1. The Kapelye

Music was another attribute of culture we were largely deprived of. In books we came across references to operas, symphonies, concertos, cantatas, but what they sounded like was left to our imagination. We also knew the names of some composers-­Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Vivaldi stand out in my memory, the last one as a violinist rather than as composer. I recall how frustrated we were upon reading Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata--what overpowering passion lurked in that music that seemed to unite the two performers in a spiritual state of sublimity, and drove the protagonist to kill his unfortunate wife? We did not know. We were like blind people anxious to fathom the glory of a sunset or the splendor of the rainbow.


The only instrumental music we were exposed to, apart from the occasional peasant accordionist rendering the lively Ukrainian tunes, was that of the town kapelye, comprising a fiddle, bass, trumpet, and cymbals. This "quartet," though quite proud of their musicianship, had to depend on more prosaic occupations for a living, since they played only at weddings and there was not enough of those for earning their daily bread. As they shambled along the rough cobblestone pavement they were always surrounded by a motley crowd of youngsters, who relished the rare spectacle of the little fiddler with his scraggly beard and the tall skinny trumpeter in the center, flanked on each side by the corpulent bass player and the cymbalist, the latter's jacket flying up every time he raised his arms to strike the two metal plates high over his head, while the bass player kept on jerking his clumsy instrument upward to prevent it from striking the cobblestones whenever the straps holding it around his shoulders were pulled down by its weight, the kids mimicking all their movements as well as the tunes.


There was one phonograph in town, probably an early Victor Gramophone, with a large horn and a turntable that had to be cranked by hand. It was owned by one of the wealthier families in a house on the market place, and they often played it near an open window or on the porch facing the square, which invariably attracted a fair audience of music lovers. Unfortunately, the only records they had were of cantorial singing, and even that came out raspy and scratchy, with the singer's voice turning into a drawn-out whine as the spring began winding down. On rare occasions I heard the organ as I chanced to pass the Catholic church when its doors were open, and thus perceived just an inkling of the glory of this instrument. I was sorely tempted to linger and drink in more of the majestic sounds, but it was not proper for a Jewish boy to loiter near a church, and as for going inside it was out of the question--it would not have been welcomed by the worshippers and would have brought down anathemas on my head and on my parents from the Jewish community. And that was the total extent of my exposure to music, with one exception: the unique instrumentalist, a young man who lived on a side street, and played the violin. I first heard him by chance on a summer evening when I ran with some other kids through the back yards and happened to pass near his open window. The sounds that came out of there made me stop--sounds I had never heard before. I stayed outside the open window, and returned there on many evenings during that summer to listen to the melancholy sweet tunes he produced, which often brought tears to my eyes. I have no idea where he learned to play--for all I know he may have been self-taught--but he must have been some kind of musical genius. The passage of time may be enhancing my youthful perspective, but I feel that under proper circumstances he might have become another Heifetz or even a Mozart.

 2.   A Cappella

What we lacked in musical instrumentation we made up in song. Just as with reading, and even more enjoyable, singing was a group activity engaged in by anyone who could carry a tune, and by some who only thought they could. We had quite a repertoire-- not only the folk songs and wedding tunes passed on from generation to generation, but many new songs in Yiddish, Russian and Hebrew. Some of them were revolutionary songs which echoed back to the years 1905--1906, when the turbulent winds penetrated even into such a God-forsaken backwoods town as Shershev. A number of stories were current about those exciting years, when there was a "Brothers and Sisters" group in town. They used to meet secretly in the forest where they I istened to fiery speeches, sang inflammatory songs, and perhaps undertook more effective deeds in furtherance of the cause.


One undertaking may have been the procurement of weapons, and my father apparently had a hand in it, although he was not to my knowledge a member of the group. I have a vivid recollection of an evening in our house, with father standing near the table in the living room examining a revolver by the light of a kerosene lamp, while mother agitatedly moved from one window to another to make sure that the out­ side shutters were closed tight so that no one could peek in, at the same time urging father to put the thing away, hide it, get rid of it. There was good reason for her fear: possession of firearms could lead to a trip to Siberia--in chains! Father had apparently just returned from a shopping trip to another city--there were some open crates of merchandise in the room--and must have obtained the weapon on order from a trusted person, since I am sure he had no use for it himself.


An unforgettable incident which happened to me about the same time shows that the anti-government agitation was open enough not to have escaped the ears of children. One of my playmates lived next to the police station, with a high wooden fence separating the two back yards. My friend and I stood on our side of the fence, chanting at the top of our voices: "Doloy Tsar, Doloy Tsar, Doloy Russkiy Gosudar!" (Down with the Tsar, Down with the Tsar, Down with the Russian Autocrat). One of the policemen started running toward us on the other side of the fence, holding up the scabbard of his saber to prevent it from getting between his legs, and we stampeded in terror before he could get to us. I could not have been more that five years old at the time and did not know the import of the words, but was apparently aware that the song was an irritant to the police.


All our songs were learned by heart after having been transcribed into "song albums" which everyone fashioned for himself. Like the books, they were in Yiddish, Russian and Hebrew, and some of the songs were available in two or even all three of the languages, in excellent translations that were attuned to the same melody. Some idea of the flavor and import of these songs may be gained from the following excerpts, freely translated from the originals as I remember them.




Like foulest deeds that betrayer's mind crowd,

So black is the autumnal night;

Still darker there looms, wrapped in mist as a shroud,

Of the phantomlike prison the sight.


The jailers pace lazily round and round;

In the stillness of night, like a sigh,

There's heard their sepulchrally mournful sound:

Sloo-oo-shy! Sloo-oo-shy!


The young captive above leans his face to the bars,

His gaze lost in the fathomless gloom;

His heart aches for freedom, for life under stars,

But he knows, he knows his doom.


Not for days, not for months, but for year after year,

In this cell, in this tomb he must lie;

Through the night this lugubrious cry but to hear:

Sloo-oo-shy! Sloo-oo-shy!




Let us turn our face from the world of old,

Let us shake off its dust from our feet.

We have no need for its idols of gold,

Crown and palace with hatred we treat.


We will go to the long-suff'ring toilers,

To the people who to hunger are born;

And together we'll curse the despoilers,

Gird to battle for a bright new morn.


Arise! Stand erect, all you workers in the land,

Lift your voice, you who labor and slave;

Raise the cry of revenge, drive the foe to his grave,

Forward! Forward! With arms in your hand!


Other memorable revolutionary songs were:  The Russian version of the "lnternationale", rallying "The world's accursed and starving slaves" to take matters into their own hands: . . . "We don't expect to gain salvation / Through God or Tsar or Hero bright / We shall obtain our liberation / Through our own main and might. . . . " ;

The stirring "Varshavyanka", calling to the "Fateful bloody battle, just and holy" against "The oppressive dark forces howling around us in a fiendish tempest. . . " ;


A dirge for the comrades who died for the cause, appropriately titled "Funeral March" --"In boundless love for the people you stood / And fell as victims in the fateful strife / For them you sacrificed all that you could / Your freedom, your honor, your life. . . . "

Among the outstanding Zionist songs was the impassioned and solemn "Oath" :


We lift our hands up to heaven and swear

By Zion, her people and her sacred dust,

By all that we honor and ever hold dear,

By the swords of her heroes covered with rust.

Heaven and earth! Do us hear!

Bright stars! Do witness bear!
We swear! We swear! We swear!

An oath of blood and of tears!


Another Zionist song expressed the longing for the ancient land, Eretz Yisroel, in these verses:


There where the cedars to the clouds grow,

Where Jordan's waters through the valley flow,

Where the remains of our fathers rest,

The soil by Hasmonean blood is blest:

There is our promised land,

Our eternal fatherland.


The following romantic song, a great favorite, often brought tears to the eyes of impressionable young ladies, the effect of both its lyrics and captivating melody. It is given in full, in the hope of conveying some of the beauty of the exquisite Russian verses.


The Seagull


The dawn bursts in splendor, the lake surface glows;

O'er the waters a seagull in graceful curves swings;

The space is her realm, no bounds she knows;

A ray of the sun gently silvers her wings.


But hark! There's a shot! . . . And the seagull is gone,

With a flutter of wings in the reeds she expired;

At the whim of a hunter her life was undone;

Without a glance at his victim o'er the hills he retired.


A maid pure and simple did in those hills dwell,

Serene and untroubled in her youth's full bloom;

A hunter appeared, she succumbed to his spell;

She gave him her hand, and was led to her doom.


Like the silvery seagull's heart pierced in mid-flight,

So the maiden's was shattered, forever to bear
The wounds of lost hope, lost trust, lost delight;

To waste her young life in torment and despair.


Very popular in those days were songs by the Russian-Jewish poet Nadson. These were saturated with bitter-sweet melancholy, pessimism, and lovelorn resignation .Here is an excerpt from one titled "The Fireplace" :

"You stand by the fireplace and dolefully gaze / At the wane of the once roaring flame / How a spark tries to flare up, but only in vain / For it soon is extinguished again . . ."


Another Nadson song: "The curtain's down. No more gay delusions / No mysteries enchanting, no hope, no delight / Ahead of you the soberness of unfulfilled illusions / And in your tortured soul but the dismal gloom of night. . . "


Many of our folk songs are still heard to this day wherever there is a Jewish audience. To mention just a few: The lullaby "Raisins and Almonds"; "Rebbe Elimelekh"; "Yomeh, Yomeh, sing me a song"; "Ten Brothers were we"; "Ma'y ko ma'shma lon"; and "Toom-ba-la-laika".  Mention must also be made of the lilting Russian folk song "In the Field There Stood a Little Birch Tree" which in recent years has been made familiar to audiences in many countries by the Red Army Chorus, although their elaboration and "improved" arrangement has deprived it of its original simplicity and folksiness.