Moisei Beregovsky and His Archive of Jewish Music

by Mark Slobin

Film poster for "Song Searcher"

I first spoke about the film Song Searcher before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Discussing this groundbreaking, absorbing, and intensely human film has now become a very different experience now that Ukraine has descended into tragic violence once again. The moment has particular personal resonance for me, as my mother was a refugee from Ukraine exactly 100 years ago, following a path to Kishinev now being heavily traveled once more by escapees from violence.

Given the age-old tangled and perilous history that has brought us to today, particularly the story of the three million Jews who lived in Ukraine in the early twentieth century, Beregovsky presents just one brief moment that can offer a microcosm of the paradoxes of the place. Our hero—and he is that—arrived on the scene in 1926 when the memory of the massive pogroms of 1918-21 was still an open wound, barely bandaged by the Soviet attempt to restore order. Jeffrey Veidlinger’s fine new study confirms a death toll of at least 100,000 Jews. In 1932, even as Beregovsky was collecting folk music, Stalin’s vicious famine was in progress: 80,000 Ukrainians died of starvation in 1932 in just the Kyiv area. Soon to follow were Stalin’s massive purges, deportations, and increasingly strident antisemitism within Stalinist Soviet Union and in Ukraine itself, quickly giving way to the massive destruction caused by Hitler’s invasion of 1941. All these horrors were taking place, as Beregovsky was working on surveying Ukrainian Jewish music culture.

Presidium of the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture, Kiyv/Kiev, 1934. Moisei Beregovskii (head of the Folklore Section), second row, center. (YIVO Encyclopedia)

Against all odds, in his heyday as a working scholar, we see Beregovsky housed and supported in a Jewish division of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, a temporarily protected space for the systematic gathering and contemplation of the deeply rooted Ukrainian Jewish cultural heritage. Beregovsky functioned something like a fish in a winter lake, carrying on an active life by finding enough nutrients to survive under a thick layer of ice. He was able to come up for air briefly, in wartime evacuation to what is now called Bashkortostan, managing to keep at work by studying the local folk music. And then again, as poignantly testified to in the film, in the brief thaw immediately at the end of World War Two he felt he had to document the Holocaust-ravaged remnants of Jewish communities. Alas, the winds changed again and Beregovsky was sent to the gulag.

Phono-cylinders from the collection of Moshe Beregovsky at the Institute for Information Recording of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. Source: Song Searcher

Beregovsky’s legacy remained in doubt for decades after his death in 1961. While his published works were certainly known and accessible, most of us thought his archive probably perished over the decades of the Soviet and the Nazi persecution and violence. To our surprise, the 1990s brought the news that the precious materials had indeed survived, though we outsiders had no access to what now became the new Ukrainian state property. To jump to the present crisis, I learned that other day that so far, the archive Beregovsky held from earlier collectors and added to significantly is intact and being safeguarded by the Vernadsky National Library in Kyiv. So the brief period of recognition and limited exposure of those precious holdings over the last thirty years has become just another moment in a string of pauses for breath before history forced the record of Ukrainian Jewish music below the surface again.

These radical shifts in the political and military atmosphere of Ukraine and Russia make it very hard to assess Beregovsky’s work, beyond recognizing the massive achievement of his stockpiling of valuable evidence for the diversity and richness of the Ukrainian Jewish musical experience. Decades ago, I brought up the issue of how seriously to take his pro-stalinist rhetoric – subterfuge or co-optation? That remains an open question. There’s also the selectivity of his collecting efforts, which downplayed most religious-based music, despite his fine anthology of Hasidic nigunim, or scanted the music-dance connection, backgrounded some repertoires outside his favored core, and posited some questionable historical relationships, as Zev Feldman has pointed out.

Yet, I prefer to focus on the breadth of his vision and the largely inclusive nature of his work, including those nigunim and a substantial sampling of purimshpil folk plays. This openness extended to his vision of folklore itself, leading to a flexible, shifting, multi-sourced methodological standpoint influenced by that brief period of open inquiry of the 1920s by those who influenced him, like the Ukrainian scholar Klement Kvitka. I always like to compare Beregovsky to that other great figure of early twentieth century folk collecting and publication, Bela Bartok. Bartok had no interest in the people whose oral testimony he gathered, from the biographical to the contextual. He was not much concerned with the intense interactivity of ethnic traditions and practices. That allowed his work to lay the cornerstone for nationalist traditions of collecting and analysis among the peoples of the Hungarian kingdom that he worked with. Some of those attitudes spilled over to the creative work and polemics of a widening circle of Jewish composers, scholars, and collectors, people who were often looking for an unchanging, inherently Jewish music that perhaps dated back to Biblical times. By contrast, here’s what Beregovsky had to say as he began work, in 1930:

“Is it possible to speak of ‘Jewish music’ when it has been created by different classes, strata, and groups across a wide geographic spread among differing economic, social, and cultural circumstances and as a minority in a diverse ‘national-musical’ environment.” Turning from generality to the specifics of his research method, he says: “Can there be a general unified musical language, or can one find just identical musical expressions, intonations, turns, rhythms, and so forth?” These practical goals drive the current energized work of today’s Yiddishland music researchers.

So what we inherit from Beregovsky, so finely portrayed in the film Song Searcher, should be a gentle open-mindedness, big ears combined with a big heart that respects and safeguards the colorful and hard-won aesthetic freedom of the Ukrainian Jews and their kin across Yiddishland. I am grateful to the filmmakers for giving a broad audience a deeply respectful and humane introduction to a great and largely unknown figure in modern Jewish cultural history.

Mark Slobin is the Winslow-Kaplan Professor of Music Emeritus at Wesleyan University and the author or editor of numerous books, including about Moshe Beregovsky, Old Jewish Folk Music: The Collections and Writings of Moshe Beregovski (1982), which was republished in 2001 by Syracuse University Press, and coedited with Robert A. Rothstein and Michael Alpert, Jewish Instrumental Folk Music: The Collections and Writings of Moshe Beregovski. (2001).

A portion of the Historical Collection of Jewish Musical Folklore 1912-1947 at the Vernadsky Library has been digitized and you can learn more about its history here and peruse and listen to some of the materials here.