Tenement Songs – a Talk with Music

by Gwenn Underwood, Museum at Eldridge Street Intern

On Sunday, February 12th, at 3 pm, the Museum at Eldridge Street will welcome award-winning ethnomusicologist Dr. Mark Slobin and a trio of outstanding musicians for a unique program entitled “Tenement Songs.” Slobin has built his career researching, writing and teaching about the intricacies of music and its cultural impact within specific communities. Now Professor of Music and American Studies at Wesleyan University, where he has taught since 1971, Dr. Slobin has published critically-acclaimed works which explore the complexities of music in Asia, the Middle East and the Americas. In addition, Slobin has maintained a lifelong interest in the study and documentation of Eastern European Jewish music and culture, both in the old country, and as it was brought to the United States by immigrants. His observations are detailed in his award-winning 1982 book, Tenement Songs: Popular Music of The Jewish Immigrants.


Mark Slobin

Slobin’s intense curiosity surrounding the subject of Jewish immigrant music in America arose in the early 1970s, at a time when he and his peers were interested in uncovering an alternative to the traditional narrative assigned to the working folk who sought opportunity and asylum in the tenements of the Lower East Side. With his personal interests and expertise in mind, Dr. Slobin posed the question: what was the musical life of the largest and most highly concentrated group of Jews in modern history?

In general, it can be said that music sits at the heart of any community’s cultural identity and historical legacy. The same is undeniably true for that of New York’s Eastern European Jewish population in the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, for decades this vibrant aspect of the community was omitted from most accounts of its history, as newer generations moved more swiftly in the direction of Americanization. While several classic American musicians such as Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Baline) achieved fame and fortune due to their early roots in Jewish music and culture, much of the Klezmer genre’s original spirit had been eroded and obscured by the mainstream American music industry.

tenement-songs-_yiddish-sheet-music-for-webIt wasn’t until the 1970s that this incredibly unique style of music experienced a resurgence in popularity—a widespread revival which Dr. Slobin was himself a part of. In the early stages of his research, he discovered a body of sheet music published by the Jewish community’s internal music industry. This collection was an example of the independence and self-sufficiency of the Jewish Immigrants’ own entertainment industry, whose multidimensional productions represented the experiences and personalities of the people themselves.

Slobin’s discoveries regarding the musical culture of this community defied stale and generalized notions of the Jewish immigrants and their shared experiences and attitudes. What he uncovered about the nature of the music challenged the widely accepted representation of Eastern European Jewish immigrants as a group of somber and intensely pious workers, most often associated with sweatshops and strikes. While it is true that most of these immigrants were extremely hard-working, devout, and politically conscious, they also shared a deep commitment to collective culture and expression, rooted in shared humor, hardship, optimism and tradition.

Songs that were performed on rented pianos by Jewish daughters in tenement homes, in Vaudeville theaters and beer gardens alike, shared in their unique themes which represented the flexibility and inventiveness of their authors. Their lyrics often drew from both English and Yiddish texts, and reflected the sarcasm, wit and resilience of the culture. The breadth of the genre’s thematic range far exceeded the realm of traditional religious songs, and grappled with questions of social, political and religious identity, worker’s rights, gender relations and familial structures.

Most importantly, the melodies and lyrics of American Klezmer music tackled the intricacies of these issues with humor and humility. The genre’s remarkable fusion of various musical influences and discussion of pressing social issues stands as a testament to the inherent challenges and rewards of adjusting to life in a new land.

In preparing the upcoming performance where some of these tenement songs will be brought to life, Dr. Slobin and his collaborators were mindful in their selection of specific pieces which they felt best represented the diversity of the genre. Each of the incredibly talented performing musicians bring their own unique element to the performance of Klezmer music. 


Lauren Brody

Lauren Brody is a New York based accordionist, singer and researcher. She is a pioneer of the Klezmer revival in the United States and a founding member of the groundbreaking band “Kapelye”.


Jake Shulman-Ment

Jake Shulman-Ment, a young violinist, composer and arranger has a deep commitment to honoring his Klezmer roots while incorporating his own style and interpretations.

Miryem Khaye-Seigel

Miryem Khaye-Seigel

Amanda (Miryem-Khaye) Seigel is not only a talented Yiddish singer, songwriter, actor and researcher of Yiddish culture, but an archivist and librarian at the New York Public Library by day.


Join us for this fascinating afternoon of music and history. Tickets are $14 for adults and $10 for students and seniors, and include museum admission. Come early for a tour, and stay on for this great conversation with music. Click here to make your reservation.

Categories: History, Lower East Side

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