Conversations: The Kwartin Project

16 min read
Conversations: Words and Music from the American Jewish Experience_The Kwartin Project: Mayn Lebn
Art by Jacob Lockwood

Mayn Lebn, Chapters 1 and 4

by Jeremiah Lockwood, Research Fellow
Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience

In the narration of his life story, Kwartin presents a serious childhood illness as an emotional pedagogy that trained him to communicate the traumas of the Jewish community.

Cantor Zawel Kwartin (1874-1952) was one of the first international stars of Jewish music, his celebrity fueled in large part by his gramophone records. Kwartin’s autobiography, Mayn Lebn (My Life), was published in Philadelphia in 1952, the same year as his death. Over the course of this next year, Conversations will be offering regular updates from my work-in-progress translation project on Mayn Lebn. Kwartin’s voice as an author offers a window into the creative life of a cantorial super-star and a uniquely rich view of the world of Jewish music in the early 20th century. Mayn Lebn follows his life path from a Chassidic family in a small town, to his professional pulpit jobs in big cities in Russia and central Europe, and later to New York City, along the way lighting upon the main geographic and intellectual centers of the Yiddish-speaking diaspora. The stories in Kwartin’s book are invaluable for scholars of Jewish music and history, but, as readers will discover, are also extremely funny and charming. Mayn Lebn stands on its own merits as a work of belletristic literature in a folk-voiced vein. While a handful of quotations from Mayn Lebn have appeared in the Journal of Synagogue Music over the years, my translation will offer material never before available in English.

Mayn Lebn takes a magisterial tone, looking back on a long and highly successful career as a khazn bay yiden (cantor for the Jews), chronologically approaching the various stages of his life, from his birth in the small Ukrainian town of Khonorod in 1874, through his slow and painstaking process of becoming a professional cantor, active in the pulpit, on stage and on gramophone records in Europe and the United States. Kwartin details both his magnificent successes and his devastatingly personal setbacks and trials in his work and personal life. In the first chapter, presented here, Kwartin ties his abilities as a cantor to his traumatic childhood and his experiences of pain and isolation brought on by illness.

A normative evaluation of cantorial performative, expressed in the writings of cantors and rabbis, holds that cantors are responsible for expressing a communal experience of emotion in prayer, often centered around a shared sense of Jewish historical trauma. The sense of crisis in the community reached a heightened pitch during the years after World War I and the devastation of Jewish communities especially in small towns in the former Pale of Settlement in Russia and Poland. In the interwar period, the center of Jewish recording moved from Central Europe to the United States. Cantors in America in this period, Kwartin a leader among them, offered a sound of retrospective melancholy on gramophone records. Their recorded work drew on a longstanding association of cantorial performance with emotional catharsis and memorialization. The expressive powers of cantors were expected to elicit tears, initiating a catharsis intended to act on listeners beyond their ability to control. In the classic work of scholarship Jewish Music in its Historical Development, musicologist A. Z. Idelsohn describes how cantorial performance seemingly defies the boundaries of individual emotional autonomy. Citing the authority of a 17th century rabbi, Idelsohn wrote:

“Rabbi Selig Margolis of Kalisch describes that quality in the Eastern chazzanuth which tended to stir the people and move them to tears. He claims that the Eastern chazzanim were capable of inspiring people with their singing much more than the rabbis by their preaching; that it frequently happened that people who did not even cry when their parents died and had no desire to pray, were moved to tears and repentance through the touching song of the chazzan.[1]”

In the chapter translated below, Kwartin describes embodied pain as a formative element that helped him develop his cantorial charisma. His vulnerability and experience of suffering are described as intimately tied to his expressive powers. I read Kwartin’s story as suggestive of the ways in which emotion in Jewish liturgical experience are both socially constructed and learned. Kwartin seems to presume that there are communal expectations regarding forms of bodily expressive behaviors associated with prayer leading. Being able to channel the experience of pain, emotional or otherwise, into music was a professional quality and a form of expressiveness that a cantor had to learn in order to be able to perform. Kwartin states that his brush with death as a young child served a pedagogical function. Through his ordeal he became intimate with suffering and achieved the kind of emotional virtuosity cited by Idelsohn, developing a repertoire of intimate experiences he could channel into a musical style. In this way he learned to elicit tears—a key requirement of cantors, whose emotional efficacy was desired both as an aesthetic and as a devotional technology that would initiate experiences of catharsis and transcendence.[2] In his own words, his childhood illness taught him to be “obstinate in opposition to the angel of death,” preparing him for his role as spokesperson for the community in leading penitential prayers and interceding on the behalf of the community in seeking divine mercy. Kwartin frames his story about a physical ordeal as a narrative of emotional education. This story recalls the discussion of the “politics of emotion” in the writing of anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod, whose work foregrounds “the assumption that (emotion) is a sociocultural construct [and] … the many ways emotion gets its meaning and force from its location and performance in the public realm of discourse.”[3] In the narration of his life story, Kwartin leverages the facts of biography to create a recognizable image of the cantorial persona, as understood by himself and his imagined readers. His childhood is reconfigured as a stage in creating his artistic persona. Kwartin presents his experience as training in learning how to stage the experience of collective trauma that, he presumes, will be understood by his readers to be a quality demanded of a cantor.

Zawel Kwartin’s 1928 classic, Tiher Rabbi Yishmael. In this piece taken from the Eileh Ezkoroh section of the Yom Kippur prayers that memorialize ancient Jewish martyrs, Kwartin sets a medieval liturgical text recounting the story of a confrontation between Rabbi Yishmael and God. Yishmael demands an answer as to why the pious and righteous are made to suffer; he receives no reply. Kwartin calls upon the historical precedent of Yishmael’s confrontational approach as a model for the role of the cantor as an intermediary praying on behalf of the community in the face of tragic loss on an unimaginable scale.

Mayn Lebn

By Zawel Kwartin

Chapter 1

As soon as I was born, they said I wouldn’t live

I have lived to the age of seventy-five years, thank God. For fully six decades I have been a cantor for the Jews. In every corner of the world where Jews live and real Jewish melodies still resound with the heartfelt sound of home and generations past—there I have been and have sung and offered comfort to Jewish hearts.

I would like to cast a glance backwards to tell you the story of where a Jew like me comes from, what juices nourished me and from which springs I have drunk that gave me the strength to be a shliakh tsibur (emissary of the community) for over sixty years, to sing out and express through prayer Jewish pain and tears, and at the same time to voice the Jewish hope to live once again in the eternal Jewish land. Thanks to the Creator of the universe, I have lived to experience this. Many of my readers may be interested to learn that I was born a “preemie,”[4] before my due date. I was born at three pounds and three ounces; in those times, before the invention of incubators, it was a foregone conclusion that my life was forfeit. It was assumed that any minute could be my death.

The question of how to keep me alive was a tragic one for my parents, who had already lost two children, twins, who were born premature. I was such a weak little creature that I couldn’t figure out how to wring milk from my mother’s breast. For five endless months I was sustained with sugar water, lightened with a few drops of milk.

You can imagine what a “strong man” I grew up to be from such a diet. Even after several months, everyone assumed I would die. My mother and father left no corner unsearched, but there were no doctors in the small town where I was born. So, they tried taking me to the old Jewesses and the old non-Jewish women, each of whom had their own “grandma-style” remedy intended to keep me alive.

After bathing me in the incense of various wild grasses, and after submerging me in brews made from various herbs, and after incanting me with various spells, they found a fresh batch of old women. They told my mother to take me to a nearby town, Boslev,[5] where there were Tatars.[6] The Tatars had letters written in red ink. One would soak the page in a glass of water and when the water turned red it was to be drunk as a remedy to ensure long life.

The old Tatars and magicians only achieved one thing: they emptied my father’s pockets. For all these remedies, I didn’t get a hair healthier.[7] For long hours I lay in bed with a wracked head and peered over to our ancestors in the next world…

The tears of my parents were indescribable. I exhausted them so thoroughly that their spirits broke from seeing my life in constant danger, until they simply wished me released into death. The hourly struggle for my life lasted two years. The burial society in my town had already calculated in advance how much whiskey they could buy from the fees for my funeral. How it was to end was known only to the Heavens, where it had been decreed that I, Zebulon son of Tuvye Hacohen, would remain on this sinful earth. I would yet produce good merchandise for the record companies, for the radios and the concert halls; and I would even give joy to the souls of my Jewish brothers with a little shakhris, a little musaf, a weekday mincha-mariv, a Yom Kippur Katan, not to speak of the High Holidays prayer leading?[8]

My weak little body inclined in the direction of life and in the eyes of my parents, faith and hope was growing that they had snatched me from the hands of the angel of death. That did not mean, however, that everything was suddenly going smoothly for me, like for other children. My illness continued to worry me. My troubles resembled the well-known “English Disease.”[9] My hands and feet were paralyzed, my bones were weak, lacking the vigor of life. It was assumed that even if I survived, I would remain a cripple for the rest of my life.

As for standing, walking or crawling, these were out of the question. The whole day I lay in place, and as soon as my mother was occupied with the other children or had to help my father in the store, my only caretaker was the maid servant, who would have just as soon seen me dead as alive.

It seems that as a child I was already obstinate in opposition to the angel of death. I vanquished my sorrows. A beam of light shined down on my parents’ house. True, I was a wan child, without a drop of blood in my face, with blue veins showing in my skinny limbs. But there was a hope that I would live, and, significantly, I began to gain weight; with every ounce I gained a bit of health returned to my tortured mother.

Throughout this time my parent’s material condition greatly improved, and the tone in the house was doubly blessed. Besides me, the girl born after me and my elder brother and all the children in the family were growing up healthy. My parents were able to enjoy some satisfaction and pride after all the suffering they had gone through for us. I am now coming to the point when I began to attend cheder (religious school for young boys). But before I paint a picture of my cheder years, I must stop for a while at the home of my parents.


While the most notable co-territorial stylistic source for cantorial music is Western art music, especially opera, Kwartin suggests that non-elite music of Ukrainian peasants was a central part of his musical world.

The first chapters of Mayn Lebn describe the challenges and piety of small-town Jews and the socially and musically intertwined life of village, country and city. As an imaginative and musically attuned youth, Kwartin’s inspirations crossed divides of generation and identity. In the selection I present today he offers intimate recollections of being profoundly moved by the sounds of his grandfather’s unusual and evocatively described prayer music, and by non-Jewish shepherd songs played on the sopilka, a Ukrainian folk flute.

While the piquancy of Kwartin’s depiction of his elderly grandfather accompanying himself with the guitar during prayer stands out as an unforgettable narrative element, the prominent inclusion of his interaction with a shepherd flute player is also a significant detail. As musicologist Zev Feldman notes in his framework for the analysis of sources of Jewish musical repertoires, “co-territorial” repertoires of musical pieces and styles shared between Jewish and non-Jewish musicians was a key element in Jewish instrumental folk music for weddings. [10] In the cantorial context, the most notable co-territorial stylistic source is Western art music, especially opera. Kwartin’s story suggests that non-elite music of Christian peasants was a significant part of his musical world. Other cantorial sources also cite peasant music as a source of inspiration. For instance, David Roitman (1884-1943), another Ukrainian-born gramophone-era cantor, writes in his memoirs that singing with itinerant non-Jewish street musicians was his first form of musical performance. [11] While the connection of cantorial music to Slavic folk music is presumed and taken for granted in the writings of some cantors and musicologists, [12] the formal connections between these musics have not been formally analyzed. In the translation presented here, I have skipped Chapters 2 and 3 which offer background information about Kwartin’s family and town. In Chapter 2, “My parents’ house,” Kwartin sketches portraits of his father and mother and of his hometown of Khonorod, in Ukraine, which he reports was home to 80 Jewish families, most of whom were small time merchants and shop keepers, in a town of 10,000 non-Jewish peasant farmers. Chapter 3, “The Melaveh Malkah (end of Sabbath meal) in my father’s house,” relates how Saturday nights were an opportunity for merchants to discuss their prospects at the fair that was held every Sunday. Kwartin’s father, one of the more prosperous members of the community, would extend lines of credit to his neighbors to help them pursue business opportunities. Kwartin emphasizes the ways in which the community worked together to function in the face of scarcity and suggests that mutual aid was a sign of the spiritual refinement of Jews in the past. In chapter 4, Kwartin focuses on his musical awakenings as a young boy.

Kwartin’s 1922 recording of Rozo D’Shabbos prominently includes flute in its orchestral accompaniment, perhaps an echo of the pastoral sopilka.
The sopilka continues to play a role in Ukrainian folk music, represented here in a professionalized folk ensemble led by Maksim Popichuk in 2011.

Chapter 4

My grandfather observed khatsos with singing and playing the guitar [13]

            The memory of my grandfather Tuvye is deeply engrained from my earliest years of childhood. He was an exceptionally pious Jew, a stringent observer of the mitzvahs (religious commandments), who stood all day in his dry goods store making his living, but whose thoughts were always on how to better serve the Master of the universe.

            He was strictly observant of the commandment to say one hundred blessings every day. To make sure he didn’t lose count of the hundred blessings he would take numerous sips of whiskey over the course of the day, and for each he would make a blessing. [14]

            Once when I was a little boy, I was invited to spend several days at my grandmother and grandfather’s house. They put me to bed early, but in the middle of the night I woke up. I heard singing accompanied by an instrument.

            I opened my eyes and by the light of a little candle I saw my grandfather engrossed in a holy book, humming a sad melody and accompanying himself, strumming his fingers across the strings of an instrument that I later learned was a guitar.

            These were heavenly sounds to my childish ears. The sadness of my grandfather’s melody took hold of me. I wrapped myself deeper in my bedding and tried not to let my grandfather know I heard him singing and playing. I lay there a long time, storing up memories for a lifetime of these remarkable sounds that bore the sadness of an entire people in its exile from its land and its unending troubles.

            Later, my grandfather put away the book and switched to a happier, more lively melody. He must have been reciting psalms. Cheerful and hopeful sounds now came from the guitar, as though my grandfather was trying to bring cheer to the pitch dark of night. Just as the clouds do not always rule our skies, our streets, too, will also receive their share of rejoicing…

            Lulled by the comforting sounds I fell asleep; I have no idea how long my grandfather was sitting there. I do know, however, that after my chance encounter hearing my grandfather’s nighttime song, I was possessed—the sounds would not let go of me. I remember both the sad tones, and the joyful feeling of that weeknight. Both feelings together formed a part of my consciousness and had a deep impact on my cantorial career.

            That khatsos in my grandfather’s house left traces in me that lasted beyond my childhood days. A strange, secretive desire took hold of me; I wanted to sing and hum the melodies I had heard from my grandfather. I also wanted to have an instrument like my grandfather’s so I could play the melodies that I had heard on that unforgettable night in his house. But how one could be acquired, I did not know.

            When I went to cheder the next day, I saw a boy with a little flute. [15] When I got a good look at it, I saw this was a sopilka with eight holes made of wood that the boy had seen played by the shepherds in the Khonorod pastures. [16]

            “When you hear it, Zawel,” the boy said to me, “the way the shepherds play the sopilka! It makes your skin quiver all over.”

            As soon as I heard these words, I decided that the next day I would not go to school and instead would go with our servant maid who took our cow out to pasture, and there I would find a shepherd.

            The next day I woke up at four in the morning. I provisioned myself with a piece of challah that was left over from Shabbos, and I went out with our maid along with our cow to the pasture.  When the shepherd saw the piece of white bread his eyes lit up. I asked him to play the sopilka for me. He didn’t need to be asked twice, and the sounds from his little flute were the most beautiful music in the world for me.

            Later I asked him how to make a sopilka. To make it, you need to take branches from a willow tree and bore holes into it. This must be done with a pick or a knife, something that has a blade on a wooden shaft.

            Now there arose the question of where I could acquire the six kopecks I would need for a pocket knife. One minute I took the notion to sneak into the cash register in my father’s store and take out six kopeks. But I had to give up that idea. First of all, wouldn’t that be stealing? My father and my teacher in cheder would read my crime in my guilty countenance. And if my father saw me with a knife, wouldn’t he ask where I had gotten it? And since one is forbidden to lie, I would have to tell him the truth, that I had stolen the six kopecks.

            I went about feeling bitter and unsure what to do. Once during a market day when the merchants lay out all of their wares, I wandered amongst the precious merchandise, such as: combs, zippers, harmonicas, dolls, hairpins, and there I saw my longed-for wood pick. My heart clenched. I saw my beloved joy but could not attain it. Sitting in cheder, I could only think about the wood pick I had seen in the merchant’s stall. Then I felt a fiery slap from the teacher and a scream: “Nitwit! Why are you sitting there like a golem?” [17]

            However, I was soon destined for my dream to be fulfilled. My uncle David, the richest of my father’s brothers, came to Khonorod and observing how I sat around dejected, he asked me what was up. I poured out my heart and he gave me the six kopecks—and I became the owner of a pocketknife.

            That very day when I got free from cheder, I ran to the brook where the willows grow, and I cut thick and thin reeds. I worked for a long time until I was satisfied that I had made a sopilka just like the shepherd had explained to me. I played all the melodies that bounced around in my childish head on that sopilka; there was not a child in the world who was happier than I was then.


NOTES

1. A.Z. Idelsohn, Jewish Music in Its Historical Development (New York: Schocken Books, 1967 [1929], 194.

2. For examples of discussions of the social function of cantorial emotionalism in the writings of luminaries of the Jewish rabbinic elite and literary intelligentsia, see Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The Vocation of the Cantor: An Essay,” (New York: American Conference of Cantors, 1966); Shmuel Yosef Agnon, A City in its Fullness (New Milford, CT: Toby Press, 2016). Both Heschel and Agnon foreground the qualities of cantors as arbiters of the experience of penitence and exemplars of a kind of Jewish spiritual purity that is far removed from the gritty details of ambition and striving in Kwartin’s narrative, and yet Kwartin shares their ideological stance about the spiritual function of cantorial emotionalism in synagogue ritual.

3. Catherine Lutz and Lila Abu-Lughod, eds. Language and the Politics of Emotion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 7.

4. Kwartin uses the Yiddish word zibele, a diminutive of zibn, the number seven, a Yiddish term indicating a baby born before term, at seven months.

5. A Yiddish place name for the town of Boguslav, Kiev Province, Ukraine, which had a population of almost 7,000 Jews at the end of the 19th century. See the Boguslav page on the Kehilalinks website:  https://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/boguslav/default.asp.

6. Tatars are a Muslim ethnic group of Central Asian origin who resided in parts of the same region of the Russian Empire that constituted the Jewish Pale of Settlement in the late imperial period. Moshe Idel has argued that Eastern European Hasidism emerged from a cultural-geographic “contact zone” between Europe and Asia and that Jewish religious life was influenced by the practices and beliefs of Animist Tatars and Muslim Turks. See Mosshe Idel, “18th Century Earl Hasidism: Between Europe and Asia,” Studia Et Acta Historiae Iudaeorum Romaniae, XII (2015) https://www.academia.edu/21791552/8_TH_CENTURY_EARLY_HASIDISM_BETWEEN_EUROPE_AND_ASIA

7. Although Kwartin gives the tale of his parents seeking aid from wonder workers a skeptical and humorous spin, shaped by his urban experiences and exposure to modern education, magic and wonder healers played a major role in small town Jewish life in Eastern Europe. See Rechtman, Deutsch and Barrera (2021), The Lost World of Russia’s Jews: Ethnography and Folklore in the Pale of Settlement (Bloomington: Indiana University Press).

8. Kwartin enumerates the different prayer services, moving from the humble weekday morning service to the formally complex and prestigious High Holidays prayers, using affectionate diminutives for each, indicating his intimacy and ease with the life of community and prayer.

9. The “English Disease” was a common name for rickets in the 19th century, a childhood illness caused by malnutrition. See Zhang et al. “’English Disease’: Historical Notes on Rickets, the Bone-Lung Link and Child Neglect Issues,” Nutrients, 8 (11): 722.

10. See Zev Feldman, Klezmer: Music Memory and History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

11. David Roitman’s memoirs exist only in manuscript. I was privileged to be given a copy by Roitman’s grandson, David Spiegel.

12. See Eliyahu Schliefer, “Current Trends of Liturgical Music in the Ashkenazi Synagogue,” The World of Music 37, no. 1 (1995), 60; Bożena Muszkalska, “The Art of Cantorial Singing in the Polish Territories,” Polin Studies in Polish Jewry, 32 (2020), 46.

13. Tikkun khatsos is a midnight prayer service instituted by 16th century kabbalists in the school of Rabbi Isaac Luria. Khatsos consists of recitation of prayer of mourning and psalms and is focused on memorialization of the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem and on themes of longing for redemption. See https://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/1321935/jewish/Up-at-Midnight.htm

14. Saying blessings is a major part of Jewish religious observance. Besides the blessings that are part of the texts of the prescribed prayer services, blessings are said before and after eating and a variety of other acts. A Talmudic statement suggesting that a person should make 100 blessings a day has led to a custom of putting this goal into practice. Kwartin humorously juxtaposes his grandfather’s tippling with the image of rigid consistency in religious observance.

15. Cheder is the Yiddish term for a one-room schoolhouse where boys would be trained to read the Hebrew alphabet and learn basic religious texts. The word derives from the Hebrew word for room.

16. The sopilka is a Ukrainian folk instrument of the flute family that has six to ten holes, associated with shepherds. See Nettl, Bruno, Ruth M. Stone, James Porter, and Timothy Rice, Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 8: Europe (New York: Garland Pub., 1998): 846.

17. In Jewish folklore, a golem is a man made of clay, brought to life through the power of mystical names of God. Calling someone a golem is an insult meant to conjure the image of a mute creature lacking its own intelligence.

Related

Conversations: The Malavskys, a family portrait
A hair-raising gender riot in a synagogue in Brooklyn helped drive the Malavsky’s out of the pulpit and onto the borscht belt circuit, creating new opportunities for female leadership in prayer and new settings for ritual in the late 1940s.
Conversations: Dispatches from Brooklyn
Working with elder Chassidic women, musician and activist Ira Temple encountered transcendent possibilities and complicating limitations in attempting to construct a community centered on female musical desires and homosocial flourishing.
An Introduction to "Conversations: Words and Music from the American Jewish Experience"
Conversations aims to open a dialogue about the persistence of memory and change in Jewish music and the use of the sounds of the past to address keenly felt needs in the present.