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January 10: Master of the Yiddish Art Song

Lawrence Bush
January 10, 2017
Lazar Weiner, who created a catalogue of more than two hundred Yiddish art songs that "represents a deeply eloquent achievement, one that simultaneously bridged artistic worlds, created new hybrid musical forms, and preserved a vision of a secular Yiddish culture across decades of its near-extinction," writes Jeremy Eichler in the Boston Globe, died at 84 on this date in 1982. Weiner came to the U.S. from near Kiev in 1914 (some sources say 1919) and worked as a vocal coach for many Yiddish theater actors, as well as serving as the Central Synagogue's musical director for forty-four years, directing the Workmen's Circle Chorus, teaching at the Reform and Conservative seminaries, and hosting a radio show. Weiner also wrote liturgical music, cantatas, and operas, and set some of the Yiddish language's best modern poetry to music. "He grew as a musician and a man," notes Debra Cash at The Arts Fuse, "in a Russian-Jewish, and later American-Jewish, environment that was actively questioning both the radical potential of modern art and the nature of distinctive Jewish identity as it played out within the shifting pressures of secularization, emigration, socialism, Zionism, and eventually, the annihilation of most of the Yiddish-speaking world." To hear his son Yehudi Wyner contextualizing his father's work, look below. To hear George Spitzer sing some Weiner compositions, look below that. "If I need a traditional melody, I create my own." --Lazar Weiner

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.