Reviving forgotten Yiddish folk songs

Reviving forgotten Yiddish folk songs

YIVO festival makes old music sing

Joshua Waletzky sings and Deborah Strauss plays the violin in an YIVO celebration of folklorist and Yiddishish Ruth Rubin in 2018.
Joshua Waletzky sings and Deborah Strauss plays the violin in an YIVO celebration of folklorist and Yiddishish Ruth Rubin in 2018.

Those of us who know very little about it imagine that folk music — old, untraceable, anonymous, simple, possibly even quaint — would be off in one corner of a large music room, while classical music — cultured, patrician, complicated, somehow inherently more valuable — would be at its center.

But of course life and music are far more complicated than that.

The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research has put together a music festival that includes four concerts, a panel discussion, 12 newly commissioned works, and very many performances of newly rediscovered gems of Yiddish folk songs. (See below.) The composers and the performers are highly accomplished and credentialed.

And many of them are artists at home with classical music, here performing Yiddish songs as art songs. Because, of course, they are.

The concerts will help forgotten songs get light and air; they will provide a venue for new works and give listeners the sounds of a world that doesn’t exist anymore but still helped shape them.

It also will acquaint audiences with some of the riches that YIVO has digitized and posted online, ready for everyone with a willing ear and heart.

The songs available online cover a wide range of subjects; how could they not? There are thousands of them. They range across time and space.

It’s not at all clear how old Yiddish folk songs are. By definition, folk songs are anonymous and subject to change. Copyright laws don’t apply to them. But once they start being collected, transcribed, and published, that changes.

“Yiddish folk songs are a genre of secular songs that Yiddish-speaking Jews sang to each other, to their children, and to themselves,” Alex Weiser said; he’s a composer, YIVO’s director of public programs and the festival’s director. “They’re lullabies, work songs, wedding songs, drinking songs, love songs. There are thousands of these songs. There’s a trove of them.

At a Young American Composers performance in 2016, the performers are, from left, Brigid Coleridge, Maya Bennardo, Pat Swoboda, Julie Hill, Meaghan Burke, and Hannah Levinson (Steve Pisano)

“Written records of folk songs start around the turn of the 20th century,” he continued; to be more specific, it was a few years before that, in the late 1890s. That’s when two folklorists, Peisakh Marek and Shaul Ginzburg, put out a call for folk songs in Russian newspapers. The pair compiled a book of those songs, “Jewish Folk Songs in Russia,” in 1901.

Next, another folklorist, Joel Engel, continued their work, transcribed many songs, collected others, and arranged for the songs to be performed.

“The interesting thing is that folk songs usually are not performed in concert — they’re the people’s songs, by and for the people — but Joel Engel wrote arrangements for singers and piano accompaniment,” Mr. Weiser said. “He turned them into classical music.

“That process started in 1900, and it continues to this day at YIVO. Many people have done what Joel Engel did since he did it, trying to showcase the songs in a concert setting, reimagining them using classical conceits.

“So this festival is meant to celebrate the full range of what we have now — people singing traditional songs in a traditional way, as close to the original as possible; presenting them as classical works; and also commissioning new pieces, inspired by the folk songs.”

The festival also will showcase and publicize YIVO’s “amazing collection of Yiddish folk songs,” Mr. Weiser said.

That includes the Ruth Rubin Legacy, an archive of songs collected by Ms. Rubin, a Canadian-turned-New-Yorker who recorded the songs of the Holocaust survivors and refugees who arrived, traumatized, in New York Harbor. As far as we know, she was the first person to record these songs, systematically, thoughtfully, and thoroughly; she was able to capture on tape some of the last memories of a murdered world. A few years ago, YIVO digitized it, now it’s online, free and easy to find as part of YIVO’s huge archive. “It’s fantastic,” Mr. Weiser said. It’s at

And then there’s the YIVO Folk song Project: East European Jewish Folk song in its Social Context. That’s a project that was begun in the 1970s, was pretty much forgotten, and then recently was rediscovered and digitized. It contains about 2,000 songs from across Eastern Europe and North America.

There are so many songs there, Mr. Weiser said, that “by triangulating what’s in these recordings and printed in these books and others, by comparing the variants and the dialects, you can tell where it’s from and about how old it is.” If a song has many variants, you can assume that it’s really old.

“It’s not directly about the Holocaust, but there is an indirect connection,” he added. “We are opening up not a window but a gate and a big path to the world that existed before the Holocaust. Only remnants of it still existed afterward, but we are correcting that.” With the archives and the festival and the rest of the research that YIVO does, those remnants are being reconnected and some are being brought back to life.

The festival had been planned for the spring 2020, Mr. Weiser said; like every other performance, party, meeting, or conference scheduled for spring 2020, it was canceled by the pandemic. “But we did some of it online, and it was a tremendous success,” he said. “People recorded their pieces remotely, and we interwove archival records of folk songs and the new pieces people created based on them. It was tremendously popular. Thousands of people watched it and many of them had a warm reaction to it.”

The performances were so warmly received, “it was such a big bang, that we decided that we wanted to do in-person performances of all those pieces,” Mr. Weiser continued. “So we are. And with the new commissions and the folk performances and classical performances of music from the archives, we also are doing some of Joel Engel’s own work, and the work of other less-well-known composers.” Most but not all of the performers are Jewish, as are most but not all of the composers. “It is incredibly ambitious,” Mr. Weiser said.

Talk about ambitious — although most audience members at most concerts expect some kind of program, audience members at this festival will not get one. Instead, they’ll be given a 300-page book. “It has essays on the history of Yiddish folk songs, and analyses, and program notes,” Mr. Weiser said. “It has the song texts in Yiddish, in transliteration, and in English. It has the composers’ biographies, and a resource guide that I created.”

The ticket price, however, does not reflect the work that went into all the elements of these performances and the book chronicling them. Tickets are $15 each; YIVO has funding for this series from the New York Department of Cultural Affairs, among other sources.

Dovid Braun of Leonia is, among other things, the Yiddishist who put together much of the books that YIVO will give out at the concerts.

He’s also Leonia’s official historian; he grew up in town and proudly calls himself “a boomerang Leonian” now. And he’s not the only one; “after a certain age, we’re really happy to be back,” he said.

His job — “it was herculean,” Mr. Weiser said — demanded that he edit all the transcriptions that already had been done, and transcribe the songs that had not yet been. Then he transliterated all of them into Latin letters, and then he translated them.

And, reader, out the thousands of songs in YIVO’s archives, Mr. Braun had to work with about 110 of them.

Dovid Braun, at right, wields a red pen; from right, musician and sound archivist Eléonore Biezunski,composer and public program director Alex Weiser, and singer and sound archivist Lorin Sklamberg. (Dr. Eddy Portnoy)

“Some of the texts had been transcribed already, well or not well,” Mr. Braun said. “I have Yiddish language skills,” he understated wildly, because he’s a pre-eminent scholar as well as speaker of Yiddish. “And I also majored in folklore.”

So, when it came to transcriptions and transliterations, “I made sure that all the documents and performances were synthesized; by that I mean that I listened to the performances, which were mainly from the 1970s. I checked for the accuracy of the transcription into Yiddish, and also for interdialectal consistency, to make sure that it’s standardized, consistent, and understandable.

“Some transcribers say that they write what they hear, but that doesn’t work,” he continued. Yes, there are little dialect-indicating flourishes that you can leave in — it’s like “when you have Huck Finn dropping his gs,” he said. “That’s fine, because it’s standard and recognizable.”

The performers can use his work, so he kept in mind the fact that although some of them are fluent in Yiddish, others do not speak it at all.

“I have never done a marathon like this before,” he said. “It had to be done in a short time, because this folk song festival was made of so many moving parts. There are four concerts, and each performer handed in their favorite song, with their favorite version of it. And I had to do it all in time for May.”

There is no musical notation in the book, but “when you go to the concert, you will hear the music” he pointed out reasonably. “And everyone is invited to use what they are calling the online sampler, which presents the field recordings.

“Every performer chooses their two songs, and those songs are uploaded as they were collected in the 1970s, or by Ruth Rubin, and you can go there to hear the folk recording.”

Most of the songs haven’t been heard for about half a century, and when they were recorded in the 1970s they’d already turned into artefacts rather than living music.

“It was a ground-breaking project in the ’70s, because they” — its creators — “had a vision. They weren’t interested just in the musical notes or just in the text. They were interested in the place of the songs in the community and in the life of the singer. The folksinger is the person who is known in the community as the one with the nice voice who knows a lot of songs and interprets them well.”

The cover of Joel Engel’s collection of Yiddish folk songs and pages from YIVO’s archive.

The festival gives performers the chance to give life to some of the songs. “So many of them are unknown even to the experts because there is only so much that anyone can know. So this will be a wonderful series of events for everyone along the whole scale, from people with deep knowledge to people with no knowledge at all who just want to go to a nice concert.”

The task he undertook was grueling, Mr. Braun said, and “I couldn’t sleep because I was working so hard, but I had two great gifts come from it.

“I know that I have contributed something to scholarship. That’s a gift. And also, in the loneliest, darkest moments, when I couldn’t sleep.” He was editing, “and the red ink was overflowing. It was 3 in the morning — and I got to listen to these beautiful songs, and read these beautiful texts.

“Some of the poetry could make you melt and coupled with some of the performances — that was the saving grace of an otherwise taxing period.”

Mr. Braun talked about YIVO’s intensive summer program, where he teaches. He is ready to talk at length and depth about all of it, and about the extraordinary students it attracts, but because of what’s going on in the world now he focused on two students, one from Russia and another from Ukraine, who have enrolled.

“It’s free for them,” he said. “They’re learning online.”

Admission to the program is competitive, and its standards are high.

The first night that Russian missiles struck Kyiv, “we had a placement interview with a student,” he said. A student who was in Kyiv. “We got on and said ‘Hello, Tatiana.’ We were trying to make it seem like a normal Zoom interview. And my colleague said later that he couldn’t find any words to ask any questions, because even ‘How are you?’ is a loaded question.’

“And the young woman, I think she’s 26 years old, I think she’s not Jewish, but you can’t ask, and she is so committed to it. To Yiddish. She says, ‘Fine, thank you,’ and both of us are trembling, trying to make it normal.

Pianist Ryan McCullough and singer Lucy Fitz Gibbon perform “10 Yiddish Songs by Alexander Krein.” (Steve Pisano)

“It was Kafkaesque.

“So we talk, and we find out who she is and what she’s done. And we’re at the end of our placement interview, and we say, ‘Okay. Goodbye. Great to meet you. See you on Zoom.’

“And we’re both in tears. Will we really see her in June?

“I do believe she’s okay,” he added. “And we gave her a full scholarship.”

Mr. Braun also teaches an advanced Yiddish class twice a week. “This is a fantastic class,” he said. “We have a student in London, one in Florida, one in Moscow, one in Kyiv.

“The student in Moscow still is in Moscow. She was in the protest that rounded up 1,600 people that first day. We didn’t see her in the next class, on Sunday, and then we didn’t see her on Thursday either.

“We were so worried,” but she was fine. “She said that if anything happens, she’ll get in touch with us.

“She does two things,” Mr. Braun continued. “She is a cancer biologist, and she is an advanced student in Yiddish. And she has a grandmother in Ukraine.”

“The other student, in Kyiv — we’ve followed her travels. She was on her way to a concert in western Ukraine, and then the war broke out. She didn’t go home. She went to Lvov for a few weeks and then crossed into Poland and Zoomed into the class from Krakow.

“And within a week or two, she was Zooming into the class from Tel Aviv. She’s Jewish, so she was able to get to Israel. Now she works for Yad Vashem. So Israel gained, and so did Yiddish scholarship.”

At a concert called “Sweet Is Thy Voice,” Miki Sawada plays piano and Jonathan Woody sings. (Steve Pisano)

And because the Jewish world is full of connections, Mr. Braun ended with the story of one of them.

“Ruth Rubin did one-woman shows, and she performed at the JCC on the Palisades in the 1980s,” he said. “She was captured in a film made by Cindy Rivka Marshall. She was from Leonia; her mother is Helene Marshall,” who because of her work in town, was thought of as “Mrs. Leonia Children’s Theater.

“So Cindy used footage that she’d taken at the JCC concert in her documentary, ‘A Life of Song: a Portrait of Ruth Rubin.’

“I didn’t know Cindy then — she’s 10 or 15 years older than I am — but I did know her mother, who taught me theater when I was in third grade. Cindy and I met on a Facebook group called ‘I grew up in Leonia.’ I’m one of the administrators; there are about 3,000 people in the group, and we affiliated it with the Leonia Historic Preservation Commission.

“Then YIVO had the grand opening of the Ruth Rubin archive, four or five years ago, and they showed Cindy’s film, and Mrs. Marshall, Helene, was there. And I said, ‘It’s nice to see you!’

“Here’s the unbelievable kicker. I was at that concert that Cindy filmed at the JCC. The camera pans in, and you can see my grandmother!

“It’s one of the few bits of film that my grandmother is in. And you can see her enjoying it.

“I didn’t even notice it at first. I didn’t watch it that intently.” But his friend Itzik Gottesman, another eminent Yiddishist, noticed. “He recognized her,” Mr. Braun said.

So these songs, with all their memories and allusions, will be played once again, the result of the work of Dovid Braun and Alex Weiser and a host of other Yiddishists, musicologists, musicians, organizers, teachers, administrators, donors, and lovers of Yiddish.

And now they’ll be online, so they will be able to live again.

The YIVO Yiddish Folk song Festival; the first concert is over, but the others will be on Monday, May 18, at 7 p.m. at YIVO, 15 West 16th Street; on Sunday, May 22, at 4 p.m. at the Jalopy Theatre at 315 Columbia Street in Brooklyn, and on Thursday, May 26, at 7 p.m., again at YIVO. All of them will be free on Zoom; in-person tickets are $15. The panel discussion will be on Monday, May 23, at 1 p.m., only on Zoom.

The festival includes both old songs and at least
12 newly commissioned works, played by more than 30 musicians.

For details, tickets, and Zoom links, as well as background information, go to, or just go to YIVO’s homepage and follow the links from there.

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