Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Velvel Zbarzher
(Benjamin Wolf Ehrenkranz)


He was born:
• According to his tombstone in 1826.
• According to the Jewish Encyclopedia in 1812.
• According to his matriculation supervisor Feierstein in 1823.

He was born In Zbarazh in Eastern Galicia. His father was an Orthodox Jewish ritual slaughterer and a scholar. Zbarzher received a traditional Jewish education. From his early childhood he demonstrated great talent and rare acuity. Ever since his childhood he demonstrated great talent and seldom seen sharpness. As a child he was a good student. Under the influence of the Haskalah movements, which existed in the nearby town of Brod and Tarnopol, Zbarzher became involved with "secular matters." Secretly he learned Hebrew, Enlightenment (Haskalah) materials, and caught a glance into modern European thought.

In order to tear him away from heretical thinking, Zbarzher’s father arranged a match for him to marry at eighteen or nineteen years of age. About this A. Litwin wrote: "Velvel was a teacher in Zbarazh, but not an everyday teacher. He taught his children Bible using Moses Mendelssohn’s notes of the "Ashkenazi Translation" (aka the "German translation"). He did not follow the Chasidic Rebbe’s. In his free time he wrote ditties about the Rebbe. He was not observant but he was very independent. He possessed a brave approach to religion and did not hold back from letting people know his thinking.

... At the same time the town could not allow his heresy to go untarnished. They told the Rebbe about him. What’s more, " ... Velvel married young, just as God and good and observant people were commanded. He took a Zbarazher girl, who was observant, very faithful. Unknown to her, as a young man he was enraptured by liberal ideology. His wife was not able to understand him. Their life was not harmonious, and in a short while the couple divorced. This was the main reason that legends arose around him that embellished the reasons for their break-up."

According to D.Y. Silverbush, the young couple was in love. His wife even went so far as to help him with his Haskalah endeavors. Zbarzher was already writing Hebrew songs. But in order to placate his wife he wrote a song in everyday Yiddish for her, "Der chasid un zayn vayb (The Chasid and his Wife)." He composed his own music for the song. He sang it with his endearing voice to his wife. The town found out about this, and they began to pursue him. When his parents and in-laws began to understand what was taking place, the couple had to divorce, Zbarzher with the permission of his wife moved to Czernowitz, where he further developed his mind. Later, when he was very involved with the Haskalah, he moved to Botosani in Romania. Here he began buy and sell in order to earn a few coins in Moldova (according to one of Zbarzher’s countrymen). According to his biographer, Dr. Fried, he never stopped being a merchant. Very soon he went through his wife’s dowry, which he had brought with him. He became a teacher. At first he taught school in Botosani, and afterwards he tutored a Moldavian townsman. At first Zbarzher corresponded with his wife, but when he had to give up all hope of making money in Moldova and of asking her to join him, he stopped all correspondence with her and began to lose himself in liquor. A short time later his wife died. Her death made a strong impact upon Zbarzher.

Zbarzher sang songs he had written to his close friends and town bigwigs. From time to time he would sneak over to the nearby town, Botosani, and here, says Silverbush -- "A group gathered around him, which was comprised of other young enlightened people. They met in a wine store, and there in a special room where meat was barbequed, accompanied by a bottle of wine, Velvele sang his songs."

In the beginning Zbarzher did not charge for his singing. He was too idealistic to do this (he regretted this later when singing became his profession -- this can be found in his biography. He wrote songs such as "Di nakhtigal (The Nightingale)," and "Der folks-dikhter (The Folk-Poet)." He observed a shortcoming when it came to getting paid for his wonderful, popular songs. Slowly his fame spread and people including wealthy, enlightened men began to invite him to attend parties from which he left with pockets full of golden coins. These were his honorariums. Since teaching began to become boring for him, he threw himself into folk singing. He also found a way to differentiate himself from the usual badkhanim (jesters) and entertainers. He sang his songs (which he improvised) not only in Yiddish, but also in Hebrew, which was a symbol of the enlightenment.

Based on Zbarzher’s introduction to his book, "Makel Noam (The Pleasant Stick)," it appears that he finally made singing his new profession. This was towards the end of the 1850s. However, according to Silverbush’s dates, Zbarzher, even back in the 1840s was already performing his songs and melodies in Botosani. Sh. Niger commented on this: "It is possible that he began to receive gifts and money for appearing openly with his songs much earlier. It was later that this became his profession; towards the end of the 1850s."

Eventually Zbarzher decided to move to Iasi in Moldova. From there he would frequently travel to many Romanian towns and through South Russia. Wherever he went he was popular and earned a good living from singing. He wasted most of his earning hanging out with his pals. He even shared his earnings with them, which led to his being in need himself.

At the end of 1868 and the start of 1869, Zbarzher wandered through Brod, Lemberg, Tarnopol and other Galician towns. On 18 May (Shavuos) 1869, Zbarzher went back to visit his hometown, Zbarazh. He prepared himself for this visit but suffered from homesickness and sadness, which can be discerned from his letter to his brother (14 March 1869). In an earlier letter to his brother (16 February 1869) he wrote: "I want Zbarazh, my birthplace, to know who I am. I know that there are people there who want to get to know me." From Zbarazh, Zbarzher went to Lemberg and from there (as can be read in Ozer Rohatiner’s letter to his Zbarzher brother) to Warsaw. After that he went to Czernowitz and then back to Romania (Bacau). In 1871 Zbarzher was in Vienna. What he did there is told by Sh.Y. Dorfson:

"Every Saturday night, especially on Sunday and sometimes during the week, Velvel Zbarzher produced a show and the people literally 'licked their fingers' with his melodies. In 1871, when for the second time (?), when he returned to Vienna, his name was so popular that the Jewish restaurants, and even the Christian taverns in the Jewish neighborhoods, enjoyed very heavy competition. Everyone wanted to embrace this wonderful visitor. Velvel Zbarzher, obviously, did not have to spend any money at this time."

In Vienna Zbarzher got to know the director of "HaShachar (The Dawn)." Peretz Smolinsky, who was a big fan of Zbarzher’s Hebrew songs, managed to obtain from the Vienna Jewish wealthy men a monthly pension. Now he would not to have to "shlep" around with his songs to all the taverns and restaurants, where often he did not possess a completely sober appearance. Here he hung out with underworld characters. Zbarzher was drawn to these wine cellars and coffee houses, and here he used to meet up with his followers and friends. His wealthy patrons withdrew their support, and Zbarzher due to his drunkenness and irregular appearances, was exiled from Vienna.

Y. Tigger wrote another version of these events: -- "Velvele Zbarzher was chased out of Vienna because he wrote a Hebrew song in honor of the Austrian Kaiser Franz Yosef. Velvele sent the song to the Kaiser’s Consular Cabinet, and from that moment they became interested in him. As was the custom in that place, they would send a royal thank-you letter and a few florin as a gift. ... Not being able to find Velvele’s address, they gave the task to the Viennese police to find out who the author was. After a long inquest the police found out and affirmed the he had no roof over his head, and that he wandered around drunk from tavern to tavern. With one hand he received a Royal thank-you letter and a few coins. With the other hand he was exiled from the Kaiser’s home town, Vienna ... "

Zbarzher himself does not mention this occurrence. In a letter written later to his brother, he responds about his silence over the past year, saying that he was sick for nine months in Vienna. In January 1872 we meet Zbarzher in Constantinople. In August 1873 he was once again in Lemberg, and in the summer of 1875 he was back in Romania.

In 1874 Zbarzher printed in "HaShachar" his song "Romania" (a vulgar poem about the attacks against the Jews there). A year later it appeared in a separate printing. Since Zbarzher in his poem sharply criticized the local Jewish patriots, he openly came out against them. He was warned that they are preparing to snitch on him. They also said that he will be severely punished for this. As a result he ran away to Turkey, and from there he wrote (on 25 April 1875) to his friend Moishe Orenstein: "Right now please be aware my friend that my feet can no longer tread upon Romanian soil, as I am afraid to do so. From here I am going shortly to Russia." As it turned out, no one snitched on him. He returned to Romania. In 1878 Zbarzher was once again in Galicia (Lemberg, Tarnopol, Kolomea, etc.). From there Zbarzher went to Constantinople, where he married his second wife, "Di shayne malkale (The Pretty Little Malka)." She was the proprietor of a coffee house where Zbarzher was a frequent client. Apparently, he was known there from his visits to Romania.

A. Litwin tells of something he learned from an elderly man named Perlman, from Brod: The heroes in Velvele’s last novel were well-educated and bright women, just like my Malkale. She had been a seamstress in Bucharest. She gave him a few thousand coins as a dowry. He could have spent the rest of his life living comfortably. But he continued to wander around till the end of his life. In his last years, when his voice grew weaker, he, like the departed Berl Broder, appointed an accompanist for himself. His name was Shloyme. He was a good tenor, but he had a filthy mouth. For Velvel, the only thing that remained was a written will, which he announced could only be opened fifty years later after his death.

On 2 June 1883 Zbarzher died in Constantinople from pneumonia. Y. Tigger wrote: "Till today there are the rumors that Velvel Zbarzher did not die a natural death. A bitter argument with a troupe of 'Brodersingers' in Istanbul, pretended to make up with him. They drank one glass after another till Velvele was poisoned by his enemies" (another similar version is in the "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre," p. 224, in regards to Berl Broder’s death). On Zbarzher’s grave his second wife, Malkale, erected a tombstone upon which is engraved the following acrostic, whose first letter in each line spells the name Benjamin in Hebrew.

"P’N. (here lies buried)
the famous spokesman R’ Benjamin Zev, son of Moshe Ehrenkranz

Your good memory will last forever
And I will flourish from your spirit as will those who will read you.
Your fate shall be lit by the light of life
Now gathered to his people on this day in the month of Iyar.
Born in Zbarazh (Galicia) 1826
Died 2 June 1883

Legends grew around Zbarzher. His acute ability to succeed and win caused many to write witty comments about him. He was also the subject of many anecdotes, which describe him as a jokester, a happy-go-luck young man. Z. Reisen quotes Dr. Sotek’s insights: "He loved to drink but didn’t want anyone to speak about it. Also ... he wore a high top hat, shaved his beard and was of high stature ... " Yakov Groper wrote: "He tried to explain his people, and to a certain degree he prepared the ground for Goldfaden’s work -- the Yiddish theatre. ... He was the Eliakum Zunzer of faraway places, and a teacher for his generation. It was a pity that his personal behavior was not in harmony with his literary and cultural creations. This really stood in the way of his prestige as a an artist and as a person, especially during a time when modesty was the standard and different customs ..." (according to Z. Reisen).

Zbarzher’s first song collection was brought to light in Hebrew: -- "Cantorial Pieces for the Holidays" (Iasi 1855). It was only ten years later that his Yiddish collection of songs came out. "His ambition -- wrote Sh. Niger -- was to be a Hebrew poet. He also loved Yiddish, so he, like all other maskilim (members of the Haskalah movement) used the language as a weekday language. Later, when he issued his Yiddish songs, he printed them with a parallel Hebrew translation and with a Hebrew introduction. He gave all of his collections Hebrew titles." These collections came out in four editions under the general name "Makel Noam (Leniency) -- including folk songs in the language spoken among the Jews in the lands of Poland and Moldova with Hebrew translations" (first book -- Vienna 1865, second edition -- Lemberg 1869, third book -- "Makel Noam (Leniency), revised Lemberg 1873, fourth book -- Lemberg 1878)." In 1869 there also appeared (in Hebrew and Yiddish) in "Peremisla" (Przemysl) Zbarsher’s satirical poem (monologues), "Makel Hovlim (Leniency of Sailors)," which deals with the sensational story of the Reszhiner Rebbe, who became a heretic.

Several of Zbarzher’s songs were printed anonymously: "Der bankrot (The Bankrupted One)," "Der untzufridener (The Unhappy One)," etc. -- the Warsaw edition printer was L. Morgenstern." Dr. Sotek issued a collection of his songs in a Latin letters (Brailia 1902). Zbarzher’s satire "Meshiekh’s tsaytn (Time of the Messiah)," and "Der chasid iber teater (The Theatre Enthusiasts)," were translated into Ukrainian by the famous Ukrainian poet Ivan Franko.

In the introduction to his work, Zbarzher wrote (according to Sh. Niger): All of these ... songs were for many years sung by heart but were not printed. The composer perhaps did not want to print them. He wanted them to be heard from his lips, but he found out that it was not only him who appeared before the audience with these songs. Other singers have taken them into their "repertoires." Therefore it happened very often that they pronounce and confuse the true idea of the songs. Even worse: When he came to a town where he wasn’t known, and he starts to sing his songs, he is told that he dressing up on foreign attire, because they already heard this song from someone else."

Sh. Niger describes Zbarzher’s creativity:" ... His Hebrew was simple and clear. When we recall the pseudo-Hebrew that was then so strongly in style by the Haskalah singers we have to say that Ehrenkranz’s Hebrew songs were truly one step ahead of the simplifiers and modernizers of the Hebrew style. ... The importance of Velvele Zbarzher and the influence that he had arose from his Yiddish, but not from his Hebrew songs.

Zbarzher was one of the first Yiddish folk poets, and the most important among the folk poets/badkhans upon whom his influence was very important. In many of his songs we hear the sound of the ideals of the Haskalah. He fought against the ignorance and superstitions of the Chasidim and the well-meaning Jews, against the false orthodoxy, and his anti-Chasidic songs there was no bitterness. It wasn’t for naught that he called his song "Makel Noam"(Leniency) -- he fought with mercy. With the help of a good sense of humor, and with a considerate degree of educated language plus the help, also of his folksy melodies, he was able to sneak in his anti-Chasidic tendencies. He did this not in order to weaken the religious feelings of his listeners. To a large degree they were very closely associated with Chasidic circles. Altogether, Zbarzher and the singers who used to sing his songs did more to inform the masses about the ideas of Enlightenment and worldliness than the Haskalah officers. No matter how great Zbarzher’s influence on the spiritual life and of the different classes of the Jews, there was an unparalleled spread of his songs. What’s more they used to play his popular songs at intermissions both songs and texts for the traditional Purim players. ... Zbarzher’s language was pure Yiddish and folksy; sometimes needing a correct Yiddish pronunciation. He made his explanations using sub-titles. The maskil (Haskalah follower) in his songs was not even his supporter. Despite this he enjoyed the rhythm of the Yiddish folksong. ... A whole array of Zbarzher’s songs, till today, are sung as folksongs such as "Der bankrot" (The Bankrupted One), "Der filozof (The Philosopher)," "Der rebbe oyfn yam (The Rabbi on the Sea)." This was true not only in Galicia, but in Romania and even in Poland and Russia where Zbarzher hardly visited,and where he was much less known (Reisen's "Lexicon").

It was well known that Zbarzher would work on the stage as a solo, would give much more than the Brodersingers gave when they sang together with him. It was certain that Zbarzher’s songs were the equal of the songs by Berl Broder. Broder’s songs were the main repertoire of the Brodersingers, which they performed in the taverns and ordinary homes.

B. Gorin wrote: ""Der ganev (The Robber)" is a song written by the famous folk poet Velvele Zbarzher (Ehrenkranz). A company of singers took this song and added a visualization to it. A Jew is sitting on a bed, saying his nightly prayers. When he lies down to sleep, a robber enters through the window and steals his possessions. The Jew awakens due to the noise and starts to scream. The robber runs away, but he is caught. When the policeman brings him back to the house he had robbed, the thief starts to sing the song 'Der ganef (The Robber).' "

A. Litwin describes Zbarzher’s improvisations in this manner: "Velvele Zbarzher was a good-looking young man, a hero. He always could be found, neatly dressed: in a black visiting coat, in a white ironed shirt, and a top hat and gloves. He never gave a fancy presentation of his songs. He was no mimic, nor did he use dramatic effects -- he never needed to. He stood near a small table and sang his own compositions or gave a talk, standing in one place. On that small table there were always two candlesticks and a glass of wine. Speaking or singing his songs he would often drink the wine, one glass after the other. Velvele was never drunk. He knew how to drink. ... The company in which Velvele Zbarzher always found himself in was spiritually and morally lower than the poet. These were mostly Jewish merchants who wore the latest fashions. Regarding the true Haskalah, they knew very little and were not well-informed. They had the exterior look, but not the interior depth. About questions regarding the future of Jewish life, they showed no interest. ... The poet was lonely in their midst, their world were like a strange clock mechanism. ... As for composing his songs, he didn’t think about them for very long. Not the words, and not the melody. He composed standing on his feet, and he created on the spot, without any preparation. The more wine he poured into himself, the more powerful and the more emotion streamed from his breast. Despite this the theme of his song was never accidental. Every theme was well thought out, be it the question about the Jews, or from life in general. Each song was either pointed, biting satire or a deep elegy. ... His songs were usually very long, but none the less the listener listened with strained attention to the poet. They truly followed him. This was the kind of artistry that he possessed both in his talent and in his persona.

D.Y. Silverbush tells us: "In the year 1878-1879 Velvele was in Kolomea, where I heard him sing. When all the listeners were rolling around laughing, his face showed no emotion, suddenly as grin appeared on his lips. At that time he was close to sixty years of age, but his eyes lit up as though he was a young innocent boy."

Y. Tigger wrote: "As people tell me who personally knew Velvel Zbarzher, he had a very good voice, which could reach the highest notes."

From the 39 letter from Zbarzher wrote to his brother Meir (from 14 December 1868 till 28 October 1878) to which Dr. Bernard Wachstein responded in his second volume of "Filologish shriftn (Philological Writings)" issued by YIVO (Vilna, 1926, pp. 1-42) (two of these letters were apparently not written by Zbarzher, but were written by his intimate friend Ozer Rohotiner. We can see that Zbarzher loved his family very much, and that he consistently supported them financially.

In his introduction to these letters Dr. Wachstein commented: " ... The language here is altogether different from the language in "Makel Noam." His literary language is pure Yiddish in the dialect spoken in Galicia. A German word was used only where a Yiddish word could not be found for the rhyme. The language of this letter was from a well-educated person. . . .The language was a mixture of Yiddish, Hebrew and German. It is interesting that Velvele, the great linguist, had many Yiddish usages mixed into his Hebrew. Characteristic of his nature was that he used the Hebrew language for sacred holiday matters. For the secular themes he only needed the Yiddish language.

In all of his letters he doesn’t remind us, not even once, with what or how he stepped onto the stage as a folksinger -- apart from small comments about how well or not he was received. Comments about his appearances and improvisations can be found in his letters to his friend Moishe Orenstein (from the years1873-1877) ,which Y. Tigger was preparing for publication.

A complete edition of Zbarzher’s work in Yiddish is now being prepared through Zalmen Reisen.  

  • Z. Reisen -- "Lexicon of Yiddish Literature," Vol. II, pp. 832-840.

  • B. Gorin -- "History of Yiddish Theatre," Vol. I, pp. 146-147.

  • Dr. Bernard Wachstein -- Velvele zbarzhers briv tsu zayn brider meir, "Filologishe shriftn," Vilna, 1928 -- pp. 1-42.

  • Dr. B. Wachstein -- Tsu: velvele zbarzshers brif tsu zayn bruder meir, "Filologishe shfirtn," Vilna, 1929, pp. 608-609.

  • Dr. Jacob Shatzky -- Retsenzies, "Pinkus," Vol. 1, Notebook 4, New York, 1928, 398 pp.

  • Y. Tiger -- Der gurl fun a yidishn folks-zinger, "Morning Journal," N.Y., 5 May 1929.

  • Moshe Gross -- Oyf di vegn fun velvele zbarzher un avraham goldfaden, "Tog," N.Y., 9 August 1930.






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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 1, page 758.

Translation courtesy of Paul Azaroff.

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