Biography of Moisei Beregovskii

Moisei Beregovski (1892-1961), Jewish folklorist and ethnomusicologist. Born in Ukraine into the family of a melamed (itinerant teacher), Moisei Beregovskii was given a traditional Jewish heder education. In 1905 he went to Kiev, where he received an external degree for high school studies (1912), learned music theory, and took cello lessons; from 1915 to 1920, he studied at the Kiev Conservatory (cello with Friedrich von Müllert, composition theory with Boleslav Yavorski). From 1916 to 1922, Beregovskii taught music at various Jewish schools and conducted the chorus at the Kiev Society for Jewish Music.

Beregovskii’s association with the Jewish Kultur-lige in Kiev began in 1918; in 1920, he founded its music school, serving as its director until 1922. Beregovskii studied composition theory at the Petrograd conservatory under Maksimilyan Shteynberg, and from 1924 to 1926 he taught at the Jewish orphans’ colony in Malakhovka, near Moscow.

In 1927, Beregovskii founded the Commission for Jewish Folk Music Research at the Department of Jewish Culture of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. From 1929 to 1949, he headed the Cabinet for Jewish Musical Folklore in the Ethnographic Section of the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture in Kiev (reorganized in 1936 into the Cabinet for Research on Jewish Literature, Language, and Folklore), at which he founded the Archives for Jewish Folk Music. From 1929 to 1947, Beregovskii collected Jewish folklore in Ukraine, making 2,000 field recordings on 700 phonograph cylinders during his expeditions to the regions of Kiev, Odessa, Nikolaev (Mikolayiv), Dnepropetrovsk (Dnipropetrovsk), Zaporozh’e (Zaporizhzhya), and Vinnitsa (Vinnytsya) as well as to Galicia. He also cataloged phonocylinders from the archives of the An-ski expedition and the Engel and Kiselgof collections, making music and text transcriptions for many of them.

Between 1937 and 1941 and again from 1944 to 1948, Beregovskii headed the Cabinet for Music Ethnography and Audio Recording at the Kiev Conservatory. From 1941 to 1943, he was in Ufa, Bashkiria, where he had been evacuated with the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. There he also collected and researched Bashkirian and Ukrainian folklore. In 1944, Beregovskii received his Ph.D. from the Moscow Conservatory, writing his dissertation on the topic of Jewish instrumental folk music. He then returned to Kiev, where he made expeditions to the former Jewish ghettos in the Chernivtsi (Yid., Tshernovits; Ger., Czernowitz) and Vinnitsa regions.

After the department was closed in 1949, Beregovskii was arrested and sent to Tayshet, in the Irkutsk region, where he remained from 1951 to 1955. In 1956, he was “rehabilitated” and returned to Kiev, where until his death on 12 August 1961 he arranged his private archive, preparing his collections of Yiddish folk songs and purim-shpiln for publication.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, Beregovskii prepared for publication a five-volume anthology of Jewish folklore based on his fieldwork, of which only volume 1 was printed during his lifetime. Beregovskii’s theoretical works, which grew out of his unique practical experience, served as introductions to his anthology and also constituted separate articles; they mostly dealt with the genre structure of Jewish folk music and its modal organization along with the semantic features of the Jewish modes and their melodic and rhythmic characteristics. Although in his works Beregovskii used religious terminology sparingly, he understood its importance and tried hard to negotiate an appropriate balance between the classification of liturgical music and the dictates of Soviet ideology. Beregovskii’s work raised the level of Jewish ethnomusicology to the highest standards of scholarship. His contributions constitute the cornerstone of all serious study of East European vernacular musical traditions.

The First Folklore Expeditions of Moisei Beregovskii, 1929-1930
(Kiev, Odessa, Belaia Tserkov, Slavuta)

by Lyudmila Sholokhova (YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York)

Moisei Beregovskii began working in the field of Jewish folk music in the second half of the 1910s when he studied cello and music composition at the Kiev conservatory. At that time he taught music theory at Jewish schools in Kiev, cooperated with the local branch of the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music and “Kultur-lige” Jewish cultural organization.

The Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine possesses transcriptions of 16 melodies recorded from memory or deciphered by Beregovskii in 1916-1920: 2 melodies are Beregovskii’s transcriptions of the cylinders from the An-ski expeditions; 8 melodies were written down by him from voices of several performers in Kiev; another 6 tunes are nigunim memorized by Beregovskii in his childhood in Makarov, his native town in Kiev province.

Beregovskii’s interest in Jewish music folklore fully developed in the 1920s. In 1927 he was one of the organizers of the Commission for Jewish Folk Music Research at the Department of Jewish Culture of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. His work for the Commission encouraged him to look at the entity of genres of Jewish folk music in a more systematic way and convinced him in the urgency of recording, classifiying and study of those materials. Subsequently, when in 1929 Beregovskii was appointed a Head of the Cabinet for Jewish Musical Folklore at the Ethnographic Section of the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture in Kiev, he started methodically collecting Yiddish songs, Hasidic tunes, prayers and klezmer music. Beregovskii initiated annual ethnographic expeditions and used phonograph for recording the music.

The first expedition took place in March-May, 1929, in Kiev itself, the city with 140,000 Jews as of late 1920s. It was followed by extensive research in nearby town Belaia Tserkov   in June-July, 1929, and in Slavuta, Kamenets-Podolskii region , in August, 1929. The second Beregovskii’s expedition of May-June, 1930, mostly focused on Jewish music folklore in Odessa , and Uman, Kiev region .

Many original sound recordings, text and music transcriptions survived in good condition  and are now in possession of the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine.

Documentation of the Expeditions

By 1929, at the time of his first folklore expedition, Beregovskii already developed a detailed system of registering phono cylinders and their transcriptions; he followed this system almost precisely for many years till 1947 . Every cylinder was given a numerical consequent number with index A . Related musical and textual transcriptions were assigned the same number thus facilitating keeping track on all relevant materials. Many transcriptions of songs’ texts were done in handwriting and/or in typescript . For musical transcriptions, special standard forms in Yiddish were established. Handwritten transcriptions of the music are found on the front pages; details about the songs, performers, places, dates of recordings, dates of deciphering, supporting notes and equipment's technical characteristics were registered on the back of the forms . This information was also registered in two inventory books of the phonoarchive, which served as an important resource for the study of content and scope of the entire collection .

Musical transcription forms also contain many cross references to different versions of the songs and tunes in other parts of the archive of the Ethnographic Section of the Institute of Jewish Culture . Those notes mostly refer to the Zinoviy Kiselgof Collection, under index K, and the part of the music archive under index B, with materials received directly from the performers or collectors, but not recorded on the wax phono cylinders. The notes often include relevant citations taken by Beregovskii from various  important printed publications on Jewish folklore available at that time, such as Saul Ginsburg and Pesah Marek’s Evreiskiia narodnyie piesni v Rossii (St.-Peterburg, 1901), Abraham Idelsohn’s Hebräisch-orientalischer Melodienschatz (Leipzig, 1914-1932)  “Baym kval” by Shloyme Bastomski (Vilna, 1920), Menahem Kipnis’s collections of 140 folks-lider (Warsaw, 1930), Y. L. Cahan’s Yidishe folks-lider (New York, 1930), Noah Prilutski’s Yidishe folkslider (Warsaw, 1912-1914), periodicals etc. Such level of comparative analysis testified about Beregovskii’s extensive knowledge of the subject, extraordinary commitment to tedious research work and aspiration to place it into the context of contemporary Jewish music folk studies in general. Though limited by the ideological canons and conditions of the Soviet times, Beregovskii accomplished his goal, at least partially, in the later years by publishing a number of important articles and selected volumes with Yiddish songs and folk melodies based on his research .

Selected textual and musical transcriptions of the relevant audio recordings are available  in digital format on this CDRom.

Expeditions of 1929-1930: Songs and Performers

In May-August 1929, Beregovskii recorded 268 songs, nigunim  and klezmer melodies on 126 cylinders. According to the inventory books of the phonoarchive, most of the recordings came from Kiev and Belaia Tserkov, with only 20 melodies recorded during Beregovsky’s 2-days trip to Slavuta on August 16-17, 1929 .

In April-May 1930, Beregovskii continued recording music in Kiev. In May-June he mainly worked in Odessa, the city where he collected most of the material in 1930. In August, the scholar went for a short trip with phonograph to Uman. Several additional recordings were also done in Kiev in November 1930. Total 209 items were recorded on 115 cylinders during 1930 .

Recordings of 1929-1930 represent the entire variety of Jewish folk music genres, with an emphasis on secular Yiddish folk songs. Those were the songs that were widely performed in the Jewish family circles, at work and on the streets of big cities and little provincial shtetls in Ukraine before WWII, when Stalin’s national politic temporary encouraged education and cultural development in Yiddish as tools for glorifying Soviet ideology and its leaders. The songs recorded by Beregovskii beautifully reflected vibrant and rich vocal intonations of Yiddish language and their distinctive musicality.

Materials selected for this CDRom can be divided into the following thematic categories:
- religious songs
- songs about social justice;
- Jewish soldiers’ songs;
- mishpokhe-lider (songs about family life);
-  libe-lider (songs about love);
- Jewish beggars’ ballads;
- theater songs
- untervelt songs (songs of criminals)
- Hasidic nigunim;
- klezmer melodies

Several religious songs represented on the CDRom are either based on canonic Biblical texts in Hebrew, or are in mix of Yiddish and Hebrew , or constitute traditional women’s prayers in Yiddish  . It is interesting to note that performers of the religious songs were educated Jewish intellectuals who remembered the songs from their childhood years. Some of the singers were outstanding Jewish personalities, colleagues of Beregovskii in the Institute of Jewish Culture in Kiev. Their recorded voices have a great historical value. For example, a midnight prayer “Khtsos” was performed by Eli Spivak (1890-1950), a prominent Yiddish linguist, who later, in 1933, became a Head of Philological Section of the Institute, and, subsequently, in 1936, a Director of the Cabinet of Jewish Culture. Eli Spivak, as well as a renowned Yiddish writer Yekhezkl Dobrushin (1883-1953), and a literary critic Meir Wiener (1893-1941, who was a Head of the of the Folklore Section of the Institute for Jewish Culture, also contributed several recordings of Hasidic tunes to Beregovskii’s collection. They are included on this CDRom.

In May 1929, during the tour of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater GOSET in Kiev, Beregovskii had opportunity to record performances of the prominent Yiddish actors Solomon Mikhoels (1890-1948)  and Benjamin Zuskin (1899-1952) , as well as a composer, violinist, and musical director of the GOSET Lev Pulver (1883-1970). Many of these unique recordings survived in great clarity and reflect on highly supportive and professional environment for Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union in the 1920s-1930s, the phenomenon, which, unfortunately, didn’t last too long. Most of the scholars and artists listed above were killed in the 1940s-1950s, during Stalin’s brutal anti-Semitic campaigns.

Songs about struggle for social justice and revolutionary events occupy significant place in the recordings of 1929-1930. Some of the respondents remembered the songs from the early 20th century when they were active participants in revolutionary movement. For example, Zelda Shpiner, 48 year old seamstress from Odessa, mentioned that she remembered the song Geyt, brider, geyt aykh fodern broyt (Go, brothers, go to demand bread) since she was 18 years old in Dvinsk . However, most of the singers learned workers’, soldiers’ and social justice songs already after the October Revolution of 1917, either at school, in the family or on the streets. It should be noted that the young, 14-24 year old, singers constituted majority of the Beregovskii’ expeditions’ respondents. They were high school and college students in Kiev or Odessa or young workers; their voices sound fresh and strong and often display unusual musicality and understanding of the content of the songs. The youngest singer among those represented on the CDRom was Barukh Zilbershteyn, 14, who learned the song Di lid fun di tiranen (“A song about tyrants”) at the folklore study group in his school in Kiev . Another example is the song Oy vey, in 1915 yor, s’iz aroys, oy, a nayer prikaz (“Oy vey, in 1915, a new decree was issued)  performed by 17 year old Grisha London, a semi-literate shoemaker in the “Gruziia” neighborhood in Belaia Tserkov. 

Libe-lider (love songs) and mishpokhe-lider (family songs) were among the most popular genres of Yiddish songs that could be heard in Jewish shtetls and larger cities in Ukraine in the 1920s-1930s. The form of imaginary dialog between either young woman and young man, or daughter and mother is typical for both genres. This is why the songs often bring listeners in the middle of conversation about uneasy life situations. “Vos dresytu zikh arum, mayn tekhterl, azoy umetik?” [“Why are you going around, my little daughter, looking so sad”] , a mother is asking her daughter in one of the songs prompting her to speak from the heart. The daughter’s complain is about a young man who broke her heart: “Vi azoy ken ikh, mamenyu, freylekh zayn, az bay mir in hartsn ligt a groyse vind” [“How can I, mother, be joyful, if I have a big wound in my heart”.] Most of love and family songs were recorded from young women.

Well represented in Beregovskii’s collection are the other quite rare categories of Yiddish songs - songs of Jewish beggars and untervelt. A number of ballads in this genre were recorded  from Eli Veysman, 82, a professional blind beggar who sang on the streets since he was 20. Beautiful voice, natural musicality and plaintive texts of the songs distinguish this performer among others. The goal was to move people on the streets to pity and make a living: “A nedove bet ikh, oy, an oreman, a blinder” [“I’m begging for alms, oy, poor man, a blind”] . One untervelt song in Russian language recorded from a prisoner in the Odessa jail tells the story about capturing the criminals in their secluded place in Moldovanka neighborhood  in Odessa: “Piatnitsa, vsiakii speshit na rabotu, Moldavanka uzhasno shumit” [“On Friday, everybody hurries to work, Moldavanka is terribly noisy”].

Four unique klezmer recordings are also included on the CDRom. It should be noticed that only a very limited number of phono cylinders with instrumental works have survived in good condition. Mostly recorded by amateur musicians, those unedited klezmer melodies are extremely valuable because of their authenticity . Of special interest might be melodies played by Itsik Triplik,  a gifted amateur flutist and barber from Slavuta : one of the melodies most likely served as a source for famous theater song “Kupite, “Kupite, koyft-zhe, koyft-zhe papirosen” (Buy, oh, buy cigarettes”)  composed by Herman Yablokoff in 1934-1935. Virtuoso klezmer masterpiece Ahavah Rabah (”Abundant love”) performed by Solomon Berman, klezmer violinist from Kiev, allows glimpse into repertoire of the legendary klezmer musician Pedotser (Moshe Kholodenko, 1828-1902) whose musical works survived in several handwritten copies of his students . Sound recordings of Pedotser’s music are extremely rare.

Striking variety and high quality of unique musical materials recorded by Moisei Beregovskii in Ukraine in 1929-1930 and presented on this CDRom provides unique opportunity to experience the world of authentic Ukrainian Jewish musical tradition. Listening to these songs, Hasidic tunes and klezmer melodies today revives our collective memory, shapes better understanding of the past and creates excitement needed for research and study of this music today.


Biography of Moisei Beregvskii was originally written by Lyudmila Sholokhova and published in the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.) Lyudmila Sholokhova would like to thank the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York for permission to partially use materials of this biography in the booklet for this CDRom.

Jewish population of Belaia Tserkov, Kiev region, was 15,000 in the 1920s.

Administrative borders of Ukraine have changed over the time. Slavuta now belongs to Khmelnitsky region of Ukraine. Jewish population of Slavuta in the 1920s was 4,700.

In the late 1920s, Odessa was a home to 150,000 Jews.

Uman now belongs to Cherkasy region of Ukraine. In the late 1920s, Jewish population of Uman was 20,000. Recordings from Uman are not represented on this CD. Many recordings were cleared from the cylinders after deciphering. There are relevant notes in Yiddish “opgereynikt” (“cleared”) in inventory books of the phonoarchive.  Most of  the “cleared” cylinders were re-used again. Unfortunately, the quality of sound on the cylinders that survived is not satisfactory.

Visually decent physical condition of the phono cylinders doesn’t always guarantee a good sound quality. In many cases, mold and cracks on the cylinders made it impossible to reproduce the sound at all.

Beregovskii conducted his last expedition in 1947. The Cabinet for Jewish Culture where Beregovskii worked was a subject of the large anti-Semitic campaign in the Soviet Union in the late 1940s; it was eventually shut down in 1949.

Index A was assigned exclusively to the sound recordings and their transcriptions.

Some volunteers have contributed greatly to recording the songs’ texts. For example, a folklorist Sholem Kumershmid (1889-1968) provided Beregovskii with handwritten texts to many songs recorded in Belaia Tserkov, where Kupersmid resided.

Most of the recordings from this expedition were deciphered in 1929-1937 by Beregovskii, often with the help of his assistant Sarah Shnayder.

Inventory books of the phonoarchive. The Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine, the Institute of Manuscripts, Collection 190, No. 118 (years 1929-1936) and No. 119 (years 1937-1947.) It should be noted that while the inventory books contain maximum of available information about the recordings, not all of them were actually deciphered for variety of reasons, such as physical condition of phono cylinders, or their content. For example, religious songs largely remained untranscribed.

The Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture was converted into the smaller institution, the Cabinet of Jewish Culture, in 1936.

Berezovskii intended to publish a five-volume Anthology of the Jewish Musical Folklore based on the materials of his musical expeditions. However, only the 1st volume of the Anthology that contains Jewish workers’ and revolutionary songs was published  during his life:  Evreiskii muzikalnyi folklor , edited by Meir Wiener (Moscow, 1934.) Three more volumes appeared posthumously. Volume 3, Evreiskaia narodnaia instrumentalnaia muzyka, edited Maks Goldin, was published in Moscow in 1987; its English edition, Jewish Instrumental Folk Music: The Collections and Writings of Moshe Beregovski, edited by Mark Slobin, Robert Rothstein, and Michael Alpert, was published in Syracuse, NY, in 2001. Volume 4, Evreiskie napevy bez slov, appeared in Moscow in 1999. Selections from the original Volume 5, Evreiskie narodnye muzykalno-teatralnye predstavleniia, edited by Leonid Finberg, was published in Kiev in 2001. Volume 2, dedicated to Jewish lyrical and family songs, still remains unpublished. Small fraction of the materials collected by Beregovskii also appeared during his life in the collection: Moisei Beregovskii and Itzik Fefer, comps., Yidishe folks-lider (Kiev, 1938); however, this book mostly comprises the songs republished from different printed sources.

Nigunim - a plural form for nigun, Hebrew word for tune. Nigunim are improvisational Hasidic tunes usually sang without words.

Statistics of the expedition of 1929 (by place of the recording): Kiev - 129 recordings on 60 cylinders; Belaia Tserkov - 119 recordings on 56 cylinders; Slavuta - 20 recordings on 10 cylinders.

Statistics of the expedition of 1930 (by place of the recording): Kiev - 11 recordings on 8 cylinders; Odessa - 165 recordings on 98 cylinders; Uman - 16 recordings on 9 cylinders.

See recording no. 6: Khtsos; Israel, am kdoyshim (Israel, holy people), call to a midnight prayer in the days of Rosh Hashanah.

See recording no. 26: Got fun Avrom un fun Yitskhok (God of Abraham and Isaac.)

Mikhoels’s voice is not represented on this CDRom because of the quality of the original phono recording.

See recording no. 10; A lid fun der kishefmakhern (A song of the sorceress) from Abraham Goldfaden’s play “Sorceress.”

See recording no. 38.

See recording no. 8.

See recording no. 19.

Many songs from Belaia Tserkov were recorded in “Gruziia” neighborhood, traditionally populated by the poorest Jewish inhabitants. The neighborhood acquired the name because its small crowded dwellings that resembled typical Georgian village houses.

See recording no. 1. For more songs in the dialog form see recordings no. 2, 13, 18, 36, 37, 42.

See recording no. 3.

Moldavanka - a historical neighborhood in Odessa and a setting for many Isaac Babel’s stories. Moldavanka was famous for its multicultural blend of traditions and was a home to compact low-income Jewish population. Moldavanka was also considered a high-crime district.

Only one out of four klezmer melodies was recorded from a professional musician, violinist and composer Lev Pulver. See recording no. 6.

See recordings no. 24-25.

See recording no. 43.

Kiev, the Kalinin Squire (currently - Independence Squire), 1930s.