Jewish vocal music culture in the United States reflects the variety of the many different parts of the diaspora from which the Jewish immigrants originally came, as well as different song traditions among Jewish denominations. This essay will examine some of the Jewish folksongs curated by the Recorded Sound section, the Music Division, and the American Folklife Center with an emphasis on those available online. Many more songs are available in the presentation The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America.
The earliest Jewish immigrants to the United States were probably the Sephardic Jews (those whose ancestors had once lived on the Iberian Peninsula) who came from a colony in what is now Brazil and settled in what is now New York in the mid-seventeenth century. Later groups of Sephardic immigrants came from Eastern Europe during the first and second world wars. Flory Jagoda, a singer who was born in Bosnia and came to the United States just after World War II, has given concerts of songs from the peoples of the Sephardic diaspora in several languages, including Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), at the Library of Congress. Two of these performances are available as webcasts: Flory Jagoda and Friends (2007), and A Concert of Ladino Music (2012). 
The largest wave of Jewish immigrants came to the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most came from Eastern Europe to escape discrimination, persecution, and economic hardship. This wave also brought some very talented singers and musicians. Among these immigrants were official liturgical singers, called cantors, some of whom were internationally acclaimed performers. In addition to singing during services in synagogues, they traveled and gave public performances. Cantorial songs are part of a literate tradition and cantors are trained singers, many of whom also compose. So at first this might not seem to be a source for what we usually call “folksongs,” but this tradition preserves centuries-old songs and styles of singing. An example of the traditional practice of chanting scripture is this recording is of cantor Aryeh Leib Rutman (1866 – 1935) singing a Sabbath prayer, “V’shomru,” taken from Exodus (in Hebrew). Some chanted texts are ancient, such as the opening chant for the Yom Kippur service, “Kol Nidre,” in Aramaic, here sung by the acclaimed cantor Josef “Yossele” Rosenblatt (1882 – 1933). So these songs are of great interest to those who study traditional music.
Cantors often sang popular songs and folksongs in performances outside the synagogues. These were sung in the languages spoken by Jewish immigrants, most commonly Yiddish. Cantor Mordechai Hershman (1888 – 1940) was especially notable for his performances of folksongs. “A Dudele,” is an example of a religious song in Yiddish that he recorded on Victor. The title, which means “A Little Song,” is ironic, as it is a little song that asks big questions addressed to the “Master of the Universe”: “where are you?” and “is there any place where you are not?” He also recorded “A Chasen’dl oif Shabos” (“A Cantor on the Sabbath”). 
Jewish immigrants of this era also set about collecting and writing down folksongs for the home parlor piano and for the growing number of Jewish choruses at the time. Among the first to set down folksongs was music publisher and songwriter Henry Lefkowitch. His first publication in 1915 was sheet music for two folk songs, “Di Alte Kasha” (“The Old Question”) and “Di M’sinke Oisgegeben,” a song about a family’s youngest child being married.
Max Persin (ca. 1886 – 1953), who taught at the Malkin Conservatory of Music in Boston, collected and published many folksongs. An interesting example is “Meyerke, Mein Zeen” (“Meyer, My Son”), which was translated into French, arranged as an ethnic art song, and published as “Chanson Hébraïque” by the French composer Maurice Ravel in 1910. In 1917 the opera singer Alma Gluck sang the original Yiddish and Hebrew lyrics to Ravel’s arrangement of the song, played by her husband, violinist Efrem Zimbalist, for a Victor recording. In 1919 Persin published sheet music for a version of the folk song that he had arranged. So this song, which had been recast as “high art,” was quite deliberately taken back and published as variations on the song in the people’s language. 
Leo Low (1878 – 1960) was a choir director and another great collector of Jewish folksongs. A favorite is “Jome, Jome” (also spelled “Yome, Yome”). It is a conversation between a mother and daughter that may be sung as a duet. The mother does not understand her daughter, who doesn’t want a dress and she doesn’t want new shoes — what is the matter? The girl finally explains that what she wants is a husband. Both songs sung by Mordechai Hershman, mentioned above, “A Dudele” and “A Chasen’dl oif Shabos,” were collected, arranged, and published by Low.
Ethnographers and other collectors made sound recordings of Jewish folksong from the oral tradition. Unlike sheet music and orchestrated art-song arrangements, these recordings provide us with the songs exactly as they were sung in folk tradition. In a 2013 lecture, Miriam Isaacs describes the collecting efforts of Ben Stonehill, who collected songs of Jewish survivors of World War II in 1948 in the lobby of the Hotel Marseilles in New York City, a place where many new immigrants stayed (select this link to view the webcast). This collection is being preserved by the Library of Congress. Another collection available in the Folklife Center’s reading room is the Abraham A. Schwadron “Chad Gadya” Collection, 1973-1985, which preserves over 160 recordings of a popular Passover song in many variations.
These are only a few examples of the folk songs of Jewish cultures, so continue to explore the Library’s website and make your own discoveries.
- Videos of an additional concert at the Library of Congress and an interview with Flory Jagoda will be available in the near future.
- Since at the writing of this article it is Passover week, a prayer song for Passover, composed and sung by Mordechai Hershman, “K’shimcho,” may also be of interest.
- Yiddish is not written in the Latin alphabet, so tranliterated spellings are often phonetic, and vary widely. Although Persin spelled the Yiddish word for son “son” on the cover of his sheet music, he spelled it “sun” inside. Today, many people would transliterate it as “zun.” Alma Gluck, who was born in Romania, used the regional pronunciation “zeen.” Similarly, while Leo Low used the spelling “chasen’dl” on the cover of his sheet music, it is spelled “chasond’l” inside.
- AFC symposium entitled “The Stations That Spoke Your Language: Radio and the Yiddish-American Cultural Renaissance.” (Includes Webcasts)
- Hear, O Israel: Yiddish-American Radio 1925-1955, Botkin Series lecture presented by Henry Sapoznik, 2009.
- Jewish American Heritage Month
- “Jewish Songs in America” (Songs of America)