Jewish Musicians in Moldavia

By Itzik Schwartz
[* Translation by Bob Cohen *]

View a picture of Itzik in our Photo Gallery

It cannot be said that memories of Jewish "Lautari" [* professional folk musician, although the term usually refers to gypsies *] from Moldavia were ignored by historians. Some of the information is of a memorial character, such as that written by I. Psantir, or it is literary, as in the evocative celebration of the Jewish musician Lemesh, written in Romanian by C. Stere.

They all had a remarkable role in the difficult life remembered by Lautari. At weddings, engagements, family parties, at Purim, and at festivals they delighted or moved the listeners, awakening in them trust for life and the future. The Prince of Ligne, who visited Moldavia in 1788, noted in his journal (at Iasi, dated Dec. 1) that the Jews from Iasi were musicians, merchants, and middlemen.

The earliest mention of a Jewish "lautar" is dated 1744, when there is a "tax exemption" for "Solomon, Jewish cimbalist from Iasi" (N. Iorga, Studies and Docs. Vol IV. vol 2, page 251). Somewhat later, in 1816, "two rows of Jewish musicians" played in the court of the Boyars on the occasion of St. George's Day, as well as German musicians and two local bands.

The information from Iasi shows that there was a guild of Jewish musicians by 1819. The guild was "renewed" in 1830 and 1854, and had its own Synagogue on Strada Pantelimon.

The population censuses done in the first half of the last [* 19th *] century provide numerous mentions of Jewish musicians. We learn, for example, of a "Iosap, the musician" from Herta in 1820. In Iasi there was noted, in 1832, a "Shmil Lautar" and "Avram the cimbalist" as well as four musicians mentioned living in Botosani. At this point we should remember N. Filimon, who considered the cimbalom to have been introduced into the world of Romanian music by the intermediary of Jewish musicians.

Two Scottish missionaries who visited Moldavia in 1838 described a Jewish wedding where Jewish musicians played on violin, viola, cobza [* a Romanian fretless lute - looks like an oud that shrunk in the wash *] tambourine, and on a "harp" of curious form, played with two sticks. This is, of course, the cimbalom.

The names of Jewish musicians listed in the 1845 census is already quite large. We learn that in Botosani there were four fiddlers, four clarinetists, four bassists, and three "badchunim," of whom the oldest was "Shaia ben Boroch". In that year there were eight Jewish musicians in Falticeni, all fiddlers. In the valley we hear of one or two fiddlers or cimbalists who were Jewish. In those towns where there was no guild of Jewish musicians, these musicians were paid by a patron, as in Focsani in 1844.

The life of a Jewish musician was quite hard. When they could not manage to earn their living in the smaller towns they would leave for the city. Travel papers, kept in the archive of the Iasi Jewish Community, were issued for "Iosip ben Wolf the musician; who wishes to travel the countryside of Moldavia in a hired coach for three months to perform his trade." This was a long and difficult tour, considering he didn't have his own transport. This entry also notes that this musician was short in stature, was 38 years old, and wore traditional Jewish costume. We also know of a cimbalist who took the advantage of becoming a merchant. An entry in the Iasi Jewish Community dated July 11, 1854, gives the name of this rare example: "Zelig Tsambalaru."

Alongside the important role of Jewish musicians in cultivating Jewish musical folklore, we should also remember their role in spreading Romanian song, as in the example of the Lemesh family.

Often the membership of the bands was mixed: Romanians, Jews, and Gypsies who played weddings and parties and suchlike in their localities.

We have found, in the Iasi Jewish Community archives, a receipt addressed to "Maria, wife of Georghe Paun" to accept ten 'galbeni' in money from "Leah, wife of Mendel", that is, 370 lei sent by Mendel from Istanbul. The money was sent through the oldest of the Jewish Musicians Guilds, and the receipt is dated May 9, 1856. From this archive source we can learn of the comradeship between "David the fiddler, Ilie Trimbacierul, and Itsik the clarinetist" alongside "Iordach, Stoian, and Ion Pui" among others, that they pledged on June 12, 1857 "that we will all share in our earnings... and we will all pay from our earnings to repair any damage to our instruments." [* see notes in sidebar for my comments - Bob. *]

In 1864 another Scot noted the names of Iasi musicians: "Fishel, Simon Grinberg, Meier Kaufman, Leibn Grinberg, Itsik ben Ghedale, Moishe ben Iancu, Iosif David Volftal, Herscu."

This, to be sure, is not a complete list of all the Jewish musicians who played in Moldavia, only of those who turned up in the census counts. We still need to know about other musicians, for example, those who played in Goldfaden's theater orchestra. We also remember the Bughici family: Avram, Moishe, Pavel, Iosef, and Iancu, who left a musical notebook.

[* The end. Of course there is all kinds of bibliographical info in here that I haven't traced, but I hope to get around to it someday. Until then, I think this article is a fascinating little view of old time Moldavian klezmer life. I didn't expect there to be so many clarinetists before 1860, for example. And there is much for modern klezmer musicians to learn here: about contract riders, for example "We will all share in our earnings... and pay for damage to our instruments..." Or maybe take the example of Zelig Tsambalaru and just go get an honest job! *]

To learn more about techniques for playing Jewish fiddle, check out another article by Bob Cohen.

>>Jewish Music in Eastern Europe


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