The Kwartin Project: A happy surprise ending

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

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

When the descendants of a legendary cantor heard of a research project celebrating their revered ancestor, a surprising treasure was revealed

Regular readers of Conversations may recall that in the first months of the blog, many of my posts were dedicated to annotated translations of Mayn Lebn, the autobiography of the revered cantor and early star of Jewish records, Zawel Kwartin (1874-1952). Mayn Lebn is a wonderful primary document of Jewish life in Europe and the United States in the early years of the twentieth century. The anecdotes Kwartin crafted offer a unique look into the development of a cantorial career, and the ascendancy of the gramophone era of “golden age” cantors. Kwartin’s eye for detail and his rich memory of the personalities that populated his world growing up in Ukraine offer a fascinating cultural history of the lived experience of cantors and their audiences.

My hope was that over the course of the year of my Fellowship with the Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience at UCLA, I would translate a sizeable excerpt of the book. I did not expect to have a complete translation at the end of the year, but for unforeseen reasons, my goals with this project have radically altered. I stopped work on my translation of Mayn Lebn, yet nonetheless am very happy to announce that the Milken Center will now offer a complete translation of Kwartin’s book, freely available to the public!

What transpired is that Kwartin’s descendants had independently funded a translation of Mayn Lebn. The work was done by Hershl Hartman, a native Yiddish speaker, accomplished translator and educational director at the Sholem Community in California. The translation was undertaken for the benefit of the family, never published and was completely unavailable to the public.

Hartman became aware of my translation project on the blog. He was not pleased and expressed concern that my project might go against the wishes of the Kwartin family, causing me a great deal of embarrassment and consternation. He connected me to the elder living member of the Kwartin, Ruth Kwartin, Zawel’s daughter-in-law. Fortunately for me (and you), my fears of being unmasked as an unwanted interloper could not have been further from the truth. Ruth, and all of the members of the family to who I have had the privilege to speak, were kindly supportive of my project. I am very pleased to announce that this connection has led to the donation of the translation by the Kwartin family to the Milken Center. [1]


In the process of discussing the donation of Mayn Lebn to the Milken Center with the family, I had the pleasure of talking with three members of the family and conducting interviews with them. Ruth Kwartin, who I spoke to first, was the wife of Saul Kwartin, Zawel’s son who was born in 1927 while the family was living in Palestine. The Kwartin’s moved to Brooklyn when Saul was 10 years old. Saul went to public schools in New York and later became a lawyer.

Ruth was born in Stamford, Connecticut in a family with no tradition of cantors. In fact, in the Reform synagogue she grew up in she had never heard a cantor, let alone a “star” cantor like her future husband’s father. After her marriage to Saul, people would express admiration for her famous father-in-law. Ruth, a charming and funny lady, said, “Zawel meant nothing to me. I didn’t know what they were talking about.” Ruth met Saul in 1954, two years after the death of his father, whom Ruth said he had adored. She did, however, know Genia (Wachs) Kwrartin, Zawel’s second wife who was about twenty years younger than her husband. Although theirs was an arranged marriage, they were a “love match” according to Ruth.

Zawel Kwartin sings “Umipnei Chatoeinu,” recorded in New York in 1924.

Genia told Ruth that the family had endured financial hardships after the financial crash of 1929. Zawel had apparently made unlucky investments. Ruth stressed that the family was not well off. The family had a one-bedroom apartment and Saul slept on the couch in the living room. Saul enlisted in the Navy at 17. His college education was paid for by the GI Bill. According to Ruth, Saul was a good earner who supported his mother.

The religious life of the Kwartin family was fairly unstructured, besides the career of Zawel which was organized around prayer leading. Saul never heard his father lead the High Holidays services because Kwartin would always travel to synagogues where he had been hired as a guest star for the season. As far as Ruth knew, Saul did not attend synagogue regularly in his youth. He went to Hebrew school to prepare for his bar mitzvah, which was celebrated in the Catskills because that was where the family was spending the summer months at a resort.

Saul’s half-sisters, Clara Kwartin Friedman and Anna “Nina” Kwartin Lear, were the children of Kwartin’s first wife (who interestingly is never named in “Mayn Lebn” and is only identified as the daughter of Kovalyetski—one chapter of Mayn Lebn is titled “I Marry Kovalyevski’s Daughter”). Both sisters were opera singers in Europe. Anna’s daughter Evelyn Lear sang in the opera in the United States and was married to another professional singer, Tom Stewart. In contrast, Saul did not have any professional involvement in music.

The Kwartin family was polyglot. Their primary languages were Yiddish, Hebrew and English, although Ruth remembered her elder sisters-in-law speaking Hungarian while playing cards. Saul, however, only spoke English with his mother. According to Ruth, “Genia was very big on being American.” Poignantly, Ruth told me that the biggest sorrow between her and her husband was that she never knew his father, who he had loved so dearly.

Next, I spoke to Bob Kwartin, Ruth’s son. Bob had no personal memories of Kwartin. He added to the story his mother had told me certain details about the Kwartin family story. The family had moved to Palestine in the late 1920s but had to return to America in 1937 in order to maintain their citizenship status. In his years of greatest success, Zawel had not saved much money. Zawel worked more occasionally in his later years, touring to make engagements in Montreal and Mexico City. He continued to make poor investments that furthered the precarious state of family finances. For example, he invested in a company that sold photo booths that failed completely. Zawel had a stroke in 1947 that further limited his performance career.

Through Bob, I connected to Leon Ashner, 78 years old and the last living member of the Kwartin family who has personal memories of Zawel. Leon is the son of Shelemea “May” Ashner, who was the child of Genia’s first marriage and was adopted by Zawel and grew up in the family home together with Saul. Although Zawel had died when he was still a child, Leon had vivid memories of his grandfather’s warmth, love and charisma. He described Zawel as a “delicious man; a fabulous grandfather.” Leon and his family visited his grandparents regularly; he said their car “almost drove automatically” to Zawel and Genia’s apartment on Union Street in Brooklyn. He remembered the love he felt for his grandfather and the distinct sense of loss at his death.

Vignettes from a child’s mind were stirred in our conversation: a sleigh ride in the wintertime; wonderful long walks; sitting in Larchmont Station to count the train cars; sitting at his feet when he was davening minchah (the afternoon service). Leon could not comment on the traditional religious observance of his grandfather. “I don’t want to say he was deeply observant. He was deeply religious.” Leon described the tremendous pride his mother took in her father and how much they loved each other. He recalled that his mother would mention her famous father whenever she had the opportunity.

Zawel Kwartin sings “Ribono Shel Olom,” a recording made in New York in 1927

Leon had more details about the family’s experiences in Palestine. Kwartin had relocated his family to Palestine as a wealthy man who was in a position to buy property and to serve the community as a philanthropist. According to Asher, Zawel’s elder son, Shama, was involved in some kind of business activity that lost much of the family’s money. Shama populated their house with “bad guys,” and ultimately cost the family so much that they were forced to sell some of their property. According to all of the family members, Zawel Kwartin had poor luck with money throughout his later years, after his initial period of super stardom.

From all of the family members’ accounts, and Leon Ashner’s especially, a picture emerges of Kwartin as a deeply loving man with a charisma that sustained itself in family lore. Hearing Leon’s stories about his childlike wonder in the presence of a soulful and brilliant presence, I recalled my own memories of spending time with my grandfather, a wonderful cantor. I remembered how important those hours were to me, taking long walks and hearing him espouse his ideas about life and the world. Perhaps many people have this kind of romantic feeling about their grandparents. I would hazard to say that an old-time cantor’s unique combination of being a worldly artist who has seen the world and the spiritual charge of being a singer of sacred music has a unique and intoxicating charm that works on a child’s imagination in an enduring manner.

These family anecdotes bring a rich humanity to our understanding of Kwartin and help flesh out details that are only dimly available from archival sources. An even grander resource is the manuscript of Mayn Lebn that is now available. I am hopeful that this news will reach scholars and fans of Jewish music around the world. Kwartin’s words, like his music, will deepen and strengthen our understanding of Jewish life and expressive culture, and offer tools that will empower the work of constructing a vivid and memory-rich Jewish culture for the future.


[1] In a recent conversation with Hartman, he stressed that his role in the project was translator, not editor. He retained what he described as stylistic flaws in Kwartin’s writing, including repetitions and grammatical idiosyncrasies. According to Hartman, his goal was to convey the author’s voice for the English-speaking audience, not to improve upon the work. Hartman also noted that as a secular Yiddishist he was unfamiliar with the pervasive references to Hebrew liturgy throughout the book. He engaged the help of a cantor to translate these references.


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