100years of the Jewish Choral Movement

At the end of the nineteenth century the European Jewish community was divided into several factions. For some Jews, life would continue exactly as it had for countless centuries. They had no use for the secular world; the spiritual realm guided their every move. For others, a more liberal attitude on the part of civil authorities signaled an opportunity for them to end their age-old isolation. While the assimilationists attempted to abandon as much of the Jewish way of life as was possible, others attempted to adapt Jewish practices to modern times.

Inspired by the dreams and efforts of such men as Theodore Herzl and Eliezer Ben-Yehudah, Jews began to assert their identity in national as well as religious terms, and to reestablish their connection with the ancient homeland and its language. Seeking new modes of expression, Jews began to experiment with new forms of cultural nationalism.

Rumshinsky describes the first concert in his autobiography:

"After the concert was announced, within three days the tickets were sold out, eagerly snatched up by those Zionists and assimilationists..." (more) [3]

In 1899 a Polish attorney, N. Shapiro, petitioned the governor of Lodz for permission to establish a Jewish choral organization. Anticipating the hostile reaction with which government officials greeted any gathering that smacked of political sedition, Shapiro asserted that his organization would serve patriotic aims by keeping the young people of Lodz away from the revolutionary and antigovernment assemblies that were poisoning their minds. He ended his petition with the words, "Let these young kids amuse themselves with choral singing, then there will be none of that revolutionary foolishness on their minds."[1]

Not only did the governor grant the petition, he instructed the police not to interfere with the choir's rehearsals or to interrupt them in any way from their patriotic work. A certain Mr. Hartenstein was appointed the choir's conductor, but after a few rehearsals it became apparent that someone with more professional expertise would be needed. It was at this point that the 18-year old Joseph Rumshinksy was engaged to become the first permanent conductor of the chorus. Rumshinsky later recalled of that first rehearsal in his autobiography, "When we stood up and started to sing, a holy musical fire was kindled by the first Jewish choral ensemble in the world."[2]

Poster 1940
Detail from poster announcing a performance of Ha-Zomir in the Lodz Ghetto, 1940


But all was not smooth sailing for the fledgling chorus; hostility was encountered on many fronts. The Zionist activists couldn't understand the purpose of choral singing as a form of nationalistic expression. The assimilated Jews derided the "Zhidn" who wanted to waste time singing their "Mah Yufis" (a derogatory term for Jewish songs). And the Hasidim were outraged that young men and women would be meeting together in the same room. But after the first concert, the opposition seemed to melt away. The chorus was named Ha-zomir (The Nightingale) and a concert was a given in a major concert hall.

Hazomir soon had branches in the major cities of Russia and Poland. The flame even spread to the West. [4] In 1914 the first Jewish choirs in the United States were founded, the Chicago Jewish Folk Chorus, directed by Jacob Schaefer, and the Patterson (New Jersey) Jewish Folk Chorus, directed by Jacob Beimel. As immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe increased, Yiddish choruses began to appear all across the United States.[5] In 1921, Jacob Beimel called a conference of Jewish singing societies in America and Canada with the purpose of establishing a central organization of Jewish choral societies and of publishing choral compositions in Yiddish, Hebrew and English with Jewish textual content.[6]

Alas, the United Jewish Choral Societies had a brief history, dissolving after all but three years of existence. But in its final days it organized the largest Jewish Chorus ever seen in America. On April 15, 1923 a concert was given at the Hippodrome in New York City featuring nine singing societies, totaling over six hundred singers! With the slackening of immigration and the assimilation of most Jews into the cultural fabric of American life, one by one the Yiddish Folk Choruses began to die out.

By the late 1950s only one such organization remained, the Workmen's Circle Chorus of New York. But in 1960 a new chapter in the history of the Jewish choral movement began with the founding of the Zamir Chorale in New York City. Under the direction of Stanley Sperber, this choir grew from a modest group of folksingers who had met at a Jewish summer camp to an impressive, disciplined ensemble of over one hundred voices. To a new generation of Americans growing up in the 1960s, searching for their roots and finding pride in the image of the new state of Israel, the Jewish chorus provided an attractive outlet for their cultural, social and religious sentiments. Today the movement is once again fully alive. Through the medium of the choral art, men and women in cities from Boston to Los Angeles are proudly raising a cultural banner for the Jewish people.


[1] Joseph Rumshinsky, Klangen Fun Main Leben, New York, 1944, p. 187. In all of the citations I have taken the liberty to paraphrase the authors. Translations are my own. [back]

[2] Rumshinsky, p. 189. [back]

[3] Rumshinsky, pp. 193-195. [back]

[4] As Zari Gottfried points out in his article, "Yiddish Folk Choruses in America," The Jewish people were not alone among the many ethnic groups making their home in these United States to transplant their native culture to the new soil. As part of their living cultural heritage the Scandanavian and Central European immigrants established choral societies in all major metropolitan centers. But while [these] immigrants were able to draw on well-established sources and traditions, the Jewish immigrants could claim no such sources or patterns. They were thirsting for all sorts of cultural expression [often] denied them in the countries of their origin. Despite the pangs of adjustment to the new land, the new immigrants in search of fulfilling their cultural drives began to organize amateur theatrical and musical groups and other media of cultural expression. [Zari Gottfried, "Yiddish Folk Choruses in America" in Mordecai Yardeini, ed., Fifty Years of Yiddish Song in America, New York, 1964, p. 49.] [back]

[5] Among them were the Boston Jewish Folk Chorus (1924) directed by Misha Cefkin, The New Haven Jewish Folk Chorus, the Philadelphia Jewish Folk Chorus (1923) and the Detroit Jewish Folk Chorus (1924), both directed by Harvey Schreibman, The Los Angeles Jewish Folk Chorus directed by Arthur Atkins, The American-Jewish Choral Society of Los Angeles directed by Miriam Brada, the New York 92nd St. Y Choral Society (1917) directed by A. W. Binder, the New York Workmen's Circle Choir (1925) directed by Lazar Weiner, The New York Jewish Philharmonic Chorus directed by Max Helfman, the Miami Jewish Folk Chorus (1943) directed by Bernard Briskin, The Newark Jewish Folk Chorus (1928) directed by Samuel Goldman, and The San Francisco Jewish Folk Chorus (1933) directed by Zari Gottfried. [back]

[6] The list of elected officers was a veritable who's who of Jewish music: Jacob Beimel was President, Leo Low and A. W. Binder Vice-Presidents, Cantor Yosseleh Rosenblatt Treasurer, and Solomon Golub Secretary. [back]

This article is an abridgement of a previous version published in The Journal of Synagogue Music, December, 1986.
Subscriptions The Journal of Synagogue Music are available from:
The Cantors Assembly, 3080 Broadway #613, New York, New York 10027. (212)878-8834 E-mail: caoffice@jtsa.edu



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