Bringing the Forgotten Sounds of the Past Back to Life

By Nathaniel Popper

Published December 31, 2004, issue of December 31, 2004.

During a recent Friday night service, Natasha Hirschhorn introduced her congregation to a melody that she had newly arranged for the Sabbath prayers.

It was the first time the spirited but mournful tune ever had been heard in Ansche Chesed, the Conservative synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where Hirschhorn serves as musical director. In fact, it was possibly the first time the melody had been heard anywhere in America. But a long history stretched behind the melody in Hirschhorn’s native Soviet Union.

The wordless tune, or niggun, was originally transcribed in 1913 in a small town on the Ukrainian plains. Since Hirschhorn took over as musical director at Ansche Chesed in September, she has taken a number of these tunes from the shtetl — which have languished only in the Russian texts of Soviet musicologist Mosei Beregovsky — and brought them back to life in the sanctuary.

In the process, Hirschhorn has upended the expected relationship between Russian Jewish émigrés and their American hosts, which usually positions the American as the teacher and the Russian as the student when it comes to anything Jewish.

“American Jews always figured we were the saviors, [the immigrants] were the savees,” Ansche Chesed’s Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky said. “Natasha doesn’t fit that model.”

The path that Hirschhorn took to becoming a teacher rather than a student was as circuitous and unexpected as the Beregovsky tune that Hirschhorn hummed before her congregants.

Hirschhorn’s grandmother, Esther, was a Yiddish actress and singer, but Esther was taken to Stalin’s gulags. In order to survive, she blocked out her Jewish identity and stopped singing Yiddish songs. By the time Natasha was born, in 1971, the family was resolutely secular. Judaism lived on only in the taunts that Natasha received at the hands of her classmates. As was true for many Jews in the Soviet Union, her religion was a source of discomfort and pain rather than one of pride; as Hirschhorn told the Forward, Judaism was “an unfortunate circumstance.”

Although she never knew her grandmother, Natasha inherited Esther’s love of music; she began playing piano at age 5 and composing music at age 7. It was a combination of this musical background and chance that brought her back to the religion of her grandparents. In 1986, when Natasha was 14, the Chernobyl nuclear facility imploded 70 miles from the Hirschhorn home in Kiev. Natasha was packed off to Moscow’s Gniessen Musical College, where she buried herself in musical studies. One day, while in the musical library, she came across her first positive reference to Judaism. It was Dmitri Shostakovich’s song cycle, “From the Jewish Folk Poetry.”

“Shostakovich should be a righteous gentile,” Hirschhorn said.

Until that point, the word “Jewish” had seemed little more than a slur to Hirschhorn. To see it used reverently in the context of the thing Hirschhorn loved most — music — changed all her points of reference. She began seeking out any avenues into this hidden part of her past, though the path was often difficult. She found a 1909 Jewish Encyclopedia at the Moscow library. But before permitting the book to be checked out, the suspicious librarian demanded all Hirschhorn’s contact information. A little while later, Hirschhorn discovered an underground Hebrew language group, composed of young people planning to move to Israel. After one lesson, a student was beaten up outside.

Hirschhorn’s own family also wanted to escape, and Hirschhorn went back to Kiev at age 19 to await approval from the American government. While she waited, she continued with classes at Kiev Conservatory, and it was in the conservatory’s library that she came across Beregovsky.

A sort of Soviet Alan Lomax, Beregovsky had wandered the Ukrainian and Belorussian countryside in the 1930s looking for Jewish songs. He took down what amounted to five volumes of music, ranging from the wordless, sacred niggunim to the revolutionary songs of the Jewish workers. In one of the songs, a worker wails, “Bent over the machines/I sit, mama, your only child/Every muscle tense/I’m practically going blind from work.”

Beregovsky made roughly 1,200 wax cylinders with recordings of the tunes, in what is one of the greatest treasuries of everyday Jewish music from the shtetl. One day, Hirschhorn found the librarians throwing away original volumes of his printed work.

“I could not believe they would destroy this,” Hirschhorn said. She snatched up the books and still has them today.

Hirschhorn’s education in Kiev was cut short when her family devised a plan to make it to America. She was sent to a piano competition in far-off Maryland. When she arrived, she immediately applied for political asylum. Although her application was lost twice, three years later she received a green card and her family joined her.

As soon as she arrived, she said, “I wanted to study Jewish music.” But she came with little understanding of American Judaism. The denominations were foreign to her, so when she looked for a school at which to continue her education, she decided upon the nondenominational Academy for Jewish Music.

“The whole idea of movements made no sense to me,” Hirschhorn said. “I had no idea what I would be signing up for.”

This was the school that brought her and her parents to New York, where she met her husband, Simon Hirschhorn, a rabbi. The two had a daughter three years ago, whom they named Esther, after Hirschhorn’s Yiddish singing grandmother.

Since graduating from the academy, Hirschhorn has held a series of part-time gigs, but it is the job at Ansche Chesed that has given her the freedom to reach back to her religious and musical roots. To find tunes, she still goes back to the five volumes of Beregovsky’s collection, most of which still have not been translated into English. She generally picks the wordless niggunim, which adapt easily to new settings.

Last Friday night she used a niggun to accompany Psalm 98 and the Yigdal hymn. Many in the sanctuary looked a little confused when the melody returned, but a hardy few charged on, matching the new rhythm to the ancient words.

In front, Hirschhorn was blazing along in Hebrew, leading those who were willing to follow into musical territory not touched in decades.

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.