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« On Friday nights, every Jew is a king » (« fraytik for der nakht iz a yeder yid a meylekh), the song Fratig ze nachts (On Friday night), rhapsodises nostalgic images of an ideal Jewish day of rest. The song, among other Yiddish-speaking recordings in the findings of the Österreichische Mediathek, allows a glimpse back on Jewish life in Eastern Europe. From the beginning of the 20th century until the outbreak of the Second World War, Lviv/Lemberg, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was one of the most important centres of Jewish music and culture.

Tempel Synagogue on the Old Market square in Lemberg, by Józef Eder – Public Domain Marked

Many recordings were produced in the tradition of so-called “Broder singers”. These itinerant artists were the first to use the Yiddish language outside of Purim plays and Jewish weddings, combining the typical features of ballad-mongers (so-called badchens), preachers and actors. They performed songs, both funny and serious, in coffee houses, theatres and taverns throughout the Eastern parts of Austro-Hungary, the Russian Empire, even Vienna. Gaining high popularity among Jews and Gentiles alike – they received the status of cultural middlesmen – an equivalent to the socio-economic function of Jews performing as traders, money-lenders and estate managers in Eastern Europe.

Among the performers was Pepi Littmann (Peshe Kahane). She often performed in drag, playing male roles, thanks to her low voice and even wearing pants off-stage – which was considered a scandal then. Dressed up as a hasidic male Jew with traditional earlocks, a hat and a long black coat, she portrayed scenes from every-day Jewish shtetl life in bawdy, humorous and melancholic songs. Littmann herself embodies the Jews’ transition from the shtetl to a gentile world: born in Eastern Galicia, she recorded in Lviv, Budapest and even New York and died in Vienna in 1930.

Jews of Galicia (western Ukraine) in traditional dress, postcard of 1821 – Public Domain Marked

Jews in prewar Lviv, west Ukraine, by Staniaław Bober – Public Domain Marked


The songs reflect motives of Jewish family and religious life like Dos Talysyl, the shawl worn for prayers by Jewish male worshipers or Moisheh, diminutive of Jewish first name Moses. In Kushnirkes, the singer addresses the bargaining female shoppers and hagglers on the market in a self-ironic and humorous manner. The song describes the customers’ complaints, special requests and attempts of not paying for the goods.

Particularly impressive are the recorded sound images revealing a long-forgotten world like the Lemberger Naschmarkt, probably a scene from the Lviv’s Jewish Gimpel theatre. The image portrays the city’s “Old Market”, then largely controlled by Jewish vendors. Different types are heard, customers nagging about the quality of goods, which are hard as stone (« aj aj aj, hart wi di stajner”), vendors praising their goods, or exchanging news like “Mendel has died”. Two women are heard roaming the market stalls, discussing the goods, like the fresh sweet corn.

The Purim scene depicts the Jewish holiday in a humorous way: it takes place in a synagogue or religious school where people dress up and remember the Jews’ rescue from Persian Hamman who tried to kill them. The recording is dotted with Hebrew passages from the biblical book of Ester. Female actresses embody the children, shouting and using ratches to make noise, every time the reader mentions Haman’s name, which is customary during Purim. In the end, all gather to sing a song summarising the theme of this holiday: Evil Haman tried to exterminate the Jews, but in the end perished himself.

These songs, though often in poor sound quality, reflect the deep-rootedness of early 20th century every-day life and tell us a lot about mindsets, traditions and socio-economic ties of Eastern European Jewry. Their preservation, public accessibility and editing through experts and connoisseurs are vital for upkeeping European sound heritage. The playlists are available on Europeana and on the Österreichische Mediathek website.

by Eva Reder, Österreichische Mediathek.