
We are also fortunate that Lifshe Schaechter-Widman [ LSW] wrote her memoirs in Yiddish, Durkhgelebt a velt [A full life], in 1973, a work in which song and singing play a part. In addition, in 1954, Leybl Kahn, a member of the YIVO "I. L. Cahan Folklore Club" recorded LSW singing approximately 90 songs and these recordings include some biographical and contextual information. Based on these memoirs, the BKG recordings and discussions with other family members, one can obtain a better picture of the life of the Yiddish folksinger than ever before.
Lifshe Schaechter-Widman was born Lifshe Gottesman in 1893 in a small town, Zvinyetshke on the Dniester river in the region called Bukovina. Her father's name was Yoyne Fishbach, but since many Jews only cared about a Jewish wedding contract and not about a state wedding license, all the "bastard" children took the mother's last name of Gottesman.
This province belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire until World War One, so all the Jews could speak German, as well as Ukrainian, the language of the co-territorial people, alongside their native Yiddish. It became part of Romania between the World Wars and is divided today, with the southern half of Bukovina in Romania and the northern half in the Ukraine. Her mother Tobe was left a widow when Lifshe was three years old, and together with three older brothers and an older sister, she was raised in this shtetl till she left for America alone at the age of fifteen.
Zvinyetshke was a small shtetl and Lifshe joked that it was so tiny that if a horse and wagon entered and stopped in the middle of town, the wagon shaft would be at one end of the shtetl and the wheels at the other end. Zvinyetshke was just across the Dniester river from the much larger town of Zalishchyky (Yiddish = Zalishtshik), which was Austrian Galicia before the first world war and Poland between the wars. Zvinyetshke became part of Romania after World War One though no one there spoke (or sang) Romanian. Today Zvinyetshke, like all of northern Bukovina including the capital city Chernivtsi (Yiddish = Chernovitz), is in western Ukraine.
The lay-out of Zvinyetshke was not typical for a shtetl. The Jews lived at the foot of two hills, their homes built on both sides of a road leading over the Dniester river a half mile away. The Ukrainians lived on top of one of the hills where the church was located. Nevertheless, interaction between the Jews and Ukrainians was constant and this is revealed in Lifshe's repertoire, which included many Ukrainian songs that she learned mainly from the Ukrainian girls who worked in Jewish homes. She even learned a Ukrainian song composed by the local Eastern Orthodox priest upon the death of his wife in childbirth.
Then and Now: Lifshe Schaechter-Widman’s Hometown of Zvinyetchke, Bukovina, Ukraine
Photo by Itzik Gottesman, 2010
One of the wonderful features of "The YIVO Yiddish Folksong Project" was that it researched not just the Yiddish repertoire but the entire multilingual repertoire of the Jewish folksinger in Eastern Europe. For Lifshe this meant including the Ukrainian and German songs that she sang in addition to the Yiddish ones. The interviews with LSW also reveal that she loved to sing in all three languages and that she and her audience would cry just as easily from hearing a Ukrainian song as a Yiddish one.
The Jews of Zvinyetshke recognized her singing ability at a very young age, seven or eight years old. She was taught songs by members of the community with the expectation, it seems, that she would sing these songs back to them or to a larger group. She readily acknowledged that others who sang in the town knew perhaps twenty songs, but she and her two aunts knew many, many more. She learned quickly which songs were appropriate for what audience. Using her terminology, the audiences could be either meydlekh (unmarried girls), vayber (wives, married), or forgeshritene ("progressive" but used as a catch-all word to include the Jews who were not as strictly religious as the Hasidim, as well as Maskilim and Zionists).
Though she learned a couple of worker's songs in Eastern Europe, those songs mainly entered her repertory when she came to America for the first time in 1912. However, in her interviews with BKG, she was quite conscious of class differences in her town. She had come from a middle class family until her father died of cholera. After that loss, the family suffered from poverty, but her mother still looked down upon the working class and considered her family to be of a higher social status. When young Lifshe played too long with the children of the working class, her mother would come and take her home. But in the meantime, she learned songs from their fathers; the roofers, cobblers and tailors.
She would not sing to Hasidic Jews because of the religious restraint that prevents women from singing for men. Her own brother, Srul, was a devoted Vizhnitzer Hasid and when he was younger he did listen to his sister's singing, or he left the room "but did not go far." Lifshe remembers times when the boys and girls, probably younger then thirteen, would get together and sing. She describes how the girls were the primary singers and the boys would join in and occasionally sing a funny upbeat song.
Unlike the way the term folksinger is used today, Lifshe was never paid for her singing, nor sang from a stage, but her singing often did help her get on someone's good side and obtain needed favors. She wrote in her memoirs that on the ship to America from Germany in 1908, she sang German songs for the sailors and in return was given decent food for the long and arduous trip.
An early source of Widman‘s repertory was her mother. LSW estimated that she knew thirty songs but as she led such a difficult life, she was rarely in the mood to sing them. When Lifshe heard her humming one to herself she asked her to teach it to her. During the Dreyfus Affair (1894 - 1906) Tobe heard an organ grinder in the street singing a song about the news and she learned it from him, and then taught it to her daughter. "Drayfusl mayn kind" [Drayfus my child] is not a typical song in LSW's repertory but one of the earliest she remembers.
The core of Widman‘s repertoire learned in Zvinyetshke (1893 - 1908) was comprised of two main types of song: the lyrical love song and what yiddish folklorists call shteyger-lider: sad songs about life's ups and downs, family misfortunes. In LSW's own words "The young unmarried girls sang about love, their future husbands and how wonderful life would be after the marriage. The older women were already married and sang about how miserable life really was.”
When Lifshe was not yet ten, older teenage girls took her along on Sabbath walks where these lyrical love songs and love ballads would be sung. Many of these songs are, in fact, not all positive, but are about break-ups and unrequited love. Here is another example from the Leybl Kahn recordings of 1954 "In mayn hartsn brent a fayer” [In my heart a fire burns]. LSW learned most of these lyrical songs from two young unmarried aunts, Tsipe and Sheyndl, who sang beautifully and made a deep impression on her.
Every Saturday night, after the conclusion of the Sabbath, the older married women would gather together in the kitchen at someone's house to gossip and sew socks or make jam. As the men sat in the dining room and discussed politics or sang zmires and religious songs, these older women would sing songs about evil stepmothers, widows, divorced and abandoned wives, barren women, and, above all, about orphans. One haunting example of these songs is "Az se shtarbt nor op dos ershte vayb" [As soon as the first wife dies]
The meydlekh also got together Saturday night after the Sabbath to sing and form a klyake, a collective work group, and usually plucked feathers. This was another opportunity to learn and perform.
Another source of LSW's repertoire was the street: songs about the Kiev and Kishenev pograms she learned from pogrom survivors; dicey songs learned from plagers (young Jewish draft-dodgers), purim songs from the purim-shpiler and legendary ballads about past tragedies in her town such as: "A naye geshikhte" about a groom who drowned before the wedding. LSW said that this tragedy actually happened in her town, but essentially the same song was known in many towns in Eastern Europe and in each town, the singer claimed it to be true.
LSW's mother Tobe remarried and Lifshe did not get along with her stepfather. She took off for America in 1908 and lived on the Lower East Side of NY and loved it. There she hoped to join the Yiddish theater and had hopes of being a professional singer. The stage, however, was not looked upon as a ladylike profession and Lifshe's older brother, Luzer, told her that if she appeared on the Yiddish stage he would sit in the front row with a revolver with one bullet for her and one for him, thus ending her hopes as an actress.
On the streets of New York, Yiddish songwriters would stand on a soapbox in the street and sing their newest creations. Lifshe would give him the penny with which she was supposed to buy seltzer and instead come home with his song sheet. In this way and by attending the theater she learned many popular yiddish hits, such as "A brivele der mamen,‟ and "Dos talesl." In the sweatshop where she worked, she was recognized as one of the best singers, but the full range of her shtetl repertoire was not what the immigrant girls wanted to hear. This was clearly a blow to LSW but ever eager to please an audience, she learned the upbeat American Yiddish songs and current English-language hits and performed them for the working girls. The lyrical love songs from Zvinyetshke, though, were still popular among the sweatshop workers.
Because of a financial matter, Lifshe returned to Bukovina, to the capital city Chernovitz, just in time for the First World War. She married Benyumin Schaechter, an intellectual former Yeshiva student, in Vienna and learned his repertory of nationalist, and anti-Hasidic songs. In the BKG interview, she says that she did not particularly enjoy singing these mocking songs because she found them to be disrespectful of the older generation but if that is what the audience wanted, she was willing to perform them. An example of these songs is "Bay deym ruv in shtib."
Chernovitz, Romania 1937: from left – Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman, cousin Lusye (Gottesman) Buxbaum, brother Mordkhe Schaechter, mother Lifshe Schaechter-Widman (Beyle’s mother), father Binyumin Schaechter, grandmother Taube Gottesman
LSW lived in Chernovitz, the capital of the Bukovina region, with her husband and two children from 1923 to 1945. She was a popular merchant with a couple of stores. The vast majority of her songs was learned during the first twenty years of her life and those years in the big city, then Romania, are not reflected in her repertory. This is in stark contrast to the repertory of her daughter Beyle, who learned songs from the Chernovitz Yiddish theater, local composers, and new compositions with texts from modern Yiddish poetry.
LSW survived the Holocaust but lost her dear husband, who died in a Soviet gulag. In 1951, she returned to New York and settled in the Bronx. Her shtetl repertory was only appreciated by a handful of people and even her daughter, my mother, once teased her for crying after every song. For a long time after this comment she did not sing those songs in public.
During my research into the YIVO Ethnographic Commission based in Vilna (1925-1939), it was always a wonder to me that rather unknown American popular Yiddish songs were collected in small towns in Eastern Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. True, some of this can be accounted for by traveling American Yiddish theater troupes, but it is also true that they were disseminated by singers such as Lifshe who spent years in New York and then returned to Eastern Europe with a large American Yiddish repertory.
In her last years, LSW was still appreciated as a great source of Yiddish folksongs and as a great singer, but her repertory was never performed by others until recently in a strictly folkloric context. Nevertheless, to understand Eastern European Jewish life and culture, singers like Lifshe Widman must play a key role in illuminating that history.
Liner Notes for "Az di furst avek." Recording by Lifshe Schaechter-Widman.