I. Klezmer and Yiddish Song

Jewish Music of the Ashkenazi Stream:

I. Klezmer and Yiddish Song

The term Ashkenaz refers to the areas around the Rhineland (modern day Germany) where Jewish people began to live during the first millenium. From the 10th century on they migrated to all parts of Europe east and west, and nowadays Ashkenazi Jews and their culture are to be found in Europe, the Americas, and of course in Israel.

Ashkenazi musical culture comprises secular and devotional forms, and, though no true art form is static, we here offer a snapshot of the Ashkenazi stream of Jewish music which reflects both its history and its social function. The categories we will deal with are as follows:

  1. Klezmer – the instrumental genre of Jewish celebration music;

  2. Yiddish song – the sung folk music and poetry of the Jewish people of the western world;

  3. Devotional Jewish Music – the art of the synagogue cantor, biblical cantillation, and other devotional music such as the Hassidic *nigun and liturgical hymns;

  4. Classical Art Music – Jewish themed compositions in the western classical art medium;

  5. Contemporary Trends – Jewish Music of the Ashkenazi stream in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.


Klezmer as a genre of Jewish music stems from Eastern Europe and the Ashkenazi (read: Western) Jewish experience. Originally a purely instrumental form associated with celebrations of life-passage events (Bar Mitzvahs, Weddings, etc.), it has taken on a firm collaboration with Yiddish song. Today’s practitioners are branching out in many directions and so apart from traditional klezmer there is Klezrock, Klezjazz, and so on.

The word klezmer, a Yiddish neologism created of two hebrew words – kley (instruments of), and zemer (song) – denoted a band of Jewish musicians. By association it has come to denote the individual Jewish musician as well as an entire Jewish musical style originating in Eastern Europe in the 19th century. Thus the Jewish Musician is understood to be ‘an instrument of song’, a channel in this world for sacred melody. In this context we note that the term klezmorim, a Hebraicized plural of klezmer, means ‘Jewish musicians’.

The original function of klezmer music was mainly to provide music for celebrations, and as a genre it was chiefly instrumental. Yiddish song developed apart from klezmer, to a large degree, though they were often joined by the badkhn, a kind of ‘front man’ who sang and entertained. Nowadays Yiddish song and klezmer are largely paired, undoubtedly due to the entire project of the post-Holocaust preservation of the Ashkenazi heritage. Since the Yiddish language has been largely superceded by Hebrew as the national language of Jewry, musical art accords it a golden opportunity for revitalization. In a sense, the strong revival of interest in klezmer is due to the need to recover the civilization of Ashkenazi Jewry which was decimated in the holocaust.

In the 19th century, klezmorim in Bessarabia (the regions of present day Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, and the Ukraine) made music together with many other musicians of the day, including the gypsy musicians in their midst. They performed not only at Jewish functions but for all kinds of celebrations. In this cross cultural environment klezmer acquired a musical language of great depth and diversity.

* nigun – literally ‘a melody’, it refers to a wordless devotional tune which has the power to unite one with God.

Klezmer music is based on certain modes and rhythms. Interestingly, theses modes are identical to the modes traditionally utilized by the cantor in the synagoue, the modes of prayer. And the nuances of klezmer – the ‘crying’ voice, the krekhts (a special trill), and other ornaments – emulate the human voice, the cantor’s voice. So klezmer, even though a secular music, still honours its connection with Jewish ritual experience. And very appropriately so, since its original context is the Jewish celebration.

Here below are the 4 most prevalent klezmer modes

There are many rhythms in klezmer music, both slow and fast, rhythms that are in strict time, and others in free time, music both composed and freely improvised. Here are two important klezmer rhythms.

Yiddish Song

The Jewish people who lived in the Rhineland in the 10th century spoke the German of the day. From this, over the centuries, evolved the Yiddish language. Yiddish stems from this old German combined with words from Hebrew, the language of prayer, and words from the many other languages spoken where Jews lived – Polish, Russian, and others. Though supplanted by Hebrew in the 20th century as the Jewish people’s first language, Yiddish was the unique language of Ashkenazi Jews for about one thousand years, and it is still spoken by many. It is much alive as a written language, and as a language of song and story. Yiddish is a vast repository of Jewish poetry, history, song, and theatre.

Though undoubtedly songs were written and sung in Yiddish much before the 19th century, it is from this epoch that most of today’s repertoire stems. The development of Yiddish song parallels and was aided by that of the Yiddish theatre. Following its beginnings in Eastern Europe and Russia, Yiddish theatre migrated westwards, to London, and especially to the USA where it experienced a heyday during the first half of the 20th century. The ‘father’ of the modern Yiddish theatre, Abraham Goldfaden, began presenting plays around 1880 in Romania and Russia, and one of his most famous songs, a lullaby called Rozhinkes mit Mandlen (Raisins and Almonds), debuted in his operetta ‘Shulamit’. This beautiful lullaby has an allegorical aspect, speaking of the Jewish people’s yearning for a home. It is still sung today, 125 years later. Here are the lyrics to the song.

Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen

Ascribed to Abraham Goldfaden (1840-1908)

In dem beys-hamikdash in a vinkl kheyder,
Zitst di almone Bas-Tsiyon aleyn;
Ir ben-yokhidl Yidelen vigt zi keseyder,
Un zingt im tsum shlofn a lidele sheyn.

Unter Yideles vigele,
Shteyt a klor vays tsigele,
Dos tsigele iz geforn handlen,
Dos vet zayn dayn baruf:
Rozhinkes mit mandlen;
Shlof zhe Yidele, shlof;
Shlof zhe Yidele, shlof.

Es vet kumen a tsayt fun ayznbanen,
Zey veln farfleytsn a halbe velt;
Ayzerne vegn vestu oysshpanen,
Un vest in dem oych fardinen fil gelt.

Az du vest vern raykh Yidele,
Zolstu zikh dermonen in dem lidele:
Rozhinkes mit mandlen –
Dos vet zayn dayn baruf,
Yidele vet ales handlen;
Shlof zhe Yidele, shlof;
Shlof zhe Yidele, shlof.


In the holy temple, in a corner
Sits the widowed daughter of Zion, alone;
Rocking her only son, her dear little Yidele, *
She sings him a lullaby, to bring him to slumber.

Under baby’s cradle,
There stands a snow-white kid
That travels to market,
This will be your calling too:
To sell raisins and almonds;
Sleep, my little one, sleep;
Sleep, my little one, sleep.

There will come a time of railroads,
That will spread over half the world;
On iron roads they will be unharnessed,
And you will also earn a lot of money from them.

When you grow rich, Yidele,
You will recall this song:
Raisins and almonds;
It will be your calling,
Yidele will be trading in all kinds of wares;
Sleep, my little one, sleep;
Sleep, my little one, sleep.

* Yidele is not an actual name; it really means ‘dear little Jewish boy’; thus, allegorically it denotes the Jewish people.

Yiddish song celebrates the entire gamut of Jewish life, from ritual observance, to love songs, to songs about work, to those about the characters we meet in the shtetl (the Jewish villages of Europe) and in the Jewish community generally. Yiddish song also commemorates the holocaust and the Jewish struggle to build a homeland in Israel.

The melodies of Yiddish song do not generally adhere to the klezmer modes, though in certain cases they may be based on them. Many Yiddish songs are written simply in the minor and major tonalities of western music. The examples cited here are all in minor keys. To some extent one may say they are in the Magen Avot mode, but they do not follow the cadential conventions and nuances of modal treatment.

The rhythms of Yiddish song may indeed vary, and in fact, when the Yiddish theatre came to the Americas at the beginning of the 20th century, many songs were written and performed in ‘swing’. One may say that one of the hallmarks of American Jewish music is this use of swing rhythms. A famous instance is Shalom Secunda and Jacob Jacobs’s Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn.

Among the very many significant Yiddish songwriters and authors, we make mention here of Mark Warshawsky (1840-1907) and Mordechai Gebirtig (1877-1942). Warshawsky’s Oyfn Pripetshik (In the Tiny Grate) is famous beyond Jewish circles, and Gebirtig’s songs have been a mainstay of Yiddish song since the first decades of the 20th century. Here are two examples: Warshawsky’s Oyfn Pripetshik (In the Tiny Grate) and Gebirtig’s Moyshele Mayn Fraynd (Moyshele my Friend).

Oyfn Pripetshik

by Mark Warshawski

Oyfn pripetshik brent a fayerl,
Un in shtub iz heys,
Un der rebe lernt kleyne kinderlekh
Dem alef beys.

Zet tshe kinderlekh, gedenkt tshe tayere,
Vos ir lernt do,
Zogt tshe nokh a mol, un take nokh a mol:
‘Komets alef – O’.

Lernt, kinder, mit groys kheyshek,
Azoy zog ikh aykh on:
Ver s’vet gikher fun aykh kenen ivre,
Der bakumt a fon.

Az ir vet, kinder, elter vern,
Vet ir aleyn farshteyn,
Vifl in di oysies lign trern,
Un vi fil geveyn.


In the tiny grate a fire flickers,
And the house is warm,
A Rabbi teaches little children
The Hebrew alphabet.

Listen children and remember well my dear ones,
What you are learning here,
Recite it again and yet again,
‘komets alef – O’. *

Study children with great desire,
Listen to what I say;
Whoever is quick to learn Hebrew
Will receive a flag.

Children, when you are older,
You will understand for yourselves,
How much pain and tears lie
Within these tiny letters.

* Literally the first lesson: ‘komets’ (vowel), together with ‘alef’ (silent consonant) = ‘O’.

Moyshele Mayn Fraynd

by Mordechai Gebirtig

Vos makhstu epes Moyshele,
Kh’derken dikh nokh on blik,
Du bist geven mayn khaverl
Mit yorn fil tsurik;
Un oykh in kheder hobn mir
Gelernt lang baynand,
Ot shteyt far mir der rebe nokh,
Der kantshik in zayn hant;

Oy, vu nemt men tsurik di yorn,
Yene sheyne tsayt?
Oy, dos yunge sheyne lebn
Iz fun undz shoyn vayt;
Oy, vu nemt men tsurik di yorn
Moyshele mayn fraynd,
Oy, nokh yenem beyzn rebn
Benkt dos harts nokh haynt.

Vi geyt es epes Berelen?
Avremele vos makht?
Un Zalmele, un Yosele?
Zeyer oft fun aykh getrakht;
Gekholemt fun aykh, kinderlekh,
Gezen zikh in der mit,
Gevorn alte yidelekh,
Vi shnel dos lebn flit;

(refrain) Oy, vu nemt men tsurik …

(last lines) Oy, nokh yene yunge laytn
Benkt dos harts nokh haynt.


How are you Moyshele?
How well I remember you
You were my dear friend
Many years ago;
We were schoolmates
Long ago,
I can still see our teacher
With the cane in his hand.

Oh, how can we recapture
Those wonderful times?
Those youthful days
Of long ago,
How can we recapture the years,
Moyshele my friend,
My heart still yearns
even for that stern teacher.

How is Berele?
What’s Avremele up to?
And Zalmele, and Yosele?
I have thought of you all so often;
I have dreamt of you, children,
And imagined myself among you,
We’ve all grown older,
How quickly life passes by.

(refrain) Oh, how can we recapture…

(last lines) My heart still yearns for
the young men that we were.


Klezmer and Yiddish song are the two main prongs of Ashkenazi secular music, music which celebrates Jewish life in all its facets. The more specific religious musical expressions, namely, Cantorial Art, Biblical Cantillation, and the Hassidic Nigun, though joined with Klezmer and Yiddish song in the context of Jewish celebrations and life-passage events, originate in the domain of Jewish religious practice. Some of the instances of commonality and parallel development between the secular and the devotional in Ashkenazi music are:

  1. The joyful dance rhythms of klezmer and those of the hassidic celebration song;

  2. The modes of klezmer and the synagogue’s modes of prayer;

  3. The subject of traditional observance and ritual allusions to be found in Yiddish song;

  4. The utilization of secular song melodies in the synagogue, for congregational singing.

Selected Discography

Tzimmes: Sweet and Hot (1993); A Lid for Every Pot (1995); KlezMyriad (1998).

The Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band: Sweet Return, 2003

Finjan Klezmer Ensemble: Crossing Selkirk Avenue

Itzhak Perlman: In the Fiddler’s House, 1995

Chava Alberstein, Yiddish Songs; The Well; and other albums of Yiddish song

The Klezmer Conservatory Band, A Taste of Paradise, and other recordings

The Barry Sisters, Their Greatest Yiddish Hits

Dudu Fisher, Golden Yiddish Favourites

Various Artists, Celebrate Yiddish; a good overall modern sampler of Yiddish songs.


Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klezmer – for a fine article on Klezmer on the internet.

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, by Seth Rogovoy. A great up to date book on Klezmer.

Klezmer Shack: http://www.klezmershack.com/ – a great internet resource on all things klezmer in the modern sense, encompassing Yiddish song as well


Jewish Music.com: www.jewishmusic.com – for books and recordings of every kind of Jewish Music.

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The author does not object to the use of these materials for personal educational purposes or for any fair use, such as quoting or citing these materials, as long as his authorship is credited by the user. Making copies of these materials as part of any commercial venture, or for any monetary reward, requires the written consent of the author. All reasonable requests will be honoured.

Jewish Music of the Ashkenazi Stream: I. Klezmer and Yiddish Song

© Moshe Denburg, 2015.