Edited by Ada Holtzman
Menachem Kipnis was one of the most popular figures in the Yiddish literary circuits.
Born and brought up in poverty, he underwent a hard and rich experience, until he became one of the most significant experts and scholars of the Yiddish folklore. He has started as a singer, later he excelled as a musical critic and a great expert in Yiddish music, and finally he became a proficient collector of folklore and a prolific folktale writer. His authoritative opinions about Yiddish singing became starting points for musicologists and scholars for the way they dealt with the problems of the history of Jewish culture. His collection of folktales, feuilletons and humoresques became a source for the study of the Yiddish past of the Eastern European Jewish communities regarding all their spheres of life. Meanwhile let's have a glance at his interesting life story.
Born in 1878 in the small shtetl Ushomir in Volyn he became an orphan at 8 years. His older brother, Peysy the Cantor (father of the writer Levin Kipnis), took care of his little brother and provided for him the initial overall and Yiddish music education. Menachem had a nice alt and was singing in his brother's choir.
When his voice was breaking, he lost his alt, and started to drive a horse and wagon around the villages, where he used to buy butter and eggs, and if it happened his way a calf. All this merchandise he brought to town to sell.
Later, when his voice, now a tenor, returned, he once again started singing with the famous cantors in that region: Berl Mulier, Nissen Belzer and Zeidl Rovner. Together with Zeidl Rovner he traveled all over Volhynia, Podolia, Lithuania and Poland, singing at Sabbath services and in concerts of cantoral music.
At the same time he was learning Hebrew, reading literature of Haskalah (the Enlightenment) and studying sheet music with the famous enlightened cantor Abraham Ber Birnboim of Czestochowa.
He was drawn to the great world, to the wide music stage, but he was not able to break off from the band of cantors and choirboys. After a number of tricks he succeeded in running away from the band and with the help of his friend Itzikl Zusman he came to Warsaw, where he was admitted to the opera-choir as a tenor. For sixteen years he was singing in the opera choir and the same time was active in other fields of musical life. He began to study the sources of the Yiddish music, collecting Yiddish folksongs and popularize them, and finally he became a successful feuilletonist and successful writer, who specialized in seizing and describing what was most popular in the Jewish life.
His first writings were about the style and tones of the Jewish music. At that time beginning of the 20th century in the Jewish music was an argument about the character and the future of the Jewish music. In general it was the period of striving and turbulence in the Jewish intellectual life in Europe. Various concepts were at war: extreme- religious against mild-traditional; progressive intellectualists against nationalist Zionists and those promoting assimilation and self-liquidation against secular folklorists.
This confusion manifested itself among the pioneers of our modern Jewish music. Pinchas Minkowski, A. Cz. Idelson and Lazar Saminski had a strong Hebraic rigid approach to the problems in our music. They felt, that melodies, which do not carry a biblical sign, are not original Jewish. For them the only distinguishing sign of the Jewish melody was the melos emphasis used in the biblical reading. Our first folklore collectors Sh. Anski, Shaul Ginsburg and Peretz Marek argued that every sound that touches the Jewish heart with love is authentic Jewish. Sholem-Aleichem also supported the opinion that our folks songs are songs, in which is reflected, as in clear water, the whole life of the Jewish folk, with all the Jewish joys and sufferings, the Jewish troubles, the Jewish poverty, the Jewish tears And even such a Hebraist as Jabotinsky wrote in one of his articles: If I happen to be a choirmaster, my choir would sing with me Oifn pripet'shik (by the fireplace) as a great fiery oratory.
And at the time as the hot disputes were going on, the first signs appeared predicting that the future of the Jewish music lies in the synthesis of both elements. We cannot reject the melos of the biblical reading that accompanied us on our long historic way and was a part of our intellectual-religious life (reading of the Torah at services, traditional versions of the prayers) and we cannot discard our folks song, created and sang in different lands, which in spite of originating from strange sources, were by us adopted and became an inseparable part of our cultured life. The melodic lines of our ancient past must merge and intertwine with the musical elements of our folks songs and create in the future the foundation of a serious symphonic structure.
And here lies the great achievement of Menachem Kipnis, who was among the precursors and founders of this attitude. His thoughts he expressed in numerous articles and critical essays published in various newspapers and literary publications. He wrote them in a very popular way, building his arguments intuitively rather then substantiating them scientifically. In his translations he went even further and insisted that the mixed-language songs, in which the text was part Yiddish and part Ukrainian or Russian, have the same right to belong to the Jewish musical treasure as all other (Yiddish) melodies. He considered these songs genuinely Jewish and included many of them in his collections of folks songs.
For Menachem Kipnis was not important if the songs were written by authors, who were assimilated Jews and wrote songs in a mixed language - Yiddish and Ukrainian - (as considered by the great historian S. Dubnow) or who were ardentHasidim (as was considered by Sh. Anski); the important thing for Menachem Kipnis was that these songs were rooted in the hearts of the Jewish masses and were a part of their musical wealth. Nobody can come up and question the Jewish spirit (Yiddishkeit) of songs like Dos pastekhl, Katerina, Der tate un di kinder and others. Even as many elements of the mentioned songs were developed from strange sources, they intertwined so much with our own, that they became Yiddish. Some time later professor Idelson has shown in his research that most of mixed-language songs are genuine Yiddish. Out of 23 songs that he has analyzed, tact after tact and phrase after phrase, he determined that 15 are definitely Yiddish songs and 8 have mixed music.
Menachem Kipnis highly respected all elements of the Yiddish melody that had developed at different periods of our long history, but above all he valued the Yiddish folksongs, which he considered a great music treasure. Other musicologists gradually began supporting his opinion, so it was no wonder that members of the Society for the Yiddish Folk Music (it was founded in Russia in 1908) considered their main goal in collecting, developing and spreading the Yiddish songs what Menachem Kipnis alone did all his life long.
Besides his polemic articles about the foundation and the future of the Jewish music Menachem Kipnis wrote a whole line of books and essays on the subject of music: Famous Jewish musicians, cantors and singers, Yiddish folk musicians in Poland, From primitive folksong to Jewish symphonic music, and other. He also wrote concert reviews, which were printed in various periodic publications and were enlightening for every reader.
Being a permanent employee of the daily newspaper Haynt in Warsaw, he used its pages to rouse interest to the Jewish music in whole and particularly to the Yiddish folklore. Often he called to take care of and to collect everything what had value from the literary or musical point of view, and then he made an effort to contact the amateur collectors and ask for their collected materials to make them public.
While on concert tours with his partner and wife Zimra Zeligfeld in the cities and little towns in Poland he did not miss any opportunity to pick up a new song, a Hassidic melody or another Yiddish musical motif. And this way Menachem Kipnis became an institution, a center of developing Jewish music in Poland. From all places in Poland young Hasidim, workers, intellectuals and ordinary music lovers would come to Menachem Kipnis to seek his advice and hear his significant word about the matters that interested them and sometimes troubled them.
Menachem Kipnis as a singer, also acquired a reputation as one of the best interpreters of the Yiddish songs. He did not just sing a song, but played it out with his lips, eyes, with his manners and with his whole being, with his body, enthusiasm and above all with wisdom. Songs that he sang were most popular among all the classes of the Jewish people in Poland. Often during Sabbath summer evenings one could hear from the Jewish houses songs of the Menachem Kipnis' collections.
The results of two decades of work of Menachem Kipnis were included in two books that were published in Warsaw in a well known Gitlin publishing house. The first in the year 1918 and the second in 1925: 60 Yiddish Folksongs and 80 Yiddish Folksongs. The selection and the classification of the material revealed that the author treats his task very seriously and does it with full responsibility. The titles of the chapters speak for themselves: lyric- romantic and love songs, popular folksongs, religious, songs of the mitnagdim (the orthodox opponents of theHasidim), Hassidic and Philosophic folksongs; humoristic and family songs; Yiddish-Ukrainian folksongs, and so on. As we can see, the classification completely depends on the text. There was nothing accidental. Everything was carefully planned in advance.
Even more precisely he dealt with the list of contents and musical notes to the songs. Where he had the information he mentions the name and whereabouts of the person that provided the song. And we discover a thing that arouses admiration. Most of the providers of the songs were the pillars of our modern literature. Mentioned here are H. D. Nomberg, I. M. Kulbak, Ofrim Kaganowski, Z. Segalowicz, Sh. Anski, Leah Liow, Alter Koczizne, A. Samberg, Icchak Kaczenelson, I. I. Trunk, B. Cukerman, P. Markish, A. Lewinson, I. Gerstein, M. Borderzon, Sz. Sluczki, I. Dinezon, Dawid Einhorn, and even Sholem-Aleykhem. The songs stem from the Eastern wall of our literary well. We have to treat the songs in both selections, as a special folk treasure, while we have to understand that the songs, which were sang and collected by above mentioned personalities, definitely have a literary and musical value and are worthy to be especially preserved. Therefore it becomes clear why Menachem Kipnis on the title page of the first collection put a note: concert-repertoire. This way he wanted to stimulate the Yiddish singer to use the best of the Yiddish folklore, the pearls of the Yiddish musical treasures.
Menachem Kipnis was a prominent figure in Jewish cultured circles in Warsaw. He was an active member of the managing committee of the Yiddish Literary Union on Tlomacka 13 and took part in every activity which led to support and development of the Jewish music. He was a member of the Warsaw Jewish Music Society, a co-founder of the Jewish Music Institute, a member of the managing committee of the Jewish Folk Choir and the initiator of great musical events.
The last years before the war, when anti-Semitism in Poland was on the rise and as a result Jewish musicians lost their occupations, Menachem Kipnis with help of some others organized a Jewish Symphony Orchestra, which became the pride of Jewish Warsaw. He was always among those who took care to create the material foundation for a wide spread music activity.
After the war broke out he did not make any attempt to escape from Warsaw. He was too closely attached to the Warsaw musical circles and the Jewish masses even to think about it. He dedicated himself to public work and help for Jewish musicians, writers and others who were active in the Ghetto cultural life.
He had the luck and the rare honor to die a natural death and was one of the few that were buried in a Jewish cemetery. This happened in 1942, when the Polish Jews in masse were deported to the gas chambers. The eulogies recited during his funeral lamented also the tragic destruction of the grand Polish Jewry and expressed great pain about the life that will never return. With Menachem Kipnis buried were also the great folk treasures that were in his possession and that will never see the light of day.
His name will be always remembered among those who with their knowledge, diligence and enthusiasm brought the Jewish music onto the new ways and created a solid foundation for the rise of the modern Jewish music.
Back in the US, Berta and Nahum with the help of YIVO found memoirs about Menachem and his own books and articles, published in Haynt, and were able to enjoy his wit and knowledge of Yiddish music.
He was born in Kozienice and studied music in Warsaw. In the year of 1926 he completed the royal Conservatoire in Warsaw, where he studied to play the violin with the master Stanisław Bracewicz.
He played in concerts, also as a soloist and was member of the Warsaw stringed instruments quartet, headed by Josef Kaminski. In this quartet Lederman played the second violin. He lives in Warsaw, played in the State Polish radio and was also one of the conductors of the orchestra of the Polish broadcasting authorities.
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Updated 19 Mar 2013 by LA