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Shalom Comrade! 
Yiddish Music in the Soviet Union 
1928–1961 
 
ausführliche Textversion / extended text version 

by Joel E. Rubin and Rita Ottens 
 
SM 16272 (CD WERGO) 

© 2005 WERGO, a division of SCHOTT MUSIC & MEDIA GmbH, Mainz, Germany / www.wergo.de 
p. 1 


Shalom Comrade! 
Yiddish Music in the Soviet Union 1928–1961 
 
Yiddish music played an important role in the cultural and political life of the Soviet Union’s several million Jews throughout the 
74 years of communist rule. Soviet Yiddish music – and Soviet Yiddish cultural expressions in general – cannot be viewed as a 
monolith. It rather developed in several, overlapping phases and constituted a series of paradoxes. It exhibited both continuities 
with Yiddish culture in pre-revolutionary Russia and represented a radical departure from those musical expressions. After the 
revolution it existed both at the official level within tightly controlled state-sponsored frameworks and in less official contexts in a 
less controlled manner, such as in restaurants, at weddings, or as unannounced encores at public concerts. It was presented by 
artists who were part of the official Soviet culture apparatus, such as the members of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater 
(“GOSET”, tracks 3, 20, 24), the Yiddish vocal ensemble Evokans (track 14), or the State Ensemble of Jewish Folk Musicians of the 
Ukrainian SSR (tracks 1, 9, 13, 16), by those who were known as specialists in Yiddish music, but who were not directly linked to 
the official Jewish ensembles, such as Sara Fibikh (track 6), Saul Liubimov (track 19) or Misha Epelbaum (tracks 11, 22), as well as 
by singers who were primarily known as classical musicians, such as Debora Pantofel-Nechetskaia (track 21) or Sofia Druker (track 
18), or even those who were not Jewish at all, represented here by the beloved folk singer Irma Iaunzem (track 4).  
The recordings included in this anthology focus on two critical phases in the history of the Soviet Union: the period from 
the October Revolution until the anti-Jewish purges which took place from 1948 until Stalin’s death in 1953 and annihilated the 
Jewish intellectual elite almost in its entirety; and the period of the post-Stalinist thaw from the mid-1950s up until the Six-Day 
War of 1967, when Soviet policy towards Jews once again became more repressive and the refusenik movement emerged. A third 
phase, the Russian Jewish revival movement which began after the Six-Day War and continued on after the dissolution of the 
Soviet Union in 1991, is more active than ever today and is beyond the scope of this anthology. 
The first period was characterized by official state support of Yiddish culture as a part of Soviet nationalities policy, which 
was extensive in the 1920s and 1930s and decreased thereafter. The nationalities policy encouraged cultural expressions of ethnic 
minorities in the Soviet Union and seems to have had a twofold purpose: first, to demonstrate a politics of tolerance towards non-
Russian ethnic minorities and, second, to encourage the process of Sovietization, which would eventually fuse the best attributes 
of the various cultures and ethnicities into a new, internationalist and proletarian Soviet culture. For example, in 1934 Maxim 
Gorky encourged writers and other cultural workers at the First Soviet Writers’ Congress to draw upon the cultural traditions of 
their respective ethnicities, and in 1937 and 1938, an All-Union Festival of Soviet Music was held (Veidlinger 2000: 6–7). It is 
clear, therefore, that the emphasis on Yiddish culture in the late 1930s was part of a larger national plan of Sovietization. 
Ironically, the main musical activity during this phase corresponded to the years of the Great Terror (1937–38), when Stalin was in 
the process of consolidating absolute power and political and cultural functionaries – including a high percentage of Jews – were 
being persecuted in high numbers. Although the overtly anti-Jewish campaign would not start until 1948, anti-Semitism may have 
been on the increase during the time leading up to World War II, as a revival of Russian chauvinist sentiments was on the rise. 
Recent archival evidence seems to indicate that the repression of ethnicities in general in the Soviet Union in the late 1930s was 
larger in scope than has been previously accounted for (Martin 2002). 
This early phase of Yiddish music in the Soviet Union was characterized – at least in the older generation of performers 
such as M. I. Rabinovich (tracks 1, 13) and Misha Epelbaum – by a continuity of folk, professional and art traditions from pre-
revolutionary Russia, such as hazzanut (cantorial singing), Yiddish folk songs, instrumental klezmer music, Hasidic nigunim, and the 
music of the early Yiddish theater. These artists were born and, some, educated prior to the October Revolution. The men were 
not only familiar with Yiddish but also Hebrew, and many had had a traditional religions education. A number of the male singers 
began their careers as meshoyrerim (synagogue choir boys) before they enjoyed operatic training and entered the musical 
mainstream. Through these experiences, many of them were able to create a synthesis of folk-traditional and art forms which so 
characterizes much of the Yiddish music produced in the Soviet period. According to the memoirs of Zinovii Shulman (tracks 2, 
17), there were already performances of Yiddish song in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, possibly even in the teens, and he still 
remembered performers from the pre-Soviet period as well, such as the Broder-zingerin (café house perfomer) Pepi Littmann in 
Odessa and his own father, the famous cantor Boris Shulman (Shulman 1967). At the same time, the school of Jewish national art 
music founded in St. Petersburg in the early years of the 20th century was continued on in a limited fashion in the Soviet Union. 
Performances of arrangements and compositions by Joel Engel, Alexander Krein and Moshe Milner (track 5) appear on the Soviet 
Yiddish recordings, and younger, academically trained composers such as Lev Pulver (tracks 3, 20, 24) and Zinovii Kompaneyets 
continued in this tradition – despite the fact that Moshe Beregovski, the main scholar and one of the main ideologues of Yiddish 
music in the Soviet Union, railed against Engel and his compatriots as belonging to the “petit bourgeois liberal-populist trend” 
(Beregovski 2000: 22). This tendency paralleled the use of the 19th century works of Abraham Goldfaden, Isaac Leybush Peretz, 
and Sholem Aleichem (track 24) by the revolutionaries of the 
Yiddish theater in the Soviet Union.  
In the post-Stalinist period, Yiddish music continued to 
serve a political purpose: used in a restricted and controlled 
fashion by the state, it was to demonstrate to both the Jews of 
the Soviet Union and to the world at large that the Stalinist terror 
was over and the Jews could once again flourish. But in this policy 
lay also the seeds of its undoing, for a simple concert in the late 
1950s and early 1960s by artists like Marina (Masha) Gordon 
(track 10), Emil Gorovets (track 25), Misha Aleksandrovich (track 
5), Anna Guzik (track 8) or, especially, Nechama Lifshitsaite (track 
26) was transformed into “an exciting event of national self-
expression and a demonstration of solidarity”, as musicologist 
Joachim Braun has written (1974: 409). This new group of 
performers was trained during the Soviet period, and some had 
© 2005 WERGO, a division of SCHOTT MUSIC & MEDIA GmbH, Mainz, Germany / www.wergo.de 
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