Dr. N.M. Gelber, the author
of a monograph on Berl Broder, tells us the following
details about his biography: "He was born in 1817 in
Brod, the son of a middle-income merchant. The family
name was Margolis, but he was called by the name of his
town Brod (Broder). His father sold clay and bricks from
that he earned a decent income. In those days in Brod,
business was booming and there was a great deal of
building construction. His youngest son Berl, whom he
loved very much, was sent to a cheder (Jewish religious
elementary school). He studied Gemara there with great
zeal. However his father died at a very young age, and
in order to feed the household his widow and the oldest
son, Avraham, opened a housewares business. Berl had to
give up his studies in order to earn his keep. He found
work as a pig hair worker. This was a trade that was
very popular in those days in Brod because the brushes
that they produced were sent by express directly from
Brod to Russia. Berl immediately became such an expert
in his trade that he surpassed all of his friends. By
nature he was a jokester and a talker. During the
workday he amused his fellow brush makers with jokes and
songs. Therefore he was given the name "Berl the
In several years Berl became
the buyer for a very large export company in Brod. He
was no longer working on his own. He would now travel to
Russia on business matters. At twenty-five years of age
he married and moved to Podkamien (aka Podkamen). This
city was in the Brod region, but he came home only for
About 1857 Berl left for a
longer period of time to South Russia. In the inns in
which he used to stay, he often sang for his
acquaintances. They would encourage him to put on a
show. Eventually there grew a group around him of
singers, jesters (badkhanim) and choristers who were so
successful that they would travel around the region to
different towns. In this manner the first group of
Yiddish folksingers was created. The called themselves
'Brodersingers,' after the hometown of their leader."
Berl withdrew from business
and began in earnest to devote himself to his new
profession. He composed many songs so that his group
could have new material every night. In addition to the
lyrics of his songs, he had to also get involved with
the performance side of his new undertaking. For every
song that he sang he also had to perform, since he was a
Soon Berl became so popular
that his songs were sung all over the region. Wherever
he went he was asked to perform as often as the jesters.
He was invited to many joyous events to entertain the
guests. He remained in Russia for several years,
traveling to the larger Jewish communities. He always
returned to Brod where he performed as a folksinger.
In Brod, in those
days, there was a guest house called "Pincus" where
Jewish traveling merchants would gather in the evenings.
There, they would drink a glass of wine. Berl was
invited to sing his songs. He had a large following. It
wasn’t long before they opened a Jewish cabaret in Brod.
This was the first such undertaking in Galicia.
His friends requested Berl
to publish his songs. Some of those songs were written
at the requests of his followers. He would write a new
song and sing it that very evening in the cabaret. Berl
not only wrote the lyrics, but he also composed the
music based mainly upon synagogue or Chasidic melodies.
Once when he was making an
appearance, he was on stage with the famous badkhan
"Naftali the rhyme maker." Naftali introduced Berl by
saying that his own songs were improvised. Berl, he said
further, sang songs that he prepared well in advance.
A severe competition broke
out between them. At this time Brod underwent an
economic crisis and was suddenly impoverished. As a
result Berl left town and began to travel around.
Together with his companions they traveled to nearly all
the largest city and towns in East Galicia, where they
had great success. After that they traveled to Romania
where he would remain till his death. While there he
hardly composed any new songs. His artistic success was
limited, since he stopped singing his familiar old
songs. He was not happy with his life in Romania. He
yearned for the happy enlightened companionship that he
experienced in Brod. There they understood his artistic
creativity more than they did among the Romanian Jews.
The Jews in Romania at that time were almost without
education and wanted to hear him perform only "funny
songs" that would make them laugh. Berl lived his last
years in poverty. In 1880 at the age of sixty-three he
died in a small town not far from Bucharest. (Based on
the writings of A. Litwin in Ploesti)
M.L. Petshenk gave
alternative dates in his biographic notes about Berl (Literarisher
bleter, Warsaw 1925 p. 55.). This was based upon a
conversation with Berl’s son, the author Yitzhak (aka
Based on this information,
Berl Margolis (This is exactly how Berl signed his name)
was born in 1815 in Podkamien. His father, Yitzhak, was
a poor Gemara teacher who didn’t earn enough money in
that small shtetl. He moved his family to Brod. There
rich Jewish merchants gave him work to teach their
children. Berl showed no talent or interest in studying.
His father noticed this and said, "He will not grow up a
decent person." Therefore he sent him to be an aide to a
teacher of young children. Berl would disappear for days
without end to the surrounding forests. He took along
food that he stole from the children in his school. The
teacher came to the conclusion that he wanted nothing
more to do with being such a "crazy helper" and fired
him. Berl’s father had become an adherent of Haskalah
and thought it best if Berl could find work as a
tradesman. Berl’s mother, however, did not allow such a
move. The result was that there was no alternative for
him to make something out of himself except for "Let him
After a short period of time
he divorced his wife and moved to Iasi, along with many
other Jewish (Galitsianer) teachers and their aides.
They moved there to eke out a living -- and then to go
home. Berl came home, got married to a poor relative and
settled in Podkamien.
Later he began to travel and
quickly became famous for his songs that had much
success, especially among the poor. From time to time
Berl would appear in his hometown, visiting his family
whom he loved dearly. Every time after disappearing for
a while, he would leave his wife and children who had no
other means of support. His wife decided to move to Brod
to a wealthy brother who would called Berl a "drunken
destiny" (as Berl was known in Brod and in the
surrounding towns). Berl brought his youngest son,
Itsikl, to join him.
In the Fall of 1864 Berl
returned home, tired and broke. Here he remained for the
whole winter, because he was very sick. He could hardly
get out of his bed. Once he felt better, again he
disappeared. In 1868, at the age of fifty-three, he died
In Podkamien they whispered
that "Berele" died in a tavern from a liver attack after
"a hearty drink." There were also rumors that he wasn’t
even given a Jewish burial.
B. Gorin speaking about the
Brodersingers in his "History of Yiddish Theatre" does
not mention Berl at all, and he doesn’t mention Yakovkin
as one of the cofounders of the Brodersingers. Goldfaden
too failed to mention Berl (in his biography). He does
say that Israel Gradner came from the school of the
Brodersingers (cited from one of the virtuosos in those
days "Kovke (aka Yakovke)."
Jacob Botoshansky said in
his book ,"After the Presentation," in his monologue
about his own grandfather (personification of Berl
Broder): "I traveled with him all alone throughout
Romania. Berl wrote very pretty songs. As for performing
them, he did this too very well. He donned a skullcap
and looked like a cantor. Whenever he need an opening
note, he sang."
"I sing using musical notes
And the Hasidim are fed up."
"If no one was at home, I had no voice.
Perhaps when I was younger, I had a voice."
When I knew him he had no voice.
-- Is there any truth, that the band poisoned him?
Who can know? He died suddenly … we wanted to get rid of
"What kinds of plays did you play in those days"?
"Only his songs ... When he died we had already begun to
play "The Krakower."
"Goldfaden heard us perform and he was inspired to write
"In the Times of The Messiah."
"It was very hard to know
which of the many biographic versions that were
presented were authentic. It is only possible that in
each version different aspects are reliable. This was
due to the fact that Berl’s name was so popular that
charlatans would use him for their own purposes.
Reuben Weisman tells us that
around 1870 he heard Berl Broder singing in an Odessa
Avraham Fiszon points out in
his memoirs that in Odessa he heard a young man singing
in a wine cellar who called himself Berl Broder. However
in a discussion with this guy, he acknowledged that the
real Berl Broder died ten years earlier in Brod.
Whomever has God in his heart remembers Berl Broder.
That young man sang a Chasidic song, which the audience
From his songs Berl
(according to Zalmen Reisen) only wrote down a small
number. A small collection of them were printed around
(in 1860?) in Pressburg. It was printed under the title
"Songs to be Sung" (Shirei Zimra) -- Thirty Wonderful
Brod Songs in the Pure Yiddish Language." Every song is
sung for a specific social station and accurately
describes the character of each one, that is how things
were. What’s more, as written in the title of the
Pressburg or Lemberg edition, Berl offered us more or
less authentic pictures of small town types, without
giving anyone a satirical or humoristic black eye, like
many of his followers used to do. It is possible to
accurately describe the character of everyone. The
listener or the reader can learn from his wisdom. He
describes his heroes with deep empathy. His best
monologues are the "Song of a Gravedigger" and the "Song
of the Watchman." In his monologue "Song of the
Gravedigger" there is a light irony and happy optimism.
Altogether his monologues
stand prominently; they possess a historical worth, more
than a poetic one. The language is pure but
impoverished. It does not possess fashionable meaning,
since he lacked an educational background.
Apart from the monologues
Berl also composed a whole slew of songs about events
that had upset the world at that time. For example the
appearance of a "Comet," a satire about the exaggerators
the "star chasers," who predicted that the world will be
destroyed (around 1850), "The Song of the Wedding
Decree" talks about the time of the uprisings in Russia
(1842-1846), "The Song of How a Robber Stabbed Hoyzner
From Brod" (Karl Hoyzner, a deputy from the Estonian
Parliament who was stabbed in 1858). There were the
autobiographical songs about Berl Broder: "The
Allegorical Dialogue" and "About the Day and the Night."
The also were several songs in that he treated themes
from nature: "The Song of the Golden Morning." There
were his songs about family life: "The Song of How a
Father Came to his Child" or "The Song of Two Stars,"
and songs about life in general such as the "Song of the
The nature songs were pale
and worthless. The family songs were much better. In the
"Song of How a Father Comes to His Child," Berl shows us
a Jewish "King Lear" character, and he finishes in a
genuine folksy manner: "A daughter-in-law and the
son-in-law are a pair of demons!"
The charm and the adoration
of Berl’s creations were rooted in the melodies with
which he used sing them, and in the flexible
illustrations with that he used to perform when he sang.
Sh. Niger comes to the
conclusion that "Berl Broder is the type who originated
from a worldly 'Yiddish Folksinger' tradition. This in
turn came out of the framework of the "holy vessels,"
and who began to talk "freely." He took from the people
and spoke to the people. His melodies were most
definitely Yiddish, both written and sung using the
voice of the people who had later influenced his son,
the writer "Yam HaTzyoni."
Zalmen Reisen ends Berl’s
biography with these words: "The language of his songs
is pure, the tone is folksy-badkhan. The entire format
of his poetry is very primitive and employs simple
tones. Only seldom does he lift himself up to a truly
poetic printable format.
Berl left us a son, Yitzhak,
a Yiddish/Hebraist/German author known as "Yam HaTzyoni."
Zalmen Reisen --
"Lexicon of Yiddish Literature," Vol. I, pp.
Dr. Itzhak Shiper --
"Di broderzinger," "Morgn," Lemberg, 2 April 1927.
A. Litwin -- Di
yidishe folks-shafung in bilder, "Tsukunft," Dec.
M.L. Petshenik --
Berl broder, "Literarishe bleter," 55, 1925.
M.L. Petshenik -- A
fargesener yidish-galitsisher shrayber "Yam HaTzyoni,"
"Literarishe bleter," 75, 1925.
Sh. Niger -- Velvel
zbarzher -- a improvizator un a folks-zinger, "Tsukunft,"
Dr. N.M. Gelber --
Aus Zwei Jarhunderten. Wien und Leipzig, 1924, pp.
Abraham Fiszon --
(Memoirs), "Morning Journal," 3 April 1925.
Jacob Botoshansky --
"Nokh der forshtelung," 86 pp.
Dr. Jacob Shatzky --
Naye arbetn tsu der geshikhte fun der yidisher
literatur, "Pinchas," N.Y., 1927, 102, 172 pp.
Vessels a collective name given to the leaders of
religious life in Eastern Europe e.g. Rabbis, Cantors,