An Introduction to Yiddish and Klezmer Music through the Northeastern University Library

Painting (above) by Isaak Asknaziy, 1893.

By Debra H. Mandel.

The library has various media resources on Yiddish and Klezmer music, which thrived in Eastern Europe and America amongst Ashkenazi Jews during the 19th century through the mid-20th century. The genre was further shaped by American jazz. Klezmer musicians performed at life-cycle functions and took their music from the songs and dances they heard outside the ghetto walls adding their own brand of improvisation.

Phil Brown (back row center) and the band Too Klez for Comfort

Boston is home to many talented Klezmer musicians and ensembles. Phil Brown, University Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Health Sciences, Jewish Studies Program Affiliated Faculty, and Director of the Catskills Institute, plays piano in Too Klez For Comfort. Joshua Jacobson, Faculty Emeritus of Northeastern, is founder and director of the Zamir Chorale which has paid tribute to the traditions of this music for 50 years, and traveled the world over.

“You might still hear Yiddish songs today, in concerts or at social gatherings of Yiddish speakers. But the natural venue was the village or shtetl of Eastern Europe or America where you could hear them through open windows in courtyards or from busy people humming their way from place to place” writes Anna Gonshor, in the digital liner notes of the recording, When the Rabbi Danced: Songs of Jewish Life from the Shtetl to the Resistance, a  moving compilation of Yiddish folk songs directed by Robert de Cormier.

This album is available in The Database of Recorded American Music (DRAM), which focuses on “the preservation and dissemination of important recordings that have been neglected by the commercial marketplace, recordings that may otherwise become lost or forgotten.”

One can locate Songs in DRAM by using the following search terms: “Jewish,” which yields four albums, “Yiddish” which yields one album, and “Klezmer” which yields two albums.

Music Online is a comprehensive database that includes Jazz Music Library, Smithsonian Global Sound, and the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. It has 880 entries for “Yiddish,” 259 for “Klezmer” and 8,278 under “Jewish!”

Produced by Chris Strachwitz, 1931- (Arhoolie Records, 1997), 1 hour 18 mins

Music Online includes 38 versions of “Yiddishe Momme,” a song written by Jack Yellen and Lew Pollack. Sophie Tucker began singing this song in 1925, after her mother died. In this song, which is said to be sadder in the original Yiddish than in the English translation, the mother yearns for the “old world” and expresses guilt for having left it behind and assimilating into American society.

Performed by Sophie Tucker, 1884-1966; in Last Of The Red Hot Mommas (Memoir Records, 2005), 3 mins.

Also included in this database are 38 documentaries, including this Zero Mostel interview with Elliott Norton about “Fiddler on the Roof.

Directed by James Field, fl. 1980; produced by Pauline Mercer, fl. 1974-1980, WGBH Boston; interview by Elliot Norton, 1903-2003, in Elliot Norton Reviews (Boston, MA: WGBH Boston, 1980), 29 mins.

NAXOS Database, which emphasizes classical music, also includes world music, jazz, folk, and more. It has 46 titles under “Klezmer” and 195 under “Jewish.” One of its 55 Yiddish albums, “Holocaust Winterreisse: A Holocaust Survivor’s Inner Journey Through Yiddish Song,” is a sequence of songs from the Yiddish repertoire devised by opera singer and cantor Mark Glanville. The singer reflects on the life and world he has just seen destroyed as he flees the Vilna ghetto.

NAXOS includes 86 albums from The Milken Archive of Jewish Music, which is dedicated to preserving and presenting music inspired by the American Jewish experience.

For access to more video documentaries about Yiddish music, check out these databases:

Feel free to contact me (dmandel@northeastern.edu) with questions and book and media suggestions for the library’s collection.

Debra H. Mandel is the Director of the Recording Studios at Snell Library at Northeastern University, and Liaison, Jewish Studies, Media and Screen Studies and Music.

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