The folklorist research that delves into Jewish music and its historiography does not contribute much to the question of the status of the musicians in the Jewish Diaspora before the Holocaust. It is known that despite the persecution from the gentile surroundings and the Jewish way of life that refrains from listening to music on days of national and personal mourning the Jewish towns always had musicians who would make the community happy on days of festivity and birthdays. A wedding without musicians is like a funeral without lamentation and eulogies, states the popular adage. This soulful need of our people served as the economic base of the musicians who took upon themselves this task. Another popular adage states, During the days of Sefira, death overtakes the musicians, testifies to how poor the state of those engaged in this occupation was. The musicians, the cantor and the jester their tunes and laughter were drenched in tears. If the work of the musicians developed and took hold throughout the centuries, this is thanks to the bountiful musical talent that was found within the Jewish masses, who were attracted to this profession.
This and furthermore: throughout many generations, there was not a musical existence, and general entertainment was not a Jewish trait at all. The musicians found their expressions by playing their violins at weddings and at events such as Torah scroll dedications in synagogues, Purim feasts, etc.
There were no schools of music on the Jewish street. The profession of musician was a wonder of nature, a sapling that grew by itself and gave rise to artists and virtuosos who shook worlds with their talent.
Despite the fact that most of them did not know how to read music, they created their own repertoire of Jewish content by improvisation or by memory. For names like Podhocer (Aharon Moshe Cholodenko), Stempenyu (Yosele Druker), Michi (Avraham Yitzchak Berezovsky) and others their names went before them. Others (Yosef Guzikov for example) would travel through countries and play in the courts of royalty. Every town had its own troupe of musicians, and every such troupe in its own right was like Stempenyu in his right. Such a Caplut musical troupe existed in Orheyev as well, of which each one in his own right was like Podhocer and Stempenyu.
We do not have any material about the history of musicians in Orheyev. We will begin (in accordance to the sources that are in our hands) with one of them, Reb Chayim, known as Chayim the violinist (at the end of the 19th century) who served as the head of the musical troupe. From him the baton passed to his son-in-law, who was known as Melech (King) of all Musicians. This talented violinist was of his own making. Of course, he aroused wonder with his music. I had the opportunity to record from one of the musicians a table song of that King, who was apparently talented also as a composer of a repertoire for musicians. He excelled not only in Jewish topics, but also in his own uncommon techniques of his own violin music. His talent reached such a level that he was invited to concerts not only in provincial Bessarabia, but also in Kishinev. Nechemya Kovodlo, nicknamed Nechemya the Musician, was also numbered among the prominent musicians in the city. He was an exceptional musician. He learned to read music by himself. He was shoulders above the rest of the musicians. He would compose a tune by ear (something very uncommon among musicians). There was no musical instrument in the orchestra that he did not know how to play. Nevertheless, at a time when the bands divided up into small groups in order to appear simultaneously at weddings or on Purim, he would take the place of the missing musician. He would play the violin, contrabass, and trumpet.
His eldest son Moshe became known as a praiseworthy violinist. (He played in the Blagorodnavaya Sobranaya in Kishinev, and in symphonic ensembles and operas in Poltava. Later, he was a violinist in the United States). His son Binyamin (in his youth he was a singer in the choir in the Great Synagogue) was a talented pianist. He appeared in concerts in Russia, Germany, Romania and Turkey. He composed compositions for bands and also music for operas. He married a violinist, and they appeared together in concerts and on the radio. The couple had a child who excelled in musical talent. Nechemya's daughter Chaika married Shlomo Shpilman, a clarinetist in the Royal Opera of Bucharest. His son Chayim and brother David Shpilman the writer (Tzirolnik) were literally enchanting on their guitars. From the old generation of musicians, we know of Avraham the musician (Leyzer with the bass and his son Chatzkele Barabanchik).
There were two other troupes: Gypsies who were headed by gypsies Monolati the Gypsy and Petru the Gypsy. Both Monolati and Petru, could not read music. Nechemya would compose tunes for dances for them. Most of the musicians in the gypsy troupes were Jews who earned their livelihood from weddings and Jewish celebrations. They maintained a Jewish repertoire. The Kel Male Rachamim that Petru the Gypsy composed was played at the weddings of orphans. The writer of these lines recorded the tune from Petru himself. Both of them, Monolati and Petru, spoke Bessarabian Yiddish like water. He knew how to make the blessings shehakol, mezonot, borei pri haetz, and hamotzi lechem min haaretz. Petru was also the provider of homemade spices to the women of the town of the old generation. Monolati and Petru did not miss any Jewish festive occasion or funeral, since they were alert to the Jewish community, and they never appeared before the Jews with uncovered heads. We must also not forget the name of Yitzchak Yankel Burla (Rozenfeld) (the seater of the bride) who declared the presents for the lecture, and who directed the bands. He was (who knows if he had these rights from Czarist Russia) the only Jewish policeman (gorobodoi) in the city. Incidentally, I will tell about the death of Melech the Musician. A daughter of wealthy landowners fell in love with him and his music. (Albeit he was married and also a very Orthodox Jew.) She took revenge upon him and put poison in his cup in one of her joyous parties in Kishinev. Some say that all of the musicians of Kishinev poisoned him out of jealousy, for his band was often invited to Kishinev, while they were often left without a livelihood. In later years, a jazz band was set up in Orheyev headed by Dashe Vaysman the son of Itzikel the barber, and Froim (Efrayim) Vishkotzan.
Thus was the work manner of the Rebbe. He would take six children, seat them on a long bench, and teach them the Hebrew alphabet. He would show the first child the shape of an Alef and the shape of a Beit, and the child would repeat after him Alef Beit. He would then do this to the second child, the third child, etc. After these six finished, six more would take their place, and repeat the same verses with the same tune. The following days, the Rebbe would add more letters, until they went through all the letters of the alphabet.
The children spent about two or three years in the cheder, and when they reached the level of Chumash bochur (a student of Chumash), they would send him to the Talmud Torah or the Yeshiva.
We had a great festivity when one of the mothers of the cheder children gave birth to a male. A male child was a small matter! (ed.note: a play on words since it was really an important matter). That day, we would come to cheder late, and the classes were cancelled. This was the day of the reading of the Shema for the mother who had given birth.
We would go out of the cheder in rows of three and march upright. Arebersh (the Rebbe Hirsh) would march alongside as a general (however, a limping general). Just as we entered into the home of the mother, we would all call out: agitenovent (good evening), Mazel Tov! Then Arebersh would read out the Shema in a loud voice, and we would repeat it after him word for word. After we finished the reading of the Shema, we once again called out Mazel Tov! Each of us then received a small bag with a small cookie, a candy, nuts and raisins. Those children who had a younger brother or sister at home would receive two portions. Our joy was boundless.
I entered the Yeshiva when I was five years old. I remember that my entrance to the yeshiva was difficult. Moshe Binyamin the Shochet's (Moshe Yonovitz) was one of the trustees of the Yeshiva, and he advised my father to wait one more year until I had become six years old. However, my father advised him to test me, and if I would not pass the test, he would accept the situation, and I would wait one more year. My father's advice was accepted, and I took the test and passed. I was very happy. I had already become a Yeshiva student, and was already able to play with children who were older than me. The games were different than they were in cheder. We prepared a performance for Chanukah, to which we invited the important people of the city, (The Rabbi Mitaam Yosef Pagis, Dr. N Berkovitz, and others). The parents of the children also came. The trustees of the Yeshiva delivered lectures about the activities and educational achievements of the Yeshiva. The teachers were Moshe Liva, Ben-Zion from Rybnitsa, and Leib Altman and his son Yonah from Ukraine.
Ben-Zion was the strictest of them. He would enter the class with a leather strap, and hit the strap on the table. Everyone became quiet immediately. All of the children were frightened, and nobody was so brazen as to open his mouth. He issued a reprimand and a punishment for every small transgression. Obviously, the children did not especially like him. My place was next to the teacher, and every time that he wanted to drink, he would honor me with bringing him a cup of water. Once, I had the idea of taking revenge upon him for the gall that he cast upon the students, and I said to myself that when he would send me to bring a cup of water, I would pretend to trip as I brought him the cup, and the cup would spill on his face However, this did not come to fruition. I was afraid that the wantonness of my heart would become known, and my fate would be bitter. He caught me as I was sitting at the table playing games with paper and not concentrating on my studies. He hit me over the ears once or twice for this transgression. Then I decided that he would receive his recompense the next time. When he sent me to fetch a cup of water, I made sure to bring a full cup. I tripped as I approached him, the cup fell from my hands, and the water spilled on his feet. My plan worked, and I did not realize from the outset that it would make it look like he wet his pants. I remained in my place overtaken with fear, and I could not open my mouth. Specifically that time, he did not punish me at all
I immigrated to America in 1923. I visited Orheyev in 1929, and found it wallowing in poverty and deprivation. The Jews were downtrodden. Anti-Semitism and the persecution of the Romanian authorities were upon them. I was anguished about my hometown and its people who were in such a sad situation. However, who could imagine that 11 years later it would be destroyed, and most of the Jews would be scattered to the four corners of the earth as they left their loved and dear ones on the fields of murder. Their memory will be preserved forever.
Hebrew: Y. B. A.
From Yiddish by M. R.
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