Dance, Dance, and Twirl: Exploring the Roots of Jewish Music in the Soviet Union

Me, Danielle Levsky, really feeling the music in Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois, 1996.

Music has been an integral part of my upbringing and my ancestry.

As a babe, I listened to my mom’s and grandmother’s soft singing voices as they lulled me to sleep. My mom sang me old Russian children and folk songs, while my grandma sang me Ukrainian and Yiddish folk songs. My mom and I sang these songs again to my younger brother when he was a babe.

Me, Danielle Levsky, yawning (or maybe warming up for a song?) in my family’s apartment on North Washtenaw Avenue in Park Ridge, Chicago, Illinois, 1993.

Years later, while I was in elementary school, I participated in a Russian children’s choir, where we sang music from old Soviet animated films and Russian pop hits. Younger children in the crowd danced along to our songs and mouthed the words to the music they had on repeat in their living rooms.

Me, Danielle Levsky, preparing to sing during a concert performed with my Russian children’s choir, 2000.

Shortly after, I started taking acting classes and auditioning for musicals. In some way, I was involved in music for the majority of my young adult life, be it through choir, voice lessons, or theater.

Over the past half year, I’ve spent some of my time learning and re-discovering Yiddish music and Russian music with Jewish roots. I always had an inner inkling, a nudge, that the Russian music I knew and the Yiddish music I knew were not so separated.

More than a feeling, I’ve confirmed that, in many ways, they are interwoven and linked across time.

The Universal And Accessible Appeal Of Music

There are several Jewish musicians that learned in Russian conservatories and eventually established themselves into the lexicon of the classical music world: Cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, conductor Serge Koussevitzky, pianist Vladimir Horowitz, violinist David Oistrakh, pianist Evgeny Kissin, and more.

According to James Loeffler in his essay “Neither Fish Nor Fowl: The Jewish Paradox Of Russian Music” in the Jewish Quarterly, these musicians of note can be traced back to the person who invented the modern classical music profession in Russia, Anton Rubinstein (1829–1894, no relation to Arthur Rubinstein). He was considered to be the successor to Franz Liszt. He taught Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. He was chosen to lead the celebrated Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. Though his works were widely acclaimed, much of his oeuvre has fallen into obscurity.

“The fact is that more of Rubinstein’s music deserves to be played,” Leon Botstein wrote in his essay “Jews and Russians: The Case of Music” for the concert Russia’s Jewish Composers, performed on December 17, 2015 at Carnegie Hall. “Rubinstein’s musical output was enormous. A vast number of dramatic works with a “Jewish” connection appear in Rubinstein’s catalogue, including an opera on the Maccabees, works on the Tower of Babel, and Moses[…] In the late-19th-century debate on what ought to be [considered] truly “Russian” music, Rubinstein was unfairly derided as a second-rate purveyor of German musical traditions.”

In addition to his work, Rubinstein’s hallmark achievement was opening the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1862. Just before the Russian Revolution, Jews comprised less than 5 percent of the total Russian population, yet over 50 percent of the students at St. Petersburg Conservatory and over 80 percent of the students at the Odessa Conservatory were Jewish.

Music was appealing to Russian Jews, for they did not need to abandon their Jewishness to participate in European enlightenment.

“Music’s secular universalism required no grappling with dogmatic questions of belief,” Loeffler wrote in “Neither Fish Nor Fowl: The Jewish Paradox Of Russian Music.” “Nor did it insist on an existential choice about the proper language of expression, the recurring problem for Jewish writers […] Music’s appeal also stemmed from its continued accessibility as an educational option.”

The St. Petersburg Conservatory also admitted women in equal numbers, in stark contrast to almost every other university-level institution in Russia.

Unfortunately, before the St. Petersburg Conservatory had opened, let alone admitted Jewish students in distinct numbers, Loeffler wrote in “Neither Fish Nor Fowl: The Jewish Paradox Of Russian Music” that “Russian antisemites attacked it as a “synagogue” run by one Rabbi “Rebenstein,” a place where foreign “Yankels” incapable of composing their own national art simply imitated and corrupted Russian music.”

This antisemitic claim began to perpetuate the Jewish musician hive mind.

To combat this internalized anti-semitism, musician and music critic Yo’el Engel and historian-folklorists Peysekh Marek and Sha’ul Ginsburg promoted “the study of Jewish folk music from the Pale of Settlement through fieldwork, public lectures, and publications,” according to Loeffler in his Yivo Encyclopedia’s entry on the Society for Jewish Folk Music.

In 1908, these initial efforts, combined with the encouragement of Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, inspired a group of Jewish students from the St. Petersburg Conservatory to launch the Society for Jewish Folk Music, which led to a Jewish national musical movement that spread rapidly across Russia and Eastern Europe. This society drew on folk music from Ashkenazi Jewry (Hasidic nigunim, Yiddish songs, and klezmer dance melodies), Yiddish lieder, chamber works, choral arrangements, symphonies, and operas.

Unfortunately, with Jewish visibility increasing in Russian public life, so, too, did anti-semitism.

“Professional antisemites, such as the music critic Emil Medtner, a leading member of the Russian symbolist movement, spoke darkly of a plague of ‘little Jew boys from Lodz’ ruining Russian and European music with their ‘Asiatic’ and ‘barbarous’ ways,” Loeffler wrote in “Neither Fish Nor Fowl: The Jewish Paradox Of Russian Music.” “The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin once declared that without Jews, ‘music would die out.’ Yet, he went on to explain that this talent stemmed from the biologically feminine character of the Jewish race, which predisposed them to more sensitive, lyrical instruments: ‘For an orchestra to sound right,’ he confided to a colleague, ‘it must have no less than 15 percent Jews in the string and horn sections.’”

Jewish Music In The Face Of Anti-Semitism

If Russians claimed that Jewish music was influenced by Russian music, the opposite was surely true, as well. This particularly came to light during the Soviet era, where the sounds of Yiddish folk song and klezmer weaved into the aesthetic fabric of Soviet classical music.

The relationship between the Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975) and the Jewish composer Mieczysław Weinberg (1919–1996) revealed the imprint of Jewish musical patterns on Russian music. Shostakovich and Weinberg met when Weinberg sought refuge in the Soviet Union during Nazi-occupied Warsaw. They both found inspiration and influence in each other’s musical backgrounds.

“From the mid-1940s onward, Shostakovich began to insert Yiddish melodic inflections, pulsating klezmer rhythms, and Jewish programmatic elements into his works,” Loeffler wrote in “Neither Fish Nor Fowl: The Jewish Paradox Of Russian Music.”

“Shostakovich’s 1962 Thirteenth Symphony, subtitled ‘Babi Yar,’ and Weinberg’s 1963 Sixth Symphony, nicknamed the ‘Jewish Violin,’ represent two of the most searing musical memorials ever created,” Loeffler continued. “Remarkably similar in form and theme… they also constitute parallel portraits of the intertwined history of Russians and Jews.”

In addition to influencing Soviet/Russian music, Jewish music thrived amongst the untrained and the persecuted. During World War II, amateur storytellers and musicians described and sung the Jewish wartime experience, including tales of Holocaust survivors, Jewish soldiers in the Red Army, women working in factories, and Polish refugees building new lives.

“These songs weren’t written by famous composers, rather by everyday Jews throughout the Soviet Union who felt the urgency to voice their emotions in the face of death,” Renee Ghert-Zhand writes in her article “Album ‘Yiddish Glory’ gives voice to once-lost Soviet Jewish WWII songs” in the Times of Israel. “In many cases, these were the first grassroots testimonies of Nazi atrocities to emerge anywhere in Eastern Europe.”

After World War II, Soviet ethnomusicologist Moisei Beregovsky and his professional research team collected hundreds of these Yiddish songs. They were supported by the Kiev Cabinet for Jewish Culture (part of the Ukrainian Academy of Science), which operated under the auspices of the Soviet government.

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s terror and rampant anti-semitism presented in contradictory policies regarding Jewish music; some promoted it and others denied its existence. Stalin’s anti-cosmopolitan campaign of the 1940s addressed this “problem:” Jewish music was framed as a Zionist threat to Communist rule. The height of Stalin’s anti-semitic policies began in 1948, with silent pogroms that targeted Jewish actors, composers, and musicians. In 1950, Jewish political leaders, authors, and academics were also imprisoned and often tortured and executed.

Beregovsky, who was the leader of the Kiev Cabinet for Jewish Culture, was arrested and sent to the Siberian gulag.

Weinberg was arrested in 1953 and accused of a secret CIA-funded plot to launch a breakaway Jewish Republic in the Crimea. Stalin’s death a month later ended the anti-Jewish campaign and spared Weinberg his life.

The Found Songs Of World War II

Until 1993, it was thought that Stalin and his government had destroyed Beregovsky’s and the Cabinet’s work. That year, a few years after Ukraine gained its independence, they were discovered in unmarked boxes at the Vernadsky National Library.

Lyudmila Sholokhova was a research associate at the library when the archive was discovered. She spent several years studying and cataloging the collection. It wasn’t until several years later until Dr. Anna Shternshis began working with the archive, where she initially thought to write a book. Shternis is the Al and Malka Green Associate Professor of Yiddish Studies and the director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto; she was born in Moscow and is considered an expert on Soviet Jewish and Yiddish culture.

Shternshis quickly realized that the handwritten songs should be sung and recorded. She assembled a team of musicians and scholars, including Russian Jewish singer-songwriter Psoy Korolenko, to record an album of songs from the archive. “Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II” was released in February 2018 by Six Degree Records.

“Yiddish Glory tells the remarkable story of folklorists in the Soviet Union who risked their lives collecting songs from Jewish Red Army soldiers, Jewish refugees, victims and survivors of Ukrainian ghettos,” the album release page reads. “For some Holocaust victims, the last thing they did before being killed was writing a Yiddish song calling for revenge against fascism[…] There is even a composition in the collection that was written by a 10-year-old orphan who lost his family in the Holocaust[…] Many of the songs were written just before Holocaust victims were sent to their deaths, and these songs of despair, hope, humor, bravery, resistance, and revenge change the narrative of how Jews behaved and fought in their final moments.”

In May 2018, my mother and I attended Chicago YIVO Society’s event “Last Yiddish Heroes: Lost and Found Songs of Soviet Jews during World War II” at the Pick-Staiger Concert Hall on Northwestern University Campus. In this concert and lecture program, Korolenko played and sang the songs on a piano and Shternshis shared backstory and historical commentary between each tune.

A capture of one of the projection slides displaying the lyrics from the found Yiddish music during Chicago YIVO Society’s event “Last Yiddish Heroes: Lost and Found Songs of Soviet Jews during World War II” at the Pick-Staiger Concert Hall on Northwestern University Campus, May 2018

It was, at once, harrowing and calming how Korolenko played and sang each song in a professional, stately fashion, how Shternshis discussed the terrors that each lyricist may have experienced or what was happening at the time of writing, all while the translated lyrics were displayed to the audience in an unvarnished fashion on a projector screen. At some points of the event, we laughed, and in others, we cried. We alternated between following along with the translations to closing our eyes and feeling the melancholy and despair of the music, the language.

Psoy Korolenko playing and singing at the piano and Dr. Anna Shternshis sharing insights on the music during Chicago YIVO Society’s event “Last Yiddish Heroes: Lost and Found Songs of Soviet Jews during World War II” at the Pick-Staiger Concert Hall on Northwestern University Campus, May 2018

In one of the final songs, Korolenko performed “Happy New Year 1944,” a victory song which bids Hitler to “kiss our asses”(or, in Yiddish, tuchis). I laughed and clapped with the rhythm; my mom sat and listened intently.

Jewishness Outside The Soviet Establishment

I remember my parents playing Vladimir Vysotsky’s music during large family and friend dinner gatherings, dancing and singing along to his intensely raspy, powerful, and distinct music. Though I often could not make out the exact words he sang, I felt his pain, anger, and passion in the way he conveyed his music.

Vysotsky, a Russian singer-songwriter, poet, and actor of Jewish origin, was wildly celebrated across the Soviet Union. He was known for his singing style and lyrics with political and social commentary. Though the Soviet government and cultural establishment ignored most of his work, he still rose to acclaim as a Soviet Bard.

Bards were singer-songwriters who wrote music outside of the Soviet establishment. The term was coined in the early 1960s: those who were fans and involved in the genre began to use it to differentiate it from the mainstream Russian pop songs, and those outside the circles used it to mock the musicians.

Regardless of the tone, the term stuck.

Bard differs from other poetry and musical styles because the words are meant to be sung simply, with a simple guitar accompaniment. The lyrics/poetry typically hold more importance than the music; chord progressions are often simple and can be repeated from one bard song to the next.

Most of the Bards, were, not-so-coincidentally-, not entirely Russian. Many of them had ethnic identities that veered from the accepted Soviet establishment.

“Perhaps it was more natural and more easy for these individuals, whose ethnic identity preserved a certain foreignness, to break free of the ethos of the Soviet ruler,” Lily Galili wrote in the article “Immortalizing a Great Russian Bard” for Haaretz. “Although they may not have been persecuted, the bards were always under the watchful eye of the authorities. Nevertheless, or perhaps precisely for this reason, the bards expressed, to the sounds of a guitar, the most closely guarded emotions of the Soviet citizenry, and rebelled against the enlisted art. They gave birth to a style of quiet protest — the lone man and his guitar, the individual who feels a deep urge to express himself while pushing slightly the boundaries of what is permissible.”

During Soviet rule, Bard fans and musicians would gather in homes or in forests, where they would go camping, to sing Bard songs and listen to Bards share their poetry and music.

After the third wave of Soviet-Jewish immigration, communities settled and re-established in different cities throughout the world. I was fortunate to grow up in Chicago’s Russian-speaking Jewish community. For most summers, my family and I would travel to forests and campgrounds in Wisconsin and Michigan to go camping.

Sometimes, it was with a few other families, where we would spend a weekend hiking in the forest, grilling shishlik and potatoes, swimming in lakes. Most importantly, we started and conclude each night with songs in a circle around a campfire, accompanied by a single guitar, laughter, and a solid amount of alcohol.

Other times, we would reserve a campsite spot amongst a campground of 100 or more other Russian-speaking families, who specifically gathered as a group to go camping and continue the tradition of the Bard. Each night, the organizers of the gathering would host a “formal” concert (in so much as there was a schedule of performers, but it still occurred outside, on picnic tables, with campfires, laughter, and liquor accompanying). After the concert, families would go from campfire to campfire to continue singing along to and composing Bard music through the night.

Jewishness Embedded Into The Soviet Mainstream Media

The music of my childhood was a fine balance of the folk and rock music my parents loved, as well as Soviet pop music and Soviet animated children’s movies soundtracks.

My mom used to sing me the song “Dark Night” (Tyomnaya noch, transliterated, or in Russian, Тёмная ночь), which was originally performed by Jewish-Soviet actor and singer Mark Naumovich Bernes. It was said to have been one of the most poignant songs to come out of World War II.

There was also Sekret, Mashina Vremeni, Kino, and Akvarium, who my parents grew up listening to in the 1970s and 1980s.

Many musicians in these groups were ethnically diverse, and, surprisingly enough to me, some identified or appeared to carry traditional Jewish names.

Andrey Vadimovich Makarevich, who is the founder of Mashina Vremeni, is of Jewish origin. In 2015, he toured Israel with his new show, Yiddish Jazz, which consists of new arrangements of American standards from the 1940s.

Though he is not officially identified as Jewish anywhere on the internet, Maxim Leonidov, one of the founders and frontmen of Sekret, immigrated to Israel in 1990 and released a solo album “מקסים (Maxim)” in 1992, his only album in Hebrew.

Of the late 1960s Soviet animated childhood films I so adored, one of the most well-known ones for the diaspora of Soviet Jewry was Cheburashka. In sum, Cheburashka is an iconic Russian classic cartoon character and, according to the creator of the character Eduard Uspensky, an “animal unknown to science, with large monkey-like ears and a body resembling that of a cub, who lives in a tropical forest.”

In the animated series, Cheburashka’s adventures begin when he is found in a crate of oranges in an unnamed Russian city, in which he ends up meeting and making many friends.

Though Cheburashka is still widely regarded and heralded as a “better Mickey Mouse” across the Eastern bloc, and many children continue to watch the film on a never-ending loop (myself and my younger brother included), many don’t know that the creative team of Cheburashka “was made up almost entirely of Yiddish-speaking Jews who had lost their families and homes in the genocidal campaigns during WWII,” according to Maya Balakirsky Katz in the article “A Beast of Unknown Origins” for Tablet Magazine.

“The director Roman Kachanov typifies the classic refugee background of many of the Jewish men that he drew into the project,” Katz writes in “A Beast of Unknown Origins.” “Kachanov was born in a poor Jewish neighborhood in the city of Smolensk and pursued boxing in the cultural atmosphere of Smolensk’s Labor Zionist Movement before his father and sister were murdered point-blank at an execution site near Smolensk as Jews. Cheburashka’s puppet designer, Lev Shvartsman, raised in the Zionist youth culture of Minsk, changed his name to “Israel” after the 1967 War despite official hostility toward the Jewish state.”

Throughout Cheburashka, choice visual and script decisions are made to allude to Jewish people and references.

“Jewish artistic works from the Soviet Union are typically thought of as “underground,” and made their way to the West via smugglers and defectors,” Katz writes. “Yet, as this animated series demonstrates, despite systematic anti-Semitism and narrow dogmatism, a lively and active Jewish culture developed in the centralized animation studio Soyuzmultfilm.”

Soyuzmultfilm, at the time, was the largest animation studio on the Eastern bloc. In addition to Jewish employees, the studio also had one of the most ethnically-diverse industries in the Soviet Union, according to Katz’s research in the book “Drawing the Iron Curtain: Jews and the Golden Age of Soviet Animation.” Soyuzmultfilm created animated films and characters that would become integral parts of Soviet identity, including Cheburashka, and others like Hedgehog in the Fog (animated by renowned Yuri Norstein, who is of Jewish origin), Winnie-the-Pooh, Karlsson-on-the-Roof, The Musicians of Bremen, Three From Prostokvashino, and Nu, Pogodi!.

The embedding of Jewish material into [Cheburashka] by its Jewish creators calls into question the narrative that Jewish self-expression was wholly suppressed in Soviet popular culture,” Katz writes in “A Beast of Unknown Origins.”

Characters exhibited characteristics of Jewish people living in the Soviet Union, like the lion Leib Chander. Katz points out that his name is distinctly non-Slavic and non-Russian, and in Yiddish, his name would translate to “Lion’s Shame” or “the Great Shame.” He also introduces himself to the cartoon with a bow and an accompaniment of a melancholic violin melody.

Even in the live action films I grew up watching, including Mary Poppins, Goodbye (1984) and D’Artagnan and Three Musketeers (1979), the Jewish influence was still evident.

For both of those films, Maksim Isaakovich Dunayevsky was the film composer, and was known widely around the Soviet Union for his work.

“The embedding of Jewish material into the series by its Jewish creators calls into question the narrative that Jewish self-expression was wholly suppressed in Soviet popular culture,” Katz writes in “A Beast of Unknown Origins.”

At The Root Of It All

The Jewish roots of the music I absorbed to were not immediately apparent to me. In fact, I thought the only Jewish music I heard growing up was “Hava Nagila” and the melodic hymns we experienced around family friends’ Shabbat and Passover seder tables. I knew Klezmer music was Jewish, too, but I didn’t realize how intertwined and established the roots of Jewish music were in Russian and Soviet music.

It’s incredible that despite persecution, restrictions, and erasure, Jewish musical and artistic influence still made itself apparent in the fabric of Soviet media.