Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Berl Broder

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 jokester."

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 the Sabbath.

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 brilliant mimic.

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 "Yam HaTzyoni").

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 get married."

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 Carlsbad.

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 him anyway.
"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 wine cellar.

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 really enjoyed.

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 Blind Man."

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. 395-401.

  • Dr. Itzhak Shiper -- "Di broderzinger," "Morgn," Lemberg, 2 April 1927.

  • A. Litwin -- Di yidishe folks-shafung in bilder, "Tsukunft," Dec. 1914.

  • 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," Jan. 1925.

  • Dr. N.M. Gelber -- Aus Zwei Jarhunderten. Wien und Leipzig, 1924, pp. 70-100.

  • 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.


[1]Holy Vessels a collective name given to the leaders of religious life in Eastern Europe e.g. Rabbis, Cantors, Scribes, etc.






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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 1, page 221.

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