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Excerpt from The Book of Klezmer by Yale Strom

Yale Strom, The Book of Klezmer: the History, the Music, the Folklore (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2002)

Besides incorporating and re-creating indigenous folk tunes, khasidim [Heb.: pious ones] also composed their own nigunim, some, such as the Belzer, Bobover, Buhusher, Bratslaver, Moditser, Vishnitser, Stefuneshter, and Stoliner rabeim, becoming well-known in the process. Others were famous for their musicianship, and a few even had their own hoyf kapelyes [Yid.: rabbincal court orchestras], which generally only played at simkhes for the rebe and their fellow bale’batim.1

The Stoliner Repertoire

I am partial to the Stoliner nigunim because I grew up going to the Stoliner synagogue in Detroit and heard the melodies there and at home. In addition to this, my yikhes2 on my father’s side stems from his parents, who were followers of the Stoliner rebe, and my paternal great-grandmother (Chava Weiner), who was a close friend of Rabbi Israel Perlow (1873-1921), the Stoliner rebe, known as the Yenuka (Heb.: baby) because he became rebe just after his bar mitsve3 While keeping with the Stoliner tradition of fervent davenen (Yid.: synagogue praying), the rebe was also a great lover of music and continued the musical tradition of Stolin by having music in his hoyf on a daily basis. He also employed noted composers as part of his hoyf to compose new nigunim; the two best-known were Rabbi Jacob from Telekhan (near Pinsk) and Rabbi Yossele Talner. The Stoliner rebe had two girls and four sons; three of the sons formed a kapelye to play music for simkhes in the hoyf. One son, Rabbi Asher, was such a talented cellist that he studied (much to the dismay of Rabbi Israel) at the conservatory of music in Berlin for a short time. The tradition of playing and singing these beautiful and passionate nigunim is still alive, for, as Rabbi Israel once said, “As es brent, shrayt un zingt men” (“When one is on fire, one shouts”).3

My repertoire includes the music that Rabbi Israel Perlow’s kapelye played. I had the good fortune to meet Asher Wainshteyn (1890-1983), a khasid from Stolin, in 1982 when he was living in Boro Park, Brooklyn. He was a violinist in a klezmer kapelye that also included a bassist, a tsimbalist4, a trumpeter, and a Belorussian drummer; they performed through-out the Pinsk, Belarus region from 1906 to 1919, for Jews and non-Jews alike. Wainshteyn immigrated to New York after World War II. The klezmer manuscript he gave me contained ninety-four tunes and demonstrated the extensiveness of his repertoire: many of the tunes were not indigenous to the region, and these demonstrated how often the kapelye played for non-Jews. In the collection were dobranotshes, fantazies, hopkes, khusidls, kozatshoks, a koyletch tants, a mazltov tants, mazurkas, polkas, padespans, shers, skotshnes, tish-nigunim, waltzes, zogekhts, and even two cakewalks. This repertoire provides a good opportunity to enumerate the kinds of tunes klezmorim were performing at this time, along with their ritual functions:

  • The dobranotsh (Rus.: good night)—also known as the dobranots (Polish), a gute nakht (Yid.: good night), zay gezunt (Yid.: be well), or gezegen (Yid.: farewell)—was a piece, generally in 4/4 time, played at the end of the wedding when the guests departed for home, often just before sunrise; afterward the klezmorim accompanied the newlyweds and their parents to their respective homes with a march or sometimes a freylekhs.
  • The fantazi (Yid.: fantasy) was a nondance tune often played at the tish (Yid.: table) where the newlyweds and the parents sat and dined; like the classical music composition known as a fantasia, it had no fixed form, the structure being determined by the musician’s or composer’s fancy.
  • The hopke was a lively Russian circle dance where one dancer danced within a bigger circle of dancers; it was very popular among non-Jews.
  • The khusidl (Heb.: small Khasid) was both a solo and communal slow, dignified khasidic dance in 2/4 time that could be performed either in a circle or a line; however, in Galicia, Transylvania, and the Carpathian regions of Hungary, it was considered the same as a freylekhs.5
  • The koyletch tants (Yid.: dance of the khale, or challah bread) incorporated a special twisted or ringed bread that was eaten on certain holidays and celebrations; it was sometimes performed immediately after the khupe (Heb.: wedding canopy), and was thus also called the khupe tants. Usually the grandmother or another matriarch of the family danced in front of the bride and groom while holding the koyletch for all to see as the klezmorim accompanied them through the town to the wedding feast, all the while singing these words to the groom: “ Vos vilstu, di khale oder di kale?” (Yid.: What do you want: the bread or the bride?).6
  • The mazltov tants (Heb.: congratulation or good-luck dance) was similar to the mitsve dance, which was also known as the kale tants (Heb.: bride dance). It was performed several times in the course of the wedding ceremony: first, when all the bride’s female friends danced with her at the khupe before the ceremony; again during the bedekn after the groom had veiled the bride, when the batkhn called out the women’s names and each danced with the bride in turn in a stately circle while holding her hands and wishing her good luck; and again during the meal, when the batkhn called each of the honored guests by name to come up and congratulate the newlyweds, upon which the guests, in same-sex couples, danced to a melody in 3/4 or 3/8 time.
  • The mazurka was an up-tempo Polish dance—in 3/4 or 3/8 time, often with a “B” or trio section, and usually in a major key—native to the Mazovia region; it was quite popular in western salons in the 1830s and ’40s and was played as a sign of solidarity for partitioned Poland. It resembled the polka, but had two sliding steps in place of one.
  • The polka was an up-tempo dance in 2/4 time and a major key that originated in Bohemia around 1830. The basic step was a hop followed by three small steps; it could have two or three sections, with the last part a trio.
  • The padespan (pas d’ espagnol, Sp.: Spanish step) was a Russian waltz based upon Spanish themes.
  • The sher (Yid.: scissors) was one of the most common Jewish dances. According to ethnomusicologist Moshe Beregovski, it probably came from the German melody “Der Sherer oder Schartanz,” which dates from 1562. It was a contradance in which from four to eight couples formed two facing lines; the couples bowed their heads toward each other as they switched places, going under the gate formed by each other’s arms. The khasidim called the dance hakhna’a (Heb.: submission) because bowing one’s head was a gesture of respect. The music was often a freylekhs in 2/4 time in a minor key, with two or three sections.7
  • The skotshne (Pol.: hop) was sometimes an instrumental display piece, but those Asher Wainshteyn played were like freylekhs in 2/4 time and a minor key, except more technically elaborate; when dancing to them, the khasidim incorporated hopping into their steps.
  • The tish-nign (Yid.: table song) was a khasidic wordless melody sung with great spirituality, sometimes at the rebe’s tish, when the rebe and his followers welcomed the Sabbath with songs on Friday night, and other times sung by the batkhn while the wedding guests were dining. The accompaniment was a solo instrument, usually violin, which played rubato.
  • The waltzes that were in Wainshteyn’s manuscript were arranged from popular classical melodies of the day as well as from Russian and Polish folksongs. One of the most popular waltzes Wainshteyn’s kapelye was asked to play at both Jewish and non-Jewish celebrations was Tchaikovsky’s Waltz Sentimentale (opus 51, number 6).
  • The zogekhts (Yid.: say) was a display piece in which the klezmer utilized a synagogue prayer motif to compose an improvisational piece in rubato rhythm. Occasionally it segued into a khusidl, like the zogekhts in the Wainshteyn manuscript that was sung to the prayer “V’hi Sheyomda Lavosaynu” (Heb.: and he stood for us).8 When the zogekhts was sung, the singer often used coloratura (trills, runs, scales), a vocal technique that the khazn also used.
  • The cakewalk, an African American folk dance from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was a strutting dance step originally developed for competing for a cake. The two cakewalks in the Wainshteyn manuscripts had three sections, the first two in minor and the third, a trio, in a major key.9

One of the tish-nigunim in the collection was one that the present-day Stoliner khasidim had forgotten. It was such a beautiful tune that I went to the current Stoliner rebe, Rabbi Baruch Perlow, and played it for him; he was so impressed by the haunting melody that he told me to teach it to the Stoliner bale’basim the following week on Purim. Purim came and I took my place on a table in the back of the synagogue and began to play the melody on my violin. After I played it one time through, the Khasidim began to sing and dance along. Despite my bow arm cramping, I managed to play the melody on and off for four hours. Today Stoliners in Brooklyn and Israel sing this tish-nign every Purim and at other simkhes.

  1. Bale’batim (Heb.): masters of the home: the men, women, and children who followed a specific rebbe and his teachings.
  2. Yikhes (Heb.): pedigree, descent, lineage, parentage. Every Jew in Eastern Europe had some yikhes—even the orphan, whose, sadly, was low. Having better yikhes gave you higher social status even if you were of poor to average means. For example, a direct descendent of a famous rabbi had beneficial yikhes if he or she came from a poor family and were to be married. But if you were the son or daughter of a poor peddler your yikhes was quite low. Money was important in the shtetl, but education (particularly in religious Jewish texts) was even more so. Though most klezmorim did not have much yikhes, some were famous, adored for their personality and artistry, which gave their wives and children good yikhes.
  3. Harry M. Rabinowicz, Hasidism: the Movement and Its Masters (Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson 1988), pp. 250-54.
  4. A tsimhalist played the tsimbl (hammer-dulcimer).
  5. In Berbesti, Romania (south of Sigheta-Marapei, or Sziget to the Jews), I met a former klezmer who played me a couple of pieces he called khusidls on the violin that were in 4/4 lime and were exactly like freylekhs.
  6. In and around Warsaw, the custom was to dance with lit candles in the koyletch. The other time the koyletch dance took place was at the tish of the newlyweds, just before the blessing over the bread, which meant the dining could begin. Again, it was the grandmother of the bride or groom who danced. Isaac Rivkind, Klezmorim: Perek b’Toldot ha-Amanot ha-Amamit (New York: Futuro Press, i960), p. 31.
  7. Mark Slobin, ed., Old Jewish Folk Music: The Collections and Writings of Moshe Beregovski (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), p. 534.
  8. We sang this tune at our Pesekh sederim. See Walter Zev Feldman, Khevrisa: European Klezmer Music (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Folkways Recording, 2000 [compact disc liner notes]), p.27.
  9. Wainshteyn explained to me that a man from Pinsk (a friend of the tsimbler’s) had visited America around 1910 and brought back some sheet music, including these two cakewalks.

Compiled by and Copyright © 2020 Joshua S. Perlman and Adina Lipsitz
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Updated 20 December, 2020

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