Jewish Music in Romania
Oy Rumenye, Rumenye,
Geveyn amol a land a ziser a fayner!

By Bob Cohen

Today klezmer seems to mean just about anything vaguely Jewish with a clarinet – huge amounts of half-baked jazz meanderings and new age stuff fill the CD bins posing as "klezmer" these days. Let’s face it – there is a lot of crap out there masquerading as klezmer, trying to get your CD Euro or dollar. In Di Naye Kapelye, we prefer to tell folks we play Jewish music. Old Jewish music. Music that would appeal to my grandfather’s aesthetic sense. We see no need to invent tradition. We live in East Europe, where the basic tools of the klezmer’s art – active traditional music and dance – are all around us, as well as elderly Jewish survivors.

Many contemporary "revival" bands are using the more traditional forms of klezmer music to re-assert a Jewish aesthetic of music. Alongside Di Naye Kapelye, one should mention Alicia Svigals, Budowitz, the Chicago Klemzer Ensemble, Joel Rubin, Khevrisa as well as Brave Old World. More and more musicians – the Klezmatics, Lorin Sklamberg, and Jeff Warschauer, for instance – are utilizing Hasidic traditions in an effort to "reclaim" klezmer music as something that speaks to a Jewish aesthetic, instead of being merely another commercial mishmash of fusion ideas. There is real Jewish music, but chances are you won’t find it easily in your local CD shop.

The music of Di Naye Kapelye attempts to recreate the kind of Jewish music that might have been heard before the mass emigration of East European Jews to America at the turn of the 20th century. In order to learn about the repertoires, playing styles, and dances one needs to do some salvage ethnology. To learn about Yiddish culture in Europe means visiting a lot of Jewish old age homes. It is more than fifty years after the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel – things are not as they once were, and never will be again.

I am a bessarabisher yid – my grandparents were born in Bessarabia, today’s Republic of Moldova, in the towns of Orhei (Uriv in Yiddish) and Krivelyany (Kivelyan), and lived in Chisinau (Keshenev) until the time of the 1905 pogrom. I was born in New York, and now reside in Budapest.

Categories of Jewish Repertoire

Although I live in Hungary, the majority of our music’s influences come from Romanian musicians. The reasons are simple. Romania was crucial to the development of klezmer dance repertoire. My ancestors came from Moldavia. I grew up eating mamaliga in New York City. My grandparents spoke Romanian Yiddish. And Romania is one of the few places in Europe today that can boast a rich and active traditional context for folk music.

As ethnomusicologist Dr. Walter Zev Feldman points out in his 1995 article in the American journal Ethnomusicology, Moldavia played an important role in the development of modern "klezmer" music. Dr. Feldman posits four layers of repertoire in klezmer music:

The "Core" Repertoire: music played previous to 1850, consisting of instrumental wedding songs, table songs, and instrumental versions of liturgical music, usually played in duet by violin or flute with cimbalom (tsimbl) accompaniment.

The "Oriental" Repertoire : Music influenced by Turkish classical tradition. Until the 20th century, Ashkenazic Jews – alongside Gypsy, Armenian, and Greek musicians – actively participated in the dissemination and performance of Turkish music throughout the Ottoman Empire – in Istanbul as well as in Romania – and borrowed back much of the repertoire and theory into early klezmer music.

The Co-territorial Repertoire: Music – both popular and folk – borrowed from neighboring ethnic groups, especially Romanian, Ukrainian, Russian, and Hungarians. After the "Jewish enlightenment" it became more common for men to dance together with women (a practice still avoided by Orthodox Jews), and models for such music were sought outside of Jewish life. In particular, Romanian music grew in popularity after dances such as the bulgareasca and the sirba became, in effect, dance crazes among Jews at the end of the 19th century. According to the Ukrainian Yiddish singer Bronya Sakina, "The more Romanian it sounded, the better we liked it".

The fourth category can be considered a 20th-century culmination of the previous three, and is characterized by the compositions of remarkably talented European-born American klezmorim such as Dave Tarras, Naftule Brandwein, Shloimke Beckerman, Abe Schwartz, and others who recorded this music on phonograph records after 1917. A new style of composition, especially in dance music such as bulgars and freylachs, combines with modern elements to serve a new context of Yiddish life in America.

As time went on, American klezmer continued to develop, accepting elements of Yiddish theater music, jazz, and popular American music. In Europe, however, Jewish instrumental music was rarely recorded. Besides traditional music, people of the time had other forms of entertainment as well. Gambling in general and especially sports betting became increasingly popular during these times. In the late '90s with the internet boom online betting sites started to offer wagering through the internet. Click here for a list of such betting sites. The best thing with modern technology is you can combine betting with listening music in the comfort of your home.

Jewish Music in Iasi

When I began to record music in Romania in the late 1980s, many of the elder Gypsy musicians I approached in Transylvania enthusiastically played Jewish tunes for me, alongside the Romanian and Transylvanian Hungarian music I was asking after. I was intrigued. Where had they learned these tunes? From playing for Jewish weddings, they answered. And so I began to learn something of the styles and repertoire of Jewish music from the elder generation of Gypsy musicians such as Ferenc "Arus" and Bela Berki of Mera, Samuel "Cilika" Boross of Cluj, Bela Gaspar, Arpad Toni of Voivodeni, Vassile and Gheorghe Covaci in Maramures, and others. I made trips through Transylvania, Bukovina, Maramures, and Moldavia.

Eventually I had the great pleasure of meeting Prof. Itzik Shvartz and his wonderful wife Cili in Iasi in 1991. Prof. Shvartz, born in 1905, is a prolific writer, folklorist, linguist, and former director of the Iasi Yiddish theater who at this writing is still living in Iasi. He has known all of the 20th century’s important Romanian Jewish personalities as well as many of the Jewish musicians. His wife Cili was perhaps the best living Yiddish traditional singer in Europe until her death in 1998 (her kosher soda cookies were absolutely the best….).

From Itzik Shvartz I learned about the life of klezmer families in 20th century Iasi: the Bughici family, the Segal family, and the Weiss family. The Lemesh family were important musicians in the last century who also played in Avram Goldfaden’s original Yiddish Theater orchestra at the Pomul Verde wine cellar in Iasi, but that family no longer resides in Iasi – I have heard they moved to Philadelphia.

The Bughici band was primarily violin-based. Many of the Bughici family were murdered in the 1941 Iasi pogrom, but several survived, including Avram, the violinist, and Dimitru, who became a renowned piano teacher and jazz composer in Bucharest and now resides in Israel. During the 1970s, Prof. Shvartz had made some cassettes of the playing of Avram Bughici and Gheorghe Bughici, both on violin. Avram Bughici sold a book of repertoire to Itzik for use in the theater. Although the manuscript may now be lost, Itzik did make a cassette recording around 1975 with the accompaniment of accordionist Izu Gott (son of Dorohoi klezmer clarinetist Berko Gott), sight-reading the pieces on accordion. (Izu, a classically trained bassist who lives part of each year in Israel, has since served as music director of the Romanian Federation of Jews, as well as its president.) From Avram Bughici’s book we can assume the nature of the family’s repertoire – lots of khosidls, to be sure, several freylachs, with some theater songs and doinas.

The Segal family were considered more accomplished musicians, however, and played in the Iasi Yiddish theater as well. Unfortunately, a manuscript of their music may have been lost – we are still looking for it – but hopefully in the future I will get the chance to meet one Segal still big in the Romanian entertainment business – Gheorghe Segal, known as TV personality Gheorghe Sava – and ask if he knows anything about this. Sava’s father’s gravestone in the Iasi cemetery features a carved stone harp, as testament to his prowess as a musician.

Elsewhere in Moldavia we know of other Jewish musicians. In Roman, before the Holocaust, there was Hayim "Hersko" Herskovits, a trumpeter, as well as fiddlers Moishe Musikant and Iancu Malai. The popular Romanian song composer Richard Stein was also from Roman. Jewish musicians in Roman often played alongside Gypsies, and a basic band was formed of a violin or trumpet, accordion, and drum – a very typical lineup for a modern Moldavian band even today.

In modern Moldavian folk music we still find traces of Jewish repertoire in the music of the fanfara brass bands. The elder generation of Romanian and Gypsy folk fiddlers often have pieces of klezmer origin in their repertoires, although this is becoming rarer these days. Dances such as "Jidancuta", "Jidoveasca", and melodies commonly recorded by early klezmer musicians are still current among many village repertoires.

Jewish Music in Transylvania

In Transylvania we find fewer traces of Jewish musicians. One reason is the different social development of Transylvania’s Jews under the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. In this region, as in Hungary (after 1825), it was mostly Gypsy musicians who provided instrumental music for Jews. Transylvania was a part of Hungary previous to 1920. As "Hungarian" Jews, Transylvanian Jews were enfranchised as citizens in 1867, and even before that date were accepting social assimilation to a "Hungarian" national identity, after the German Jewish model. In 1867 Hungary’s Jewish communities split into Neolog (sort of "Reform") and Orthodox, with certain communities remaining as "Status Quo Ante". Thus, communities in Cluj (Kolozsvar in Hungarian), Arad, Sibiu, and Timisoara (Temesvar in Hungarian) were predominantly Neolog, and adopted Hungarian language in place of Yiddish.

Alongside many other Hungarian customs they adopted, Jews were great patrons of Hungarian popular music, or Magyar notak, and a Neolog wedding allowed for mixed-sex dancing. Gypsy musicians were hired for Jewish weddings, and played a few Jewish songs (usually "Belz" alongside various Yiddish theater songs and a few Sabbath zmiros) while providing csardas music for dancing. In Fizesul Gherleii (Ordongosfuzes in Hungarian) as well as Sarmas, local Gypsy village bands also played sets of "Jewish Dances". Zoltan Blum, a Jew from Fizesul Gherleii, remembers Jews dancing in a circle to this music before WWII. He also says that Jews in the village lived harmoniously with their neighbors, except for three things which they would never do with non-Jews: eat with them, bathe with them, or dance with them.


This article is intended only as a basic overview of research I have been doing for the last decade, primarily on instrumental music in a Jewish context. I haven’t yet touched on Jewish music in Bucharest, Braila, or many other places that I hope to visit in the future. I have yet to do fieldwork in the Republic of Moldova. I have not mentioned Sephardic Jewish music in south Romania, and I have not mentioned liturgical music, vocal traditions, or theater music. Yet. Expect updates soon.

To wrap up, much archive research still remains to be done in Romania, as the Jewish population of Romania slowly shrinks due to emigration.

For a fascinating look at the early history of Jewish musicians in Moldavia, read an article by Itzik Schwartz.

>>Jewish Music in Eastern Europe


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