In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section East European Jewish Folk Music

  • Introduction
  • History of Research of Yiddish Folksongs

Jewish Studies East European Jewish Folk Music
Walter Zev Feldman, Michael Lukin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0155


The Ashkenazim of eastern Europe constituted the largest portion of the Jewish people in modern times, and their musical creativity shows far deeper internal connections and development than that of any other Jewish ethnos. Due to the fundamental social changes undergone by the eastern Yiddish-speaking communities of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Bohemia/Moravia, Ottoman Moldova, and their successor states from the 17th to the early 20th centuries, we can observe many transformations in the repertoires and genres of their expressive culture. As a rule, these changes affected the entire area of eastern Yiddish speech and were not confined to one country or region. Certain musical genres possess some notated documents by the 18th century, but most such documentation belongs to the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. In contrast to most ethnic groups of eastern Europe, the Jews were predominantly urban, typically dwelling in small towns or cities. And the connections between religious and secular musical styles became stronger through most of this period. There was also an interplay between partly or wholly professional, male musical genres, and the folkloric musical practices of both men and women. Hence the nature of what constituted orally transmitted Jewish folkloric genres differed fundamentally from the folklores of any of the co-territorial Gentile cultures. This bibliography excludes the most individual and professional genres—cantorial art (khazones/hazzanut) and Western artistic compositions or arrangements of Yiddish material, as well as purely popular genres. The four musical repertoires treated here are (i) Nusakh (nusah), as the basis of the dominant style of liturgical singing, in both its communal and semi-professional form as performed by the precentor baltfile (ba’al-tefilah); (ii) nign and zmires: religious and mystical vocal music, principally the nign (nigun) repertoires of Hasidic groups, whether without text, using Hebrew/Aramaic texts, or mixtures of languages as well as the paraliturgical songs sung on the Sabbath and other holidays, by both Hasidim and Misnagdim, known usually as zmires (zemirot); (iii) instrumental klezmer music for weddings and dancing; part of the bibliography this topic includes sections on the wedding orator (badkhn) and on the dance performed to klezmer melodies; and (iv) Yiddish folk song.


The studies and the collections—in print, manuscript, and sound—that cross the division between the various repertoires and genres are reviewed in this chapter. The more detailed surveys on documentation and research of every one of the four main repertoires are found in the four corresponding chapters that constitute the main parts of the bibliography; they can be understood more comprehensively through the panoramic overview of the sources listed in this section. A more extensive discussion of these four repertoires may be found in chapter 1 of Feldman 2016 (cited under General Overviews). The collections and studies described here are especially important for revealing the modal characteristics of East European Jewish music (see Research on “Modality” in Various Genres) and with the historiography of the discourse on it (see Historiography of the Early Collection and Research). The most voluminous and thorough collection of all repertoires and genres of East European Jewish folk music of both religious and secular nature was accomplished by the late Tsarist and early Soviet researchers. The new Jewish intelligentsia, which emerged in eastern Europe in the second half of the 19th century, took a special interest in Jewish folk creativity in general and in the Jewish musical legacy in particular (Bohlman 2005, cited under Historiography of the Early Collection and Research: Germany, Hungary, Poland; Nemtsov 2002, cited under Historiography of the Early Collection and Research: Russia). The encounter with musical folklore encouraged documentation and publication—mostly of Yiddish songs and klezmer tunes, while the main goal of these activities was the acquisition of the new national cultural capital and an attempt to save from oblivion and to preserve the pieces of folk art for the future generations. Publications in the press, described in the section Melodies Published in Periodicals, was the most essential part of this discourse, from its earliest stages until the first decades after the Second World War, when the last bearers of the tradition were still alive. The activists of the New Jewish School in Music (described in Nemtsov 2008 and Loeffler 2010, both cited under Historiography of the Early Collection and Research: Russia) worked to define the corpus discussed in the present article as a uniquely Jewish traditional repertoire and contributed creative musical interpretations to the collected materials, which served as a basis for the compositions of the school’s adherents. A big part of the archival materials collected in the first half of the 20th century (Kiev collections, YIVO Archives, and the Stonehill collection, whose duplicates are preserved in various institutions in the United States and in Jerusalem) are still awaiting thorough ethnomusicological investigation, which might shed more light on the interconnections as well as on the differences among the main repertoires and genres.

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