Review | Wandering Stars: Songs from Gimpel’s Lemberg Yiddish Theatre, 1906-1910

Wandering Stars: Songs from Gimpel’s Lemberg Yiddish Theatre, 1906-1910. Renair Records 2013. Compiled by Julian Futter and Michael Aytward. One compact disc (25 tracks) with liner notes (40 pp.).

Reviewed by Jana Mazurkiewicz

This terrific album exposes us to once-mainstream, but now mostly forgotten, music written and sung in a language that is often said to be dying or even to be already dead. Yiddish theatre songs and the stars of Yiddish stage have been overshadowed by the renaissance of the reconstituted Klezmer music that we face today. Fashion comes back. Perhaps the time will come when the “rejected” Yiddish theatre songs will have their big revival too. Restoration of old and extremely rare recordings is certainly an important step in that direction.

Yiddish theatre has been always inseparable from Yiddish songs. They have common origins, and the father of Yiddish theatre, Abraham Goldfaden, was also a songwriter and a composer. The greatest and most ambitious Yiddish music was produced between 1876 and the late 1940s in Yiddish theatres such as Gimpel’s Lemberg Yiddish Theatre. Lemberg (in English, Lviv), now in Ukraine, was an important spot on the map of Yiddishland and a home for many Yiddish theatres. Most of them were ephemeral, traveling theatre troupes. The only permanent one with its own stage was run by the Gimpel family. It changed its location many times before finally reaching 11 Jagiellonska Street at the very center of Lviv. The theatre was established in 1889, despite the opposition of both Austrian authorities and Jewish religious authorities (Talmud forbids “the theatre and circuses of idolatry” [Avodah Zarah 18b; Shabbat 150a]), by Jakob-Ber Gimpel, a veteran member of the chorus at the Polish Municipal Opera. After his death, the management of this cultural institution was passed on his sons, Adolf Gimpel and Emil Gimpel. The theatre received a license to stage one-act plays, farces, song concerts, operettas and plays in the “Jewish jargon” (Yiddish), so all of these theatrical forms were in its repertoire. The Gimpel’s Yiddish Theatre managed to function continuously until the outbreak of the Second World War.

A forty page booklet with liner notes included with the album contains extensive information about the historical background of the Gimpel Yiddish Theatre in Lemberg along with fascinating short biographic portrayals of the artists and brief but detailed descriptions of the songs. The quality of the album is high because of great and well-trained voices (sometimes nearly operatic) of such theatre stars as Pepi Littmann, Leon Kalisch, Jacob Fuchs, and Isaac Deutsch, among others. All of the twenty-five songs on this CD, thanks to careful restoration, won back the shine of their original sound. Many of them, like “Oyfn pripetshik” (“On the Cooking Stove”) or “Freytik af der nakht” (“Friday Evening”), became so famous that they attained the status of anonymous folk songs and the names of the composers (in this case, Mark Warshawsky and G.Z. Weismann) almost disappeared from the history of Yiddish music. Particularly precious, from the historical point of view, are recordings such as the original “Yidl mit zayn fidl” (“Yiddle with his Fiddle”) and one of the earliest recordings of the national anthem of Israel (previously the Zionist anthem), “Hatikva” (“Hope”). The song following “Hatikva,” “Dort vo di Zeder” (“Where Are the Cedars”), based on a poem written by Isaac Feld, was considered by the first Zionist Congress to become an Israeli anthem for a while. Its melody is clearly inspired by the “The Internationale.” Another interesting song is “Di vokh fun Pesach tsayt” (“Passover Week”), set to the melody of Shields and Evans’s “In the Good Old Summertime,” published in New York at the beginning of the 20th century. It demonstrates the influence of American culture on European Yiddish theatre. It has to be mentioned that most of these songs were very flexible in terms of the lyrics and melody, which underwent frequent changes while crossing the borders of time and space. The CD closes with the only existing recording session of the prominent Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem reading fragments of his prose.

The biggest strength of this album, besides its high quality in sound and level of musical performance, is the wide variety of the recordings, which were chosen from what is left from the period between 1906 and 1910. The projects of research and restoration took ten years and included discographers, record collectors, and enthusiasts of Yiddish culture from all over the world. One must remember that Yiddish recordings are particularly rare because most of them were destroyed during the Second World War. This CD contains a beautiful collection of songs representing several genres which were particularly characteristic for Gimpel’s Lemberg Yiddish Theatre, such as wedding songs, festive songs, love songs, and drinking songs. Some of them are funny and another are heartbreaking, but most of them incorporate laughter through tears. The tradition of having contradictory emotions and sudden changes of rhythm and mood in Yiddish songs was the main reason why such famous composers as Ravel, Shostakovich and Mussorgsky found them brilliant, original and inspiring. This particular form of expression mirrors the unpredictability of the Jewish fate in the diaspora. Eclectic instrumentation is another characteristic feature of Yiddish music. A whole range of instruments is employed, but violin, piano, and flute dominate. The majority of Yiddish melodies are in the minor mode and in so-called Ahava rabbah mode (typically including an augmented second interval, i.e., E-F-G#-A / A-G#-F-E), borrowed from liturgical and Hassidic music; however, all kinds of creative melodic variations happen to be applied to that pattern. The uniqueness of the texts and melodies of Yiddish theatre songs, as well as their diverse music forms, are due to the multiculturalism and multilingualism of the artists who created them. They came from various counties, ethnic backgrounds and traditions, and turned the towns and cities they lived in, like Lviv, into “melting pots” with fascinating cultures.

This album plays an extremely important role in preserving the rich Yiddish heritage. It is a real treat to be able to listen to the songs that have been retrieved after more than 100 years and reintroduced to the general public.

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Jana Mazurkiewicz is a Polish Ph.D. student at the Slavic Department of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She specializes in contemporary Yiddish culture. Her book Death or Resurrection? Contemporary Yiddish Theatre in Europe is in the process of being published in Poland. She currently researches contemporary Yiddish theatre outside Europe.

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