Chapter 2. The Diaspora and Evolution of Yiddish Music in America, 1900-1945

In a six decade time period, from the 1880s to the 1940s, the center of Yiddish civilization moved from Eastern Europe to North America, with its epicenter being New York City. Peak immigration of Jews from the Pale of Settlement to America took place between 1881, where subsequent pogroms and anti-Jewish legislation following the murder of Czar Alexander II, and 1924, when American laws were changed to limit immigration. From the 1880s through the 1930s the Jewish population in America grew by around three million, and the percentage that Jews made up of the American population more than quadrupled.[1] This was the third wave of Jewish immigration to America, and it dramatically changed the make-up of the American Jewish population. The first wave, in the 1650s, was not so much a wave but a trickle of Sephardic Jews from Brazil and the Netherlands. The second wave started in the 1860s and was made up of primarily German Jews.

The third wave came in far larger numbers than those before it, and was able to grow large enough to create its own unique culture. Books, newspapers, radio, music and theatre were all produced in Yiddish for these new immigrants. Much of the original American Yiddish music from this time period was written for the Yiddish theatre. Before looking at music it is important to get an overview of Yiddish theatre and its connection to music.

Yiddish Theatre

Where musicians had worked in small communities playing regional repertoire, theatre companies had, since the birth of Yiddish theatre in the later half of the nineteenth century, traveled around Europe creating a more homogenous repertoire spanning many countries. The actors and writers of American Yiddish theatre as with many of their musical compatriots, were born in Europe and came to this country as children, young adults, and even late in careers. Where the narrative differs is that theatrical performers would travel back to Europe to perform, or in some cases, to improve their Yiddish. An example of traveling to Europe to to learn the language is best personified by the story of Molly Picon (1898-1992). Born in Philadelphia, she was a child actress in the Yiddish theatre, and later married writer and actor, Jacob Kalich.[2] Kalich, who was originally from Poland, took her back to the old country to improve her Yiddish, and it worked. Molly Picon became one of the great stars of Yiddish theatre and movies, only switching to her native tongue of English at the end of her career.

Many of the musicals in the Yiddish theatre were formulaic vehicles for performers that included, to just name a few, Boris Thomashevsky, Aaron Lebedeff, Herman Yablokoff, Seymour Rechtzeit, Menasha Skulnik, Michal Michalesko and Bella Meisel. Many of the shows were composed, arranged or orchestrated by one of the big four composers of Yiddish theatre: Joseph Rumshinsky (1881-1956), Alexander Olshanetsky (1892-1946), Abraham Ellstein (1907-1963), and Sholom Secunda (1894-1974). One thing that separates the Yiddish theatre composers from their uptown Jewish contemporaries working on Tin Pan Alley and Broadway is that the Yiddish composers kept a foot in the religious world, often as syngoguge choir conductors and composers. As a whole, they were also very well educated musicians. Secunda and Ellstein both studied at Juilliard; Secunda, when it was known as the Institute for Musical Arts.[3] Olshanetsky first, and then later Secunda, were the musical directors at the toniest of the Catskill resorts, the Concord Hotel, where their duties included conducting High Holiday services and summer concerts.

Joseph Rumshinsky was born in Lithuania, and after working primarily as a choir conductor came to New York in 1904. His compositions were mostly operettas in the style of his predecessor (the father of Yiddish theatre) Abraham Goldfaden. Rumshinsky's foremost contribution to Yiddish theatre was in orchestration. He took the pit orchestras from glorified wedding bands and small dance bands to larger ensembles with complements of strings, woodwinds (both single and double reeds), harp, keyboard, and percussion.[4] Some of his pit orchestras were as large as twenty four musicians.

Alexander Olshanetsky was from Odessa, and played violin in opera orchestras, as well as conducted choirs before immigrating to the United States in 1922. As a composer he was known primarily for writing operettas, out of which most of his hit songs came. He also wrote some liturgical music, very little of which was published and is virtually unknown today, though during his own lifetime, cantors knew him as a very sensitive chorale conductor.

Abraham Ellstein was the only one of the big four Yiddish theatre composers to be born in America. Growing up he was totally immersed in both Jewish and non-Jewish Music. As a child he sang in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera and conducted a boy choir in a John Barrymore production of Richard III. He wrote over thirty scores for the Yiddish theatre, and a number of movie scores including Yidl Mitn Fidl for Molly Picon. For many years he was also one of the music directors at radio station WEVD for both programs in Yiddish and programs of cantors singing liturgical music. Some of his most beloved hit songs were actually written for his radio programs. And while not remembered today, because of his background he was also able to work on Broadway and even in Hollywood as a composer and arranger.

Sholom Secunda was born in Ukraine and immigrated to America in 1907. He started out as a wunderkind boy cantor, and sang in choirs. He always saw himself as better than the Yiddish theatre music for which he is remembered. His biggest hit song, "Bei Mir Bistu Sheyn," will be talked about in some depth later in this chapter.  What he wanted to be known for was being a composer of serious concert music. He thought of himself much like George Gershwin, with whom the actor and impresario Boris Thomashevsky unsuccessfully tried to have him work. Secunda was the musical director for the cantor and Metropolitan Opera star Richard Tucker, for whom he composed and with whom he recorded several full length religious services. He worked in radio as a musical director at a number of Yiddish radio stations, and as much as he tried never was able to find a career as a serious composer. He spent much of the 1960s writing concert work, though in the 1970s he returned to the Yiddish theatre.[5]

Tunes by all four of these composers, plus others from the Yiddish theatre found their way into the repertoire of American Jewish musicians. A number of the great instrumental hits of the time period actually originally had lyrics. This discussion of Yiddish theatre now brings us to the discussion of the instrumental Yiddish music in America.

Heyday of Yiddish Instrumental Music

Yiddish instrumental music in America had its heyday in the time period between the two World Wars. Musicians could be found in most communities where Russian and Ukrainian Jewish populations could be found. It is primarily in the communities where they recorded, New York and Philadelphia, where the history of Yiddish instrumental music has been preserved. The musicians we know about also tend to have immigrated to America after the 1910s. Sheet music was published commercially in both lead sheet and part book form. Larger communities also had musicians who would write out books of the tunes associated with the specific communities which had immigrated to that location.[6] So for example, Philadelphia had a large Romanian Jewish community and its musicians played from books containing tunes specific to Romanian Jews.[7]

Any history of pre-war American Yiddish instrumental music will be dominated by  the two clarinetists who got their recording breaks playing on Columbia Records under band leader Abe Schwartz: Naftule Brandwine (1889-1963), who immigrated to America from Galicia in 1908 and Dave Tarras (Dovid Tarrasiuk 1897-1989), who immigrated to America from the Ukraine in 1921. Naftule Brandwine was a larger than life individual. Today we talk about him as much for his antics and drinking as for his playing which was noted for its expressive use of color and rhythm. Naftule Brandwine’s recording career as a leader was short, from 1922 until 1927, with one additional session in 1941. Dave Tarras was known for changing the repertiore, and as a technical wizard, with his quick trills and finger gymnastics. Not only was Dave Tarras an astonishing performer, he influenced the types of dance tunes being played. Dave Tarras made his first recordings in 1925 and continued to record until the 1960s. He made his final recording in 1978. In New York City, the repertoire changed from a majority of tunes being core-repertoire freylakhs to being transitional or orientalized bulgarish (more popularly called bulgar).[8] While the change in music is well-known, changes that took place in the dancing have not been documented to the same degree.

Recordings did not always match live performance practices, and a wider variety of instruments were available to the players than ever before. While paging through the section on Jewish music in Richard Spottswood's Ethnic Music on Records; A Discography of Ethnic Recordings Produced in the United States, 1893 to 1942, “Volume 3 Eastern Europe,” one quickly begins to notice that when a break down of personal is listed the most common sizes are 5, 7, and 10 men.[9] In the recording studio, depending on the time period, it was common for the bass players to switch to tuba or baritone saxophone.[10] Drummers such as Irving Gratz, Joseph Helfenbeim, and Kol Katz acquired trap sets, though they still played in a military-influenced style. For clarinet players, even though they could get Boehm fingered clarinets, many stayed with their older Albert system instruments, though most learned how to play the saxophone to be able to play “American” music. Keyboard players would turn the accordion into an accompaniment instrument and not just a solo instrument. In recording studios, it was also common to use tuned pianos, though on jobs many keyboard players would play accordion rather than the untuned pianos in the catering halls.

While Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwine dominate both the histories and the recordings, many others left recordings documenting their playing. Their common employer, Abe Schwartz (1883-1963), had been one of the first bandleaders to breakout on recordings from backing up singers to recording instrumental sides. Recording for Columbia, he not only lead the bands on the Jewish recordings, but also many of the Polish and Russian ones. Military bands still influenced recording acts, and another bandleader recording for Columbia was Lt. Joseph Frankel (1885-1953) who had been a band leader in both the Russian and later the United States Military.[11] New York was not the only city where recordings were made, Harry Kandel (1885-1943) recorded primarily for Victor in Philadelphia. Kandel went to the conservatory in Odessa, and served in the Czarist army before immigrating to the United States in 1905.[12] In the next decade he found work playing clarinet and conducting, including touring the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit, and playing with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Just before World War I he moved from New York to Philadelphia to conduct for a Yiddish theatre, and also worked with the Sousa band.[13] It was through his connection with the Sousa band that Kandel got a recording contract with Victor.

A majority of the musicians recording during this time period also worked in the pit orchestras of Yiddish theaters, as well as playing on the Yiddish radio shows. Many of these musicians where able to cross back and forth playing both “ethnic” and “non-ethnic” work. Some of the musicians with Harry Kandel were Jacob Hoffman, who played drums and xylophone and toured with such acts as the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and the trombonist Charlie Gusikoff, who was a trombonist in the Philadelphia Orchestra.[14]

For the most part a different stable of musicians played the landsmenshafts (organizations of people from the same town), and the bread and butter work for many musicians was playing weddings. Weddings were no longer multi-day affairs, as they had been in Europe, where they had been held in homes and synagogues. In America, weddings were multi-hour affairs held in social and catering halls.[15] Many of the summer resorts and hotels where Jews vacationed (for Jews in New York City these were the hotels of the Catskill Mountains referred to as the Borsht Belt) had house bands that would also be a source of employment for musicians.[16]

Economics drove the change in the average size of bandstand in all settings including recording studios, theatre, radio, and of course private parties. Ensembles shrunk from their European size of ten to twelve, down to trios and, at times, solo keyboard players like the one man bands who are de rigeur in many Hasidic and other “traditional” communities today.[17]  Though live ensembles shrank, a majority of the studio recordings were still made with the larger groups.

The majority of the pre-World War II recordings were made between 1915 and 1930, and it would not be until after 1945 when Yiddish instrumental music was again recorded on a regular basis. There were, however, a number of attempts at Yiddish Fusion music in the 1930s and 40s. Some of these attempts were marketed at a strictly Jewish audience, while others had, or were attempting to reach a broader acceptance.

Some Attempts at Jewish Fusion Music in the 1930s and 40s

Jewish Fusion recordings did not begin in a vacuum in the post World War II time period. Conscious and unconscious attempts to mix Jewish and American idioms had been made for a number of years. In 1920, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded “Palesteena”.[18] The Dixieland band used sections of two popular European tunes, and then just months later Eddie Cantor added lyrics to it.[19] Another notable jazz recording of a Yiddish tune is Cab Calloway's version of “Ut Azoy Says the Tailor” recorded as “Utt-Da-Zoy” in 1939. The mock hazonos in the opening vocal section is of particular note. This recording was included on Henry Sapoznik's 2002 two-CD set From Avenue A to the Great White Way; Yiddish & American Popular Songs From 1914-1950. This project included recordings from the Columbia Record archive which explore the merger of Yiddish and American music.[20] Disc One looks at twenty-five recordings from the Ethnic catalog, and Disc Two looks at twenty-five recordings from the “American”catalog.

Consider four specific early, pre-1950s examples of Yiddish music fused with American jazz. The motiveation for fusion projects varied. Some Jewish artists did so with an eye to popularizing Jewish music, others just wanted to stay current with popular tastes.

Bei Mir Bistu Sheyn

In 1932 lyricist Jacob Jacobs and composer Sholom Secunda collaborated on a Yiddish musical comedy, M'ken lebn nor m'lozt nit, or as they titled it in English “I Would if I Could,” “Bei Mir Bistu Sheyn” was a love duet from the show for the stars Aaron Lebedeff and Lucy Levin.[21] The man sings all but one line in the verse, and both sing the chorus together. After the show closed, like many of the most popular Yiddish theatre songs of its day, “Bei Mir Bistu Sheyn” was published by the music publishing firm of J. & J. Kammen. It was included in collections of popular Yiddish theatre tunes of its day. Here, though, is where the history of “Bei Mir Bistu Sheyn” gets a little murky. As the story goes, Warner Brothers licensed the rights to the song from J. & J. Kammen who had purchased it from Sholom Secunda and Jacob Jacobs just a few weeks earlier in 1937.[22] Warner Brothers had purchased the song after one of their own song writing teams was blown away upon hearing it sung by a pair of African-American performers singing it in the original Yiddish at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem; the crowd loved it. Upon Warner Brothers purchasing the song, English lyrics where written by Sammy Cahn (Samuel Cohen) and  Saul Chaplin (Saul Kaplan).

The song, with an arrangement for the Andrew Sisters by Victor Schoen, would go on to be one of the largest selling records of the late 1930s, and would be covered by hundred of artists around the world.

Freilach in Swing / And the Angles Sing

Harry Finkelman (1914 - 1968) is a figure who shows up in a number of important moments in American Jewish fusion music. Born in Philadelphia, his family moved to Atlantic City, N.J. where his father was a violinist and candy store owner.[23] He learned to play many instruments and excelled on brass. He was first known as a trombone player with Jewish bands in the Philadelphia and Atlantic City areas. He went on to have his biggest success as a trumpet player using the stage name Ziggy Elman. He played with bands such as Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Mickey Katz, where he was mostly a second (solo) trumpet player. During his time with Benny Goodman, he recorded his first sides as a bandleader for the Bluebird record label in December of 1938. One of the twenty sides he cut was a jazz arrangement of “Der Shtiller Bulgarish,” a tune recorded by Philadelphia Jewish bandleader Harry Kandel in 1917. Ziggy Elman called his own version “Freilach in Swing.”

Benny Goodman heard it and had Johhny Mercer draw up some lyrics and thus the second Yiddish song to hit the pop charts was born. “Bei Mir Bistu Sheyn” had come out the year before, though “And the Angels Sing,” the subsequent English title for “Freilach in Swing,” is musically more important. The double time section of the trumpet solo is pure Jewish, though at a tempo a bit too fast for dancing. This created an ABA form, with the A sections being jazz and the B sections being Jewish.

Yiddish Melodies in Swing Time

From 1938 until 1955, Yiddish radio station WHN in New York City broadcast a program that combined Yiddish melodies with swing music.[24] Originally under the music direction of Sam Medoff, the program took primarily Yiddish folk songs and paired them with hip swing music.[25] In its early days the program was broadcast live from the six-hundred seat Lowes State Theatre every Sunday at 1 pm.[26] The vocals were sung by Claire and Myrna Barry and Dave Tarras was the featured clarinetist for the Jewish portion of the tunes. Many of the tunes followed the ABA example set forth by Ziggy Elman.

Savoy Sessions

The 1955 Tanz! album was not the first time Dave Tarras and Sammy Musiker had come together in the studio. In 1946 and 1947 they came together to record ten sides for the Savoy label.[27] These sides bridge the gap between the earlier 78 singles and radio songs and later LPs. Savoy Records was a relatively new jazz label in Newark, N.J. founded in 1942 by Herman Lubinsky. It was known at that time as a very hip jazz label, and the home of many important early bop recordings, including Charlie Parker's quintet in 1945.[28] For the 1946 and 1947 Savoy recordings Dave Tarras engaged a big band and had Sammy Musiker write the arrangements. Having an American style ‘big band’ would fulfill the request from Savoy to have a band that mixed Jewish and jazz.

Dave Tarras recalls: “The stores said, ‘It's a good record, It's beautiful, but if jazz we want, we got Benny Goodman.’ It's not Jewish ‘cause it’s mixing in too much jazz, and it’s not jazz ‘cause it’s mixing in too much Jewish… I really loved the records…”[29]

The 1946 and 1947 recordings harken back to arrangements Sam Medoff had done for the radio program Yiddish Melodies in Swing which had featured Dave Tarras on clarinet. Tarras was not know for his jazz playing, so his parts would feature him in the Jewish sections and at times have him as an ensemble member during jazz sections. The Savoy sessions did not sell very well, and today they are extremely hard to find.


  1. Sarna, Jonathan D. American Judaism: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) p. 375.
  2. Nahma Sandrow. Vagabond Stars; a World History of Yiddish Theater. (Syracuse University Press,  1996 reprint of Harper & Row 1977 edition), p. 330.
  3. Milken Archive of American Jewish Music, composers Biographies. <www.> Accessed on 12/6/2007.
  4. Even when Yiddish Theatre Orchestras started shrinking back down in size the harp stayed on as an instrument in pit orchestras, though the double reeds where dropped.
  5. Milken Archive of American Jewish Music, composers Biographies. <www.> Accessed on 12/6/2007. Nahma Sandrow. Vagabond Stars; a World History of Yiddish Theater. (Syracuse University Press, 1996). 
  6.  See Hankus Netsky. “The Klezmer in Jewish Philadelphia, 1915-70” in American Klezmer; Its Roots and Offshoots. Mark Slobin, ed. (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2002) and Hankus Netsky, “Klezmer: Music and Community in 20th Century Jewish Philadelphia” (Ph.D. dissertation, Weselyan University, Middletown, CT, 2004), p.93.
  7.  Netsky 2004, p. 67.
  8. Walter Zev Feldman, “Bulgӑreascӑ/Bulgarish/Bulgar; The Transformation of a Klezmer Dance Genre” in American Klezmer: Its Roots and Offshoots. Mark Slobin, ed. (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2002) originally published in Ethnomusicology 38:1 (Winter 1994). pp. 90-97, 103-111.

     While the Bulgar is seen in small numbers in Europe, and slightly larger numbers in early American tune books, its numbers not only only increase, but the form of the Bulgar changes with the tunes that Dave Tarras composed. Dave Tarras was the most popular musician, and everyone had to know his tunes not only that, sometimes clarinet players would have to claim on bandstands to the client that they were Dave Tarras.

  1. Spottswood, Richard K. Ethnic Music on Records; A Discography of Ethnic Reocrdings Produced in the United States, 1893-1942. Vol. 3, Eastern Europe. Urbana; University of Illinois Press, 1990. pp. 1293-1552.
  2. This double was not an uncommon double in Europe, many musicians would play a secondary instrument especially when having to parade around with the parents of the bride and groom.
  3. Henry Sapoznik, Klezmer! Jewish Music from Old World to Our World (New York: Schirmer Books, 1999) p. 93.
  4. Sapoznik 1999, p. 94-95.
  5. Netsky 2004, p. 70.
  6. Ibid, p. 71.
  7. Yale Strom, The Book of Klezmer; The History, The Music, The Folklore (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2002) pp 148-150.
  8. Strom 2002, pp 154-155.
  9. See Strom 2002, pp 148-185. For a longer discussion of economics in music, especially as related to live playing.
  10. Victor 18717, flip side to Margie. "The Original Dixeland Jass Band (ODJB)" by Tim Gracyk; article 2 on "New Orleans jazz - ODJB jazz History" ( viewed April 8, 2008. Reissued in 2000 on Klezmer! Jewish Music from Old World to Our World, Yazoo 7017.
  11. Sapoznik, 1999, p. 81.
  12. From Avenue A to the Great White Way, 2002, Columbia/Legacy, C2K 86323.
  13. The author owns an original copy of the sheet music dated 1933 and published by I. Kalmus in Brooklyn, NY.
  14. Sapoznik, 1999. pp. 133-138.
  15., accessed 4/10/07.
  16. See episode 2 of the NPR/Sound Portraits Production Yiddish Radio Project, “Yiddish Melodies in Swing,”
  17. In 1948 Sam Medoff changed his name to Dick Manning and went on to become a noted composer of American Popular Songs.
  18. See episode 2 of the NPR/Sound Portraits Production Yiddish Radio Project, "Yiddish Melodies in Swing",
  19. Sapoznik 1999, p. 156. I am not sure though that there are ten sides, I have been able to locate eight sides and the matrix numbers don't have any open holes showing where other tunes may exist.
  20. Kernfeld, Barry & Howard Rye; ‘Savoy (ii)’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 2 August 2007), <>. Chris Sheridan; ‘Recording, History of jazz recording, The re-emergence of independent labels’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 2 August 2007), <>.
  21. as quoted in Sapoznik 1999, p. 156.
 © Matt Temkin 2012 - 2015