Collecting Hasidic and instrumental music was among priorities of the first Jewish ethnographic expeditions that explored the Jewish Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire between 1912 and 1914. Organized and directed by the prominent ethnographer and writer Semion An-ski (1863-1920) with the financial support of baron Vladimir Goratsievich Gintsburg (1873-1932) under auspices of the St. Petersburg Jewish Historical and Ethnographical Society, the expeditions’ participants visited over 65 localities in the Kiev, Podolia and Volyn provinces where they managed to carry out detailed research on the traditional Ashkenazi way of life, focusing on oral folklore and music, architecture, arts and crafts, religious practices and occupations.

These expeditions were of groundbreaking significance for the modern ethnography of Eastern European Jewry and their results were sensational. Thousands of unique artifacts, manuscripts, photographs, folk tales, stories and legends were collected during the expeditions. Outstanding number of musical materials was recorded on 500 phono cylinders using phonograph  equipment ; the expeditions’ participants also acquired copies or original handwritten albums with cantorial, klezmer music and  folk songs from local inhabitants. 

Collection of musical materials was mostly assembled during  two ethnographic trips in 1912 and 1913. 10 cylinders were dated 1914: they were recorded by Zinoviy Kiselgof on his short trip to Dubrovna, Mohilev province, under auspices of the St. Petersburg Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society and Society for Jewish Music . Many records were not dated at all, but we can approximately assume  that they were collected during 1912-1914 .

Work with musical materials required skills and expertise of professional musicians familiar with the scope of Yiddish folklore and liturgy. Therefore An-ski invited composer and musicologist Joel Engel  to join him  and Solomon Yudovin (1892-1954), artist and photographer, on the trip in 1912. Though Engel took part in the expedition for less than one month (from July 14th till the beginning of August), an immediate contact with the authentic Jewish music later had a profound impact on his own work as a composer . Zinoviy Kiselgof, a well-known Yiddish folklorist, collector of musical materials and educator, was a musical advisor in the expedition in 1913. He stayed with the expedition for about two months (approximately from June 22 till the third week in August), but left in order to resume his teaching position at the Jewish State School in Vitebsk. 

An-ski also recruited students from the Courses for Oriental Studies in St. Petersburg who came from the research areas and thus would be helpful in working at the sites.  Among them were Abram Rekhtman (1890-1972), originally from Proskurov, Podolia province, Itskhak Fikangur (1889-1957) and Shmuel Shrayer (1883-1944). 

Inventory books of the phonographic collections of the An-ski expeditions, the survived personal archives of the musical participants of the expeditions Joel Engel and Zinoviy (Zussman) Kiselgof, as well Abraham Rekhtman’s ethnographic account and memoirs  contain information about the places where the phonographic recordings were taken in 1912-1913: Berdichev, Pavoloch, Ruzhin, Skvira, Talne, Tetiev of the Kiev province; Bogopol, Letichev, Medzhibozh, Proskurov of the Podolia province; and Annopol, Derazhnia, Dubno, Zaslav, Klevan, Korets, Kovel, Kremenets, Ludmir, Lutsk,  Muravitsa,  Olyka, Polonnoe, Rivno, Shepetovka, Slavuta, Sudilkov,  Trisk  of Volyn province.

The expedition of 1913 officially continued only till September 20; thereafter Rekhtman continued work on his own, returning to the places that were not sufficiently investigated before. He carried out his responsibilities through the end of 1914, until official dismissal of the expedition.

Rekhtman noted that the expeditions’ participants were treated with great respect. Local people felt that owing to their contact with the participants they came to appreciate their own worth and inner pride even more. They  felt honored that such respectable people from the capital of the Russian Empire who “probably see the Czar themselves”  cаme to their provincial towns, went into their synagogues, looked in their pinkasim and paid good money for the small items that had to do with yidishkayt.

A neighborhood synagogue always was the first place that the participants would  visit. Everyday they would go to a different shul to meet a local congregation. When the service was over, people would approach the guests from St. Petersburg with questions. An-ski would reply in his charming manner and then invite them to continue the conversation at his hotel, where they would have a cup of tea or very often a schnapps with a bagel. Rekhtman recalled: “During the days and in the evenings, the young and old would fill his room and only thanks to their sincere affection were we able to collect [these] treasures.” 

In order to record prayers, songs and Hasidic tunes, recording sessions would often take place in the synagogue. Rekhtman noted: “After the service, we would place the box with the phonograph on a long wooden table. The Jews would surround us. We would open the box and explain the deep wisdom that lay hidden inside this magic mashinke [little machine]. One of us would sing some familiar tune into [the phonograph] and in a short while put the membrane back to the start and then the tune would sound exactly the same way it was recorded. In the middle of the recording we would cough or laugh briefly - on purpose - and it would be reproduced precisely.” 

This effect impressed everyone, and soon thereafter many people became so taken that they wanted to sing something into the phonograph.  They considered the phonograph like of one of Seven Wonders of the World and called Thomas Edison, its inventor, a bal-moyekh [a man with brains], or ayzerner kop [a great head], a Yiddish metaphor for an exceptionally smart person. Even the hasidic rabbis, who were at first reluctant to accept the phonograph, later enjoyed the mashinke and would even encourage their adherents to participate in the recording sessions.

The An-ski expeditions recovered a huge number of Hasidic tunes. These melodies were frequently accompanied by informative notes, such as [this tune] ”was written down,” or “was heard from” “the Bratslaver Hasidim”, “Radzyner Hasidim”, “Trisker Hasidim”, “Volyner Hasidim”, “from the Rabbi of Shepetovka”, “from Yosl Talner”, “Reb Shneur Zalmans nign” [Reb Shneur Zalman’s tune], “Karliner nign” [a tune from Karlin], “Brestitshker nign” [A tune from Berestechko], “Oster nign” [A tune from Ostra], and so on. From the expeditions’ inventory books we can find out where the adherents of the particular branches of Hasidism lived in the Pale of Settlement.  For example, the town of Kremenets was populated by the Radzyner Hasidim  and Volyner Hasidim. Kovel, Rovno and Trisk were under the influence of the Trisker Hasidism. The tunes of the Hasidim from Karlin and Stolin could be heard in Lutsk and Derazhnya and the tunes of the Chernobyl Rabbi and Hasidic composer Yosl Talner  were popular in hasidic dynasties through the area of the expeditions’ research. Recordings of the Bratslaver Hasidim were made exclusively in Berdichev.
Lifestyle and music of the Bratslaver Hasidim were described in detail in Rekhtman’s book Yidishe etnografye un folklor. In 1913, scholars worked with the Bratslaver Hasidim in Berdichev. As Rekhtman explained, their community was small, some 60 to 70 families, very closely knit and isolated from the surrounding Jewish world. The Braslaver Hasidim met with strong opposition from the other  hasidic groups in the Ukraine, the main reason being their definition  of “absence of God” in daily life, the tsadik’s mission and  practice of hitbodedut [removing oneself from society], and confession before God on a daily basis. All of these ideas were introduced by Nakhman of Bratslav (1772-1810), the founder of this sect.

In Berdichev, the Bratslaver Hasidim had their own synagogue in a yamke [a hole], with the windows at ground level. Their style of worship was distinguished by its ecstatic body movements and a mixture of different languages in the prayers (Hebrew, Yiddish and elements of Slavic languages.)

Reacting to community prejudice, the Bratslaver Hasidim kept their distance from local Jews as well as strangers. It was therefore difficult  for the expeditions’ researchers to gain the trust of these Hasidim. But once contact was established, the researchers were immediately recognized as eygene [one of them], and were invited to join in prayer and share Sabbath meals with the Bratslaver Hasidim. Rekhtman’s accounts on the evenings and prayers in the Bratslaver kloyz [small synagogue] correspond with the information and sound recordings found in the An-ski collection, which are usually labeled as “bay di bratslaver khasidim” [as sung by the Bratslaver Hasidim]. It is very likely that the recordings were made at Sabbath gatherings . Among the Bratslaver performers, Khaim Yisroel Veytsman was a particularly distinguished singer who actively assisted the researchers: he made thirteen of the thirty recordings of the Bratslaver Hasidim, the majority of which featured a singing group. According to Rekhtman, their service appeared improvisatory, often combining  singing and dancing: “While dancing, they sing and repeat dozens of  times the words from the Zohar: The Torah was given to us with a tune, the Shekhineh [the Divine Presence]  with a tune, and the Jews will come out of Golus [Exile] with a tune.’ In this way, in the darkness of the synagogue, the hasidim and their shadows danced in closed circles.”  Some of their recordings were accompanied by a violin. Another of Rekhtman’s stories refers to the M’lave-Malkeh evening [a ceremony celebrating the departure of the Sabbath Queen] at the home of Reb Hillel, an agreeable and cordial man, who was a great-grandson of Rabbi Nakhman of Bratslav. Reb Hillel was an excellent violinist who frequently performed his great-grandfather’s tunes at gatherings. Reb Hillel’s renditions were undoubtedly recorded on the cylinders from the An-ski expeditions, although his name was not mentioned in the inventories.

Legends on the origin of the local tunes appeared with the recordings and they emphasized the meaning of the melodies . The legends contributed to the vital role that music played in the philosophy and daily life of all Hasidic sects, despite their complicated interrelationships. Thus, the legends created a bridge between music and the verbal folklore of Ukrainian Jewry.

The music from the An-ski collection is a monument to the Hasidic musical tradition of the Ukraine in all of its musical styles: prayers, multilingual paraliturgical songs, tunes without words and tunes accompanied by violin. The great experiment that An-ski and his colleagues undertook between 1912 and 1914 yielded rich rewards, and the treasures they collected in the numerous shtetls of the Russian Empire’s Pale of Settlement remain a priceless gift for generations to come.


Extended version of this article by Lyudmila Sholokhova  was previously published in Musica Judaica: Journal of the American Society for Jewish Music (Volume XIX, 2009-2010). New York, 2010. Pp. 103-129. We thank  Mark Kligman, Arbie Orenstein and Michael Leavitt of the American Society for Jewish Music for providing permission to use article’s material for the current publication.

500 cylinders is the number provided by An-ski in his report on the expeditions (YIVO Archives. RG 1.2, Box 5, Folder
no.77). From the inventory books of the phonoarchive of the An-ski expeditions completed by Moisei Beregovskii during his work at the Institute (later Cabinet) for Jewish Culture in Kiev in the 1920s-1940s, we can see that out of 500 cylinders, 389 were identified as those recorded in 1912-1914, including 28 cylinders from the private collection of Joel Engel (1968-1927) and 12 cylinders from the private collection of Zinoviy Kiselgof (1878-1939). See: Lyudmila Sholokhova. Phonoarchive of Jewish Musical Heritage. Kiev, 2001. Major part of the An-ski expeditions’ musical archives was sent from Leningrad to the Institute of Jewish Culture in Kiev in 1930, after the Jewish Ethnographical Museum in Leningrad was closed earlier that year. The private Engel collection joined the Kiev archives in 1929, and Kiselgof’s materials followed in 1940

11 phono cylinders with recordings from Dubrovna are also found in the Kiselgof private collection that joined the collections of the Cabinet for Jewish Culture in Kiev in 1940.

The initial plans to continue expedition trips in 1914 didn’t materialize to full extend. An-ski envisioned to investigate 35 to 40 more boroughs in Kiev province, as well as trips to Lithuania and Poland, but the expeditions’ research work was interrupted with outbreak of World War I.

The survived recordings from the Engel personal archive of phono cylinders were published by the Vernadsky Library of Ukraine and Institute for Information Recording of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in 2001. See: CD “The Historical Collection of Jewish Music, 1912-1947. Volume 1. Materials of J. Engel ethnographical expedition, 1912”. Kiev, 2001.

Kiselgof’s correspondence with An-ski is found in the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine, Institute of Manuscripts, Collection 339, folder 544-550, folio 4.

Abraham Rekhtman. Yidishe etnografye un folklore: zikhroynes vegn der etnografisher ekspeditsye ongefirt fun Sh. An-ski. Buenos-Ayres, 1958.
Abraham Rekhtman (1890-1972), folklorist, writer and printer. Contributed to “Dos vort”, “YIVO bleter”,

“Kinder szhurnal”, “Dos Yidishe likht”. Wrote under pen name of Ish Yemini and Doktor Zamler. Born in Proskurov, Ukraine, he came to the United Streets in 1916.

Rekhtman, p. 37.

Ibid., p. 38.

Ibid., p. 247.

Radzin dynasty, or Izhbitsa Radzin dynasty of Hasidism was founded by Rabbi Mordechai Yosef (1801-1854.)
Yosl Talner (Joseph Volinets, 1740-1810) was a court singer and composer for a tsadik in the borough of Talne of Kiev region. He was one of the best known composers of Hasidic melodies

See recordings no. 24-29, 31, 34, 38 on the CDRom vol. 4, and no. 34 on CDRom vol. 5.
Rekhtman, p. 255.

Special chapter in Rekhtman’s book “Yidishe etnografye un folklor” is devoted to stories of the melodies recorded during the expeditions. See: Rekhtman, pp. 241-286.

Hasidic and Klezmer Music from the An-ski expeditions (1912-1914)
by Lyudmila Sholokhova
YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
A Rabbi. Early 20th century.(The Russian Museum of Ethnography, St. Petersburg).
Jewish House and Synagogue. Kamenetz-Podolsk district. Early 20th century. (The Russian Museum of Ethnography, St. Petersburg).