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Introduction to the Study of Yiddish Folksong

Walter Zev Feldman

This essay will try to distinguish between the various non-liturgical sung repertoires of the East European Jews. These were only very partially comparable to the vocal repertoires of any ethnic group of Eastern (or Western) Europe. A Yiddish repertoire that was indeed related to “folksong” within a European context was only a part of a larger series of secular and religious genres sung in the Yiddish, or a combination of Yiddish, Hebrew and various East European languages.  When we view how the early twentieth century and even mid-twentieth century collectors of Yiddish song grouped their material, it is evident that each in his or her own way were attempting to reconcile this difference between Jewish and European Gentile song cultures with varying degrees of success. Given the very slow pace of scholarship in this geographically dispersed field, it should come as no surprise that most of the basic issues have not yet been even articulated, let alone resolved.

I will begin by briefly defining the ethnic identity of Jews in Eastern Europe, and then attempt to place the at least partly folkloric Yiddish sung repertoire within its cultural context.    


I. Jews in Eastern Europe


The field of ethnomusicology is predicated upon the existence of an “ethnos,” a historical cultural community, whose musical practices can be studied, whether synchronically or diachronically. By the seventeenth century the demographic center of world Jewry was shifting definitively from the Sephardic and Near Eastern to the East European zones. As the largest transnational Jewish group in the world, closely linked by language and many aspects of culture in a region stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, the co-called “Ashkenazim” in Eastern Europe regarded themselves as the Jewish “nation.” As William McCagg stated elegantly: “For many centuries the Jews regarded themselves as a ‘nation’ in Europe, despite the specifically religious ties that bound them together, and of course they were so considered by others too” (1989:4).

The “Ashkenazim” of Eastern Europe possessed musical creativity showing far deeper internal connections and developments than that of any other Jewish ethnos. They demonstrated independent choices in a great many musical spheres. Part of this musical independence was based upon their cultural consensus to integrate many aspects of their liturgical chant (nusah) into both secular and mystical genres. This was a step taken by no other Jewish culture whose music was recent enough to be documented. Another part of their musical independence was founded upon their large numbers and vast geographical spread. After the sixteenth or early seventeenth centuries the Jews spoke a single language (Yiddish), which was relatively unrelated to the vernaculars of the co-territorial non-Jewish populations. Thus the concept of “co-territoriality”--so productive in studying the musics practiced by numerically much smaller Jewish cultures both in Asia and in Western Europe--is of little value in studying  the music of East European Jews.

I will attempt to integrate my remarks about the nature of musical creativity of the East European Jews with the historical paradigm created by Moshe Rosman in his seminal series of essays How Jewish is Jewish History? (2007), as well as recent research by Arye Edrei and Doron Mendels concerning the “split Diasporas” of Jewish late Antiquity (2007, 2010). In addition I will refer to the recent linguistic research of Alexander Beider in Paris (2015, 2018) concerning both the genesis of the Yiddish language and the migrations of the Jews who spoke this language. While none of these recent historical and linguistic researches take any aspect of expressive culture into account, they do provide an essential context in which to view the later musical practices of the Jews.

Edrei and Mendels are concerned with both linguistic and religious practices of the Jewish people in late Antiquity. Their basic thesis is that the Jews were split into two large linguistic camps—an Aramaic-speaking and partly Hebrew-reading population in both Roman Palestine and Persian Babylonia (and adjacent territories), and a largely Greek and Latin-speaking population in most of the Roman Empire. Greek and later Roman Egypt represented a “middle-ground”, where all these languages had been in use by Jews for some centuries. In their reading of the evidence, only the Aramaic-speaking zone contributed significantly to the development of rabbinic Judaism, and hence to modern Jewry. The Roman Jews wrote the Greek language in Greek--and not Hebrew or Aramaic—characters. Contrary to Max Weinreich’s thesis of an ancient “Yavanic” or Judeo-Greek language, they had been linguistically integrated with their urban pagan environment. The Greek-speaking (and Latin-speaking) Roman zone essentially became a major home-land of Christianity. Most of the Jews who remained there after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and the barbarian invasions, had mainly become Christians already in late Antiquity. As such there was little continuity from ancient to medieval Jewish communities in most of the Roman lands, with the notable exception of the city of Rome, and some other parts of Italy. According to Edrei and Mendels the existence of Jews in medieval Europe, practicing rabbinic Judaism, was based on both intellectual and demographic movements from the Middle East and Byzantium in the eighth and ninth centuries, and not on continuities from Roman times.

By way of contrast to the Roman West, the Aramaic-speaking Jews in both Persian Babylon and Roman Palestine had constituted a broad cultural unity, which defined itself in consciously Jewish terms. They might be described as a “transnational” Jewish culture; they were the formative Jewish culture of late Antiquity. Within a century after the Arab Conquest of the entire region in the seventh century this transnational Aramaic-speaking Jewish culture was transformed into an Arabic-speaking and Judeo-Arabic writing Jewish culture. A notable exception to this process of linguistic Arabization seem to have been the Jews of Northern Mesopotamia and the adjacent territories of Iran and Syria, where Neo-Aramaic remained a Jewish vernacular.

This historical interpretation also accords well with the earlier research of Arthur C. Zuckerman (1972), who documented the invitation of high-status Babylonian Jewish families into Carolingian France during the later eighth century.  While some of Zuckerman’s conclusions have been questioned, this group originating in Babylon (Iraq) seems to have formed one important nucleus of the Jewish ethnos who would later emerge as the Ashkenazim.

During the following seven to eight centuries the global configuration of Jewish communities would change drastically. Rabbinic Judaism would be established everywhere, but formerly large transnational Jewish communities might become smaller and local, and new transnational communities would be formed. Moshe Rosman treats Early Modern and Modern times, in which he divides the cultural practices of Jewish communities according to the model of “embeddedness” within a single host-culture over many centuries--which as he says, implies “hierarchy and dependency” (Rosman 2007: 84)--as opposed to “transnationality” (2007: 85-86). The “embedded” groups were tied to a single geographic area and hegemonic nation for many centuries or even millennia. Examples of cultural embeddedness are the Jews of Yemen, Syria, Iran, and Bukhara in the East, and of the city of Rome and parts of Greece, in the West. 

The linguistic bases for creating plausible hypotheses for the emergence of the Jewish cultures within both Western and Eastern Europe—who would eventually be termed the “Ashkenazim”-- has been stated with more precision in recent years by Alexander Beider, developing and critiquing earlier theories of Max Weinreich, Dovid Katz and others. While the ethno-genetic questions regarding these Jews are by no means resolved, it is becoming possible to speak about a variety of cultural developments within both Central and Eastern Europe from the sixteenth century onward. The great linguist Max Weinreich had coined the terms “Ashkenaz I” for the medieval Jewish culture of the Rhineland and other Western German territories, and “Ashkenaz II” for the Yiddish speaking Jewish culture in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. But the later role of the Czech Lands within Weinreich’s “Ashkenaz I” and “Ashkenaz II” scheme was not entirely clear.

The pre-Ashkenazic Jews of Bohemia/Moravia, were part of the large Slavic-speaking Jewish culture termed by the rabbis “Knaan” (Canaan). Bohemia/Moravia was never home to a truly embedded Jewish community, as its previous connections with the Jews of Byzantine territories were already noted by Max Weinreich (2008< 1973: vol. I,  82. ). The ultimate origin of the Bohemian/Moravian Jews since the ninth century points both to Byzantium, and possibly also to Armenia and other eastern territories of Anatolia. Following Beider, Weinreich and also Dovid Katz (1985) , these movements imply a prior linguistic history involving Greek, South Slavic and possibly vernacular Aramaic. The Jewish adoption of the Czech language, while continuous for at least four centuries, was then followed by a prolonged era of bilingualism during the time that the Bohemian Kingdom came to be absorbed by the Austrian Habsburgs. As urban dwellers, the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia were in prolonged contact both with German speaking Jews and with Christian speakers of Middle High German. This process eventually produced the Eastern Yiddish language, but not earlier than the middle of the sixteenth century (Beider 2015). However the linguistic predominance of MHG is not the same as demographic dominance of Rhineland Jews. Speaking about the Jews, Beider noted: “There are no known historical references to mass western migrations to eastern Europe” (2018: 2018). By far the predominant demographic movement of Jews eastward was from Bohemia, Moravia and Germanic Danubian areas to Poland and later to Lithuania (i.e. Ukraine/Belarus).

Alexander Beider—following earlier research by Weinreich and Katz-- summarized certain linguistic and social distinctions among Jews considered as “Ashkenazim” according to geographical lines, which imply differences in their ethnic and geographical origins. The rabbinic terminology used a kind of shorthand, to refer to their respective pronunciations of the consonant written with the grapheme pronounced in Sephardi Hebrew as ‘het.’ The Ashkenazic distinction was between the pronunciation of this phoneme as ‘hes’ or as ‘khes’ (hence “bney hes” and “bney khes”).


 “In the Middle Ages, two groups of Ashkenazi Jews could be distinguished according to their religious customs and their pronunciation of Hebrew, both in the liturgy and (for words of Hebrew origin incorporated into the vernacular language) in everyday speech. The first group, Bney hes, lived in the Rhineland, Franconia, Swabia and a part of Bavaria. The second group, Bney khes, dwelled in Austria, the Bavarian city of Regensburg, Eastern Germany and the Slavic countries (Beider 2018: 294).” 


One of Beider’s major contributions was to separate linguistic from demographic data. He views Yiddish as a confluence of two branches of Germanic—Middle High German (MHG) plus South-Eastern, Danubian varieties of German--and Western Slavic. MHG became the dominant factor after prolonged Jewish bilingualism with West Knaanic—Judeo-Czech. All three linguistic elements remained productive throughout the history of Yiddish,  together with “adstratal” features coming from Polish and Eastern Slavic. Hebrew/Aramaic was thoroughly integrated into the phonological and semantic system of Yiddish. Thus it is not correct to view speakers of Yiddish in Eastern Europe as being predominantly of Rhineland provenance, although a minority undoubtably were so. There was undoubtably an established medieval Jewish community along the Rhineland, who were in part the heirs of the earlier “Zarfatic” French Jews, and who were known as “Ashkenaz.” But the later dominance of a predominantly Germanic language among the Jews who came to dwell in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth does not imply the kind of simple migration of Rhineland Jews eastward that would justify the term “Ashkenaz II” for the Jewish culture of this broad territory, stretching from the Black to the Baltic Sea. Considering all of these facts, Weinreich’s Ashkenaz I and Ashkenaz II thesis becomes untenable. 


There had been a considerable Jewish population in the territories that later became “Lithuania,” i.e. extending to what is now Belarus and Ukraine. After the eighth century (or even before) these East European countries were never empty of Jews. From both the Harvard historian Omeljan Pritsak and from Max Weinreich we learn that in the Ukrainian and Belarussian territories, after the fall of the Khazarian Empire, Jews became speakers of the Eastern Slavic Rus language for the next four to five centuries. Moshe Taube’s research (2008) demonstrates the cultural productivity of some of these Jews in the fifteenth century, leading to a major Judaizing movement in the Orthodox Church.  It is likely that many of the ancestors of these Jews had immigrated in response to the conversion of the Khazar royal house to rabbinic Judaism in the eighth century, and so the vast majority of them were not native speakers of the Turkic Khazarian (“Hunnic”) language. While the linguistic legacy of Khazar in modern Hungarian is quite clear, there is no such evidence either from Yiddish or from the little surviving evidence of “Judeo-Rus”.


Neither the fall of Khazaria in the later tenth and eleventh centuries, the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century, nor the short-lived expulsion of the Jews from Lithuanian territory—between 1495 and 1508—erased a considerable Jewish presence within this  broad geographical zone. However we lack detailed demographic data as to which of the Rus-speaking Jewish communities were able to re-establish themselves after 1508, and exactly when and where substantial new Jewish immigration occurred from the Kingdom of Poland and from Bohemia/Moravia. Beider (2008) points to the significant fact that after the middle of the sixteenth century, Slavic Jewish forenames are largely replaced by Yiddishized Jewish names throughout the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. We lack detailed information on where the older Rus speaking Jewish populations largely failed to return to their old homes, and where they did indeed return but were then linguistically absorbed by the Yiddish-speaking new settlers. Whatever the demographic details, in the end Rus would be replaced by Yiddish in Galicia, Ukraine and Lithuania by the mid-sixteenth century, and in Eastern Belarus only in the mid-seventeenth century.


But what might be the correlation between linguistic and musical traits among immigrating groups as well as local groups who have assimilated the language of the newcomers? As it became established and later documented at each end of the wide demographic zone of the Yiddish speaking Jews, their music is divided into broad repertoires, and then into more specific genres. But none of these repertoires or genres shows the kind of co-territorial sharing that we might expect of an “embedded” Jewish culture. Pritsak (1990) assumed that during the rule of the various Rus principalities, Jewish culture had been predominantly local, and hence, as we might say,  “embedded.” But in fact not enough material survives either to confirm or to deny this.  It would appear that this Rus speaking Jewry had considerable contact both with the Crimea and even with distant Constantinople (after 1453—Istanbul). This alone could suggest that musical patterns might well have diverged from those of the majority of the East Slavic Rus speaking population.

For our present purposes we will turn now to more recent centuries, where there is musical documentation, basically from the later eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.  In accordance with the methodology created by Rosman, we may view the Eastern Ashkenazim as possessing a fundamentally different type of expressive culture—manifested in all forms of music and dance—from the smaller embedded Jewish communities of modern times, whether in Western Europe, North Africa or Asia. The latter, while retaining the Jewish religion and many sociological features of Jewish culture, generally confined their Jewish musical expression to certain parts of the Hebrew liturgy, and not at all in their vernacular folk song or dance. These were usually identical to those of their much more numerous Gentile neighbors. This cultural pattern of embeddedness is opposed to geographically extended Jewish communities, speaking a single language over a wide territory, to whom one might apply the term “transnational.” In modern times only two such “transnational” Jewish cultures existed— Ashkenazim in Eastern Europe, and Sephardim in the Ottoman Empire and some parts of North Africa. All of these embedded and transnational Jewish communities have modern descendants, who until recently had dwelled in their “traditional” home countries. By the nineteenth or earlier twentieth centuries it was possible for musicians and scholars to document aspects of their synagogue liturgy, paraliturgical and secular music.

The Eastern Sephardim of the Ottoman Empire represented another paradigm from either the small embedded Jewish communities or from the East Ashkenazim. They created a secular folksong combining elements coming from early modern Iberia, and from the Turkish, Greek and Balkan musical cultures of the Ottoman Empire, but—unlike Ashkenazim--they did not create a consciously Jewish form of dance. The Sephardim spread the Ladino folksong across a wide geographical area, but--with very few exceptions--they tended not to introduce liturgical elements into it. No doubt this was partly because the Ladino secular songs were mainly created and sung by women. On the other hand, Sephardi hazzanim created genres of religious song in Ladino. Some of these had a quasi-liturgical function, while others were purely para-liturgical. These represent a variety of sub-genres, some of them displaying creative use of several elements, including an “intonatsia” rather different from the Hebrew liturgy, either of the hazzan or of the congregation. This entire repertoire has been very little studied.

It is unlikely that the Ashkenazim of the German lands (Ashkenaz I) had been as truly embedded as the small Jewish communities of Syria, Iran or Bukhara were until recent decades, for example. The Jews of medieval Germany were always aware of their previous connection with France (Zarfat), as well as with Italy. By the seventeenth century, the increasingly powerful influence of Polish yeshives (schools of higher learning) and other Jewish cultural institutions, affected even the vernacular language of the Jews in German lands, thus linking the Jews of the German Ashkenaz to those of Poland-Lithuania.

The uniformity of the Ashkenazic liturgy over a vast geographical area brings home the point that a consensus on what constituted an acceptable musical articulation and intonatsia had become normative for at least three centuries (see below section VI). This distinctiveness of the Jewish vocal articulation was remarked upon by both the composer/collector Joel Engel and the musicologist Moyshe Beregovski with regard to both secular and religious song (Feldman 2016: 130). It is only among the Ashkenazim of Eastern Europe that a highly distinctive Jewish intonatsia came into existence in modern times, i.e. from early  seventeenth to early twentieth centuries.

II. Music of the Eastern Ashkenazim


A new, largely unprecedented, interlocking system of liturgical, paraliturgical, professional, and folkloric musical genres developed in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and adjacent areas. The Eastern European Jews were now part of a cultural process, involving their internal musical needs and creative expression; aspects of mimesis and differentiation with regard to their immediate non-Jewish neighbors; memory of their previous historical experiences; and larger transnational musical influences and techniques—reaching them both from the West and from the East.

An original musical practice seems to have developed since the early seventeenth century throughout the broad region of Eastern Yiddish speech. As more of the Lithuanian (i.e. Belarussian and Ukrainian) territories opened up to Jewish settlement, Jews tended to leave the larger cities and settle in smaller towns (shtetl). As Michael Lukin has recently stressed in several studies and in his Hebrew University dissertation (2019), this distance from the older urban centers probably weakened the Jewish connection with the urban popular song traditions of Germany, which travelled more naturally from city to city.

While links with the German Empire always persisted—especially in Yiddish song and in forms of communal folk dance--there is no evidence that a comparable musical system had ever existed within the German Ashkenaz.  Moreover the Jews in the German Empire appear to have displayed musical originality mainly within the religious sphere and rather little in the secular. There was no professionally-organized Jewish secular musicians’ class. Earlier scholarly “revelations” about the medieval Jewish troubadour-like shpilman--which were repeated by the major Soviet ethnomusicologist Sofia Magid, and after WWII by Ruth Rubin-- have been shown to be misunderstandings of a single Judeo-German text (Shmeruk 1979; Baumgarten 2005). It is only by the second half of the eighteenth century that we can see evidence of klezmer musical practice among German Jews, evidently brought there by Czech and Polish klezmorim.

The Eastern “Ashkenazim” were not an “embedded” Jewish culture, nor were they ever primarily a village population. Even those Jews who came to reside in villages—especially during the eighteenth century—typically carried on urban professions, whether crafts or part of the ubiquitous tavern business and alcohol trade (Dynner 2013). Thus as a rule, sharing by the Jews of peasant musical repertoires was extremely marginal. Indeed, many male Jews living in the towns (shtetl) or cities did not even speak the peasant vernacular language of their region, although many females did so.  By the beginning of the nineteenth century the one large exception were the more recently emancipated Jews in Hungary under Habsburg rule and the successor states in modern Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, etc. who were generally becoming identified with the Hungarian language and culture to a large degree.

A basic condition for the emergence of this novel configuration of musical repertoires, was the existence of single Jewish culture, spread over a very large but geographically contiguous area, and speaking a single language—which we now call Yiddish. According to the historical and linguistic studies conducted by Omeljan Pritsak (1990) at Harvard and more recently by Alexandre Beider (2015) in Paris, this new linguistic/cultural reality within such a wide territory only came into being in the century following the expulsion in 1495 of the native Jews of the Lithuanian (i.e. Belarussian and Ukrainian) territories, who had spoken Judeo-Rus, and earlier Khazar, Greek and possibly Aramaic. Under these demographic conditions, it would be a mistake to look at any of the musical repertoires of the Eastern Ashkenazim as primarily a variant or outgrowth of any local East European culture. The most that can be said was that there was a broad stylistic differentiation in many genres between a Jewish “North” (Lithuania, Belarus, Northern Poland) and a Jewish “South” (Ukraine, Galicia, Southern Poland, Moldova). In this regard it is crucial to integrate Max Weinreich’s dictum: “Not only Jewish history, but ‘Jewish geography’ too, is a separate topic, which occasionally coincides with general geography, but more frequently does not” (Weinreich 1973/2008 vol. I: 47). This reality was already noted by Idelsohn for hazzanic music (the “Lithuanian” and “Volhynian” schools), and by the present author for both the klezmer and to some extent the Hasidic repertoires (2016: 275-298).

As they developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it is possible to divide the East Ashkenazic musical repertoires into the following groups:


  1. Reading of Biblical Texts.

  2. Melodic Patterns of Learning Talmudic Texts

  3. Music of Liturgical Prayer

  4. Metrical “Songs” within the Liturgy

  5. Paraliturgical Song (both Zmires sung on the Sabbath and Zemerl sung on other occasions)

  6. Hasidic Mystical/Charismatic Ceremonies and Sacred Dance (Nign)

  7. Instrumental (klezmer) Music for Wedding and Dance

  8. Yiddish Song


Unlike the musical practices of both the Sephardim and the many “embedded” Jewish communities, all of the non-liturgical repertoires of the East Ashkenazim show significant input coming from the music of liturgical prayer. In this case more from the type of non-professional chant--‘davenen’—than from the professional khazones of the cantor. This derives from the simple fact that most Jews actively participated daily in davenen, and not only in the more or less passive listening to the singing of the cantor (for a broader discussion see Feldman 2016: 41-42).  These musical prayer elements are particularly strong in paraliturgical song, in Hasidic nign,  in the ‘core’ repertoire of the klezmorim (see Feldman 1994, 2016), and in the religious genres of Yiddish song.  They figure rather less prominently in secular Yiddish song, but certain aspects of articulation in performance, as well as occasional musical allusions to the liturgy exist there as well.


III. Non-Liturgical Sung Jewish Repertoires


In researching Yiddish “songs” or “folk-songs” we must recognize the dangers of becoming trapped in a foreign terminology, whether in English, Russian or German. And indeed the Yiddish terminology used by the collectors of Yiddish songs in the early twentieth century was often calqued from German, and differed significantly from the indigenous, emic Yiddish terminology. This has created and continues to create confusion about the basic corpus to be examined. Not surprisingly, the collectors working in late Imperial Russia, in the early Soviet Union, in post-WWI Poland, or in North America were looking at partly similar and partly different material, which they sometimes grouped in different categories, reflecting different social perspectives (see Khazdan 2018).

Manuscripts and published song-collections from the German lands in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries consistently employ the German term ‘lid’ for song (Matut 2020). Nevertheless it does not appear that the terms  ‘lid’ or ‘folkslid’ (variant ‘folklid’) have much historic depth within Eastern Yiddish with the meaning of ‘song’, but rather of ‘poem’.  Apparently a more common native term was ‘gezang,’ for secular or ‘shir’ for religious songs. Several nineteenth century Jewish writers (such as Berlin and Zbarzher) stressed the alienness of secular song to Jewish public events. Non-liturgical religious repertoires were sung universally under the names zmires (zemirot) for Sabbath, and zemerl for other occasions. The term nign (niggun) seems to have been applied to a variety of musical forms with various religious functions (see Vinaver 1985: 191-192). While the zemrl and zmires usually had words in Hebrew-Aramaic loshn koydesh, the nign was in principle wordless. But among Hasidim—already at the beginning of the nineteenth century—many short sacred texts were set to rhythmic melodies termed nign. The Hebrew/Aramaic text might also alternate with wordless sections, sung to specific meaningless syllables. Although Hasidic writings present a musical hierarchy in which the more serious type of wordless nign rank higher than niggunim even with sacred texts, in practice these co-existed with somewhat different social functions. Our knowledge of the connections between terminology, musical form and social practice is limited by the nature of the sources. They do not always agree, and may in fact represent somewhat different usages among Hasidim in Ukraine, Belarus or Poland, etc. In general the Chabad movement of Eastern Belarus (Lubavitch) presents a more precise terminology than other Hasidic groups. But it seems certain that the term ‘nign’ covered a variety of different forms and usages even there, and certainly in the other Hasidic centers.

In addition, religious songs in a mixture of Hebrew, Yiddish or even other languages existed as either shir or gezang. These also had subdivisions according to their degree of “paraphrasing” well-known Hebrew prayer texts, or serial/cumulative organization, which were not distinguished by any special terminology in Yiddish (Lukin 2019).

IV. Pre and Post Holocaust Song Collections


Another dominant reality in the study of Yiddish “folksong” are the significant differences among the repertoires documented at the beginning of the twentieth century, in inter-war Soviet Union, and in post-Holocaust North America.  In general the early twentieth century Russian collectors had access to a wider generic and diachronic range of what might properly be termed “folk songs.” In some cases these also include a variety of religious songs. On the other hand, these early collectors had less access to female performers, who were often reluctant to perform for the exclusively male collectors. And of course sound technology was still in its infancy, very much restricting the amount and the quality of recorded sound. The early Soviet period allowed for the most sophisticated collection and analysis, particularly by Kisselgoff (1878-1939), Beregovski (1892-1961), and Magid (1892-1954) —the latter a rare early female researcher in the field. All of these scholars attempted to collect a wide range of songs. But both religious and all forms of multi-language Jewish song were now increasingly marginalized. And concomitantly, there was a new emphasis on workers’ and revolutionary songs, including Yiddish songs from the new agricultural colonies in the South. With the decline of traditional weddings—with its instrumental accompaniment--there was a new growth of both wedding songs and humorous songs about Jewish weddings. Finally, in post-Holocaust North America, even without much institutional support or academic training (as a rule), there was the possibility to create higher quality field recordings and to concentrate on the repertoires of a single informant, as was actually done by Rubin, Stonehill, Kirshenblatt, Gottesman and a few others.  But in most cases the geographical origin of the singers was more restricted, with a new emphasis on inter-war Poland, from whence many immigrant Holocaust survivors originated. And concomitantly the oldest strata of the song repertoire were absent from the performances of many of the informants. Newer genres of both anonymous and composed Yiddish songs often took their place. The few Yiddish singers able to emigrate from Soviet Ukraine or Uzbekistan during the 1970s sometimes supplemented these repertoires by yet other genres, both newer and older. Even later, in the immediate post-Soviet era, Nina Stepanskaia in Minsk was able to collect a variety of folkloric and Soviet era Yiddish songs from mainly female informants in Belarus.

V. The Multiple Nature of Jewish ‘Songs’


The actual position of songs in the Yiddish language—as well as songs employing Yiddish in addition to Hebrew and/or non-Jewish languages—within East European Jewish culture had not been the subject of sufficient research in Europe to elucidate the many distinct cultural patterns it represented. It would appear that these songs constituted several distinct repertoires, some of which may be seen as “traditional,” having developed over many generations, while others were more recent, and part of an ongoing process of cultural change. Thus the bulk of the surviving Yiddish song repertoire is not comparable to the other musical repertoires (liturgical chant, paraliturgical song, Hasidic nign) or to klezmer instrumental music. All of these latter were practiced primarily by Jewish males, and hence had acknowledged public positions within East European Jewish society as a whole. In fact, the existing corpus of Yiddish-language songs can be divided into several distinct genres and styles, of which folk song is only one.


In 1901 Saul Ginzburg and Peysekh Marek included the religious/festive song repertoire in both loshn-koydesh and Yiddish, but their emphasis was clearly on the side of the secular, worldly repertoire that resembled the themes of other ‘folksongs’ in Europe.  As late as 1912 in Russia Zisman Kisselgoff organized his collection of Jewish songs with a great variety of religious vocal genres, including wordless niggunim, in addition to several secular genres, and even included composed ‘art’ songs. Nevertheless both collections avoided for the most part the productions of professional wedding jesters (badkhonim), who had already been publishing their own songs by the second half of the nineteenth century (e.g. Zbarzher and Zunzer). Thus, perhaps the most basic issue to resolve is how to characterize the extremely large and influential East Ashkenazic vocal repertoires of a paraliturgical and/or Hasidic nature, and how these may relate or not relate to secular or religious songs in the Yiddish language. In the annotated Online Bibliography of East European Jewish Folk Music by Feldman and Lukin (Oxford 2017), “Yiddish Folk Song” occupies a section distinct from “Religious Tunes and Songs: Niggunim and Zmires”, although an earlier section on the history of collection refers to both.


Already in 1946 the great Soviet ethnomusicologist Moyshe Beregovski had made clear the large structural difference separating the wordless niggunim (Russ. ‘napev’) from any kind of Yiddish song (Russ. ‘pesen’), whether religious or secular. It is not accidental that the Ashkenazim chose the word ‘nign’ for this genre, with its links to instrumental playing (Heb.NGN). Indeed early nineteenth century klezmer manuscripts might use the word ‘nigundl’ to refer to an instrumental dance tune. But, as we have seen, many liturgical and non-liturgical metrical tunes, with short or even more extensive loshn-koydesh texts might be termed ‘nign,’ at least in some East European communities.

Turning to religious songs with loshn-koydesh texts, some zmires shared structural features with Yiddish secular songs, which were in turn derived from much earlier Western European songs (Wiora 1966, Lukin 2019). Others showed links with the klezmer wedding repertoire of dobriden and gas nign. Unfortunately this entire metrical non-liturgical sung repertoire in loshn koydesh has attracted even less analytical research than has the secular Yiddish repertoire, so we can reach only the most tentative conclusions at present. While most collectors grouped both zmires and niggunim together, they represent distinct repertoires which may share some musical structures but not others.

In both Hasidic and klezmer usage a ‘menagen’ was a composer. Neither among Hasidim nor among klezmorim was there any assumption of folkloric ‘anonymity.’ Virtually everything in their respective repertoires had composers, even if their names may have been forgotten with time. While most collectors of Yiddish secular songs assumed their unknown authorship as part of a collective folk culture, Yosef Goldberg in Minsk stressed the personal nature of most Yiddish songs, whose authors had been forgotten within a couple of generations; especially as most of them were female (Goldberg 1926: 105-106).

Thus to use a very loose cross-cultural analogy, some vocal dance niggunim might be compared to the vocal lilting “mouth-music” tradition of Scotland or Ireland. These lilted dance tunes are little more than vocal renditions of reels or jigs, and that is how the culture regards them—they are not “songs.” On the other hand, many songs in Gaelic or English are based in a more general way upon these reels or jigs, but are clearly part of the folk song tradition, separate from the dance.  Thus, as we will note below, some Yiddish folk songs are based on instrumental dance genres, or sometimes are even texts set to particular dance tunes. But—as we will also note below—the nign tradition long ago transcended its partial roots in instrumental dance music, especially in the Jewish ‘South.’ And even in the North, the stylistic context of the vocal rendition of a dance-tune as a ‘nign’ usually altered much of the musical ‘articulation,’ as well as the inner ‘intention’ (kavoneh) of the piece.

Moreover the ethos of these “niggunim” was very different from secular Yiddish songs. As one Chabad authority had put it: “Halevay she-yispolel odom koyl hayoym, zingt men a nign, vos me davent mit dem nign, iz dos glaykh ke’ilu hispolel.” (“A man should pray all the day; he sings a nign, he prays through this nign, and it is as though he were praying”) (Zalmanoff, vol. 1, p. 31). And unlike folk songs, the Hasidic niggunim were preserved primarily within each separate court. Indeed it was forbidden to allow certain parts of the repertoire to be heard freely by outsiders. Under such conditions separate compositional styles emerged in the courts in Ukraine, in Bucovina, in Transylvania, in Galicia, Belarus/Lithuania and in Poland proper. Such  strongly distinct local centers were not known among Yiddish secular songs.

Thus in researching anything that might be described even tentatively as a Yiddish “folksong”, we must leave aside the entire “nign” repertoire, whether entirely wordless, or with some short loshn-koydesh texts. These were compositions reflecting the professional training of both khazzonim and klezmorim, with a mixture of cantorial and instrumental techniques. Indeed some well-known nineteenth century khazzonim had also been amateur klezmorim. And in any case in the larger Hasidic courts these two professions worked side by side.

Among Ashkenazic Jews, sacred dance was developed and encouraged by the Hasidic movement. Since these often took place on the Jewish holidays when instruments were not permitted, a great many vocal niggunim were created specifically for the purpose of dancing. It seems that in different regions, these bear different relations to the local klezmer tradition. In the North, notably in Lubavitch, the Hasidic dance niggunim are simply sung versions of the local klezmer repertoire. On the other hand, Hasidic groups in Ukraine, such as Talnoe, Chernobyl or Bratslav generally created their dance niggunim by combining instrumental and vocal techniques. Thus in these “Southern” communities, even niggunim called “freylekhs” or “skotshne” display uneven period structures, distinguished from the actual klezmer freylekhs and skotshne, which tend to be more symmetrical (Feldman 2016: 243-47).

Before entering into more detail about either religious or secular sung repertoires, we will bring up the issue of what Izaly Zemtsovsky has termed “ethno-hearing,” building upon earlier theories of Boris Asafiev about musical “intonatsia.”

VI. Intonatsia


Any presentation of the East Ashkenazic musical repertoires must also refer to the performance practices within these repertoires. Divergent attitudes of different ethnies toward accepting or rejecting musical material coming from “outside” was already documented among native peoples in the South West of the US in the 1930s (Herzog 1936). But the most consistent and elegant definitions of the “micro-level” of ethnic performance practices was the invention of Russian ethnomusicology. This had its beginnings in the later Tsarist era, but was refined and codified in the earlier Soviet period, especially by Boris Asafiev and later by Izaly Zemtsovsky (Petersburg and California). Using terms such as “intonatsia”  (Asafiev 1947, 1987) in Russian, and “ethno-hearing” (Zemtsovsky 2012, 2018) in English, this broad theoretical approach posits the existence of a cultural consensus within each ethnos about the expression of many musical features, such as 1) rhythm and tempo on every musical level; 2) about the attacks and approaches to a pitch; 3) to the timbral coloration of the human voice or especially legato musical instruments, etc. While individual musicians may create certain styles or techniques, within a “traditional” and largely oral musical culture, performance practices must meet the approval of the larger society, which set limits on the individual musician:


“A human being perceives the musically meaningful formation (in Russian, intonatsia[1]) and our perception transforms listening into hearing, acoustical sounding into musical intoning. Sound (as such) only indicates the meaning whereas intonatsia creates it in the process of active music performance and perception…Intonatsia is always at the center, between music-making and articulation, and all the three are governed by ethno-hearing.”  (Zemtsovsky, communication 03/2019).


Where two or more cultures and languages meet geographically or socially, musical items or whole genres are often borrowed, but only once they have been adapted to the dominant “ethno-hearing” and “intonatsia” of each culture. Within Eastern Europe examples abound; e.g. shared musical genres of Turks and Greeks in the Aegean/Bosphorus area; multi-ethnic “Macedonia” ; Hungarians and Romanians in Transylvania; and shared instrumental repertoires of Moldavians and Jews in Bessarabia (Chiselita 2008, Feldman 2016). The insider to any of these cultures (or even the musically informed outsider) can immediately perceive whether he or she is listening to a Turkish “zeybek” dance melody or song or to a Greek “zeimbekiko”; to a Moldavian “bulgareasca” or to a Jewish “bulgarish”.

The stylistic difference between the Ashkenazic North and South was included within the broader distinctive musical “intonatsia” developed by the Ashkenazim. This distinctive intonatsia for Ashkenazic vocal music was already referred to by Beregovski in 1928 (Slobin 2001: xii). Indeed the earliest commentator on the klezmer performance—the Russian musicologist/musician Ivan Lipaev—already sensed something of the workings of this system when he penned these lines in 1904:

“If you listen to and sort out in detail the music of the Jewish musicians you will catch its rhythmic and melodic development, and of necessity at last you will reach the conclusion that all the foreign melodic lines were gradually blended into a single harmonious whole, and reworked within the crucible of the Jewish national feeling and soul” (Lipaev 1904: 171).

 According to all the known data, it is only the East Ashkenazim—among worldwide Jewry—who had created a distinctive musical intonatsia, apart from the language of the text, or the larger musical form. And this feature characterized all religious and secular genres of the Eastern Ashkenazim to a greater or lesser degree. Among the “embedded” Jewish communities or the Sephardim, it would seem that certain repertoires, even particular familial repertoires, show tendencies in such a direction, setting them apart from local non-Jewish musical practices. Examples exist among the various Jewish communities of Morocco, or the Jews of Southern Uzbekistan (Shahrisabz). But the social conditions of these usually numerically small communities did not encourage a broader development of such musical “intonatsia.” Thus the concept of “intonatsia/ethno-hearing” constitutes a major distinction between the musical practices of the Eastern Ashkenazim and all other documented Jewish cultures.

Bearing these remarks about “ethno-hearing” and “intonatsia” in mind, we can return to the issues of Yiddish song. For in these varied repertoires we can see (or rather hear) different relationships to Western European musical practices of earlier centuries, as they may have been reworked with some input from Ashkenazic liturgical chant, and an overarching Ashkenazic musical “ethno-hearing,” to a greater or lesser extent. This may depend upon the musical genre, social function or even the gender, and specific musical taste of a particular singer.


VII. Religious Song in Yiddish and Multi-Language Songs

This group of at least partly Yiddish songs, with a mixture of Yiddish, Hebrew and Gentile languages,  brings to the fore issues of the musical hearing and articulation of East European Jews in an even more dramatic way than much of the Yiddish folk song repertoire per se. It will become clear that most of the musical and social factors that had shaped this broad repertoire differed in many respects from either the zmires or the nign groups. In his collection Yiddish Folksongs (Warsaw, 1913) Noyekh Prilutski (Prylucki) pointed out a key factor in the development of one Jewish vocal repertoire, namely the existence of multi-language (macaronic) lyrics mixing several languages, including Polish, Ukrainian, Russian or Hungarian, in addition to Hebrew and Yiddish, often with two or even three languages represented in one song (Slobin/Beregovski 1982: 285-302). These songs might be of a satirical or of a religious content, and were often sung by yeshiva students. As David Roskies has noted:


“That these songs might have originated not on the periphery but at the very center of Jewish religious life is something the Petersburg secularists could never imagine….Radicalizing Engel’s position, he argued that the key to Jewish folk culture and to ‘folk psychology’ lay in these macaronic and quasi-liturgical songs.” (Roskies 1995: 15).

 Over a decade after Prilutski, Beregovski took up the issue of the multi-language Jewish song in 1930, in an article devoted to this topic though he apparently did not pursue later for political reasons.[1]  Like Prilutski, he also concluded that these songs, mixed as they were with learned Biblical Hebrew, could not have come from an illiterate village environment, but were the creations of literate and often learned Jewish men.  Thus he rejected the term macaronic because these songs rarely contained humorous content, but used the mixture of languages for serious, usually religious or didactic purposes. It would seem that it was this very mixture, including the tendency to use the non-Jewish language and/or melody within a Jewish context that characterized the traditional Jewish culture of Eastern Europe, especially its male component. These songs might use an entirely Jewish melody, or an entirely Polish or Ukrainian melody, or like purely Yiddish-language songs, a mixture across different sections. Many of these songs display the same serious moralist or even messianic yearning as other songs purely in Hebrew or Yiddish. It is as though the religious sentiments these songs express become more real, more tied to the actual world in which the Jews lived, by assuming the linguistic form of a Gentile language. Almost a century later in 1998 I was able to document several such songs originating in Galicia from the poet Y. Hesecheles. While some were multilingual, others were entirely in Polish or Ukrainian, yet they were sung by Jews, usually yeshivah students.

We might surmise that Beregovski did not develop his research into these songs further, and did not include them in his collections of Yiddish song, because they blurred the boundaries of Jewish culture and could weaken the case for Yiddish as the Jewish national language.

More recently, speaking of the role of translation and code-switching in traditional Jewish culture, Jeffrey Shandler writes:

“…code-switching—moving back and forth between one language and another—constitutes a definitional Jewish activity.”… and “in such milieus, translation is not, as the Italians famously say, an act of betrayal (‘tradutorre, traditore’). On the contrary, in translation Jewish culture is not lost but found.” (Shandler 2006: 92).


Since the adoption of Yiddish as a “national” Jewish language by much of the Jewish intelligentsia and some of the masses as well, occurred after the middle of the nineteenth century, this social movement was generally less passionate about presenting Yiddish songs of a religious nature. This represented a major break with the Haskole (Haskalah) as it had developed in the previous two generations, which had chosen Hebrew alone as the Jewish national language. The Hasidic movement had placed more emphasis on Yiddish by the beginning of the nineteenth century. The songs composed by Levi Yitskhak of Berditchev became classic examples of the genre, while others were composed by rebbes of Lubavitch. Other religious songs in Yiddish were created outside of a Hasidic milieau. Most song-writers were male, but female singers and possibly creators were also known. One characteristic of this genre was the change in rhythmic organization between two or even three sections of the song.

Recently the contemporary Yiddish song-writer Joshua Waletzky has termed this the “zogevdik, zingevdik, tantsevdik” style, that is “recited, sung, and danced” (Waletzky, oral communication). This structure evidently became so characteristic of religious songs, that it was then adopted as the hallmark of the maskilic song that satirized the religious song and much of the religious life (see below). Lukin characterizes this musical structure as “triangular,” and sees it as most characteristic of a what he terms “paraphrase songs” (shirei paraphraza, 2015). That is, Yiddish songs which refer to well-known Hebrew liturgical texts, and in some way comment on them. There had been some precedent for such songs already in the German lands of Ashkenaz I during the Middle Ages. Thus the “paraphrase” principle was a fundamental “building-block” of Yiddish song, that blended the learned and the popular. While songs using excerpts of sacred texts are not meant to be satirical (as the later maskilic songs might be), but there is a kind of humor, that Lukin compares to Bakhtin’s characterization of the “carnivalesque.” It is not that the author and his audience have ceased to believe in the validity of the sacred texts. Rather they acknowledge the distance between their everyday lives, as expressed in their Yiddish vernacular, and the exalted events or personages mentioned in the Hebrew quotations. This distance is presented as a theme for gentle comedy.

Structurally, the use of both Hebrew liturgical quotations and Yiddish paraphrase, together with the characteristic shifts in rhythmic organization from something akin to liturgical recitation, to song, and then to dance, loosens the symmetry that might otherwise have been dominant, both in the poetry and in the music of the songs. In addition to these songs of “paraphrase,” melodies of a significant number of Yiddish folk songs make reference to parts of the synagogue liturgy (Wohlberg 1977/78). Most frequently these references are of a humorous or ironic nature, commenting on the incongruousness of the real-life situation of the singer by using semi-liturgical musical tropes to either augment its tragic seriousness, or to point out its absurdity. It would seem that most of these songs were created and sung by men, but the extant examples do not conform to the maskilic song genre because they rarely satirize features of traditional Jewish life, even though they often voice personal complaint.


VIII. Locating Folk Song in Yiddish Song Repertoires


In seeking a paradigm to define what may have been a truly folkloric oral and anonymous song repertoire in the Yiddish language, local non-Jewish folklore is not very helpful.  Indeed many of the basic genres of non-Jewish folk song in Eastern Europe (i.e. wedding ritual songs, collective work songs, and historical balladry) do not appear in Yiddish from the nineteenth century onward.  Yiddish wedding songs had almost totally disappeared by the nineteenth century. The existing Yiddish repertoire features many songs (often of a humorous nature) speaking about aspects of the wedding, but these were almost never ritual songs performed at the wedding itself. In nineteenth century Jewish society these songs held a lower social status and were not usually sung by fully adult members of the household. Among the folk song repertoire sung in both Yiddish and Hebrew were cumulative songs, in which each strophe added to and developed the thought of the previous one. These songs generally consist of three melodic lines, and feature an archaic Ashkenazic musical structure. Their texts might be either religious or secular.

Determining the possible context for secular songs in Yiddish is extremely difficult prior to the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Among the people, secular songs in Yiddish seem to have been sung to accompany work in small groups by both women and men (e.g. among tailors, shoemakers), or among small groups of female kin or friends. But such singing was rarely conceived of as cultural performance, where the singing itself was the center of attention. In many cases, “performance” was an intimate communication between young or older women with members of their family.  Beregovski’s unpublished second volume consisted of what he called “Lyrical and Familial Songs,” including love songs and lullabies. It would appear that during the nineteenth century, lyrical folksongs were primarily sung by women.  In both misnagdic and Hasidic communities, this repertoire was not accorded the respect of the more purely male genres, and many middle class men ignored its existence. Both economic and social changes in Jewish society by the early twentieth century seem to have led to more working class and other Jewish men to participate in folk song.

The newer forms of Yiddish song—often based on texts written by men-- had a more public and largely (though by no means exclusively) male social context. A basic consideration was the emergence of a new secular poetry in the Yiddish language, mainly within the Russian Empire, not before the last third of the nineteenth century. Both known song-writers, and anonymous persons  created melodies for their own and for texts by others. As we will see below, these newer often lyrical poem-songs were fit into an increasingly heterogeneous Yiddish song repertoire. At the same time songs based on much older patterns persisted within the culture. Speaking about textual continuities within Yiddish folk songs from sixteenth century Germany to nineteenth century Russia and Poland, Beregovski makes the important observation: “The closeness of sixteenth-century songs to contemporary songs shows that even during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when a wave of religiosity swept over Jewish literature, the common folk preserved older lyric love songs and even created new ones.” (Beregovski, 1962 in Slobin 1982: 291).

IX. Lyric Song


It is the Yiddish lyric song—together with the narrative ballad—that corresponds most closely to the concept of “folksong” in a European context. And it was mainly to this genre of Yiddish song that Beregovski was referring in the above quotation.  By far the most common musical/poetic structure consists of four lines. Line A represents the initial musical statement; line B generally develops it, often with a higher ambitus; line C generally reaches a different and rather unexpected tonal center; while line D forms a cadential conclusion. Rhythmically a binary basis predominates. These features together link the Yiddish lyrical song with a broader European, and more particularly a West and Central European context. In addition to these general links with the West of Europe, a small but significant corpus has been identified which links these some of the Yiddish songs with much earlier German prototypes, and even with particular songs, known from sixteenth century German urban sources. Altogether both these musical and poetic commonalities are considerably stronger than resemblances to co-territorial peasant songs of Eastern Europe.  However, there are also a less numerous body of lyrical songs employing a rubato rhythmic structure with distant links to synagogue chant. In some of these songs the abcd structure may work rather differently, in that the musical climax may be in the fourth musical line, which thus carries more “weight” than that of a cadence. While the less common rubato style of course permits the singer more scope to idiosyncratic choices of “intonatsia” in general, the more typical metrical lyric song also permits smaller, more subtle alterations of rhythmic symmetry and microtonal intonation.


Beregovski had noted that lyrical songs were sometimes sung to melodies of the sher dance. Part of the aesthetic of these songs was the contrast of the mournful content of the texts—sometimes lamenting a lost love—with the gaiety of the music. Many other Yiddish lyric songs have been noted as sung to melodies to of the Moldavian zhok (joc) or the Polish mazurka, both utilizing different triple meters. In addition well known maskilic songs—such as Varshavski’s “Oyfn Pripetshik”—, and even religious songs (“Ah vi sheyn un ah vi git iz tsu zayn a Yid”) sometimes utilize rhythmic and melodic formulas of the mazurka, but always in minor.

The social context of the lyrical songs has been debated since early Soviet times, since primary social observation was rarely put into practice in the actual cultural milieu within Eastern Europe.  By the post-Holocaust era most observations come from a survey of Yiddish-language memoir literature, more rarely from belles-lettres. The picture that emerges from the more rigorous researchers from Beregovski, to Lukin and Sholokhova in our own day, is of the general “demotion” of an earlier more commonly shared secular song tradition. This undoubtedly occurred in the course of the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth century due to 1) increasing general religiosity, bringing with it 2) sharper gender divisions, 3) increasing distance from larger urban centers, leading to 4) loss of the earlier society-wide contact with a Central European urban song tradition.  As the “public face” of Jewish expressive culture became more exclusively male, the lyric song tradition was preserved mainly by women and men of the poorest classes.  Sholokhova (2008/2020) has traced the removal of an earlier repertoire of lyrical and flirtatious, “riddling” songs, originally meant to be sung by young men and women, from the day of the wedding proper, to the familial celebrations of the weeks prior to the wedding. Under these conditions, these songs were no longer sung by members of either of the concerned families, but only by the servant women and men. This has led Lukin more recently to describe this entire repertoire as “servant romances.” Not that the genre had been initially created only by this lower social class, but that by the nineteenth this was the social class that most perpetuated it.


In contrast to more polemical writings by some of the earlier collectors of Yiddish folklore, who as maskilim stressed the alienness of love and romance to the mores of East European Jewish life, more recent studies demonstrate that pre-marital and even extra-marital affairs were far from unknown even in the eighteenth century. Moreover recent research on the results of the extremely early marriage age for bourgeois Jewish families, demonstrate the phenomenally high rate of divorce among the Jews of the Russian Empire at the beginning of the nineteenth century (Freeze 2002). The extreme commonness of early divorce, when both parties were still quite young, must certainly have led at times to romance and affairs. Jewish society changed once again in many ways during the last third of the nineteenth century. Marriages became more stable, with a far lower rate of divorce. But many formerly bourgeois men had become proletarianized in the larger cities, thus breaking down some of the gender division within Yiddish lyrical and other forms of Yiddish secular song.


X. Ballad


Longer narrative songs dealing with either apparently “real-life” tragic love affairs or else archetypical quasi-romantic situations, also had been quite common in the Yiddish song repertoire in Eastern Europe. The classic study was the Russian dissertation of Sofia Magid (1938), more recently re-visited by the 2019 dissertation and Shofar article by Michael Lukin. This genre became far less diffused among the immigrants in North America, so most of our documentation is from early twentieth century notations. It does not appear that the Yiddish speaking Jews had their own term for this broad genre—“balada” appears to be a scholarly import, similar to “folkslid.” According to both Magid’s and Lukin’s terminology, the “ballad” included both long narratives, or “short-story” songs, as well as extended dialogues, often based on riddles. While the dominant category of this type involved males and females, there were also allegorical, even religious dialogues as well.  In contrast to the lyric songs, the “ballads” emphasize action over feelings and dreams.

One major internal distinction separates apparently “real-life” story lines of some ballads from the quasi-mythical stories of others. These latter often feature the crossing of moral boundaries, such as a daughter’s attempt to seduce her father, or one unmarried sister’s successful seduction of her brother-in-law, and its tragic consequences. What the “real-life” and mythical ballads have in common is the breaking of moral and societal norms, usually leading to a cathartic tragic ending. But usually these tales avoid religious moralizing in favor of presenting the unruliness of human passions. Lukin notes their distance from non-Jewish East European peasant ballads in the absence of supernatural figures and an important function for a setting within nature.

A major difference between Magid’s and Lukin’s analysis is his rejection of a predominant structural pattern originating in the medieval German lands. Magid had apparently accepted this thesis in part due to the newly “discovered” references to a medieval Jewish professional bard, similar to the Christian troubadour/spielmann. But we now know that this thesis rests upon a misunderstanding of a single medieval epic text. Thus there is no reason to posit a direct transmission of medieval German ballad themes by way of such a Jewish professional figure.

Musically the ballad appears to have diverse types. Unlike many European ballads, the dominant one appear similar to non-Jewish dance-tunes, often in triple time. Melodically these are constructed on two musical lines. Other musical styles feature rubato melodies, which have been documented both from Ukrainian and Hungarian Jewish singers.

In terms of gender, most known informants were female, but there was also a significant group of male singers. By the beginning of the twentieth century any putative gender distinction within this repertoire does not appear to have been characteristic.


XI. Lullaby


The female Yiddish sung genre par excellence was of course the lullaby. While textual aspects of the Yiddish lullaby were discussed by Ruth Rubin and others, the only extended musical study is that of Lukin in his dissertation. He finds both Jewish and non-Jewish—mainly East European—musical patterns within the Yiddish lullabies. Textually both he and Rubin had noted the fundamental distinction between one type of song that expressed pious wishes for the male baby to grow up to be either a Torah scholar or a successful merchant, as opposed to the other category where the mother voices her sadness and dissatisfaction with her marriage. It can be inferred that the first type was sung while the baby was still awake, while the second was sung only after he or she was sound asleep! Another factor was the age of the child—the first group of lullabies for the pre-language age, and the second when linguistic comprehension was advancing. Some lullabies might be addressed to a “baby” of either gender, many others make it clear that the mother’s expectations rested primarily upon her son rather than her daughter.

XII. Maskilic and Other Composed Yiddish Songs


By the time musical documentation becomes relatively plentiful at the beginning of the twentieth century, the culture of Misnagdim included a Yiddish song repertoire that aimed to critique and subvert social norms, while maintaining traditional musical forms, -----maskilic song. Unlike the Yiddish lyric and familial song, which was predominantly female (at least in the nineteenth century), maskilic song was created and largely sung by male proponents of haskole/haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment movement, who were known as maskilim (Enlightened, from Heb. sekhel, intellect). Rather than personal sentiment, maskilic song addressed public issues and often employed techniques of satire, sometimes as a dialogue of two characters, or most characteristically an ironic pseudo-identity put into the mouth of a pious, usually Hasidic individual. In time many maskilic songs whose authors were forgotten came to be regarded as folk songs. Taken together, “folklorized” and “hasidicized” maskilic songs came to constitute a major portion of the Yiddish song repertoire.[2]

Yiddish songs by named composers seems to have come into existence in its documented, modern form in the second half of the nineteenth century through the confluence of at least five cultural strands: 1) maskilic Yiddish poetry; 2) badkhonic verse; 3) the Broder Singers; 4) Yiddish theater; and, 5) Yiddish folk song.  Initially composed song was mainly a male form. The figure of Velvl Zbarzher (1824-1884) seems to be a more educated, refined songwriter who straddled the loosely defined territory between badkhn, poet, and maskilic songwriter. A classic figure in this style in the first half of the twentieth century was Mordkhe Gebirtig of Krakow (1877-1942), who composed both lyrics and melodies that were partly of Yiddish folkloric inspiration. The rise of modern Yiddish poetry toward the end of the nineteenth century furnished an enormous impetus toward the creation of new Yiddish songs.

Although titled Yiddish Folk Songs, Mark Varshavski’s song collection published in 1900 was the author’s creation. The songs were sometimes modeled on non-Jewish sources, and presented fewer Jewish musical characteristics. Varshavski and his supporter Sholem Aleichem were attacked by the composer and collector Joel Engel who pointed out correctly that this collection of popular and partly international tunes could hardly be taken to represent the Jewish folk melos of its day.[3] But by the time of Varshavski’s publication, segments of the East European Jewish public had become accustomed to semi-theatrical Yiddish song performances in the style begun by Berl Broder (Berl Margulyes, ca. 1817-1886?), eponymous founder of the Broder Singers. It would seem that these performances, usually in taverns, outside the wedding context, represented a kind of working-class response to the haskalah (haskole). Variations of Polish mazurka, always in minor, form the basis for many Yiddish songs in a variety of textual contents (lyrical, religious, and maskilic). Varshavski’s classic Oyfn Pripetshik is perhaps the best-known example. Other popular and folkloric Yiddish songs refer musically to varieties of klezmer, Ukrainian, or Moldavian dance tunes.

Ansky notes in his article on Jewish Folk Creativity in Perezhitoe in 1909, that the song repertoire found in the earliest collection (that of the noted lawyer I. G. Orshanski from 1866) was entirely forgotten by the time of Peysekh Marek and Saul Ginzburg’s publication of Evreiskye Narodnye Pesni in 1901.[4] Ansky tentatively attributes this loss to the changes in Jewish society in the last third of the nineteenth century due to haskole, secularization, new political ideologies, and emigration, etc.


XIII.  Conclusion


A more complete analysis and classification of the existing corpus of Yiddish songs would require attention to both musical and textual issues in order to identify the characteristics of a folkloric style of musical composition, lyric poetry, and performance. Identifying a corpus, and its division to several fairly distinct repertoires is an essential first step in this process.

Both the textual and musical parameters of traditional Yiddish folk song were fairly clear, and differed in many fundamental respects from the Broder, theater, and later composed songs. Maskilic songs sometimes adopted much of the musical style of folk song and or/religious Yiddish song in order to drive home their anti-traditional message.  Songs of both the badkhonim and early twentieth-century Yiddish song-writers adopted features of either Yiddish folk music or poetic forms. Furthermore, given that the Jewish population had a much higher rate of literacy than surrounding peasant populations, it is not surprising that much stylistic mixing of folkloric, religious, popular, and artistic Yiddish song styles occurred.

In approaching the Yiddish song today, several methodologies are possible. One would deal primarily with the repertoires of the past, whether they have any continuity into the emigration from Eastern Europe and into the early twentieth-first century or not. Another approach would concentrate primarily on those genres which had some continuity in the post-Holocaust era. In a rough sense this would be comparable to the study of instrumental klezmer music, as seen in the work of Feldman (2016) and Slobin (2000), in which the Old World and New World repertoires are distinguished, as well as the “bridge” formed by the music of the major immigrant klezmorim (Feldman 1994). The fact that Yiddish song writing still had a few strong practitioners by the beginning of the twentieth first-century, both in North America and within the former Soviet Union, lends an attraction to a focus on this recent material.


But in the case of Yiddish song within the emigration, the split within the different sectors of the Yiddish-speaking population became extreme, resulting in a large stylistic difference separating the mainly female lyric songs from the largely male politicized and maskilic songs. The religious Yiddish song became increasingly restricted to the Hasidic communities who came to North America mainly following the Holocaust. Thus a study of the latest generations of Yiddish song production would leave out most of the musical features belonging to the older repertoires within Europe.

Another approach would look to the “micro-level” of intonatsia in identifying a Yiddish performance style or “articulation”. For this purpose even a very small corpus could suffice. Connected with this would be the analysis of a repertoire sung by a single performer coming from an oral Yiddish tradition, such as had been attempted by Kirshenblatt and Slobin.

Observing the changes within the Yiddish folk song over the last century or more is a fascinating prospect. But this study can only gain in specificity when it is integrated into a broader perspective formed by a rigorous analysis of the distinct repertoires as they had functioned within Jewish Eastern Europe over many generations. This would include both the genres regarded as “traditional” and those which arose in more or less articulate opposition to that tradition. But this latter group still employed the Yiddish language (at least in part), i.e. rather than abandoning the language in favor of either Hebrew or the dominant Gentile language of the country. Thus, in the study of Yiddish song, most of the basic work still remains to be done.




Ansky, S. (Shlomo Rappaport), “Evreiskaia narodnaia tvorchestvo”, Perezhitoe I: 276-314 (1909).

Asafiev, Boris. Muzykal’naia form kak protses (Musical Form as Process) (Moscow, 1947).

___________, O narodnoi muzyke. Edited by Izalij Zemtsovskij and Alma Kunanbaeva. Leningrad: Muzyka, 1987.


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[1]  M. Beregovski, “Tchuzhomovni I riznomovni pisni v evreiv Ukraini, Bilorusi I Polsci”, Etnograficni Visnik, 9: 37-51 (1930), quoted by Yelena Irzabekovna, “Moisiey Beregovski’s Early Publications,” in J. Nemtsov (ed.), Jüdische Musik als Dialog der Kulturen, (Wiesbaden: Harrosowitz, 2013), p. 278-282.

[2]  Roskies’ created the term ‘creative betrayal’ to describe maskilim and their contemporary epigones in his chapter “People of the Lost Book” (1995:1-19), which is a provocative discussion of modernity and tradition in Jewish culture.

[3] Most of these issues are succinctly described by James Loeffler, (2010). On the collectors Peysekh Marek and Saul Ginzburg, and their Evreiskyia narodnya pesny (1901), p. 64-65, and Varshavski/Engels, p. 175-182.

[4]   I. G. Orshanski, “prostonarodnykh pesni russkikh evreev,” Ha-Carmel, 1866.

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