Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Brodersingers and Folksingers

Dr. Yitskhak Shipper describes the "Brodersingers" in the following manner: "Until the 'Brodersingers' appeared, dramatic presentations in Yiddish with dramatization or without dramatization were 'shameful' (these were sharp-edged satires or had a tendency to portray or clarify actual life questions.) This was also tightly bound up with religious solemnity. The medieval clowns and buffoons, and the later 'fools,' met exactly the same pitfalls. The moralistic performances -- badkhanim (jesters -- singular form is badkhan) and Purim players could only show their talents at certain religious authorized events: for example at weddings, circumcisions, Purim, Chanukah, and sometimes at Simchas Torah.

Firstly, the 'Brodersingers' were the first to remove the sacred reins of the folk dramatizations and started to produce simple secular presentations.

Secondly, the old fashioned pioneers of the dramatic arts used to appear in private homes in the framework of old Frankish-Yiddish family life. These religious traveling theatres, in this regard, were very pleasurable. They would offer presentations for mixed audiences from a variety of organizations, circles and classes of people. At times they also performed both for Jews and Christians.

The framework was broader too. There were the goings-on in the rabbinical courtyards, where at the time at the end of the eighteenth century there began to appear 'courtyard clowns,' 'rabbinical jesters,' and at Purim -- 'Purimshpilers' (Purim actors). Here the audience was made up by and large of Chasidim, both local and out-of -towners.

These two activities did not change the fact that till the middle of the nineteenth century, the dramatic presentations in Yiddish were thought of, generally, as part of the framework of family-life, and they therefore took place between the four walls of private homes.

The 'Brodersingers' were the first to abandon the private homes. They did not go from house to house, begging for a handout as did, for example, the 'Purimshpilers.' Instead they created a sort of 'Oyber Brettle[1]'; a miniature stage in taverns, wine cellars or in the gardens of restaurants. There they gave their presentations for an audience of accidental and permanent guests.

The 'Brodersingers' mostly were a result of the Haskalah (Enlightenment). Many of them were just like their leader Velvele Zbarzher and were followers of the influential Haskalah writers of that time.

The "Brodersingers" wanted minimally through their appearances to amuse their audiences. They used dramatic themes and presented different characters from Jewish life in such a manner that it would appear to be nothing more than a superficial description, or only a visual portrayal. Their themes went hand in hand with the classical themes of the Haskalah literature. They did not discuss the general stereotype between rich and poor. They also demonstrated a realistic world view. They propagandized Jews in favor of productive work (such as trades and farm work) and secular education.

The made their ideas closer and more intimate than did the leaders of the Haskalah poets. They didn’t preach or attack. They loved more than they hated. Hence their trust was greater among the masses than those who worked on behalf of the Haskalah writers. The songs of the 'Bordersingers' about shepherds, trades people, and even about poor people were adopted up by the masses like precious gifts. Their songs were sung by the people immediately at every workbench.

A good number of the songs by the 'Brodersingers' spread out from the taverns and streets and became 'folksongs,' which circulate till this days in different villages, towns and cities in Eastern Europe.

We can say the 'Brodersingers,' through their songs, with their bits of theatre did good for the hordes of Jews. They clarified and made them understand the world at large much more than the Maskilim (followers of the Haskalah).

The influence of the 'Brodersingers' permits us to comment upon the badkhanim (jesters) of that time. A number of badkhanim left their old well-trodden paths as the 'art of the badkhan,' and began to appear before their audiences with songs, monologues in the style of the 'Brodersingers.'

Overall, a close contact was formed (according to Dr. Y. Shipper) between the badkhans and the 'Brodersingers.' At times we cannot distinguish where one began and the other ended. Badkhanm (jesters) and choirboys who were traditionally attached to cantors, suddenly began to disappear, and in a short time we start to find them reappearing in the wine cellars as 'Brodersingers.' It also occurred that a 'Brodersinger' tore himself away from his work singing in the cabarets and became a badkhan."

B. Gorin presents the "Brodersingers" in this manner:

"In the fifth decade (of the nineteenth century) suddenly there appeared in many Jewish communities a new sort of event, which could only have been created when the synagogue and the house of study stopped holding such a strong spiritual influence upon a large number of Jews. They appeared as the so-called 'Brodersingers.' This name did not indicate a particular person or a particular troupe. It became a generic name for the singers who came from Brody, and who entertained Jews with their songs and primitive plays in the fifth, sixth and seventh decade of the nineteenth century. This went on till Goldfaden came onto the scene (The 'Brodersingers' went on for a while longer.) Now we had professional singers who had nothing to do with cantors or synagogues. They sang in localities where the audience sat with a glass of wine, enjoying itself. They sang a variety of songs that had a café chanteuse ambience. They mimicked and moved about, just like the songs that one could encounter in big city cafés.

The closer we get to the seventies, the bigger and the greater was the spread of these singing groups. They spread out all over Galicia, Romania, and from there to Russia. The later these events were held, the more they started to take on the characteristics of plays. It was no longer possible to compare the similarity of these cute little songs with other movements or forms of entertainment. The songs needed now to be integrated with scripts that would only add to the contents of the songs. The singers no longer came out before their audience in the clothes that one wore in everyday life. They now wore costumes that fit the character of the songs they sang. Now they had to make gestures to fit the mood of the song. This was done in a very primitive manner.

The 'script' that the singers sang before they even started to sing the actual song was not written. The singers themselves wrote these new lead-ins to the songs. These bits of prose were memorized by the performers. They could adapt and change the lyrics. They could innovate and generally they could do whatever pleased them with their new scripted introductions. The most important aspect of such presentations were the songs that were no longer café songs, but were songs of a higher level. They were composed by Velvele Zbarzher, Eliakum Zunser, and at the start of the seventies also by Goldfaden and Linetzky. Café music was mostly sung as duets. Every region and neighborhood had its own famous singer and program. It was no longer sufficient to sit through a single voice. The singers had to be capable of putting on a presentation. The more joyfully a performer could entertain them, the bigger grew his name among the onlookers in those wine cellars.

No matter how primitive the presentation was, the singers were none the less performed in a specific manner. Now they were actors, and each had a specific role to play; as a Chasid, a reform Jew, a wife, and they had to find ways to act according to their characters."

Avraham Goldfaden speaking in his autobiography about the first Yiddish actor; the earlier "Brodersinger" Israel Gradner, as he described the "Brodersingers": "We must for a while reconstruct the nature of our history and tie it up with an important  episode that I will explain about the singers in olden days. We have to understand the specific task each one had; as an 'accompanist,' or as an 'introducer.' This awakened in me the feeling and the idea to create a future 'temple of art' for the Jewish people. Many years ago before the beginning of the history of Yiddish drama began, in the city of Brody (in Galicia) there appeared a sort of minstrel known as the 'Brodersingers- -- since the badkhanim would present their material at weddings, these 'singers' sang outside of weddings and were capable of entertaining their audience throughout the entire year because the audience comprised foreign traveling merchants, especially Russian Jews who would be on their way home from the Leipzig market, with a stopover in Brody. Brody at that time was the principal gathering place for all foreign merchants. The singers would entertain the happy merchants, and so it  grew to become a business.

Later due to severe competition, Brody collapsed economically. The singers had to move their business to Russia. One of the Brody singers told me that they came to Warsaw with the hope that in that large Jewish population center in the Polish capital, they could establish their craft. However for the first time they suffered a great setback because in those day people still didn’t understand that in order to hear a Yiddish song, one had to pay money. So they turned away from the 'show' and dragged themselves home. It was only later on, perhaps a year went by, till a Warsaw restaurant that was very popular tried an experiment, which was to hire the 'Brodersingers' as entertainment. As a result their business improved quickly, and the singers began to spread and grow. They started to travel to all the small Jewish shtetlakh (village) in Russia, Galicia and Romania.

At first the content of the Yiddish folk-singers had a very serious format. The melodies were accepted tearfully and with much crying. This reflected the horrible conditions that existed at that time and place for the Jewish people.

The singers noticed that with this format they could not go on for too much longer. The could not hope to maintain this simple audience with: 'I am Wretched Watchman.' 'I am Wretched Shepherd,' 'I am Wretched Water Carrier,' etc, etc. etc. So they came upon a plan to put on costumes for each song. In those days this was known as 'disguising oneself.' When he sang 'The Coachman,' the singer actually dressed up as a coachman with a red belt around his waist and appearing with his whip in hand, and so they mimicked the coachmen. This was known as -- he’s making 'disguises.' He also danced and the audience began to enjoy themselves."

Reuben Weisman who had very often heard the "Brodersingers" in an Odessa wine cellar, believes that they had no directors, and certainly they had no intention to promote Haskalah.

Affirming the number of "Brodersingers," or to recall their names, is difficult due to the passage of years. They spread out over all of Eastern Europe. Some only performed for a short time as "Brodersingers." Later they returned to their previous trades as choristers or jesters. Others became actors. Using the name "Brodersinger," some were hired without any connection to the original "Brodersingers." Many of these were born in South Russia and had never even been in Galicia.

It had become conventional to name as the father of the "Brodersingers" someone who was both a singer and a song writer; Berl Broder. Another was the folksinger and poet Velvele Zbarzher (Ehrenkratz). About the other "Broder" and "Folk Singers", the most well-known folk singers were Berech Shapir, Ephraim Broder, Yitzhak Chanat (Lippele), Yakovke-Kafke (Dubinsky), Avraham Kafke, Dovid Shteplere (Parkeh), Shmeyle der Heyzeriker, Danziger, Mendele Rothman, Moishe Mordche, Aharon Rotiner, Moishe der Blinder, Itzik  Shayner,  Chana Zavakh, Yeruchem Pitzele, Ozer der Royter, Desser and Wife, Shteyner, Family Goldworm, Moishe Weintraub, Herman Wilde, Benjamin Dentzes, Chana Shtrudler, Max Blumenfeld, Shmulyak, Chaim-Shmuel Lukatcher, Moishe Kopf, Asher Feirshtein, Glantz and Chaim Bendl The Romanian folksingers and actors were: Yankele with the Harmonica, Yankev Yoyne Tzimbler (Dimant), Yossele Tzimbler (Moshkovitch), Senne Shapiro, Filipeska and his wife Jeanetta. The Russian folksingers: Henekh Linetzky and Layzer Hittleman.

The following "Broders" and "Folksingers" later became actors: Moshe, Herman and Saltche Weinberg, Sholem Podzamce, Saltche Weisenfreund, Yankev and Pepi Littman, Yoyneh Reizman, Brothers and wife Klug ( Kluk), Kalman Juvelier, Sam Ludwig, Leopold Kanner, Israel Gradner, Avraham Fiszon, Yankev Spivakovski, Heine-Haimovitch, Dovid Sabsey, Aaron Tagger, Chaim Abramowitz, Boris Bad-noy (Altman), Moishe Teich (Gaznik), Moishe Eykel, Mendel Abramowitz, and Yankev Katzman.

M.E. from Reuben Weissman.

  • B. Gorin -- "History of Yiddish Theatre," Vol. I, pp. 144-147.

  • Dr. Yitzhak Shipper -- "Di broderzinger," "Morgn," Lemberg, 12, 19, 26 March; 2, 9, 23, 30 April 1927.

  • Goldfaden's large autobiography -- "Goldfaden bukh," New York, 1926, pp. 50-51.

  • Dr. N.M. Gelber -- Aus zwei Jahrhunderten, Wien und Leipzig, 1924, pp. 72-73.

  • Abraham Fiszon -- (Memoirs), "Morning Journal," N.Y., 3 April 1925..

  • Uri Finkel -- Sotsiale figuren in goldfadens ershte verk, "Tsaytshrift," Minsk, 1926, V. I, p. 90.

  • M. Myodovnik -- Mayne teater-zikroynes "shtern," Minsk, 1 1926.


[1] Miniature stages set up in taverns.







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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 1, page 216.

Translation courtesy of Paul Azaroff.

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