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Yiddish Musical Theater

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Yiddish Sheet Music

Oral tradition dies never: Yiddish musical theater, from Eastern Europe to the Lower East Side

Like any folk or traditional music, Yiddish music came into being as a record and reflection of a common lived experience. The music developed through oral tradition, as Ashkenazi Jews converted poetic texts of into secular music to mark Jewish life cycle events. As an oral practice, the musical tradition thrived through adaptation, with Jews and non-Jews mingling, each borrowing from one another. Yiddish musical theater arose from Jewish minstrelsy and the Purimshpil (Purim-play) – religious-inspired performances included as part of Purim celebrations that included short plays, music, costuming, and pageantry – and reaching the height of its popularity in eastern Europe by the nineteenth century. This minstrelsy usually borrowed from liturgy, folk tradition, secular Jewish songs, or non-Jewish musical sources. The minstrel tradition was often presented through satire, “historic or timely ballads,” commentaries, or adapted folk stories, and often appealed to less educated, less affluent audiences, dealing with political, social, or economic themes, or the “always timely themes of life, faith, and hope” (Heskes, 75). Yiddish theater’s success in eastern Europe ended when Russian authorities banned Jewish theatricals in 1883. At this point Jews, including many Jewish minstrels, began to emigrate, many crossing the Atlantic and entering the U.S. through New York, finally settling on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and spawning a fresh Yiddish musical theater scene within the working class immigrant community. Irene Heskes describes, “This musical theater and its popular songs were a chronicle of the times, infusing essences of the Old World into the new American scene. Theatrical stars served as surrogate family, and their presentations helped explain and interpret, entertain and guide, thereby easing difficulties in the period of change” (76). The “big three” houses appeared in the late nineteenth century –The People’s Theater, the Windsor, and the Thalia. In 1902 journalist Hutchins Hapgood wrote that these theaters represented “…the world of the Ghetto – that New York City of Russian Jews, large, complex, with a full life and civilization…[and] alone present the serious as well as the trivial interests of an entire community” (Heskes, 77).
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Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul

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Itzhak Perlman and Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot Play Barclays Legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman will bring his soulful sound to Brooklyn with a major performance at Cushman & Wakefield Theater at Barclays Center on Thursday, February 28 at 7:30 p.m. Perlman will be joined on stage by Brooklyn-based Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot, a world-renowned tenor who has led the revival of Jewish liturgical music. Perlman and Helfgot recently collaborated on the… Read More »Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul

A Brooklyn-Based Prayer Leader Heralds a Revolution in Jewish Music

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Joey Weisenberg’s music workshops—blending a democratic approach with a range of traditions—aim to boost engagement

By Leonard Felson published in Tablet Magazine – june 4,2013
 
Joey Weisenberg, center, leads singing at a wedding on April 28, 2013.

Joey Weisenberg, center, leads singing at a wedding on April 28, 2013. (Marta Fodor)

On a recent Saturday evening, as Shabbat began to fade, two dozen men and women, most in their 20s and early 30s, were slowly belting out a long niggun, a wordless melody, sitting in a close circle in the chapel of a Brooklyn synagogue. When their eyes weren’t closed in this meditative chant, they were watching Joey Weisenberg. He was leading a discussion on effective prayer leadership skills, but for the moment, Weisenberg wanted them simply to feel the mystical power of singing together. One melody, over and over and over. “Instead of changing melodies,” he said, “let it change our selves.”

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