Page 160 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 50

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with the mass immigration to America, the internal migration
from the shtetl to the city, and the rise of secular ideologies,
all these songs — the hasidic and maskilic, the anonymous and
the authored, those sung at weddings and those performed on
Purim — became part of a new, synthetic folk culture that would
serve many diverse functions in the decades to come.19
By the 1860’s, secular Yiddish folk bards had become a per­
manent feature of the Jewish cultural landscape in Eastern Eu­
rope. It was now time to take the show on the road. Seeing
as the Yiddish topical and heretical songs of Berl Broder, Velvl
Zbarzher and Mikhl Gordon traveled so well, those folksingers
who could began to dream of conquering the New World. The
first to do so was Vilna-born
Elyokum Zunser who started
as a local celebrity in Kovno, went professional and moved back
to Vilna in 1861 where he fell in with Isaac Meir Dik’s circle
of learned Maskilim, and with the coming of the trains that
very same year began to travel to ever-more-lucrative wed­
dings.20 As he later admitted with typical modesty, his was then
the only show in town. No one in Lithuania had yet heard or
heard of the Broder Singers, while his
Mikhl Gordon
was off somewhere in the south of Russia. So Zunser proceeded
very much in the spirit of I.M. Dik. To maintain his good stand­
ing, Zunser (like Dik) drove a middle course between rational
faith and moderate reform. Rooted (like Dik) in the landscape
and language of Vilna and environs, he had the maggid’s knack
of using elaborate allegories plus a satirist’s eye for pinpointing
a worthy target. As a youthful disciple of Israel Salanter
(1810-1883), the founder of the radically ascetic Mussar Move­
ment, Zunser’s homiletic urge was if anything stronger than
Dik’s. Sharing Dik’s profound knowledge of Jewish sources,
Zunser could put a trickster tale (say, of Yekele the Bass Mu­
19. A fuller discussion o f 19th-century Yiddish songs and their folklorization
will appear in my forthcoming book,
The Lost Art o f Yiddish Storytelling
University Press, 1993).
20. See Zunzer’s delightful autobiographical sketch,
A Jewish Bard,
trans. Simon
Hirsdansky (New York: Jubilee Committee, 1905) and the fuller Yiddish version
The Works o f Elyokum Zunser: Critical Edition,
ed. Mordkhe Schaechter, 2 vols.
(New York: YIVO, 1964), 2:667-716.