Born in 1906 in Poland, Ben Stonehill (Steinberg) immigrated with his large family to Rochester, New York, while still a young child; in 1929 he moved to New York City, where he eventually became proprietor of a small floor-servicing business.
A fluent Yiddish speaker who cherished his cultural heritage, Stonehill was also a devoted zamler, a collector of folklore. In 1948 he learned of a major gathering point for new refugees: the Hotel Marseilles in upper Manhattan.
Lacking recording equipment but determined to pursue his mission, Stonehill took a sales job at a local wire-recorder dealership and emerged from the showroom with a salesman’s demonstration model. Nearly every weekend that summer he hauled this machine by subway from his home in Queens to the Hotel Marseilles to record songs and stories from the hundreds of survivors he encountered in the hotel lobby.
Stonehill documented an unparalleled cross-section of music then current among Jewish displaced persons (DPs), from traditional Hasidic nigunim to prewar folk and popular songs in Polish, Yiddish, and Russian; from Soviet propagandist ballads to Zionist pioneer anthems; from songs recalled from ghettos and camps to lyrics relating the experiences of recent DPs. His inventory eventually listed 1054 separate titles.
In 1964 Stonehill realized a long-held dream by delivering a lecture on folksong at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. The following year, terminally ill, he abandoned his book-in-progress and bequeathed his recordings (by then copied to magnetic tape) to YIVO, the Library of Congress, and other collecting institutions. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum acquired a set from the Library of Congress in 2005.
This according to Ben Stonehill (2008), part of the Holocaust Museum’s series Music of the Holocaust.
Above, Stonehill around the time he began his recording project. One of his recordings can be heard here; a Library of Congress presentation about his life and work is here.
Like most newcomers to America, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the 1920s faced homesickness, deprivation, and language difficulty. Yiddish musicals helped them to come to terms with their environment by reminding them of home while highlighting the benefits of the New World.
Confronting the past with the present and fusing the folkloric songs, liturgical chants, dances, and theater styles of Jewish tradition with American rhythms and social topics, the genre helped to resolve onstage the conflicts in the lives of the new inhabitants. These comic and dramatic musical works chart the evolution of a community in its acculturation and eventual assimilation.
Di goldene kale (The golden bride) premiered at the 2000-seat Second Avenue Theater in New York on 9 February 1923, one of 14 Yiddish programs in the city that night. It ran for 18 weeks and was then performed throughout the U.S. and in venues in Europe and South America. The music is by Joseph Rumshinsky, the undisputed dean of Yiddish operetta composers in the U.S., who wrote the music for well over 100 such works.
Written and produced at a critical time of transition, between a law passed in May 1921 that greatly limited immigration from eastern Europe and another, in 1924, that reduced such immigration to a trickle, the work illuminates the period in which the arrival of some two million Russians and other east-Europeans in the U.S. had peaked.
A new edition and study of Di goldene kale (A-R Editions, 2017) provides multifaceted insights into the absorption, not only of Jews, but of every immigrant group, into the American mainstream
Below, excerpts from a 2016 production.
Cambridge Scholars launched the series The Arizona Center for Judaic Studies publication in 2014 with The Jewish experience in classical music: Shostakovich and Asia, edited by Alexander Tentser.
The book’s juxtaposition of two highly dissimilar composers allows an exploration of the breadth of influence of traditional Jewish culture on Western classical music in the 20th century and beyond. The first part focuses on the humane qualities of Dmitrij Šostakovič’s personality—his honesty and courage, which enabled him in difficult times to express Jewish torment and suffering under both the Soviet and Nazi regimes through his works; the second part is dedicated to the music of Daniel Asia and to his philosophical and religious identification with Judaism.
Below, Šostakovič and Nina Dorliak perform one of his settings of traditional Jewish songs, and Jonathan Shames performs Asia’s Why (?) Jacob.
The magrepha of ancient Hebrew ritual has been variously described as a percussion machine, signal gong, bell, tympanum, kettle drum, or hand drum—but also as a pneumatic organ, water organ, steam organ, composite woodwind instrument, pipework, or controllable siren. For centuries, scholars were unable to reach a solution that squared with ancient texts.
In “The magrepha of the Herodian temple: A five-fold hypothesis”, Joseph Yasser settled the matter by showing that the earliest sources mention the magrepha as a shovel for removing ashes and describe the thunderous sound caused when it was thrown to the floor at a particular point in the service; this sound apparently symbolized the vengeful actions of an angry God, aligning the ritual act with passages in Ezekiel. Later sources unmistakably characterize the magrepha as a type of wind instrument with multiple openings, each producing multiple sounds; Yasser’s proposed reconstruction is shown above.
The article appeared in A musicological offering to Otto Kinkeldey upon the occasion of his 80th anniversary, a special issue of the Journal of the American Musicological Society (vol. 13, no. 1–3 , pp. 24–42; the issue is covered in our recently-published Liber amicorum: Festschriften for music scholars and nonmusicians, 1840–1966.