The Kwartin Project: Mayn Lebn, Chapter 6

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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

The story of Kwartin’s first performance draws surprising connections between anti-Jewish violence, inter-faith cooperation and liturgical music performance.

In the fourth chapter of Mayn Lebn, presented in the last installation of the Kwartin project, we learn that Zawel Kwartin’s childhood musical experiences included enjoying the music of Ukrainian peasants and learning to play the sopilka, a folk recorder. In Chapter 6, presented in translation here, the picture of relationships with the non-Jewish co-territorial population becomes more complex, problematic and frightening. Kwartin writes in some detail about a pogrom that occurred in the neighboring village of Torgovitse. The violence and looting would have certainly spread into Khonorod, where the Kwartin family lived, were it not for a heroic Priest.

As a pre-adolescent boy, in approximately 1884, Kwartin ends up singing at a fete for the Priest, performing his first cantorial recitatives for an audience of bishops and Russian aristocrats. The startling juxtaposition of worlds, and the interplay of violence and tolerant cohabitation, offers anything but a simple and static view of Jewish relations with non-Jews in the late Imperial Russian Pale of Settlement. A picture emerges in Kwartin’s description of a life where Jews faced serious danger of racial persecution, but in other contexts were an integrated and, in certain circumstances, even a beloved part of the texture of the cultural life of non-Jews. The ease and lack of self-consciousness with which Kwartin moves between describing non-Jews as bloodthirsty marauders, and as heartfelt humanitarians with a deep love of Jewish music, is provocative and indicative of the permeable boundaries between Jews and non-Jews in what was apparently a deeply segregated living situation. The role that Orthodox Christians played as patrons of cantorial music is an unexplored area that may well offer insights into the sounds and textures of the music of “golden age” gramophone era cantors.

Mayn Lebn

By Zawel Kwartin

Chapter 6

My musical premiere as a child

            When I was seven years old, the people around me started to notice that I had a voice, a not at all bad alto. When I listened to our cantor, Yitschok Mordechai the Shochet [special slaughterer for kosher meat] leading services at the pulpit, with his coarse fingers pressed under his throat, or when I heard my uncle Leyzer with his rough voice leading a humble Mincha-Mariv [the daily weekday afternoon and evening services, usually a quick and musically less prestigious prayer leading performance], I was strangely attracted to the heartfelt feeling of their prayer leading. It grabbed me by my insides [1] and when I was alone, I would try to repeat what I heard them sing.

            As an older kheyder student, I would prolong my prayers before going to school. While praying, I would give way to musical fantasy, and improvise on various pieces of the liturgy. My father, still laying in bed, would listen to my “compositions” and would call out, “Hey Zebulon, sing a piece for Yishtabach, a piece for Kulam M’kab’lim.” [2] Another time he told me, “Hey Zebulon, a little more coloratura.” I didn’t know yet what that meant. [3]

            I listened to my father and I myself sensed that something was beginning to develop inside me; I did not know what would come of it. But playing with my young voice was a source of great pleasure, and when my father assessed me and said it sounded good, I was in seventh heaven for joy and there was not a happier child than me in the world.

            I will tell you a story about our town and how I came by an opportunity to perform and show off my childish talent for the town’s Jews and some non-Jews as well. But this story is bound up with another story about a pogrom. And I will tell you that story.

            One Shabbos morning my mother said to my father, “You know, Sholom dear, never in all the years we’ve lived here have I seen so many non-Jews traveling to tomorrow’s fair in Torgovitse as I saw this Shabbos. It seems peculiar to me. Usually, the non-Jews set out on Sunday morning before dawn. But this time they’re traveling on Shabbos and in a big group, many in empty wagons, and in the wagons a lot of the peasants have musical instruments. Could tomorrow be some non-Jewish holiday?”

            My father answered, “Don’t be foolish, Pesye. God willing, it will be a big fair, and all of the Jews of the town will be successful and make their livelihood for the entire week.” My mother answered this with, “From your lips to God’s ears.”

            That same night, very late, after the Melave Malkah [a festive meal to mark the end of the Sabbath] had ended, the town Jews had gone home, and my parents lay down to rest for a few hours, there came a knock on the door.  My father was the first to be disturbed and asked, Who’s there?

            An answer came in Russian: “It’s me, Yampolski, the excise tax officer. [4] Open the door, I have to talk to you.”

            Half dead and half alive, my father opened the door. Before my parents had a chance to ask a question, the excise tax officer launched into this speech: “Listen up Mr. Kwartin, be careful tomorrow. Prepare the town folk. Hurry and take all the merchandise from your store and leave it with me. Gather your whole family and bring them to me as well. I will protect everyone as best I can.”

            In the middle of the night, we ran to warn my grandmother, uncle and aunt and whoever else possible among our family and friends. We all went to the excise tax collector’s and brought with us what we could.

            Sunday, at around 9 in the morning, we could hear terrifying cries from across the river that separated our town from the neighboring village of Torgovitse. [5] Tragically, Jews with their wives and children were running in terror in the direction of our town. On their shoulders they carried packages with whatever of their belongings they could save. When they crossed the bridge over the Syniukha River, we heard firsthand their suffering: “Listen Jews, they are murdering us, they are robbing our stores; drunken wild peasants are looting and destroying everything they can get their hands on.”

            And soon we saw how the peasants had loaded up their wagons with stolen building supplies, haberdashery, furniture, pillows from the looted Jewish homes and stores. [6] That day of the Torgovitse fair, there were three times as many peasants as usual, numbering in the thousands, and there were only a few hundred Jewish families. It became clear that our town was facing a great danger.

            However, a great miracle occurred that saved us and put a stop to the robbers who were still “at work” across the river. The miracle in heaven came in the form of our Orthodox Priest, who was a good soul, one of the true pious ones of the world. [7] As soon as he saw the calamity befalling the Jews, he rushed out of the church with all of the crosses and went forth to the bridge in the direction of Torgovitse.

            He stopped the peasants with their looted Jewish goods, and in the name of Christ proclaimed that they must stop the murder and robbing of their brothers, the Jews. When the non-Jews saw the great religious procession of crosses led by the Priest, they immediately took off their hats, fell on their knees and crossed themselves. Then the Priest went forth at the head of the procession through the whole fair, chastising and moralizing to the non-Jews, that they were committing a terrible crime. The pogrom stopped. One can boldly say that if it weren’t for the Priest, there would have been a terrible slaughter of Jews.

            After that bloody Sunday, the Jews of both towns gathered together and decided to thank the Priest—the lover of Israel. A committee was formed of the most respected householders of both towns who went to offer thanks to the Priest for his deeply humane conduct.

            But the Jews felt that this was not enough to thank the righteous man for all he had done for them. They sought a better opportunity to give public thanks, and they didn’t have to wait long. The tribute to the Priest for saving Jews from a pogrom is bound up with the first public premiere of my abilities as a singer.

            It was a half year after the pogrom. The Priest was turning fifty-five years old. He had been a priest for thirty years and was beloved throughout the region. The Holy Synod had decided to promote him to archbishop. A great number of priests, archbishops and special emissaries from the Holy Synod in Petersburg came to the celebration. The Jews of the twin towns of Khonorod and Togovitse also came to announce their deep gratitude to the holy Priest for what he had done for them.

            A special committee was selected, and my father was chosen to deliver the welcome speech. The Rabbi of the town would present a platter with bread and salt to the clerical guests who had come for the celebration. He blessed the Priest with “Yiverechecha Hashem v’yishmerecha.” [8] 

            For the musical part of the celebration, it was decided—since me and three other boys had beautiful alto and soprano voices, and my older brother Aziel had a not-bad baritone voice, and my uncle Eliezer possessed a very weak but also not-bad lyric tenor voice—my brother would go to Talne and bring back from there a bass and a tenor. One of these two [professional singers] would train us to sing various compositions with solos. In this way, the two Jewish communities would represent themselves at this ecclesiastic solemnity not only with speeches but also with true-Jewish heartfelt liturgical song.

            It was decided and done. In three days, the bass and tenor would arrive. Since we only had a month, we would have to study hard, rehearsing together in our home. The bass was the conductor. The first piece he taught us was the Russian national anthem, Bozhe Tsaria Khrani [Russian, God Save the Czar]. Then he worked with my uncle Eliezer on a Misheberach [Hebrew, prayer for health and healing] for the Czar. After that came two solos for me: V’hagen B’adnu and Tzur Yisroel. [9] For the finale, the whole choir sang Hallelujah.

Kwartin’s 1908 recording of Tzur Yisroel was one of the most influential of his pre-World War Two records. What relation, if any, the piece bore to the piece he sang as a child is unknown.]

Many decades have passed since that moment when I sang on stage for the first time, and for such an august audience of bishops, priests and church officials. It is as fresh in my mind as if it happened yesterday.

The day of the great event arrived. My father, the Rabbi, and two other Jews representing the two towns were dressed in Sabbath attire. My uncle Eliezer and the rest of the choir members were also dressed in the best clothes they had. When we got to the Priest’s house, we encountered a hundred people: priests, archbishops, Catholic priests, landowners, teachers, military officers, and other notables from the surrounding region.

The presentation began with a welcoming speech from the special messenger from the High Synod in Petersburg. After the speech, the messenger hung a new gold cross around the Priest’s neck. All of the greetings and speeches from the clergy took two hours. After that, the Rabbi offered bread with salt on a silver tray to the Priest and blessed him in honor of advancing to the rank of archbishop. My father gave a brief speech for a few minutes in which he talked about the love the Priest had shown for the Jewish people with his true humanity that he extended to everyone, regardless of their faith.

Then came the musical part of the festive program. We began with Bozhe Tsaria Khrani, then my uncle’s Mishebeirach for the Tsar, then the choir sang Zamru L’hashem B’Kinor, [Hebrew, Sing praises to God with the Harp, Psalm 98:5], and after that, my two solos, V’hagen B’adnu and Tzur Yisroel. I must admit, my young voice didn’t sound half bad. We concluded with the final piece for the choir, Hallelujah. The new Archbishop was so moved, he stuck three rubles in my hand. I didn’t know what to do and looked around for a sign from my father. He told me to take it because it would be impolite to refuse.

            When we were leaving, the Archbishop told my father he was sorry he had not known earlier that his son was such a great talent. He would have invited me to a church service to sing those same two pieces, they had pleased him so greatly.

            The Archbishop also gave the whole choir ten rubles and the celebration ended with a joyful L’chayim [Hebrew, to life; a traditional toast], in true Russian fashion. The Jewish delegation was invited to a festive meal, but the Rabbi and my father explained that due to Jewish law this would be impossible; they all wished us a heartfelt farewell.

            It is worth mentioning that all month the town had been abuzz with preparations and the musical performance was the glory of the celebration. I can truly say that this was a highpoint of my life. Being chosen to perform traced a path into my future life as a cantor for the Jews, even though this path was not bestrewn with roses, as will become apparent. On that Sunday in the Priest’s house, a stamp was made on my future; the idea burrowed into my mind that this was my way, this was my path, and it would always be so.  


1. In the Yiddish, Kwartin locates his embodied attraction to prayer music unter der zibeter rip, under the seventh rib, the anatomical position of the rib God removed from Adam to create Eve.

2. Yishtabach and Kulam M’kab’lim are two sections of the morning prayer service that are frequently the basis for cantorial compositions and improvisation.

3. The term coloratura, borrowed from opera, is used in cantorial discourse to describe florid melismatic vocal passages frequently encompassing a range of over an octave. Coloratura singing is a mark of cantorial artistry and Kwartin is considered one of the masters of this musical skill.

4. An aktsionik, excise tax officer, was a position sometimes held by Jews and was closely associated with the state-sanctioned consignment to sell alcohol, a typically Jewish occupation in late Tsarist Russia. See ChaeRan Y. Freeze and Jay Michael Harris, editors, Everyday Jewish life in imperial Russia: select documents, 1772-1914 (Waltham, Massachusetts: Brandeis University Press, 2013), 457-466.

5. The Jews of the town of Torgovitse (alternate spellings include Torgovitsa and Torgovistye) were later destroyed in a mass murder conducted by local police officers during the German occupation in 1942. See “Torgovitsa.” History of Jewish Communities in Ukraine.

6. The specificity of this list speaks to the familiarity of the non-Jews with their Jewish neighbors and the inventory of their belongings. The non-Jews who engaged in the looting and destruction of the pogrom were likely to have been customers at Jewish stores and personally familiar with the people who they were attacking and robbing.

7. Kwartin refers to the priest as a chasdey umos haolam (pious one of the world), a term used to honor righteous non-Jewish people. Today the term is mostly associated with “righteous gentiles” who gave aid and support to Jewish victims of the Holocaust. See “FAQs: the Righteous Among the Nations Program.” Yad Vashem the World Holocaust Remembrance Center.

8. The first words of the priestly blessing, “May the Lord bless you and keep you,” a quotation from Numbers 6:24-26, recited in the Jewish daily prayer services.

9. V’hagein b’adnu (Shield us) is a line from the prayer Hashkiveinu, part of the evening service for weekdays and Sabbath. Tsur Yisroel (Rock of Israel) is recited in the morning service for weekdays and Sabbath. Both pieces of liturgy are frequently employed by cantors for compositions. Kwartin’s Tsur Yisroel, recorded in Vienna in 1908, was one of his best known records from before the First World War.


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