by Jeremiah Lockwood, Research Fellow
Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience
With two new-old musical artefacts, musician and archivist Eléonore Biezunski bridges the phenomenon of constructing musical heritage, with its undercurrent of consumerist choice and fantasy fulfilment, to thornier structures of family history and personal experience.
According to archivist and musician Eléonore Biezunski, when she began to sing Yiddish music, “Other voices were singing through me.” These musical others were visitors from beyond the world of the present who she has felt stimulating her to a sense of the liveness of the past and animating her creative practices. For Biezunski, transcription from historical sources, whether these sources are archival traces or imaginative interpolations, has served as the basis for musical practices located in the present.
Biezunski is professionally known as a sound archivist at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, and as a performing violinist, singer and bandleader active in the New York klezmer scene. The archive is central to both her scholarship and her artistic pursuits, but her research is not relegated only to old documents and recordings. In this essay I will discuss two musical artefacts that Biezunski has recently presented that give substance to her imaginative engagement with ghosts and memory. The first is her song Tshemodan (Yiddish, Suitcase) which was inspired by her relationship to Yiddish poet and folk singer Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman (1920-2013). The second is a recently discovered cassette tape of a field recording made by her maternal grandfather Moishe Rozenbaumas (1922-2016) in 1982 or 1983 of his father Yitzkhak Rozenbaumas singing cantorial music, shortly before Yitzkhak’s death. These pieces of music are representative of Biezunski’s archival approach to preservation and creativity. The stories associated with the music point to the role of family history, serendipity and the pursuit of the numinous in her work, elements that are key to a phenomenological account of her approach to music making and that have resonances in the music-making practices of artists who work in historically informed genres.
The cassette tape of Rozenbaumas recently by discovered Isabelle Rozenbaumas, the granddaughter of Yitzkhak and mother of Biezunski, when she was visiting her family in Paris. The cassette came to light during a cleaning spree and might have been thrown out without her intervention. Like many Jewish music artefacts, the tape, labeled simply “mon père” (French, my father), could just as easily have become ephemera as treasure. Its preservation and subsequent digitization were dependent on Biezunski’s engaged relationship to the past.
The cassette has a troubled past and sits uncomfortably in Biezunski’s family history. Biezunski’s grandfather Moishe was born in Memel (present-day Klaipeda) and grew up in Telz, Lithuania and survived the Holocaust by escaping to the Soviet Union through a series of acts marked by daring, perseverance and luck. The story of his survival is documented in his memoirs, The Odyssey of an Apple Thief, recently published in an English translation.  Even before the war, Moishe’s life was marked by misfortune. After the stock market crash of 1929, his father Yitzkhak lost his money and abandoned the family, leaving his pregnant wife and three small children behind. Yitzkhak moved to Paris where he remarried after the war and started a new family. Meanwhile, back in Telz, young Moishe left school at the age of nine and started working to support the household. Later, every member of the family was murdered in the Holocaust, except for Moishe who escaped alone. Although his father played a bitter role in his early life, after the war Yitzkhak was able to help Moishe and his young family relocate to Paris where they established themselves after the violent and destabilizing war years. Later, after his third marriage, Yitzkhak moved to Israel, where his son visited him when he was already ill with cancer. At the time of this reunion, the cassette tape of Yitzkhak singing was made.
Apparently, Yitzkhak had worked as a cantor years earlier in Europe. The tape documents him singing elements of his cantorial repertoire that establish his professional identity. At the beginning of the recording, we hear Moishe flatteringly introducing his father as a “bavuste khazn,” (Yiddish, well-known cantor), although it is unclear to whom Yitzkhak would have been well known. Yitzkhak begins his performance with Yehi Rotson, the prayer for the new month that is chanted in synagogue on the Sabbath preceding the first day of the Jewish month. Popularly referred to in Yiddish as the rosh khodesh bentshn (blessing for the new month), this piece is a staple of cantorial repertoire. Yitzkhak sings the prayer text using a minor modality that is familiar from popular commercial cantorial recordings and textual sources such as Abraham Baer’s seminal 1877 cantorial anthology, Baal T’fillah,  however his version is personal and improvisatory, apparently not a “cover” from a specific popular published source. Yitzkhak introduces the next piece, in Yiddish, as a composition of the “cantor and composer from Vienna, the greatest cantor, who was named Kwartin,” claiming Kwartin as a Central European cantor, rather than a Russian, based on his birth in the Ukraine, or as an American, despite his having lived half his life in the United States. He sings the 1908 record Tsur Yisroel, one of Kwartin’s best known pieces from before World War One that was performed and reinterpreted by cantors including Moshe Koussevitzky  and Goldie Malavsky. He then sings Kol Nidre, another cantorial standard, focusing on the wordless vocalise introductory section, only singing a few sentences from the middle of the prayer text. These three pieces present Yitzkhak as a competent and knowledgeable practitioner in a cantorial style shaped by textual sources and the sounds of commercial cantorial records of the early 20th century gramophone-era style.
Yitzkhak’s recorded performance concludes with a lengthy excerpt from the Passover Seder, shifting gears from the professional cantorial repertoire to sing music that would be made at home. He chants from the Haggadah, the special prayer book for the Passover Seder, that is typically performed by the family as part of a festive celebration and feast held on the first two nights of the holiday. His performance of the Seder melodies reflects localized variants on the Ashkenazi “standard,” beginning with a version of the traditional melody for the Kiddush (Hebrew, blessing over wine) that starts the domestic ritual. Working in order, Yitzkhak chants the “Four Questions,” a ritualized introduction to telling the story of the exodus from Egypt that is typically sung by the youngest child present. Yitzkhak’s melody for the Four Questions differs from the “standard” Ashkenazi melody that is sung using the chant for the Mishna, sometimes referred to as lernen shteyger (Yiddish, the style of chanting while studying religious texts).  Instead, his version is similar to a commonly sung Yiddish language variant of the Four Questions, using the Hebrew prayer text and not its Yiddish translation.
Presumably the Haggadah chant would have been familiar to Yitzkhak’s son from the years before his father left home when the family had held family seders together. However, in this recording, it is the father and not the son who chants the Four Questions. Biezunski mentioned that her grandfather never sang until he was very near the very end of his life. Even when he was a soldier fighting the Nazis in the legendary 16th Lithuanian Brigade he would not join in with his comrades as they sang to ease their arduous marches. Biezunski speculated that her grandfather’s blockage around singing, in contrast to other aspects of his rich creativity, related to the emotional scars inflicted by his father, the “well known cantor.” She told me, “I don’t know if my grandfather ever forgave his father.”
For Biezunski, the music on this cassette, and the fact of its very existence, seems to signify as a concrete detail legitimating her experience of voices from the past singing with her. She said she wanted to explore “what would happen if I step away from forgiving or not forgiving.” Rather than a memento of old wounds, the cassette seems to act for Biezunski as a personal pathway into a desired cultural history. Rather than a trace left by strangers concerning a history bounded off by divides of geography and time, this artefact is a pathway into the life of her beloved family, potentially offering a chance to do her work of creative archival exploration on the body of her own family tree.
Biezunski has accessed Jewish musical traditions through the female members of her family and through elder Jewish women who have played important roles in her aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual education. She grew up hearing her grandmother, Rosa Rozenbaumas, sing Yiddish ballads that she had learned from an aunt, Feyge-Heyne, in Lithuania “who knew thousands of songs.” Her mother, Isabelle Rozenbaumas, is an accomplished Yiddishist, translator, historian and documentary film maker who exposed Biezunski early in life to the world of Yiddish language and culture enthusiasts. Starting at the age of five and extending into her early adulthood, Biezunski studied violin with Shifra Lipsky-Sluchin, a violinist, educator and music therapist.  Lipsky-Sluchin’s collection of meditation gongs would resonate sympathetically as Biezunski played the violin, expanding her sense of her musical voice being in dialogue with a world of unseen vibrations and mystically charged possibilities. In 2005 0r 2006, while doing field research on Yiddish culture in New York, Biezunski met Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman (1920-2013), the renowned Yiddish poet and folksinger. Like Biezunski’s grandfather, Schaechter-Gottesman had fled Nazi occupation, enduring dislocation and violence during the war years.  Eventually Schaechter-Gottesman emigrated to the United States where she and her family established themselves as luminaries of the Yiddish-speaking intelligentsia. Schaechter-Gottesman’s music, poetry and persona resonated deeply for Biezunski. “She had this experience of displacement I could relate to because I knew my grandparents so well. She felt that she was not a victim. She built this world around her.”
The feeling of connection Schaechter-Gottesman aroused in Biezunski bore unexpected fruit. On November 28, 2013, Biezunski was awakened in the middle of the night by words of poetry in Yiddish. She got up and wrote them down. This poem became the lyrics for her song Tshemodan. The lyrics presents an image of a journey begun under duress with worldly possessions left behind:
Nem zhe mit Dayn pekele Ofy di vegn krume Nem zhe dayn pekele! Halb leydik iz der tshemodan Nor shver is dokh dayn harts. Take with you your little bundle On the torturous roads Take your little bundle! The suitcase is half empty But your heart is heavy. 
The next morning, Biezunski awoke to the news that Beyle had died the night before at almost precisely the time when she had woken up with these bittersweet words in her head. Biezunski views this poem as the product of a spirit visitation that Schachter-Gottesman bestowed upon her in her final release of energy into this world. Later, over a period of years, Biezunski has set the song to music and recently has begun to perform it in her concerts. With its lulling staggered triplet ostinato, played on a ukulele, and long sustained notes in the vocal melody, Tshemodan is reminiscent of Romanian lautari song. Biezunski offered a list of influences that went into the composition, including Mexican-Canadian songwriter Lhassa, French percussionist-vocalist André Minvielle, and Brazilian singer-songwriter Chico Buarque, that bespeak the breadth of her musical interests. The sparse instrumentation and narrow pitch range of the melody foreground the lyrics, pulling the listener into the drama of a tale of migration. The song breathes with the romance of memory across time, geography and the divide of mortality.
Both Tshemodan and the cassette of her grandfather are gifts, in Biezunski’s estimation, in that they both came to her without premeditation. The gift she received in her dream emerges from her lifelong work of fostering relationships with elder Jewish women artists. The cassette tape, an artefact from the “world of our fathers” bears a more tortured and contentious history. Biezunski noted that her great-grandfather, who sang religious music, did not always act in an ethical manner. And yet, Biezunski attests that she finds listening to the music on the tape to be validating in her pursuit of an identity as a Jewish artist. She told me, “Even though the relationship is difficult, there is a sound there that has to do with forgiveness…It is part of peace making.” Biezunski’s music making and her archival research both share a quality as reparative practices that engage the traumas of violence, displacement and personal tragedy. Her work promotes elements of Yiddish culture that are obscure or ephemeral and opens the potential for them to receive new life through creative practices.
“Heritage,” as Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has argued, “is the transvaluation of the obsolete, the mistaken, the outmoded, the dead…Despite a discourse of conservation…heritage produces something new in the present that has recourse to the past.”  The two pieces of music under discussion here entwine the image of heritage with new experiences of an aesthetic and social nature. The song Tshemodan bears a connection to the past publicized by the uncanny story of its creation; but rather than a document of her relationship with Schaechter-Gottesman fixated on preservation, the song is a dynamic product of Biezunski’s sustained path as a musician. The cassette tape appears to document a proud family legacy; the fact that the music it contains emerges from the prestigious all-male world of the professional cantorate obscures the fact that it is a document of an ethically compromised relationship. Restored from its place as discarded ephemera, the cassette emerges as a point of suture in a multi-generational family rupture.
Biezunski’s work seems to be driven in part by an impulse to address the continuous tensions that accrue in lives that were lived in the shadow of trauma. She told me that she is seeking “to honor people’s memories without carrying their trauma as something that drags us down. Trauma is all around us. We have to find appropriate acknowledgement. It lives with us. It is part of the matter of life.” Drawing on the legacy of her grandfather, who channeled a life of extreme struggle into storytelling and literature, Biezunski is developing a path as an artist and scholar who grapples with memory, seeking a felicitous expression that embraces the potentials of music to tell multiple stories at once, pushing past ethical binaries that foreshorten the possibility of healing and reconciliation. Through archival delving, exploration of family history and a sensitivity to the productive influence of dreams, Biezunski is producing a model of engagement with historical sources. Her work as an archivist is exemplary of one strand of the contemporary klezmer scene, that has embraced scholarly research and that celebrates the work of a handful of elder representatives of Yiddish culture. Biezunski has extended the reach of this approach by incorporating problematic family legacies into the mix of Jewish cultural elements she is reckoning with. With these two new-old musical artefacts, Biezunski tentatively moves in the direction of bridging the phenomenon of constructing musical heritage, with its undercurrent of consumerist choice and fantasy fulfilment, to thornier structures of family history and personal experience.
1. See Moishe Rozenbaumas, The Odyssey of an Apple Thief (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2019).
2. Abraham Baer, Baal T’fillah oder Der practische Vorbeter (Gothenburg: Eigenthum des Herausgebers, 1877), 142.
3. In an autobiographical essay, Koussevitzky mentioned singing Kwartin’s “Tsur Yisroel” as part of his repertoire in the very earliest days of his career. See Akiva Zimmerman, “Moshe Koussevitzky (1899–1966) in Vilna, Warsaw, and Russia,” Polin Studies in Polish Jewry 32 (2020), 32.
4. See Sholom Kalib, The Musical Tradition of the Eastern European Synagogue, Volume One Introduction: History and Definition, Part Two Music (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2002), 19.
5. See “About Shifra Sluchin,” Gongs Chakras Yoga [website]. Accessed October 8, 2021.
6. See “Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman,” The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women, Jewish Women’s Archive. [website] Accessed October 8, 2021.
7. Eléonore Biezunski generously shared her own translation of the song lyrics with me. Her original composition is copyright protected.
8. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 149.