Detail from Jos. Rosenblatt [Cantor Josef "Yossele" Rosenblatt]. Bain News Service, publisher. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ggbain-36581.
Jewish immigration to the United States dates back to 1654, when a small group of Sephardic  Jewish settlers from Dutch Brazil arrived in New Amsterdam (later known as New York). Jews continued to trickle into the country from the Mediterranean region as well as from England, Holland and the Balkans during the Colonial period.
During the mid-nineteenth century, a large influx of poor German Jewish immigrants arrived in the United States, driven by political and social unrest in Europe. The two million Eastern European Jews who came to America between 1881 and 1924 constituted the largest wave of Jewish immigrants in United States history. One third of the Jewish population of Eastern Europe emigrated, fleeing pogroms (purges) and economic hardship. The majority of these immigrants were Yiddish speaking Ashkenazi Jews (those whose ancestors migrated into Germany and Eastern Europe from the Middle East in the Middle Ages). The upheaval of Europe during World War I also led to an increase in immigration of Jews from Europe.
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. There are numerous types of traditional Jewish song in the United States. These include the folk songs of the Yemenite, Persian, Daghestanian, Babylonian, and Moroccan Jews, the Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish) songs of the Sephardic Jews, and the Yiddish language folk songs and melodies of Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews, including Hasidic music.
Songs of the Late 1800s to the Early 20th Century
The musical styles of Jewish immigrants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were strongly influenced by the musicians, cantors, stage performers, and composers in Europe at that time, as many artists came to the United States after they had established their careers in Europe.
Organized professional theater for European Jews was a new development in Europe in the late 1800s when Jewish immigration to the United States was at its peak. Experienced performers came to America from the Yiddish theater movement, which was started by Abraham Goldfaden in 1870s Romania and subsequently spread across Europe. The result was that European Yiddish-language theatre strongly influenced the development of Yiddish theater in the United States, along with influences from American performing arts, especially vaudeville. The Victor recording of American performers Anna Hoffman and Gus Goldstein, "Shveig telebende," is an example from a Yiddish musical comedy of this period.
Composer Joseph Rumshinsky came to the United States in 1904 with concerns about the influences of vaudeville comedy on the American Yiddish musical theater. He wanted to compose works that would turn American artists towards more serious works with an operatic style, often with religious themes. "Gute nacht un die tnoyim," ("God's Punishment") sung by Lizzie Einhorn Abramson and recorded in 1910, is an example. An example of a work with a lighter theme is "Der rebe mit die chasidim," ("The Rabbi with his pupils") from the work Die American Rebetzin (The American Rabbi's Wife). Rumshinsky also composed songs related to important historical events, such as "Der Judische ligionerie," sung by cantor Shloimele Rothstein. This song commemorates the Jewish Legion, which consisted of five battalions of Jewish troops from Britain, Russia, Canada, Palestine, and the United States, who fought in Palestine and North Africa during World War I.
While Rumshinsky did not prevent Yiddish theater from embracing American popular culture, his works and those of like-minded composers added to the breadth and range of the types of performances available to Yiddish-speaking audiences. Other composers who contributed to the development of Yiddish theater in America, such as Sigmund Mogulesco, David Meyrowitz, Joseph Brody, Louis Friedsell, Arnold Perlmutter, Solomon Smulewitz, and Herman Wohl, sought inspiration from diverse sources including cantorial recitative, Italian opera, and Romanian operetta.
Reflecting American mainstream popular music, the standard structure of a Jewish popular song featured verses in duple time interspersed with waltz-like choruses. American musical trends inspired songs like "De Yiddisha shimmy," sung by Anna Hoffman and Jacob Jacobs. With the advent of radio broadcasting in the 1920s, Yiddish programs began to be broadcast, and by the 1930s, Yiddish radio stations sprang up in several cities, establishing connections among many Yiddish speaking-communities. Popular songs produced for the Yiddish stage entered homes as they were made available as sheet music, as piano rolls for parlor pianos, and as sound recordings. Song topics encompassed everything from love stories, to the growth of Zionism, to the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.  Some stage songs, like "Bei mir bistu shein," by Sholom Secunda and Jacob Jacobs, achieved great success beyond the Jewish community, and became the first hit record of the Andrews Sisters in 1937.
Sheet music cover for"Di emese liebe," by Molly Picon and Joseph Rumshinsky, from Girl of Yesterday, with photo of Molly Picon on the cover. New York: Trio Press
Sacred and secular Jewish American music are closely intertwined. For example, the New York Yiddish Theater of the 1920s featured liturgical songs, while Jewish sacred singers – cantors – performed concerts outside of their synagogue work that included both religious and secular songs.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, synagogues in the United States varied a great deal in the types of music and instrumentation that they used. Each took its own approach to music-making according to the tastes of the congregation under the auspices of an organist and choir leader. Even today, with the dissemination of prayer books filled with standardized songs, congregations may choose to use alternate melodies.
With the large wave of immigration at this time, some of the most internationally famous cantors came from Europe to serve in American synagogues. They toured the United States to perform for many congregations in addition to the synagogues that employed them at the time. Several famous cantors also made published recordings. For example, here are Josef "Yossele" Rosenblatt singing "Wlirushulaim" ("And For Jerusalem" ) a song he composed; Mordechai Hershman singing a Passover prayer, "K'shimcho;" and Aryeh Leib Rutman singing the Sabbath prayer, "V'shamru" (taken from Exodus).
Cantors often gave concerts where they were received with great fanfare. In addition to religious songs in Hebrew, the cantors often sang popular or traditional songs in Yiddish and other languages of the Jewish Diaspora for audiences as they traveled. For example, cantor Mordechai Hershman recorded a Yiddish folksong, "Mikita," and cantor Shloimele Rothstein recorded a dramatic rendition of "Zol ich verin a ruv," ("Shall I become a Rabbi?") in Yiddish.
During the 1920s through the 1940s there were many opportunities for many performers to work in Yiddish Theater, in Jewish films, and in Yiddish radio. Some performers were also able to cross over from the Jewish venues to mainstream theaters and film, usually by leaving their Jewish identity off stage, at least temporarily. Following are three examples of the many talented performers of this period.
Molly Picon, one of the greatest stars of Yiddish theater and film, was able to create diverse characters on stage and screen as she played both male and female characters, or girls dressing as men. With her husband, Jacob Kalich, she also wrote many Yiddish songs. In 1931 she bought The Second Avenue Theater in New York where she had played many famous Yiddish roles, renaming it the Molly Picon Theater. Later in her career she took roles in English language theater and Hollywood films, including the role of Yente the Matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof.
Singer, actor, and comedian Fanny Brice [n.d.]. Bain News Service, publisher. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ggbain-33550.
Singer and actor Fanny Brice created a comical character who spoke with a Yiddish accent and took that act to mainstream stage and screen (she was born Fania Borach, her stage name was also spelled Fannie Brice). In vaudeville during the early twentieth century, comical skits and songs that deprecated Jewish people were common. In these circumstances, performers from a downtrodden group may choose to make fun of themselves, taking control of the humor and telling it their way. Fanny Brice is an example of this, using self-deprecating humor her way. Her career took off when she hired songwriter Blanche Merrill to write songs for her, such as "Becky is Back in the Ballet." She was called to perform in the film, Zigfield Follies of 1921, using this character, singing her most famous songs, the comic "Second Hand Rose," and the serious love song "My Man." As Brice encountered anti-Semitism in her career, she sought to portray or create new characters and leave this Yiddish persona behind.
Al Jolson made cinema history as the star of the first successful sound film, The Jazz Singer (1927). The script was based on Jolson's own life as a vaudeville singer whose father was a cantor, and made much of the relatively short part of Jolson's early career when he performed in blackface. Although this film famously drew on his Jewish heritage, for most of his career he performed and wrote mainstream popular songs.
Jewish composers of popular songs generally wrote in the style of other popular songwriters of the early twentieth century. Lyricist Irving Berlin, born in Russia, is an example of this. Many of his songs, such as "God Bless America," can be seen biographically as a desire to assimilate into his new country. Occasionally he did write songs that spoke to the Jewish American experience, such as "Sadie Salome, go home!" (with Edgar Leslie, 1909) which is a comical song about a father whose daughter is caught up in the early twentieth century dance craze for Salome's dance of the seven veils.
Expressing ideology and underscoring protest, activist songs were another important strand of Jewish American vocal music in the early to mid- twentieth century. Choruses were founded in New York, Chicago and other American cities to sing a repertoire that included Yiddish-language versions of workers' rights favorites like the "Internationale" and the "Marseillaise," pieces tailored to suit particular political events, and Hebrew-language songs relating to the emerging Zionist movement of the day. An example is "Hatikvah," recorded in 1918 by opera star Alma Gluck. Composer Kurt Weill brought his socialist interests to his compositions, such as the musical The Threepenny Opera. Because many Jewish immigrants came to the United States as a result of persecution in their native countries, Jewish composers of the early to mid- twentieth century were especially interested in the plight of groups in their new country who were mistreated. This led to important works dealing with prejudice and violence towards African Americans by Jewish composers. An example is the song "Strange Fruit," by Abel Meeropol, written as a protest against lynchings. Though the jazz opera Porgy and Bess (1935) was controversial, composer George Gershwin famously insisted that the cast be made up of African Americans, not whites in blackface. The original production starred a full cast of classically trained African American singers, which was unheard of at the time. For more on early American Zionism see the article, "Songs of the Zionist Movement in America."
For more examples of Yiddish popular music of the late 19th and early 20th century, see the online collection Yiddish American Popular Sheet Music.
Songs of the Mid- to Late 20th Century
The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924 established quotas to greatly reduce all immigration to the United States. The quotas reducing immigration from Eastern Europe especially affected prospective Jewish immigrants. These immigration restrictions became an issue during World War II. After immigration quotas prevented President Franklin D. Roosevelt from admitting Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust, he worked to open the United States to refugees. Many Jewish immigrants, primarily middle-class professionals and businessmen, fled to the United States in the wake of Nazi persecution during and immediately following the war. But it was not until the Immigration Act of 1964 that this quota system, which disproportionately favored white Western Europeans, was changed.
During the summer of 1948, only three years after the end of World War II, Ben Stonehill, a man devoted to Jewish culture, recorded recently-arrived Jewish survivors of the war who were temporarily housed in a hotel in upper Manhattan. The singers included men, women, and children. Stonehill collected over a thousand songs of many kinds. Learn about this treasure trove of Jewish folksong in a lecture by folklorist Miriam Isaacs at the Library of Congress in 2013, "Jewish Folk Song, Ben Stonehill, and the Hotel Marseilles: Collecting Cultural Treasures in a Post-WWII New York Lobby."
During the 20th century and continuing to the present Jewish Americans have sought to revitalize elements of their culture that had diminished as a result of the circumstances leading to immigration to the United States. For example, writer and ethnographer Semyon An-sky led an historic expedition to document Jewish culture, including folksongs, in Russia between 1911 and 1914. This resource for Jewish Americans whose ancestors came to America from Russia is celebrated in this concert by the An-sky Yiddish Heritage Ensemble at the Library of Congress in 2013: "An-sky Yiddish Heritage Ensemble: Klezmer and other Yiddish music from New York. The group, consisting of Michael Alpert, Ethel Raim, Pete Rushefsky, and Jake Shulman-Ment talk about the An-sky expedition and Jewish folk song revitalization in this discussion.
Musician and singer Flory Jagoda (1923-2021) came to the United States following World War II, and has brought her knowledge of Sephardic songs in several languages, including Sephardic Ladino, to American audiences. The music of the Sephardic (Mediterranean) Jews in America is far less well documented than that of the Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews, because the vast majority of Jews in the United States are Ashkenazi. Flory Jagoda performed at the Library of Congress twice and was celebrated by her students in another concert. She also gave a biographical interview, detailing her remarkable life. These are presented and discussed in "Homegrown Plus: Flory Jagoda," by Stephen Winick in Folklife Today (2019).
Composers who wrote for the Yiddish stage explored themes of Jewish history and experience. But, in the early twentieth century, those who composed songs for mainstream audiences usually felt that they needed to keep their Jewish identity private. In the later twentieth century and beyond there has been a return to themes from Jewish culture and history, presented for all audiences. For example, Leonard Bernstein, whose father was a Rabbi, often explored Jewish themes in his orchestral compositions. Examples that include voice are Chichester Psalms and Symphony no. 3 (Kaddish). Hashkivenu is his only work written for Sabbath liturgy. The classically trained composer Miriam Gideon wrote a number of choral works based on scripture, and wrote two works for Sabbath services, Sacred Service (for the Sabbath) and Shirat Miriam L'shabbat. Jewish influences in popular songs of the late twentieth century can be seen in musicals such as Fiddler on the Roof, by Jerry Boch and Sheldon Harnick and based on short stories by Sholom Alecheim(stage 1964, film 1971), Sol Zim's David Superstar (stage 1974), and Funny Girl (stage 1964, film 1968) based on the life of Fanny Brice written by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. The 1983 film adaptation of the play Yentl by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer added songs with lyrics by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman. (The score was by French composer Michel Legrand). As with any other ethnic group in the United States, Jewish history is American history, and more recent generations have made this discovery.
- Sephardic Jews are those whose ancestors settled in Spain and Portugal. They were expelled from those countries in the late fifteenth century and settled in several other European countries. [back to article]
- Examples of songs composed for the victims of the sinking of the HMS Titanic include "El Mole Rachmin," a prayer performed by Joseph Rosenblatt, and "Churbon Titanik," by H. Russotto and Solomon Small. The cover of "Churbon Titanik," includes a portrait of Isidor Straus, co-owner of Macy's department store, embracing his wife Ida with an angel over them. Ida refused to leave her husband as the ship was sinking. When the couple were both offered seats in the lifeboats they refused, urging other passengers to take their places. [back to article]
- The Library of Congress's American Folklife Center houses numerous collections relating to Jewish American song such as The Ruth Rubin Collection of Yiddish Folksong and Folklore, the Irene Heskes Collection of Yiddish American Popular Songs 1895-1950 (a sheet music collection), and the Henry Sapoznik Collection documenting Yiddish radio broadcasts, theater, and music. To find out more, see the finding aid for Jewish Yiddish and Hebrew Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture.
- The Milken Archive of Jewish Music. The website includes articles and online presentations from the collections.
Rubin, Ruth, Voices of a People: The Story of Yiddish Folksong. University of Illinois Press: 1974 (reprinted 2000).
- Sapoznik, Henry. "Hear, O Israel : Yiddish-American broadcasting 1925-1955." Benjamin Botkin Lecture Series, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, October 14, 2009.
- The Stations That Spoke Your Language: Radio and the Yiddish American Cultural Renaissance, a symposium presented by the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Webcasts of the panel presentations, speaker biographies, and other information concerning this event are available online.
- Search Folklife Today for blog posts about Jewish American History.
- Search the National Jukebox for Jewish songs and music.
- See articles about Ethnic Song in America