Yiddish Folksong’s Moment

Yiddish singer and multi-instrumentalist Michael Alpert and Ethel Raim, who was named an NEA National Heritage Fellow for “major contributions” to “folk and traditional arts.” (Photo courtesy of Janina Wurbs, via The New York Jewish Week)

Yiddish culture, like many folk cultures, draws heavily on oral traditions of storytelling and singing. The weeklong Yiddish New York festival, which opens this Saturday, will reflect the contributions of “the great Yiddish folklorist Ruth Rubin and song collector Ben Stonehill, among others,” as various performers draw on their groundbreaking work, reports George Robinson in The New York Jewish Week.

Of course, the history of Yiddish culture has always been bound up in the gallant efforts of such preservation-minded people, but this year’s festival will draw particularly heavily on their work as it celebrates the revitalization of the Yiddish folksong tradition.

That tradition, based around oral transmission of songs by non-professionals in a cappella settings, has long been overlooked in the Jewish world. As Pete Rushefsky, the executive director of the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, one of the prime movers of YNY, noted in a recent e-mail, “For years the only recordings of Yiddish folksong available were commercial recordings were recordings of singers with Western training (operatic, theater) or cantorial. And the repertoire available was very limited to just a few chestnuts that were recorded over and over again, or else newly composed theater/comedic pieces.”

But there was an almost inconceivably rich vein of true folk songs in Yiddish, not written down either in musical notation or words, much of it known by handfuls of Jewish women from the shtetls.

Go to The New York Jewish Week to read how Ethel Raim, a co-founder of CTMD, says songs were passed down among women, from older sisters to young girls 13 or 14 “learning about life,” and read why one ethnomusicologist says “the Yiddish folksong is having its moment.”

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