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

A small collection of 67 phono cylinders with songs, cantillations and prayers of Jews in Palestine recorded in 1913 constitutes a distinctively exotic, standing alone section within a much larger corpus of the early Jewish field recordings held at the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine[1]. This unknown collection preserved in an amazingly good shape. Its release introduces to the world some of the earliest samples of the recorded oriental Jewish music tradition that have never been heard before.

The recordings were made by Isaac Lurie (1875-1930s), who was the keeper of the Museum of the Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society in St. Petersburg.

By importance and pioneering role, the recordings from Lurie’s collection can be compared to the collection of Abraham Zvi Idelsohn (1882-1938), a prominent Jewish musicologist, who made studies of Jewish liturgical traditions in their complexity and historical context his life-long mission. In 1911-1913 Idelsohn made, on commission from the Austrian Academy of Sciences, 109 phonograph recordings in Jerusalem for the Phonogrammarchiv in Vienna that he later used in his monumental opus magnum “The Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies”, in 10 volumes, published in 1914-1932[2]. Lurie’s collection, though smaller in scope, is no less significant and represent oriental music traditions in a quite remarkable sound quality, often surpassing original quality of Idelsohn’s recordings[3]. It is also important to take into consideration the fact that Lurie was not a professional musicologist and the musical work was only a part of his larger ethnographic tasks, such as collecting artifacts and folkloristic texts which he later donated to the Museum[4].

Our knowledge of the history of the Palestinian recordings at the Vernadsky Library is quite limited since little documentation has survived. The main and most essential source of information is represented by two inventory books of the general phono cylinders’ collection of the Folklore Division of the Ethnographical Section of the Institute for Jewish Proletarian Culture in Kiev[5]. The first inventory book lists all Palestinian recordings in Moisei Beregovskii’s handwriting, organized by the consecutive accession number (phono cylinders ## 614-683) and by order of the songs within each cylinder. Each listing includes details on the title of the song, performers’ names, their occupation, place of origin, date of the recording, and, in some instances, remarks on the circumstances of the performance. No musical transcriptions of the recordings survived; it is possible that the collection has never been deciphered.  

The Palestinian phono cylinders’ collection was transferred to the Institute for Jewish Proletarian Culture in Kiev from the Museum of the Jewish Historical and Ethnographical Society in St. Petersburg (later - Petrograd, Leningrad) in 1930, along with  other 362 cylinders and some music transcriptions from the Semion An-ski expeditions of 1912-1914 into the Pale of Settlement of the Russian Empire.  The Museum was established in 1914 by the initiative of Semion An-ski for the purposes of safeguarding and display of the artifacts collected during the expeditions or received from private collectors. The Museum was closed down by the Soviet authorities in 1929. According to the inventory books, Beregovskii began working on registering the new accessions from the Museum sometime in the late summer of 1930, following his own expeditions to Odessa earlier that year.

Isaac Lurie (1874, Novgorod - late 1930s, Samarkand?) and His Expedition to Palestine in 1913

The inventory listings release no information on the name of the researcher although in the beginning of some recordings can possibly hear his voice announcing the song[6]. However, scattered bits of information found in several sources helped resolve the puzzle:  the collector’s name was Isaac Lurie (or Isaak Simkhovich Lurie).

The combining report of the Society for Jewish Folk Music in St. Petersburg for 1913 and for five years of its activity (1908-1913) provided the first essential hint: “Having no appropriate means, the Board, unfortunately, was not able to organize the large-scale expeditions for collecting and recording the Jewish folk songs. Using the stay of Z. Kiselgof in Kherson province and I. Lurie (student of the Courses for Oriental Studies) in Palestine, the Board allocated the necessary amount of money for the recordings’ expenditures (purchasing phonograph with cylinders, delivery etc.) Mr. Kiselgof collected about 100 recordings, while I. Lurie recorded on cylinders over 170 Yemenite and other Palestinian songs and prayers”[7]. 

Important further information is found in Benyamin Lukin’s article “An Academy Where Folklore Will Be Studied: An-sky and the Jewish Museum”. Lukin mentions that Lurie “went on an expedition to Palestine and brought back folklore and ethnographic finds, among which were museum exhibits”[8], referring to the published report of the Jewish Historical Ethnographic Society in St. Petersburg for 1913[9]. The citation clarifies that the musical material constituted a separate section within a much broader scope of Lurie’s ethnographic work.

All recordings were made during July 10-August 1, 1913. The inventory books contain no information about the place where the sound was recorded.  But taking into account the diversity of origin of the performers and a profound religious content of the songs we can assume with certainty that the recordings were most likely made in Jerusalem, the place where various Jewish musical traditions were concentrated within a convenient reach. A citation from the Jerusalem daily newspaper “Ha-herut” for July 25, 1913, provided by Lukin, supports this postulation: “Among those visiting our city this week is our friend, Mr. Lurie, from the Russian Jewish Journal “Evreiskaia Starina”, who has come from St. Petersburg, a member of the Society for Jewish Culture and Ethnography”[10]. This statement hints that Lurie possibly used his local friends’ connections to establish contacts with informants and consecutively make the recordings. Upon his return from Palestine, Lurie published an article “About a Jewish Museum” in the Russian Jewish weekly “Razsvet” where he enthusiastically stated that “there can be no place for the establishment of a Jewish Museum except Jerusalem”[11].

Isaac Lurie’s life, scholarly work and tragic end have not been well researched because of lack of available resources, but it is apparent that he was a devoted and meticulous scholar with interest to obscure and under-researched topics and focus on Jewish oriental traditions[12]. Isaac Lurie was born in 1874 in Nizhnii Novgorod into a family of a wealthy merchant. He studied in Paris in 1902-1905 and was a student of the Courses for Oriental Studies in St. Petersburg in 1908-1911. In 1918 Lurie was an extern student in the department of Oriental Languages at the Petrograd University, and in 1919-1921 studied at the Institute of Geography in Petrograd. A talented, enthusiastic and thorough librarian, bibliographer and archivist, Lurie was in charge of the library of the Courses for Oriental Studies (1908-1911) and later became appointed a Head of the Library of the Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment among the Jews in Russia (1915-1917) and the Library of the Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society (1913-1921). He was one of the founding members of the Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society and editorial secretary of its journal “Evreiskaia Starina” (“Jewish Antiquity”) and later became a Curator of the Museum of the Society. In 1913, Lurie, along with other students of the Courses for Oriental Studies, participated in compiling a detailed questionnaire for the An-ski ethnographic expeditions[13]  and later the same year went on independent research trip to Palestine, partially supported by the Society for Jewish Folk Music in St. Petersburg.

In the 1910s-1920s, Lurie annotated and prepared for publication several important archival documents from the various library repositories (on the Karaim community in Lithuania in 16th - 17th centuries, on Jewish Court (Beth Din) in Fustat, Cairo, etc.) and completed a catalog of the manuscript collection of Archimandrite Antonin, a Head of the Russian Orthodox Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem, held at the Imperial Public Library in St. Petersburg.

In 1921, Lurie went on ethnographic expedition to Turkestan to study traditions of local indigene Jewish population.  This trip was productive and inspiring and it changed the path of the scholar’s life. In 1922, Lurie moved to Samarkand where he opened a permanent Jewish exhibit at the library in the heart of the old Jewish quarter. At first, Lurie’s ethnographic and cultural activities were welcomed by the Council of National Minorities at the Uzbek Soviet Republic: in 1924, the exhibit was turned into the Aboriginal Jewish Museum, the only cultural and scholarly institution for Bucharian Jewry, and Lurie was appointed its director. But in 1932, in result of persecutions against the scholars-orientalists in the region, the Museum was officially dissolved and its collections became part of the City Museum. Subsequently, Isaac Lurie lost his job and apartment that was adjunct to the Museum. Unfortunately, very little traces remained about his further fate. According to some sources, he continued to live in Samarkand taking odd jobs, but was arrested persecuted in the end of 1930s.

Comments to the Recordings

Out of 70 cylinders registered in the inventory book by Beregovskii 67 have survived in different physical condition.  While many cylinders have been preserved in good enough shape that allowed for restoration of the sound, others are broken or, in some instances, damaged with mold. The recordings from 39 cylinders are presented on this CD.

The recordings reflect on ancient performance practices of Jews from Syria (Aleppo), Iran (Shiraz), Iraq (Baghdad), Morocco, Turkey (Urfa), Ethiopia and Yemen.  They represent variety of Torah cantillation patterns, liturgical, paraliturgical songs and piyutim for Shabbat, Rosh ha-Shanah and other Jewish Holidays, as well as wedding songs, songs for circumcision ceremony, songs for plowing and harvesting work in the fields and pilgrimage songs, sometimes accompanied by percussion instruments. While most of the recordings reflect on vocal traditions, one entirely instrumental melody (on flute) is also included on the CD.

General sound quality of the recordings is quite remarkable. But because of technical deficiency of the phonograph equipment and perhaps Lurie’s lack of experience in recording the music, some of the recordings display an unclear, cut-off or damaged beginning of the sound tracks. In some instances, the speed of the recordings is uneven and intervals between different songs are not clearly marked. Additionally, since Lurie’s original listings of the recordings were lost, we had to rely entirely on Beregovskii’s inventory, but it is not clear if Beregovskii actually had a chance to listen to all Palestinian melodies and compare them against the listings. It is worth to note that Lurie’s collection is not mentioned in any of Beregovskii’s scholarly works, possibly because of strict regularations imposed by the Soviet ideological standards. We have used Beregovskii’s inventory as a starting point of our research on this project and did our best to identify the melodies. Finally, we hope that the scholars will listen to the recordings presented on the CD and subsequently add and enhance the information about the melodies using their rich expertise.


[1] Most of phonographic recordings in the Vernadsky Library’s collection cover territories of the contemporary Ukraine and Belarus in 1912-1947 and reflect on collecting efforts of Semion An-ski, Yoel Engel, Zinoviy Kiselgof and Moisei Beregovskii.

[2] Idelsohn, Abraham Zvi. Hebräisch-orientalischer Melodienschatz. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1914-1932. Bd. 1: Gesänge der jemenischen Juden. - Bd. 2. Gesänge der babylonischen Juden. - Bd. 3: Gesänge der persischen, bucharischen und daghestanischen Juden. - Bd. 4: Gesänge der orientalischen Sefardim. - Bd. 5: Gesänge der marokkanischen Juden. - Bd. 6: Der Synagogengesang der deutschen Juden im 18. Jahrhundert. - Bd. 7: Die traditionellen Gesänge der süddeutschen Juden. - Bd. 8: Der Synagogengesang der osteuropäischen Juden. - Bd. 9: The folk song of the East European Jews (Thesaurus of Hebrew oriental melodies). - Bd. 10: Gesänge der chassidim.

[3] The entire collection of Idelsohn’s phonograph recordings was digitally restored and published by the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences as volume 9 of the Series “The Complete  Historical Collections 1899-1950” in 2005. See: Idelsohn, A Z, Philip V. Bohlman, Edwin Seroussi, and Gerda Lechleitner. The Collection of Abraham Zvi Idelsohn (1911-1913). Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2005. Sound recording. 3 audio discs: digital ; 4 3/4 in. + 1 CD-ROM.

[4] See: Otchet Evreiskago Istoriko-Etnografisheskago Obshchestva za 1913 god, p. 11. Bound with: Evreiskaia Starina, vol. 6, Pt. 2 (April-June), St. Petersburg, 1914. Otchet (Report) mentions the artifacts donated by Lurie to the Museum, such as a neckless and silver frame with pendants for amulets of Yemenite Jews from Jerusalem, amulets-spells of oriental Jews from Jerusalem on parchment, texts of the songs for work in the field and prayers in Ethiopian language from Abyssinia written down in Hebrew alphabet in Jerusalem by a farmer from Abyssinia; metal mugs for almsgiving used by colonists in Petah Tikva, and postage stamps from Petah Tikva colony. Petah Tikva was a settlement near Tel Aviv established by the orthodox Jews in 1878 with a financial help of Baron Edmond de Rothschild.  Bibliographical reference to the 1913 Report is mentioned in Benyamin Lukin’s article “An Academy Where Folklore Will Be Studied: An-sky and the Jewish Museum” published in “The Worlds of S. An-sky: a Russian-Jewish Intellectual at the Turn of the Century” edited by Gabriella Safran and Steven J. Zipperstein. Stanford, CA, 2006. Pp. 281-306. See note 82 on p. 491.

[5] Inventory books of the phono archive of the Folklore Division of the Ethnographical Section of the Institute for Jewish Proletarian Culture. The Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine, the Institute of Manuscripts, Collection 190, #118 (years 1929-1936), and # 119 (years 1937-1947). The Institute for Jewish Proletarian Culture was established in 1929 and converted into the smaller Cabinet in 1936. Jewish musicologist Moisei Beregovskii was a Head of the Folklore Division.

[6] See recording # 5 on this CD (phono cylinder # 621)

[7] Otchet Obshchestva evreiskoi narodnoi muzyki za 1913 god i ocherk deiatel’nosti Obshchestva za pervoe piatiletie (1909-1913). Petrograd, 1914. P. 14  

[8] Lukin, Benyamin. An Academy Where Folklore Will Be Studied: An-sky and the Jewish Museum. P.296. Published in: The Worlds of S. An-sky: a Russian-Jewish Intellectual at the Turn of the Century”/Edited by Gabriella Safran and Steven J. Zipperstein. Stanford, CA, 2006.

[9] Ibid. See note 82 to Lukin’s article on p. 490 of this edition.

[10] Ibid. See note 82 to Lukin’s article published on pp. 490-491 of this edition.

[11] Ibid, p. 297. See also note 83 on p. 491.

[12] Entry on Isaac Lurie in Elektronnaia Evreiskaia Entsiklopediia was a main source of his biographical information:

[13] An-ski S. Dos yudishe etnografishe program. Oysgabe fun der Yudisher etnografisher ekspeditsye inm nomen fun dem baron Herts Gintsburg. Ershter theyl: Der mensh. Petrograd, 1914. 238 pp.