Jewish Musical Heritage


This page contains brief surveys of the topics dealt with in the lectures, with links to more detailed information. It's a resource for "couch potatoes" - everything you'd want to learn about Jewish folk songs (particularly in Yiddish and Ladino) without leaving your computer!  I've tried to find relevant videos and online sources, and would appreciate your letting me know if you find any errors of fact or omission.

You might also like to visit the pages on Pictures of Jewish Life and Jewish Festivals.

If you live in Israel, come along to the lectures! Plenty more information and, most importantly, lots of good music!

A. Jewish Folk Music

C 3. Yiddish theater songs in America

A 1. Jewish folk songs

C 4. Yiddish songs in Soviet Russia

A 2. "It sounds so Jewish!"

D. Holocaust songs

A 3. Borrowing of texts and music

E. Paraliturgical (Semi-Religious) Songs

B. Ladino Songs

D 1. Religious poetry in Hebrew (piyutim)

B 1. Romansas

D 2. Coplas

B 2. Cantigas and other traditional songs

D 3. Hasidic songs and the Hasidic nigun

B 3. Twentieth century Ladino songs

E. Contemporary Jewish Folksongs and Folksinging

B 4. Moving away from the Diaspora

F 1. In Israel

C. Yiddish Songs

F 2. In the US and Europe

C 1. Folk songs

G.  Jewish Languages

C 2. Composed songs H.  Links and References

 *     *     *     *     * 

   A. Jewish Music

A 1. Jewish folk songs 

The term "Jewish folk songs" embraces a vast array of songs across the diverse regions and languages of the Jewish homeland and diaspora, dealing with all aspects of Jewish life, tradition, ritual, culture and history.

A. Z. Idelsohn, eminent ethnomusicologist with a keen interest in Jewish folk song, defines Jewish music poetically: "Jewish music is the song of Judaism through the lips of the Jew. It is the tonal expression of Jewish life and development over a period of more than two thousand years. … Jewish song achieves its unique qualities through the sentiments and the life of the Jewish people. Its distinguishing characteristics are the result of the spiritual life and struggle of that people." (Idelsohn, p.24)

While folk songs in general tend to be categorized according to national or regional characteristics (e.g, Scottish ballads or American protest songs), Jewish folk songs reflect the hundreds of years of acculturation within a diverse range of geographic, ethnic and cultural contexts. In very general terms, Jewish folksongs can be divided into three basic interlocking groups: Ashkenazi, or Yiddish-based, including songs emanating from Germany, spreading throughout Europe and, eventually, to the US and other Western countries; Sephardic, or Ladino-based, including songs originating in Spain and spreading eastward throughout the Spanish diaspora to Turkey and the Balkan countries or westward to north-African countries; and Oriental, with songs in Jewish languages of the East, including those based upon Arabic, Persian and Kurdish speaking cultures. Jewish folk songs spread as far afield as Ethiopia and India. While most Jewish folk songs are secular, reflecting circumstances of life wherever Jews have lived, a common thread between Jewish communities around the globe has always been the connection with Jewish heritage – the Jewish domestic life cycle and the Jewish annual festival cycle, each with their characteristic texts. Jewish folk-music is extremely dynamic, constantly adapting within changing environments. Most noticeably, Israeli popular music is in a continual state of flux, reflecting a wide range of universal influences and tinged by constantly evolving ethnic contexts as well as orthodox and neo-Hasidic styles. Here is an extensive description of Jewish folk songs and, in particular, of women's songs, written by Professor Amnon Shiloah of the Hebrew University. 

This site deals mainly with Yiddish and Ladino folk songs, both corpuses of which are constantly being added to, as well as a few Hebrew songs and popular piyutim. It is important to note that I will be mentioning only a very small proportion of the wide range of Jewish songs, both past and present. The characteristics of Jewish music which will be discussed in the lectures include:

            specifically Jewish content, such as reference to Jewish festivals, the Jewish life cycle, or Jewish concepts
            inclusion of Jewish idioms, phrases and proverbs 
            reference to Jewish texts, especially the Bible
            reference to Jewish historical events
            Jewish musical characteristics
            Jewish poets and composers   
            singing of national genres in Jewish contexts (e.g., romansas functioning as Jewish lullabies)
            specifically Jewish text-types and genres (e.g., piyutim, coplas)
            singing (or composing) Jewish texts to (gentile) folk melodies
            life in the Diaspora (love, work, poverty, etc.) 

Idelsohn, A. Z. (1967). Jewish Music in its Historical Development. New York: Schocken Books.
Shiloach, A. "Folk Music". In "Music". Encyclopedia Judaica, 2nd edition.

♦ Recommended online articles dealing with Jewish music and folksong.

♦ Recommended websites dealing with Jewish music and heritage.


A 2.  Musical foundations

Is there a distinctively "Jewish" sound in Yiddish or Ladino music? 
Much Yiddish folk music – especially Klezmer, and quite a few songs – are based upon synagogue modes or shtaygers, which are scales with specific sets of melodic motifs named after synagogue prayers. For a review, read here is an example of a klezmer melody featuring the "ahavah raba" mode. (See Wohlberg, below, on the synagogue as a source of Yiddish song). According to Idelsohn, over 50% of Yiddish songs are based on the minor scale.
Ladino songs originating in former Ottoman countries are often based upon the makam system, i.e., melodic progressions and patterns, which include micro tonal intervals. For a detailed explanation and music examples, look at Arabic Maqam World . (Seroussi shows how Turkish makam have influenced Sephardic music). It is important to remember that Ladino music stems from a large number of different infleunces, including western (and westernized) music: see the discussion below
The site "Jewish Liturgical Music" discusses the influence of Arabic makams on Sephardic music (Part II) and the influence of shtaygers on Klezmer music (Part III). (See the equivalent Hebrew webpage for more articles on Jewish modes).
Idelsohn, A.Z. op.cit.
Seroussi, E. (1990). The Turkish makam in the musical culture of the Ottoman Jews: Sources and examples, Israel Studies in Musicology 5: 43-68.
Wohlberg, M. (1978). The music of the Synagogue as a source of the Yiddish folksong, Musica Judaica 2: 21-49.

A 3. Borrowing of texts and music


The question "Why should the Devil have all the good music?" was ostensibly asked by Martin Luther in defense of the practice of contrafacta, i.e., the setting sacred texts to the tunes of secular songs. Although there is no documentary evidence for this actual remark, the Church in the Middle Ages regularly borrowed music or texts from secular sources for use in religious contexts, such as the Protestant (Lutheran) chorales.

This practice has also been characteristic of Jewish music, from the Middle Ages to this very day. The borrowing of Sephardic music – romansas [ballads] and cantigas [lyrical songs] – for recital of piyutim [liturgical poetry] was especially popular. There are actually two processes: contrafactum [singular] refers to a new text written for the melody of a (well-known) song; while "adaptation" [התאמה] refers to the singing of an existing text to the tune of another song. An example of the latter is the piyut "Tsur mishelo achalnu" [Rock whose (food) we have eaten], which is popularly sung around the Shabbat or festival table to the melody of the cantiga "La rosa enflorese" [The rose blooms] (or "Los bilbilikos" [The Nightingales]). (Listen to this and the many other melodies sung by different communities of Jews around the world at "An Invitation to Piyut").

Rabbi Israel Najara (ca. 1555, Damascus - ca. 1625, Gaza) is an example of a prolific poet who wrote religious texts to be set to the melodies of popular secular music. His avowed purpose was to turn Jewish youth away from profane songs. (Najara's most popular piyut is the Shabbat table song, "Ya ribbon olam"). 
Many rabbis were opposed to the practice of incorporating secular songs, as well as to the playing of instrumental music, because of what they regarded as lewd texts as well as the continuous imperative in Judaism to mourn over the destruction of the Temple. In practice, however, the practice of contrafacta has continued to this day. Use of alien melodies as the basis of nigunim (songs without words) was even justified by the Hasidim, especially if this were accomplished by tsadikim (righteous ones), as can be seen in the legendary story of Rabbi Eisik Taub (below).
Cohen, R. We're playing their songMoment, 1994.
Seroussi, E. & Weich-Shahak, S. Judeo-Spanish contrafacts and musical adaptations: The Oral tradition. Orbis Musicae X (1990-1991), 164-193
jewish folksongs 


  B. Ladino Folk Songs


Many people have the idea that Ladino folk songs are archaic and romantic. Perhaps this feeling stems from the aura of mystery surrounding the word "romansa", which is the Spanish word for "ballad". * While there are a large number of romansas in the Sephardic song repertoire, it was the texts that were preserved from the Middle Ages, not the music; the melodies to romansas which are known today date from a much later time. In actual fact, the secular Ladino repertoire consisted, besides the romansas, of a large number of songs (cantigas), both old and relatively recent, stemming from many different origins: Spanish lyric songs, Greek and Turkish popular songs, western European dance songs, etc. Coplas, which are related to a large extent to Jewish festivals and the life-cycle, are discussed in the section on paraliturgical songs. 

 Many disks of Ladino songs are misleadingly entitled "romansas" or "ballads". Here are three of them:
Yehoram Gaon: Romantic Ballads from the great Judeo-Espagnol Heritage
Francoise Atlan: Romances Sefardies – Sephardic Songs
Ensemble Accentus: Sephardic Romances – Traditional Jewish Music from Spain


B 1. Romansas

Kings, queens and nobility – whether historical, legendary or allegorical – are the heroes and heroines of romansas. The Sephardic Jews sang about medieval Spanish and European rulers (e.g., the 7th century King Rodrigo or the 11th hero El Cid), classic heroes and heroines (e.g., Helena of Troy), Biblical leaders (e.g., King David), as well as famous soldiers (e.g., Roland). In a very much later romansa set against the background of the Bulgarian struggle for independence, a Jewish mother blames her son's death on King Ferdinand for expelling the Jews from Spain.
Romansas comprise a particular genre within the Ladino song repertoire: they are narrative poems with a strictly-defined formal structure, sharing the stylistic features of European ballads. Subjects range through tales of heroism and cowardice, loyalty and faithlessness, love gained and thwarted, filial devotion and incest; the romansas are set in kingly palaces, secluded islands and tall towers. The Jews sang ancient Hispanic romansas, but also ballads stemming from other European countries, before and after the expulsion from Spain. Variants of the same texts have different melodies in the eastern (Greece, Turkey and the Balkan states) and the western (north Africa) countries of the Sephardic diaspora. Hundreds of romansas have been preserved in different variations.

While set against exotic backdrops, the ballads served as prototypes by means of which to explain human behaviour and present ethical values. They were normally sung unaccompanied by women while lulling their children to sleep or carrying out household tasks, and at such life-cycle events as the elaborate preparations prior to weddings. Part of the function of the romansa in Jewish life was to pass on cultural values. For example, at the beginning of Lavaba la blanca ninya [The fair young maiden was washing], a ballad which tells about the return of a soldier after seven years at war, a young maid (who turns out to be his wife) is seen washing clothes. This ballad was sung by Jewish women while washing the wool to be used in preparation for the bridal gown. The message implicit in the ballad is that a Jewish wife is expected to be faithful to her husband, whatever the circumstances. Expanding the analogy even further, the seven years of waiting could also be interpreted as yearning for the Shabbat day, or as representing the long years of exile from both Spain and Jerusalem. (Other romansas on the same theme are La vuelta del marido [The husband's return] and Arbolera, arbolera [Tree, tree]). 

One of the most popular of all Judeo-Spanish ballads is "Landarico", or "El rey de muncho madriga", featured in the lecture "Kings and Queens". Basically, the plot consists of a queen being uncharacteristically visited early one morning by the king. Not seeing the king face-to-face, and thinking that it is her lover (the knight Landarico or Ardaletto), she describes how she favours the knight's two sons over those of the king. In the end, the king reveals himself. The queen begs his pardon, but it is too late: the king hints that she will be executed. The queen referred to in the romansa is believed to have been the adulterous wife of a sixth century Burgundian king, Chilperic I. According to the historical version, the queen plots to have her husband killed. In most – but not all – of the Jewish versions of the romansa, the queen is killed as punishment for infidelity (in contrast to medieval Spanish versions, where the queen escapes punishment). However, the punishment is only hinted at (a necklace of red on a white dress): one of the characteristics of Jewish folk music is to downplay descriptions of cruelty. The many different versions differ with respect to the opening, the closure, and, especially, the description of the differences between the queen's two sets of children: those of the king and those of her lover. This romansa, conveying a clear warning of the consequences of infidelity, is often sung at wedding preparation ceremonies.

Besides the textual differences, there are many different musical versions. Over the course of time, two distinct musical traditions developed in the Spanish diaspora: the eastern Ottoman countries (Turkey, Greece, Balkan states), which were influenced by Turkish musical elements (e.g., maqams and melismatic musical lines) and the western branches of settlement (north African countries) which had simpler musical lines (and were based on modes rather than maqams). 

Online articles giving more information about romansas (particularly the articles by Armistead and Silverman)

Lyrics and Music



B 2. Cantigas and other traditional songs



(a)  Cantigas
Lyrical Ladino songs are known as cantigas (canticas, cantares). They are strophic, often with a chorus, and, in contrast to romansas which tell stories, are usually expressions of feelings, such as a maiden's love or disappointment or a soldier yearning for home. The stanzas don't necessarily follow any fixed order, and may even "wander" from one song to another. The melodies and texts of the cantigas were invariably drawn from the musical environment in which the Jews lived.

While some cantigas could be sung at any time during the year, many were inherently connected with life-cycle events, particularly the wedding, at which the songs were performed to the accompaniment of Sephardic percussion instruments. Wedding songs - cantares de novia or cantes de boda - were sung at the preparatory events associated with the wedding, including combing out the bride's hair, displaying the trousseau, accompanying the bride to the mikveh (ritual bath), the procession to the groom's house, and the wedding ceremony itself. The most well-known wedding song is "Morenica". After the wedding, songs were sung about married life, especially about having to cope with the loathsome mother-in-law, e.g., "Mi suegra, la negra" [My mother-in-law, the black one].

Included in the genre of cantigas are songs sung at childbirth, songs for and by children, as well as songs of love and courtship. A distinctively Sephardic custom is that of the matesha [swing], by means of which the young ladies and men would be able to eye each other and size up prospective marriage partners, e.g., "Matesha, matesha" [Swing, swing]. There weren't many specific cradle songs in Sephardic culture, because most women would lull their babies to sleep singing out the many-versed narratives of the romansas. Nevertheless, one widely-known lullaby which occurs in many variations is "Durme, durme" [Sleep, sleep] based originally upon a Spanish love song.

Some cantigas are of Spanish origin, but the majority stem from the countries of exile. Like folk-songs everywhere, they are very dynamic, showing the effects of borrowing and changing the music of one's cultural environment. Songs could travel all over the Diaspora with local adjustments of text or melody, so that it's difficult to tell exactly where a song may have originated unless there happens to be documented evidence. For example, in the cantiga "Morenica", the Greek phrase mavromatia mu [you have black eyes] may suggest that the song originated in a Greek-speaking community, but there is documentation showing that it was popular in Spain and was originally included in a Spanish comedy of the 17th century. There are cases where we can easily understand why textual changes are made, such as the substitution of the phrase m'engrandeci [I grew up] for the Christian phrase me baptizaron [I was baptized]; very often, though, it's difficult to tell why certain song texts are retained, or why melodies become detached from one song and cleave to a different (or a few different) texts.

Songs in Ladino appropriated both the texts and musical characteristics of local folk songs. An example is the popular "La hija de la vecina" [The neighbour's daughter], adapted from a Bulgarian folk song. Hadass Pal-Yarden has produced a wonderful disk showing Turkish and Greek influences on Ladino songs of the Jewish quarters [Yahudice] of the Ottoman cities: listen to "Hapiste" [In prison], which contains a reference to the prison in Salonica, although the song was heard in different parts of Turkey. 

(b) Endechas 

Endechas, or dirges, were sung by special women mourners known as endechaderas. The songs were usually lyrical in style, telling of sadness and misery, e.g., "Las hierbas del dolor" [Grass of sadness]. Certain romansas are also associated with mourning, such as "David llora a Absalon" [David cried over Absalom], which is sung at houses of mourning as well as on the 9th of Av, the calendar festival mourning the destruction of the Temple and, in Sephardic culture, of the expulsion from Spain.

(c) Coplas

Coplas, which are are poems written in Ladino about topics related to Jewish religion and community, are discussed in the section on paraliturgical songs. Note that not all coplas are religious in nature: some deal with historical events such as the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 or the fires of Salonika in 1883 and 1917, and others - complas del felek - deal with current affairs and welfare, e.g., "La subida de los precios" [The price rise]. 

 B 3. Ladino songs in the twentieth century

The first few decades of the twentieth century constituted a fertile time for writing texts based upon the melodies of local popular songs. In Salonica, the song-writing team Sadik and Kazez wrote social satire based upon songs which were the rage in Greece; these were published in Ladino journals, and had a wide following (Havassy). Social satire addressing problems of the community, for example, that of inter-marriage, was sung to the tunes of popular ballroom dances which came from Argentina, western Europe and the US - the tango, foxtrot, pasadoble and Charleston. The words of these songs in Ladino were often plays on words of translations of the originals into the local vernacular. Songs were also sung in Haketia (the Moroccan Ladino dialect) to Berber melodies, criticizing the moral laxity of ladies wearing the latest fashions!

Theater was another factor which inspired song-writing in Ladino: a popular musical "Esther", based on the Purim story, was produced in the mid-1930's. Mattilda Cohen-Serrano has shown that the popular song "Adio Querida" was borrowed from Verdi (and that his famous aria Addio del pasato from La Traviata was not originally a Sephardi song!)

Songs recounting the significance of historic events within the Jewish community were also written in the twentieth century. These included songs about military service in the Balkan wars, e.g., "Coplas de askerlik" [Soldier's song], about the fires which devastated the Jewish quarters of Salonica, e.g., "La cantiga de la fuego" [The song of the fire], about the Holocaust, and about the Zionist movement, e.g., "La tierra santa" [Holy ground]. Some of these songs, e.g., those about the Salonica fires, were written in the form of coplas, thereby enhancing their educational message.

Thanks to the introduction of the gramophone and radio in households throughout the Sephardic world, the transmission of folk music was revolutionized, with native-Ladino speakers learning songs from the electronic media as well as in the home. Moreover, recordings had the effect of reducing and standardizing the length of traditional songs, adding instrumental accompaniment to previously unaccompanied vocal genres, professionalizing performers and motivating the composition of new songs. (Seroussi, 1993). 


B 4. Moving away from the Diaspora

As Sephardic Jews moved to Palestine from the beginning of the twentieth century, they brought their folk songs along with them. The first attempts to bring them to the attention to the western public was in the 1930's by singer Bracha Zefira, who heard the songs from the Sephardic community in Jerusalem and recorded them as art songs in conjunction with song-writer Nahum Nardi and composers of Israeli classical music. In 1955, the Ladino section of Radio "Kol Israel" was opened under the direction of song collector and singer, Isaac Levi, which allowed for the popularization of Sephardic songs in new arrangements. Two singers of Sephardic descent who attained national fame in the 60's were Avraham Perrera and Yehoram Gaon, the latter starring in the concert performance of "Romancero Sephardi" by Itzhak Navon in 1968. Navon, president of Israel from 1978 to 1983, has always been particularly concerned with preserving Sephardic heritage. In 1969 he wrote the musical "Bustan Sephardi" [The Sephardic garden], a musical based upon the songs in the collections of Isaac Levy and dealing with the life of a Sephardic neighbourhood in Jerusalem. It was very popular during the 1970's, and the revival in 1998 has proved to be even more popular than before. Since the commemoration in 1992 of 500 years since the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Ladino songs have become enthusiastically acclaimed by Jew and non-Jew, Sephardic and Ashkenazi, all over the world. 

Since the integration of Sephardic Jews into the general Jewish populations of the world and the exposure of Ladino songs to the world at large via radio and recordings, several basic changes have occurred. Westernized rendering of Ladino songs with guitar accompaniment sounds very different from the various native contexts. On the other hand, attempts to play and sing the music as if it were "medieval" - e.g., Monserrat Figueras and Hesperion XXI - are no more authentic, especially as there aren't any melodies which have survived from the Middle Ages. The move from traditional functional aspects to the stage and studio has also resulted in a dichotomy between performer and audience rather than a participatory experience (Weich-Shahak).

Nevertheless, it is important to accept that folk music has always been subject to change, and to acknowledge the directions in which it is moving. In the final section of this review of Jewish folk music, I have attempted to evaluate what is happening with respect to both Ladino and Yiddish music at the present point of time. 

Havassy, R. (2001). The songs in Ladino of M. Kazis and Ts. Gershon (Tsadik and Gazoz). [In Hebrew]
Seroussi, E. (1993). "New Directions in the Music of the Sephardic Jews," in Ezra Mendelsohn, ed., Modern Jews and Their Musical Agendas, Studies in Contemporary Jewry 9 (London and New York), pp. 61-77.
Seroussi, E. (1999). The music of the Ladino folk song. Pe'amim 77. [In Hebrew]
Weich-Shahak, S. (2006). En buen siman. Pardes. [In Hebrew]



jewish folksongs




  C. Yiddish Songs


C 1. Folk songs


The Yiddish language is widely believed to have originated in the Rhineland around the year 1000, and Yiddish folksongs can be dated to around the fourteenth century. The oldest collection of secular Yiddish folk texts was compiled in Germany at the end of the sixteenth century, and the texts in it – love songs, humorous and satirical songs, dance songs – are similar to folk songs sung in Eastern Europe a couple of centuries later. (Beregovsky). Jewish minstrels familiar with German folksongs and ballads entertained and educated their Jewish audiences. (Rubin). They sang translations of German folksongs and traditional songs of the Jewish festivals, as well as two epic creations which were popular for over a century: the "Shmuel Bukh", a rendition of the Book of Samuel, and the "Bove Bukh", a Yiddish translation of an Italian legend. At social gatherings, German Jews were more likely to sing German folk and popular songs than Jewish folk songs, despite ghetto walls and social separation (Idelsohn, C.18).
From the seventeenth century onwards, with the spread of Jewish life and the Yiddish vernacular to the insular Jewish communities of eastern and central Europe, Yiddish folk songs flourished. The content of songs of a religious nature – shabbes zemires [Shabbat table songs] and festival songs – was carried over from Germany, although the melodies were different (Idelsohn, C.18). With the concentration of Jewish life in the shtetlekh [small towns] of the Pale of Settlement, most of the secular songs were sung and composed anonymously by women: these were mostly songs of love, courtship and disappointment, cradle songs, songs about Jewish family life and the hardship of living with inlaws, songs about work and poverty, and songs of Jewish youths – sons, lovers and husbands – having to leave their families and serve for many years in the Czarist army. Songs from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries also record historical events such as fires and plagues, the expulsions of Jewish communities, pogroms and and massacres. Folk songs were always sung solo, without instrumental accompaniment, and in small, intimate settings.

Yiddish songs of the nineteenth century were influenced by a number of different trends. While followers of the various Hasidic courts continued to sing nigunim at their rebbe's tish [table], they were opposed vehemently by leaders of the Haskalah [Enlightenment] movement, who countered by singing satirical songs criticizing the blind faith of the Hasidim in their miracle-working rebbes. Secondly, as poverty forced both men and women to work interminably long hours as apprentices and eventually to leave the shtetl and work in factories, new genres of worker songs and, subsequently, songs of worker struggle were created. Underworld songs of thievery and prostitution were sung in Moscow, Odessa, and in cities across the world such as Buenos Aires. More lamentations were sung as men went overseas in search of a new start, leaving their wives as agunot ["chained" women] to fend for themselves and their families.


Two good online surveys of Yiddish song are Chana Mlotek's entry, "Folk Songs",  in the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, and the entry on "Music" in "Culture" (YIVO Institute For Jewish Research, 2004). "Amol iz geven a mayse" - "Once Upon a Time: The Story of Jewish Life in Eastern Europe based on Jewish folk Songs" - was a program presented in the 1950's by the Workmen's Circle in New York. Listen here to the narrative in Yiddish by Joseph Mlotek, with songs sung by Sidor Beloarsky and Masha Benya.


The Zemerl database includes the words and English translations of many popular Yiddish songs, and the Robert and Molly Freedman Jewish Sound Archive is a wonderful resource listing recorded Yiddish songs.



Slobin, M. (Ed.). (2000). Old Jewish Folk Music: The Collections and Writings of Moshe Beregovski. Syracuse University Press.
Idelsohn, A. (1967). Jewish Music in its Historical Development. New York: Schocken Books.
Rubin, R. (2000). Voices of a People. Urbana, Ill. : University of Illinois Press.



C 2. Composed songs

The composing and performance of folk poetry at Jewish weddings had traditionally been carried by the badkhn [jester], whose task was to entertain the wedding couple and guests with anecdotes and riddles. (Klezmer music essentially developed as accompaniment to the wedding ceremony; it is an instrumental genre, and thus not dealt with specifically in these lectures, although modern klezmer performance is closely associated with the singing of Yiddish songs). A direct ougrowth of the badkhn tradition were the Broder brothers, from Brody in the Ukraine, itinerant "troubadors" who were among the first to compose and perform Yiddish-language songs and who were precursors of the Yiddish theater established by Goldfaden in Jassy, Romania, in 1876. A particularly well-known member of the Brody troupe was Velvl Zbarzher (1824–1884), who composed "mini-melodramas in song" describing topical events and injustices and making fun of the Hasidic Jews. He has been described as "a real folk-poet" whose songs, two decades after his death, were still sung by the Jewish masses of Galicia and southern Russia. Another "minstrel" influential in developing the badkhn tradition was Eliakum Zunser (1836-1913), who eventually founded a school of badkhanim in America.

The songs "Rozhinkes mit mandlen" [Raisins and almonds] and "Oyfn pripetshik" [At the hearth] are thought of today as quintessential Yiddish folk songs. In fact, Rozhinkes mit mandln was composed by Abraham Goldfaden (1840-1908) for his operetta "Shulamis" and based on the folk lullaby "Untern kinds vigele" [Under the child's cradle]. Goldfaden, father of the Yiddish Theater, wrote operattas on themes encompassing Jewish tradition, Enlightenment and Zionism. A contemporary of Goldfaden was Mark Warshavsky (c.1840-1907), a lawyer from Kiev whose book, "Judische Volkslieder", was enthusiastically endorsed by popular author Sholem Aleichem. The song "Oyfn pripetshik", along with many others in the collection, attained instant "folk" status, and has remained popular ever since.

Perhaps the most beloved of all "folk" composers was Mordechai Gebirtig (1877-1942), from Krakow, Poland, best known for his song, "Es brent" [It is burning], written in 1938 in response to the 1936 pogrom of Jews in the shtetl of Przytyk. Like Warshavsky, composing was an avocation rather than a livelihood, and his first collection of songs was likewise entitled "Folkstimlekh". His songs – for example, "Kinderyorn" [Childhood years] and "Reyzele" – were popular with Jewish people the world over, winning the esteem of such well-known personalities as American actress Molly Picon. Gebirtig has been called "der zinger fun der umgekumener yidisher mase in poyln" [the singer of the murdered Jewish masses of Poland]: he wrote many songs about the Holocaust and was killed in the Krakow ghetto on "Bloody Thursday" of June 4th, 1942.

A "folk poet" whose immensely popular texts – e.g., "Oyfn veg shteyt a boym" [On the wayside stands a tree] – have been set to music by a number of composers was Itzik Manger (1901 – 1969). He applied his deep knowledge and love of the European ballad to the writing of his own ballads, e.g., "Dos lid fun der goldener pave" [The song of the golden peacock]. (Here is a disk of some of the ballads in jazz settings). Inspired by the tradition of Purimspiels in which the Biblical Scroll of Esther is presented satirically in modern settings, Manger brought well-known Biblical characters "down to earth" in his inimitable interpretive songs, collectively entitled "Itsiks Midresh" [Itsik's exegesis] and "Megile-lider" [Megila songs]. Both works were set to music by Dov Seltzer. Manger regarded himself as a Yiddish troubador, following in the tradition of Velvl Zbarzher, about whom he wrote a series of songs. (Listen to Manger reading some of his own poems [scroll down to the bottom of the page]).

Other poets whose texts have been set as popular songs include Nokhem Sternheim ("Undzer nigndl"), Zalman Shneur ("Margaritkelekh" [Daisies]), Moshe-Leib Halpern ("Di zun vet aruntergeyn" [The sun will be setting]), and H. Leivik ("Leyg dayn kop" [Lay down your head]). 

Note: The klezmer band "Budowitz" has made a very interesting attempt to recreate a traditional Jewish wedding in "Wedding without a Bride". (Scroll down for information about weddings). Here is an account of the way this project came about, and the information that English folksinger Majer Bogdansky supplied about the role of the badkhn.

C 3. Yiddish songs in America 

 [coming soon]



C 4. Yiddish Songs in the Soviet Union

In the years following the October revolution, Yiddish culture was officially supported as a part of the state policy which encouraged cultural expressions of ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union. The Society for Jewish Folk Music, the first Jewish musical institution in Russia, had been founded in St. Petersburg in 1908. It initially concentrated on the collection, processing, publication and presentation of Jewish folklore, and members of the society such as Yoel Engel participated in a number of ethnographic expeditions to the Pale of Jewish Settlement, most notably that of Shlomo An-sky's expedition in 1912 – 14. Following the political and economic collapse of the country after the Revolution, the center of Jewish music relocated to Moscow in the 1920s, and the last event of the society took place in 1929.

Russian Jewish folk music continued to be sung, played and recorded throughout the Soviet regime until the anti-Jewish purges which took place from 1948 until Stalin's death in 1953. The most prominent ethnomusicologist of the era was Moshe Beregovsky who, beginning in 1928, led a series of ethnographic expeditions to collective farms, factories, and homes around the country. His 1934 collection, Jewish Musical Folklore, was the first to include many of the worker and strike songs that had become popular in the early revolutionary era. Later collections of folk music were undertaken in collaboration with Yiddish writers who were apologists of Soviet ideology, such as Itsik Feffer, and contained modifications of old songs or new ones idealizing Soviet life. Life in tsarist society was poked fun of, Hasidism was ridiculed, and any reference to religion was omitted from texts and from the repertoire. Soviet emblems were extolled, as can be seen in the popular song "Hey Dzhankoye" [When You Go To Sevastopol], and praises were sung to settlement in Birobidzhan, officially named the Jewish Autonomous Region in 1934. It is unclear to what extent the Soviet-inspired songs were actually sung, although the fact that some of them were taken to Canada and America by Russian-Jewish immigrants shows that there must have been a certain amount of circulation. Most of the songs in the collections were love songs, lullabies and work songs. (For examples and texts of the songs, see Veidlinger).

While Jews were being encouraged to laud the Soviet Union, Stalin unleashed the Great Terror (1937-38). Anti-semitic policies were already being carried out, although an overtly anti-Jewish campaign did not start until 1948, with the murder of actor-director Solomon Michoels and closure of the Yiddish State Theatre in Moscow. This was followed by mass arrests of Yiddish writers, among them the poets Peretz Markish, Leib Kwitko, David Hoffstein and and Itzik Fefer, and novelists David Bergelson and Der Nister. Some 30 Yiddish writers were executed on Aug. 12, 1952, but the secret was kept long after Stalin had died. Some of the poems have since been set to music, notably by Russian-Jewish singer Emil Gorovets, who eventually settled in the US and who published a disk together with Zalmen Mlotek: "Ikh Bin a Yid: Songs of the Martyred Yiddish Poets of the Soviet Union". Another disk of Soviet Russian music was recorded by the famous Yiddish folk-singer Sidor Belarsky: "Songs by Soviet Yiddish poets and composers". (Here is a video narrated in Yiddish of a commemoration held recently in New York of the "night of the murdered poets").   

In the post-Stalinist period, performances of Yiddish music were allowed in a controlled fashion by the Soviet government, which sought to show the world that Stalinist terror was over and that Jewish life could thrive once again. However, anti-semitism was gradually being replaced with anti-Zionism, especially after the Six-Day War in 1967. By then, both singers and audience had grown up in the Soviet Union, and had much less background than their parents in Jewish language and culture. One singer, in particular, who made an enormous impact on Soviet Jewry and the whole world, was Nehama Lifshitz, who gave concerts in Yiddish throughout the Soviet republics, from 1956 until she left for Israel ten years later. Nehama became a universally-acclaimed symbol of  the struggle against suppression. One of  her outstanding achievements was to introduce songs in Hebrew, a language which had, in effect, been prohibited. She also awakened Jewish consciousness and alerted the world to what had happened to Russian Jewry in the Holocaust when she sang "Eli, Eli, lomo azavtoni" [O God, why have you forsaken me], a song ending with the affirmation of Jewish faith "Sh'ma Israel", and also when she sang the heart-rending lullaby "Babi-Yar", by Shike Driz and Rivke Boyarsky, in the city of Kiev, adjacent to the site of the Babi Yar massacre of 1941.

N.B. There are quite a few clips of Nehama Lifshitz on You Tube. I particularly like this one, where she sings "Avraham and Sara", by Itsik Manger, together with Shraga Friedman. It's not a big part, but you get a feel for her acting as well as singing abilities.

Shternshis, A. (2006). Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union: 1923-1939. Indiana University Press.
Ro'i, Y. (1991). Nehama Lifshitz: symbol of the Jewish national awakening. In Ro'i, Y. & Beker, A., Eds. Jewish Culture and Identity in the Soviet Union. C.8: pp.168-190. 
Veidlinger, J
Violin, Voice and Jews. My Intimate Music (Blogspot)
Rubin, J. & Ottens, R.
Bar-On, Y. (2015) [Article in Ma'ariv newspaper in Hebrew about Nehama Lifshitz]
Tribute to Nechama Lifshitz [Film in Hebrew, 1994]
לוקין, מיכאל. (2017) שירים להכעיס: פרידה מנחמה ליפשיץ. עונג שבת

jewish folksongs 

 D. Holocaust songs

Songs were an important part of life during the Holocaust, despite, or perhaps because of, the horrific circumstances. There were "lullabies, work songs, satirical songs and ballads, prayer songs, songs of pain and anguish, shame and humiliation, songs of ghetto life, concentration camp and death camp songs, songs of courage and heroism, bitter hatred for the enemy, songs of faith and hope, struggle and joy in victory. Almost entirely absent are the songs of normal times: love and marriage, children, joy in work and study, humor and merriment. The occasional drinking and dance song has the macabre quality of the seventeenth-century dance of death; the rare love song pines away beneath the gray ghetto walls, yearning for the sight of a green blade of grass and a bit of blue sky. Created by the whole people, both by the educated and untutored, the songs contain elements of fine poetry side by side with primitive folkloric rhymes. Through all the songs, however, there flows the single-minded will to live, to survive, to preserve wherever and as long as possible every vestige of dignity, self-respect, the traditions and customs cherished for centuries, the precious habits of learning and teaching, the creative urge to write, sing, and even put on plays and concerts!" (Rubin)

Songs were sung in the ghettos, camps and partisan forests - e.g., the famous partisan song by Hirsh Glick, "Zog nit keynol az du geyst dem letzten veg" [Never say that you are treading the last path], which was composed in Vilna, quickly disseminated throughout the ghettos and camps, and associated most closely with the Wasaw ghetto uprising of 1943. At the extermination camps, prisoners were forced to play in orchestras for the Nazis' entertainment and while prisoners were marched to the gas chambers. But singing was also a survival strategy, helping to dignify humanity despite the dehumanizing effect of the extermination policies. Familiar songs took on especially significant meanings, as, for example, when "Ani ma'amin" [I believe], an expression of the basic tenets of Jewish faith set to music by the Modzhitz hasidim, was sung on a train carrying prisoners to their death.

Many of the songs which were sung during the Holocaust were collected and annotated immediately after the war by Szmerke Kaczerginski, a survivor of the Vilna ghetto who wrote many well-known songs, including "Friling" [Spring]. Ghetto songs were located in the theatre, cafés, on the streets and at house concerts. Some of the street songs were parodies, such as those in which Vilna "troubadour" Yankele Hershkowitz criticized social inequality and reviled ghetto Judenrat boss Rumshinsky; others were beggar songs such as "Der Hoyfzinger fun Varshever Geto" [The court singer of the Warsaw ghetto]. Some songs described actual events, such as the massacres in Bialystok and Ponar, respectively referred to in "Rivkele di shabesdike" and "Shtiler, shtiler". Theater songs were aimed at entertainment, but also reflected what was happening; an example is Leyb Rozenthal's song "Baym geto-toyer" [By the ghetto gate] ("Tsu eyns tsvay dray"), which described the selections in Vilna in 1941. Mordechai Gebirtig's poems and songs, as recorded in the "Krakow Ghetto Notebook", wavered between hope – "Minutn fun bitokhn" [Moments of confidence] – and despair "Gehat hob ikh a heym" [I once had a home]. Certain songs, such as the love-song "Tsvey taybelekh" [Two doves], are tribute to the incredible bravery of the people who sang them - in this case, Vilna ghetto "nightingale" Lyuba Levitsky.

Most of the songs were recycled versions of Yiddish folk melodies, tangos and Soviet tunes, or otherwise responses to the content of these songs. An example is the song "Rozhinkes mit mandlen", to which melody Kovno poet Avrom Akselrod set an account of the tragedy of the esteemed Slobodka yeshiva. Despite reference to the liquidation of the yeshiva students and rabbis in Kovno at Fort IX, this song, like so many other gehetto songs, ends on a note of optimism: "S'vet ober kumen a tsayt un di zun vet oyfshaynen, Un bafrayen di yiden fun geto un noyt" [A time will come when the sun will shine, and Jews will be freed from the ghetto and suffering]. Other songs and poems responded to the message and imagery of "Rozhinkes mit mandlen"; a well-known example was "Nit keyn rozhinkes, nit keyn mandlen" by Isaiah shpigel and David Beyglman of the Lodz ghetto.

The Sephardic Jews were as much victims of the Holocaust as the Ashkenazis: most of the Jews living in Balkan communities were annihilated, and it was only the Jews of Sofia who were saved from extinction by the Bulgarian king. Nearly all of the Jews of Rhodes and Salonica were killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau. There are not many songs known today which tell of their experience. As happened in the ghettos of Poland, the words of popular songs were recycled. A poignant example is "Arvoles lloran por luvia" [Trees cry for rain]. The words of the refrain, "in tieras ajenas yo vo morir" [I'm going to die in foreign lands] were realized literally as the Jews of Salonica were exterminated in Auschwitz "en tieras de Polonia". The words of a popular Greek song, "Etsi in' i zoi" [That's the way life goes], were also altered to reflect life in the camp. The song "From Saloniki to Auschwitz" describes the train journey to the death camp. It was written in Auschwitz by David Haim and set to the music of a friend who had formerly played at Jewish weddings in Salonica. 

After the war, several songs were written to commemorate people killed in the Holocaust. A memorial poem, "Siniza i fumo" [Ash and smoke], with words by Avner Perez set to music by Daniel Akiva, was composed in 1986. In 1998, Moshe HaElyon, a survivor from Salonica, wrote "La djovenika al lager" [The girl in the death camp] in memory of his younger sister Nina, who was killed in Auschwitz. A very moving work in this category is the "Ballad of Matthausen" by Mikis Theodorakis, based upon the experiences of the Greek Jewish playwright Iakovos Kambanellis. The first song, "Asma Asmaton" [Song of Songs] recalls the theme of the Biblical love story: "Have you seen my love?" A rock disk in Hebrew, Efer veAvak" [Ashes and dust], dealing with the problems faced by the second generation, made a significant impact on the Israeli public. It was written and composed by sons of Auschwitz survivors - Yehuda Poliker, whose father was from Salonica, and Yaakov Gilad, whose mother was from Poland.

Research about songs in the Holocaust is just now gathering momentum. There are a few helpful sites, the most detailed of which is "Music during the Holocaust" (still in the process of development). Other references are listed below.  


jewish folksongs



  E.  Paraliturgical songs


Paraliturgical songs are those which are sung at the very many events associated with Jewish religious life. They include songs associated with life-cycle events – birth and circumcision, childhood and adolescence, betrothal and wedding, death and mourning; with Jewish festivals – family table songs, and songs associated with particular festivals such as the Pesach seder or the Purimspiel; with hillulot [festive rejoicing] associated with the tombs and communities of holy rabbis as well as Hasidic songs sung at the rebbe's tish [table]. They encompass songs of different genres which often cut across the division between synagogue and non-synagogal songs, they are sung in Hebrew as well as Jewish languages of the diaspora, and they encompass different styles of performance – men's and women's songs and songs with or without instrumental accompaniment.


E 1. Religious poetry in Hebrew

Central to paraliturgical songs is the genre of the piyut. These are liturgical poems in Hebrew, which are included in regular synagogue services, e.g., "Adon Olam", or as supplementary sets of worship related to particular periods of the year, e.g., bakashot (songs of supplication) or selichot (lamentations). Piyutim are sung as zemirot (table hymns) by the family on Shabbat and festivals as well as at family lifecycle celebrations, and are thus regarded as both a paraliturgical as well as liturgical genre. Piyutim which were written in the Spanish Golden Age have been adopted by all ethnic groups, each of which has its own musical style; later piyutim are respectively associated with the communities in which they were written: Safed, Yemen, Tunis, Morocco, Aleppo and western Europe (Ashkenaz). Rabbi Israel Najara (15550 – 1620) has been mentioned above. He was particularly gifted at adapting Hebrew texts to the Turkish, Arabic, Spanish and Greek folk music of his time.


In very general terms, piyutim sung by Sephardic and Eastern communities follow the makam modal system, while Ashkenazi melodies are governed by shtaygers. Nowadays, piyutim are entering the sphere of popular music and an Israeli musical style (exemplified by Shlomo Bar or Eti Ankry) is slowly evolving. I highly recommend the website "An Invitation to Piyut", at which you can read information about particular piyutim and about religious song in general, and, most importantly, listen to multiple melodies of a particular poem.


Zemirot (pronounced zmires in Yiddish) are piyutim sung at Shabbat and festival meals which describe the customs, obligations and joys of celebrating Shabbat. (In the Sephardic synagogue tradition, the term zemirot also refers to the preliminary section of psalms and biblical verses recited during the Shacharit [morning] prayers). On Shabbat, there are three sets of zemirot for the corresponding three meals: those sung for the Friday evening meal, the Saturday noon meal, and the third meal just before sundown on Saturday afternoon. The zemirot are mostly in Hebrew, but there are also a few in Aramaic. Melodies are often borrowed from the surrounding musical environment, as is illustrated in the first lecture whereby the melody for the zimrah "Tsur mishelo achalnu" [Rock from whose (food) we have eaten] comes from the Ladino cantiga "La rosa enflorese" [The blossoming rose] (or "Los bilbilikos" [the nightingales]). Hasidic dance tunes and Jewish melodies serving other functions have also been used. Altogether, singing zemirot is a popular activity, and new tunes are constantly being composed.


The Zemirot Data Base is an editable, interactive site at which you can upload yourself singing zemirot and other liturgical songs – have a go!! Personally, my own favorite zemirot disk is of Rahel Jaskow harmonizing with herself on "Day of Rest"; for those who love Hasidic music, here is Avraham Fried singing "My Zeide's Zemiros". Last but not least, here is a moving story of what happened to the zimrah "Ma yafit" ("Ma yofis") [How beautiful].
A synonymous word in Hebrew, pizmonim [songs], refers to religious poetry which is associated mainly with the Jews of Aleppo. In a fascinating book describing the singing of pizmonim by the Syrian community of  New York, Kay Shelemay points out their paralinguistic function: "Although the pizmonim are technically paraliturgical hymns that praise God, the songs are in practice multi-functional and are performed at a variety of religious and social occasions in the Syrian community. One hears pizmonim sung during synagogue services, at life cycle rituals, in domestic settings on Jewish holidays, and at parties. [They are also] composed in honor of specific individuals to mark important religious and life-cycle occasions." (p.35) The Sephardic Pizmonim Project is a foundation dedicated to the scholarship, restoration and preservation of the ancient music of the Sephardic-Syrian Jewish community.


Shelemay, K. (1998). Let Jasmine Rain Down: Song and Remembrance amoung Syrian Jews. University of Chicago Press. 
Shiloah, A. Jewish Musical Traditions. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. C.5.

E 2. Coplas

Coplas are poems written in Ladino about topics related to Jewish religion and community. A large number are paraliturgical in nature, connected with the Jewish festival cycle. Coplas de Purim were among the first of the genre to be written, and they are also the most numerous. Broadly speaking, the content can be divided into three types: abbreviated versions of the entire story from the Book of Esther, descriptions of the Purim celebration (e.g., La celebracion de Purim) and burlesques about the "bad guys" in the book of Esther - especially Haman and his wife Zeresh (e.g., El testamento de Aman). (Seroussi). There are also poems related to life cycle celebrations, such circumcision, and the yearning for Zion, e.g., "Irme quero, madre, a Yerusalayim" [Mother, I wished to go to Jerusalem]. Historical events such as the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 or the fires of Salonika in 1883 and 1917 are recorded in coplas, as are incidents within particular communities. Complas del felek deal with current affairs and welfare, e.g., "La subida de los precios" [The price rise] or Siete modos de guisar las berendjenas [Seven ways of cooking eggplants].
Most coplas were written, published and performed in the Diaspora communities in the 18th and 19th centuries, although a few were written in the twentieth century. Their function is basically didactic, aiming to counter assimilationist tendencies by familiarizing the population with Jewish texts, lore and values, as well as by means of moralization and reproof. For example, national disasters such as the Salonica fires are ascribed to laxity in observing Jewish laws, especially those of the Shabbat. Where Biblical figures are dealt with, this is usually in the context of Talmud and midrash, the stories and styles of which resonated with people used to hearing the ballad-type narratives of the romansas. For example, the copla telling of the birth of the patriarch Abraham, "El nacimiento de Abraham" ("Cuando el rey Nimrod") draws on midrashic legends explaining why Abraham chose to believe in one God and his struggle with Nimrod, mythical builder of the Tower of Babel and aspiring leader of the world. Another example, "Moises en los cielos" [Moses in the heavens] ("Alli en el midbar"), recounts the dialogue between Moses and the angels, based on the Talmudic tractate of Shabbat. The composition of didactic poems in Ladino which were accessible to lay people was driven by the same motivating force as the creation of Me'am Lo'ez, the compendium of Biblical exegesis and midrash written in Ladino and initiated in 1731 by Rabbi Yaakov Culi.

Stylistically, the coplas are strophic poems following a few set patterns. They are basically a male genre, initially because written collections of poems were inaccessible to women who were generally illiterate; women who did sing coplas attributed their knowledge to having heard a male member or close friend of the family. Besides the written collections, the coplas were also passed down orally by singing original melodies or ones borrowed from earlier Hebrew piyutim (the melodies of which in turn were borrowed from Turkish songs).


Refael, S. (2004). I will tell a poem. Carmel. [In Hebrew]

Weich-Shahak, S. The Coplas. In Romancero, Coplas and Cancionero: Typology of the Judeo-Spanish repertoire. Part II. The National Library of Israel.
Weich-Shahak, S. (2006). En buen siman. Pardes. [In Hebrew]

E 3. Hasidic songs and the Hasidic nigun

The 18th century Hasidic movement, founded by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (the Besht, 1698-1750) believed in the supreme importance of the nigun [melody] as a form of prayer: "There are gates in heaven that cannot be opened except by melody and song" (attributed to Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, founder of Chabad). The nigun was believed to lead to devekut [communion with God], and singing and dancing were the means of spiritual elevation accessible to ordinary folk as well as the most spiritual tsadikim [saintly people]. While many of the nigunim were sung at the Rebbe's tish [table] as Shabbat zemirot or brief texts from the prayerbook, a large number were sung without words at all. One of the basic characteristics of nigunim from a musical point of view was legitimizing the use of using gentile melodies. This is embodied in the tale of Hungarian Hasidic Rabbi Eisik Taub whose nigun was acquired from a shepherd and subsequently lost to the original owner. Various versions of this tale are told here; the Hungarian folktune from which the Hasidic song derived is "Szol a kakas mar" [The rooster crows in the morning], and the song "Ya'ar, ya'ar" [Forest, forest] (sometimes known as "Royz, royz") was included in the play "Ish Hasid haya". Another tale demonstrating the priceless value of the nigun is told here by storyteller Penina Shrem. (There are many musical versions of this story: here is Chava Alberstein singing a Hebrew version; a Yiddish version is entitled "An alter nign" [An old melody]).

Hasidic melodies have influenced Israeli music from the earliest days of the chalutsim [pioneers]: read Yaakov Mazor's very interesting article (in Hebrew) on how Hasidic melodies entered the early Hebrew song repertoire. 

Nowadays, the term "Hasidic music" conjures up such songs as "Yisrael Yisrael", "Esa einay", "Am Yisrael chay", and countless other songs based upon the prayer book and Bible, particularly the Psalms. These are folk songs in the truest sense: Jews around the world, whatever their age or standard of religious observance, know the words or at least can hum along to the melodies.

This genre of "Hasidic folksongs" developed from the annual Israeli Hasidic Song Festivals, held from 1969 to 1979 in the wake of the surprisingly enthusiastic reaction to the musical "Ish hasid haya" [There was a pious man] (1968). Producer Dan Almagor wrote about how surprised he was at the unprecedented success of the play among Israeli spectators, both young and old: "Now, perhaps, I can more easily realize some old dreams connected with arranging literature and folklore material from old and new Jewish culture for the Israeli stage, a task which not once, before the days of Ish hasid haya, had seemed difficult and almost impossible." 

A prominent participant in the festivals was "Singing Rabbi", Shlomo Carlebach (1925 - 1994), composer of the three songs above and many hundreds more. A follower of Chabad Rabbi Schneerson, his repetitive, catchy settings of short religious texts laid the foundations for a neo-Hasidic style of popular song and prayer. Nowadays, the Hasidic music industry is booming, although the exclusively male artists and segregated audiences is very different from the integrated audience of the 60's that Almagor had envisaged. Perhaps Carlebach's most important influence has been in changing the expectations of the prayer experience all over the world from decorous and somber to uplifting and ecstatic, harkening back to the original aims of Hasidic music.

Have a look at the Nigun Project for a modern, secular recontextualization of the traditional nigunnim.


The Hasidic niggun as sung by the Hasidim. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem: Jewish Music research Centre.
Regev, M. & Seroussi, E. (2004). Popular music and national culture in Israel. University of California Press. C.6: "And the winner is …" Popular song festivals
Cohen, R. Reb Shlomo: Jewish soul man. Moment, 1997.
Weiss, S. (2009). Carlebach, Neo-Hasidic music, and current liturgical practice. Journal of Syangogue Music, v.34.

jewish folksongs


  F. Contemporary Jewish Folksongs and Folksinging

Do songs sung in a particular language have a raison d'etre when that language is no longer the vernacular, and do songs which grew out of an environment shaped by the Diaspora have a place in a Jewish homeland? The lectures, and this site, refer mainly to songs in Yiddish and Ladino, but the questions are relevant to songs sung in any language of the Jewish Diaspora. The answers differ with respect to language, country and community. It is a truism to say that all Jewish folksong genres are in a state of flux; more meaningful questions relate to the type of changes being made and the degree to which songs today are different from – or similar to – songs in the past.

F 1. In Israel       

Here are online articles dealing with the vast and vibrant culture of popular songs in Hebrew (a subject which is not dealt with on this site).

In Israel, both Yiddish and Ladino (as well as other "ethnic" music) are coming to life after being completely suffocated by the explicit national policy to create a hegemonical "Israeliness" of language and culture. Here, and probably in the rest of the world, there are both conservative and generative forces at work.

Most people who enjoy listening to either Yiddish or Ladino folksongs identify closely with their ethnic origin and seek opportunities to hear the music. They would probably be native speakers or at least have heard the language spoken at home, and they'd go to clubs where they could experience aspects of a culture being brought to life in an entertaining and informative way on the stage in front of them.

An important institution for preserving Yiddish song in Israel is the Yiddish Spiel theatre; this video shows that the aim of the theatre is to preserve Yiddish culture and that a growing number of the audience consists of young people. Two other institutions which aim to preserve Yiddish song and culture are Beth Shalom Aleichem, in Tel Aviv, and the group I sing with, the "Nehama Lifshitz Workshop for Yiddish Song". (Here's an article with video in Hebrew about the workshop). Well-known Israeli singers who include popular Yiddish or Ladino songs in their repertoires include Yoram Gaon and Dorit Reuveni (Ladino) as well as Dudu Fisher and Orit Sittner (Yiddish). Singers specializing in ethnic music include Vira Lozinsky in Yiddish and Suzy in Ladino. Betty Klein sings well in both languages, mostly in Ladino.

There are also trends in the Israeli Yiddish and Ladino scenes which aim to break out beyond the familiar. In Yiddish, this mainly takes the form of composing new music to the very large body of poetry written in western Europe, Russia and the US over the last 100 years. Israel's most well-known writer-singer is Chava Alberstein, who is endlessly creative and very expressive - read about her "journey back to Yiddish". Her latest two disks in Yiddish, "The Well" with the Klezmatics and "Lemele" [Little lamb], both feature melodies which Chava herself has composed. Here is a video in which she talks about Yiddish and Karsten Troyke sings the song "Tumba". In the same vein, singer Ruth Levin has recently published a book of melodies written by her father, Leibu Levin, to Yiddish poems. A new approach is also being sought by the people associated with "Yung Yiddish", an organization aiming to preserve Yiddish culture which reaches out to audiences who are not necessarily native speakers. Mendy Cahan, founder, has produced a disk in conjunction with a klezmer band, Der Yiddish Express, following the trend of contemporary Yiddish music in the US and Europe.

The general orientation of the avant-garde in Israeli Ladino music is to seek connections with roots in the East. This is in line with what is happening with other branches of Israeli music which, since the 1980's, have thrived in the legitimation of eastern musical influences. A wonderful performer whose disk, "Yahudice", places Ladino songs in their Turkish and Greek settings, is Hadass Pal-Yarden. After an extended period of musicological research in Turkey, Hadass sings with makamic eastern intonation and is backed by an ensemble consisting of traditional Ottoman instruments. A singer-dancer worth following who is constantly searching for new ways to perform Ladino and eastern music is Esti Kenan-Ofri, who sings with the Kol-Oud-Tof trio. Two singers of Ladino music who make a great effort to study and replicate an authentic sound are Ruth Yaakov and Orit Perlman. Orit works in conjunction with Shoshana Weich-Shahak, an Israeli-based musicologist who has done extensive research into Ladino music all over the world. An Israeli singer looking for a new sound who has achieved world-renown is Yasmin Levy, daughter of song-collector and singer Isaac Levy. Yasmin has been "brought to task" for attempting to bridge Ladino with Flamenco, a musical style which is only tangentially connected with Sephardic culture, and, in her latest CD, has since returned to her Ladino roots. Finally, new songs are constantly being written in Ladino for the annual "Festiladino" song contest although, with their orchestral backing, these sound more western than "ethnic".


F 2. In the US and Europe

[coming soon] 

jewish folksongs


  G. Jewish Languages 


Which language is older: Yiddish or Ladino? Which is spoken by more people? How many people speak Jewish languages today, and how many used to? How many Jewish languages are there? Is "Jewish English" a language or a dialect?

Here is a brief definition of Jewish languages. For a fascinating look at the history, linguistic descriptions, and status of Jewish languages today, I highly recommend the Jewish Language Research Website. In addition, Omniglot provides intriguing accounts of the writing systems of these languages. It is becoming fashionable to write about Yiddish language: one example is "Born to Kvetch" by  Michael Wex. If you enjoy reading tidbits about language, join me in my weekly visits to Philologos. (Popular writing in and about Ladino seems to be less dynamic than the Yiddish scene at present, but I suggest you look at the American Sephardi Federation for updates or at sites listed in the Hebrew or English links). If you'd like to learn a Jewish language, you could do so with the Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages (OSRJL), where you might be interested in Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-French, Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Aramaic, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Tat, Judeo-Turkish, Karaim, Ladino and Yiddish.

According to the UNESCO Red Book on Endangered Languages, both Yiddish and Ladino are "seriously endangered". This is a moot point: people are always arguing to which extent they're still alive or whether or not they're already dead! Examples of continuing signs of life include a large number of internet sites as well as the Yiddish daily Forverts and the Ladino weekly Salom. There's no question, however, that songs in both languages are definitely undergoing a revival.

Fishman, J. (2001). Can Threatened Languages Be Saved? Multilingual Matters.
Kafrissen, R. (2008). Yiddish: the living language of the Jewish people. Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.
Kushner, A. Ladino today. My Jewish Learning.
Roumani, J. (2012). The story of Ladino: From roots to branches. Sephardic Horizons, Vol.2, Issue 3.
Rozovsky, L. Will Ladino rise again? Chabad.Org
Somekh, S. Arabic as a Jewish language (Parts 1-3). Sephardic Horizons, Vols.I-III

 jewish folksongs


    H. Links and References

Online articles
Books on Jewish music
Music in the Holocaust
Song Collections
Jewish Music Websites


1. Videos

"Israel Musical Heritage Project: A People and its Music", produced by by Tzipora Jochsberger. The following videos are  freely accessible from the Spielberg Virtual Cinema (search for each video separately):

     Israel: Sounds in search of a home
     Europe: Toward the 20th century
     Italy: Salomone Rossi - between worlds
     Toward Jerusalem [7 Jewish ethnic groups - Part I]
     One day the heart opens [7 Jewish ethnic groups - Part II]
     Hassidic music
     Morocco: Music of the Jews from North Africa
     Teiman: Music of the Yemenite Jews
     Ashkenaz: Music of the Jews from Eastern Europe
     Sepharad: Music of the Sephardic Jews

Here's a list of Jewish Music Documentaries (posted by Teruah in January, 2011)

2. Online Articles on Jewish Folk Music

2a. Online journals (free)

Journal of Synagogue Music - Free journal, packed with interesting articles, not necessarily limited to synagogue music
Living Traditions - Klezkamp Zhurnal
Sephardic Horizons - Mostly about Sephardic culture, including a few articles on music and musicians

2b. Jewish Music in general

Denburg, M. (1995). Jewish Music – An Overview.
Gluck, B. (1997). Jewish Music or Music of the Jewish People? The Reconstructionist, 34. 
Kaston, N. (1993). Jewish Languages, Jewish Songs. Canadian Folk Music, 27,4.
Klezmershack: Links to Articles on the Internet.
Knapp, A. What is Jewish Music?

2c. Sephardic Music

Aksoy, B. A great voice of Ottoman, Turkish and Jewish music - Rabbi Izak Algazi Efendi. Turkish Music Portal.
Anahory-Librowicz, O. (1993). Expressive modes in the Judeo-Spanish wedding song. In Y.K. Stillman & G.K. Zucker (Eds). New Horizons in Sephardic Studies. SUNY Press.
Armistead, S. (1998). Oral literature of the Hispanic world
Armistead, S. Oral literature of the Sephardic Jews.
Armistead, S. & Silverman, J.S. (1987). The Judeo-Spanish ballad tradition. Oral Tradition, 2/2-3.
Cohen, J. (1987). "Ya salió de la mar": Judeo-Spanish wedding songs among Moroccan Jews in Canada. In Koskoff, E. (Ed.). Women and Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Illini Books.
Cohen, J. (2010). Judeo-Spanish song: a Mediterranean-wide interactive tradition. Revista Transcultural de Musica/Transcultural Music Review, vol.14
Cohen, J. (2003). Sephardic song. Midstream.
Cohen, J. (Winter, 2001). Clearing up Ladino, Judeo-Spanish, Sephardic Music. HaLapid.
Cohen, J. Sephardic Songs. Hagshama. World Zionist Organization.
Cohen, J. (1987). The lighter side of Judeo-Spanish traditional song: Some Canadian examples. Canadian Journal for Traditional Music.
Cohen, J.
Wandering along the roads of Sephardic and crypto-Jewish musical traditions.
Cohen, J. & Bresler, J. (2009). "The Music of the Sephardim". Early Music America, 15, 4.
A colloquy on Sephardic music. (2012). The Boston Music Intelligencer.
Madsen, C. In Search of Sephardic Music. Klezmershack. 
Seroussi, E. (1993). New Directions in the Music of the Sephardic Jews, in Mendelsohn, E. Ed., Modern Jews and Their Musical Agendas, Studies in Contemporary Jewry 9, London & New York, pp.61-77.
Mushabac, Jane. (2013). Seven songs, seven identities: Bridging the past and the future. Sephardic Horizons. Vol. 3, Issue 2.
Seroussi, E. (1998).De-gendering Jewish music: The survival of the Judeo-Spanish folk song revisited
Sephardic Music website:Early Sephardic Repertory; Modern recordings
Tasat, R. (2001). Sephardic music today. An artistic perspective. Semana Sepharad.
Waks, D.A. (2013). Cultural exchange in the literatures and languages of medieval Iberia.
Weich-Shahak, S. Romancero, Coplas and Cancionero: Typology of the Judeo-Spanish repertoire. The National Library of Israel.
I - The Romancero
II - The Coplas
III - The Cancionero
Yurchenco, H. A.In their Own Voices: Women in the Judeo-Hispanic song and story 
Zucker, G.K. Some considerations in the Sephardic treatment of the romancero.

הלד, מיכל. בין הנהר לים - ניתוח תרבותי ספרותי רב רבדי של שיר חתונה יהודי-ספרדי מהאי רודוס.

2d. Yiddish Music

Mlotek, Chana E. (2005). [Yiddish] Folk Songs. The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe.
Rothstein, R.A. [Yiddish] Songs and Songwriters. The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe.
Rubin, J. E. & Ottens, R. (2005). Shalom Comrade! Yiddish Music in the Soviet Union 1928–1961. Accompanying text to disk.
Veidlinger, J. Klezmer and the Kremlin: Soviet Yiddish Folk Songs of the 1930s. Muzykalia VII - Judaica 2 (originally published in Jews in Eastern Europe, spring 2000).

2d. Popular Hebrew songs

Cohn-Zentner, N. (2008). From Hava Nagilla to Hip-Hop: The Soundtrack of Israel. Reform Judaism Online.
Mitnick, J. Israeli popular music. My Jewish Learning.
Seroussi, E. & Regev, M. (2004). Popular music and national culture in Israel. University of California Press.

3. Books on Jewish Music

Here is a selective bibliography of books in English on the subject of Jewish music. Annotations are by Beth Dwoskin, Librarian.

Edelman, Marsha Bryan. Discovering Jewish Music. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society 2003.
     This books goes for range and accessibility.  It includes a CD with musical illustrations of many of the examples given in the book.

Eisenstein, Judith Kaplan. Heritage of Music: The Music of the Jewish People. Wyncote, PA: The Reconstructionist Press, 1990, c1981.
     This book is primarily composed of musically notated examples of Jewish music.  It is in songbook format, with a spiral binding for easy piano placement. It predates the klezmer revival.  It is intended for young readers and has a pedantic tone, though the textual material can be complex.

Gradenwitz, Peter, 1910-. The Music of Israel: From the Biblical Era to Modern Times. 2nd ed., rev. and expanded. ed. Portland, Ore.: Amadeus Press, c1996.
     This book emphasizes the roots of European cantorial and liturgical art.  It has historic illustrations.

Heskes, Irene. The Resource Book of Jewish Music: A Bibliographical and Topical Guide to the Book and Journal Literature and Program Materials / Compiled by Irene Heskes., Music Reference Collection ; No. 3. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press 1985.
     This is a comprehensive and exhaustive bibliography on the subject of Jewish music to 1985.  It meets every requirement for a top-notch bibliography. Its parameters are clearly stated, its organization is logical, it has an author and a topical index, and it has lengthy annotations.  It not only lists music periodicals, but also gives the contents of each volume.  Besides its age, its only disadvantage is that it is printed in an antiquated, sans serif computer-output font, making it rather hard to read.  It is a starting point for anyone planning to do serious research.

Heskes, Irene. Passport to Jewish Music: Its History, Traditions, and Culture., Contributions to the Study of Music and Dance; No. 33. New York: Tara, c1994.
     This book is distinguished for its breadth. It begins not with the birth of Jewish music, but with the birth of Jewish music historiography.  It touches on all the important points and major figures in Jewish music, and is unique in including a chapter on Jewish women and liturgical music.

Idelsohn, A. Z. (Abraham Zebi), 1882-1938. Jewish Music: Its Historical Development. New York: Dover 1992. Reprint, Schocken, 1967.
     This book is by the premier Jewish musicologist, A.Z. Idelsohn.  Although it is somewhat technical and academic in style, it is worth having for the sake of its authority and its low price in this reprint edition.  It is organized by historical development, so readers can go right to the period that interests them.   It was first published in 1929.

Isaacs, Ronald H. Jewish Music: Its History, People, and Song. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, c1997.
     This book traces the presence of music in the Bible, and its link to the cantorial tradition.  It is sketchier and more dated in its treatment of modern Jewish music.

Nulman, Macy. Concise Encyclopedia of Jewish Music. New York: McGraw-Hill, c1975.
     This core reference work has critical historical information.  It is out of print, but you should be able to find it on the OP websites.

Regev, Motti., & Seroussi, Edwin. Popular music and national culture in Israel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
     This is the most thorough and comprehensive treatment of this subject in one place.  Its approach is ethnomusicological as well as historic.  It has a discography and four indexes.

Rogovoy, Seth. The Essential Klezmer: A Music Lover's Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music, from the Old World to the Jazz Age to the Downtown Avant-Garde. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2000.
     Half this book is a comprehensive discography of the state of the klezmer renaissance in 2000.  It is has a historical overview of the music, and the writing style is accessible and high-quality.

Rothmuller, Aron Marko. The Music of the Jews: An Historical Appreciation. New York: The Beechhurst Press, 1954.
     This book focuses on liturgical music and its Biblical roots.  The Croatian-born author cites many European works and includes a glossary of musical terms from the Psalms.

Rubin, Emmanuel & Baron, John H. Music in Jewish History and Culture. Harmonie Park Press, 2006. [Recommended by Judith Pinnolis]

Rubin, Ruth. Voices of a People: The Story of Yiddish Folksong. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
     This is the definitive work in English on the text of Yiddish folksongs.  Rubin collected songs from European-singers and explained their background in this book.  She provides notation for selected songs, but the focus is on the texts.  There are extensive notes, bibliography, and index.

Sapoznik, Henry. Klezmer! Jewish Music from Old World to Our World. New York: Schirmer Books c1999.
     This is a very personal account of the klezmer revival in America by one of its leaders, musician Henry Sapoznik.  The book is especially rich in the history of recorded and filmed Jewish music.

Sheleman, Kay Kaufman. A Song of Longing. [Music in the Ethiopian Jewish community]

Sheleman , Kay Kaufman. Let Jasmine Rain Down. University of Chicago Press. [Music and memory among Syrian Jews].

Shiloah, Amnon. Jewish Musical Traditions. Edited by Raphael. Patai, Jewish Folklore and Anthropology Series. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, c1992.
     This book takes an ethnomusicological approach, looking at themes and traditions in Jewish music in their cultural contexts.  It goes into great depth regarding Jewish music in the Moslem and Hasidic worlds and also looks at dance and piyyut.

, Mark. Fiddler on the Move: Exploring the Klezmer World. Edited by Mark. Slobin, American Musicspheres. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
     This book looks at klezmer music from the viewpoint of ethnomusicology, rather than history.  It looks extensively at the popularity of klezmer music in Europe.  The accompanying CD has contrasting examples of songs from early recordings, and then the same songs updated by modern klezmer bands.

Slobin, Mark. Tenement Songs: The Popular Music of the Jewish Immigrants. Illinois Press, 1982.

Strom, Yale. The Book of Klezmer: The History, the Music, the Folklore. 1st ed. Chicago, Ill.: A Cappella, 2002.
     This book benefits from the author's field research in Europe in the 1980's.  In addition to a thorough bibliography and discography, it includes an appendix of references to klezmer in Yizhor books at the YIVO; an appendix of "klezmer-loshn" (jargon); and an appendix containing notations for some niggunim.

Weisser, Albert. The Modern Renaissance of Jewish Music: Events and Figures, Eastern Europe and America. Da Capo Press Music Reprint Series. New York: Da Capo Press, 1983.
     Both the new Da Capo edition and the original Bloch edition of this book are out of print.  Libraries that have either edition should hold on to it.  It is has a thorough history of the Society for Folk Music in St. Petersburg. 

4. Music in the Holocaust

4a. Music in the Holocaust - Selected Disks

Ballads and Broadsides: Songs from Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp 1940-1945. US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Ghetto Tango: Wartime Yiddish Theater - Adrienne Cooper and Zalmen Mlotek.
Hidden History of the Kovno Ghetto. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Krakow Ghetto Notebook. Mordechai Gebirtig's Song-Poems. US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Song of the Lodz Ghetto - Brave Old World
Tangele: the Pulse of Yiddish Tango - Lloica Czackis, J.L. Aisemberg, G. Beytelmann
Yiddish songs of the Holocaust - Lecture/Recital by Ruth Rubin
Siniza i fumo: In memorium of the Jews of Saloniki - Avner Perez & Daniel Akiva

4b. Music in the Holocaust - Sites

"Heartstrings" - Music of the Holocaust (Yad Vashem) 
Music and the Holocaust
Music and the Holocaust (YIVO)
Music of the ghettoes and camps (FCIT)
The Stonehill Jewish Song Collection (songs recorded by Holocaust survivors)
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

4c. Music in the Holocaust - Song Collections

Gotlib, M. un Mlotek, H. (1968). 25 geto-lider mit muzik un transliteratsye.Workman's Circle.
Kalisch, S. & Meister, B. (1985). Yes We Sang! Songs of the ghettos and concentrations camps. Harper & Row.
Pasternak, V. comp. (2003). Songs Never Silenced (based on Lider fun der getos un lagern) Tara Music.
Silverman, J. (2002). The Undying Flame: ballads and songs of the Holocaust. Syracuse University Press.

4d. Music in the Holocaust - Books

Aaron, F. (1990). Bearing the Unbearable: Yiddish and Polish Poetry in the Ghettos and Concentration Camps. State University of New York Press.
Flam, G. (1992). Singing for Survival: Songs of the Łódź Ghetto 1940-1945. University of Illinois Press.
Gilbert, S. (2005). Music in the Holocaust: Confronting life in the Nazi ghettos and camps. OUP.
Levy, Isaac (Compiler & translator) (2000). And the World Stood Still: Sephardic Poetry of the Holocaust. Illini Books.

4e. Music in the Holocaust - Online Articles

Werb, Bret. (2014). Yiddish Songs of the Shoah: A Source Study Based on the Collections of Shmerke Kaczerinski. UCLA: PhD Dissertation