The Story of Leibu Levin

by Ruth Levin

I am the daughter of the Czernowitzian yiddish reciter, singer and composer Leibu Levin. I didn't find his name on this site, so here I am sending you the material about him, and about the Anthology of his songs that I have have edited and printed last year in Tel-Aviv.

On april the 10th I will present this Anthology in The Kavehoyz in New York.

an Anthology of Music to Yiddish Poetry by
Leibu Levin
by I. L. Peretz Publications
The anthology contains 49 songs to poems by 21 Yiddish poets
(I. Manger, H. Leivick, H. N. Bialik, M.-L. Halpern, Sh. Halkin and others), photos and drawings. Ruth Levin, the composer's daughter
and renowned singer, provides a preface and an epilogue.
The volume includes piano arrangements by Hanan Winternitz.
All the texts are in Yiddish, English and Hebrew
"...This composer did not know the music notation. But being an artist of the highest level, an artistic reciter and singer and an expert in Yiddish literature, he succeeded in creating a wonderful combination of poetry and melody where the music is a full partner with the existing poetic text. The tune grows from the words, and to those who hear these songs it seems that it was born with them..."
Dr. Hanan Winternitz
"...Leibu Levin's songs merit inclusion among the cultural treasures of European Jewish music, which is an integral part of European musical culture as a whole. And I am convinced that all lovers of poetry and music will draw from them not only pleasure and satisfaction, but also the sense that in their preservation and in their being heard there is, in addition, something of historic justice."
Prof. Tzvi Avni, composer
The Anthology can be ordered from Ruth Levin for 50 $ USA

Biography from the epilogue of the Anthology


Leibu Levin was much more than simply another composer, and this book comes to immortalize only a small part of the entire life’s work of someone who in his time was the troubadour of Jewish literature and poetry, for whom Yiddish literature was his raison d’etre, who devoted all his life to it, composing, reading and singing it on stages in three states: Romania, the Soviet Union, Israel.

After his death my mother published a booklet that included a few of the words ever written about the man: articles, letters, speeches ... eulogies. It is my wish to quote here from those words, since they are the words of people who saw and heard my father on various platforms when his star was on the rise; people who spoke his language, and therefore were in a better position to appreciate his art than I...

For he didn’t speak Yiddish with me. The tragedy of our culture is that the parents didn’t speak their mother tongue with their children...

My father was born in 1914 to a family of Boyan Hasidim in the town of Kimpulung in the south of Bukovina. In the year 1919 the family established its home in Czernowitz. That home was full of song...

You, grandpa Joseph, “the quiet hasid”, as depicted by my father, sang Hasidic melodies; you, grandma Feige of the house of Maiseles, were learned in literature and poetry and provided an unending source of Yiddish folk songs; and also you who were singing, Haike and Dora, the two pretty sisters... none of you did I get to meet. Together with most of the Jews of Czernowitz you were left beyond the Dniestr River and found your rest in a common grave in the town of Bershad, far from the birthplace. Let this book be your gravestone.

Leibu himself sang during his childhood in the choir of the Czernowitz Grand Synagogue, afterward in the Choral Synagogue beside the noted cantor, Pini Spector. It is told that once, when he sang solo during the High Holidays, he even received applause... He belonged to the Zionist youth movement, “Gordonia”, ( in the Eagle” group, some of whose members eventually emigrated to Israel and founded the kibbutz “Masada” beside the Sea of Galilee). He learned Yiddish – language and literature – in the seminar “Yidisher Shul-Farayn” (Federation of Yiddish Schools), acted in the “Chameleon” Studio of Simha Schwartz and earned his living in a textile factory. In the second year of his studies he began to appear in evenings of reading and song.

“ ...Allow me, again, a little nostalgic prelude – regarding the theme and the atmosphere of a “soiree”, long ago and in a distant place. The time – the years of the thirties, the place – Bucharest, capital of Romania, from “beforehand”... And so, one evening in Bucharest, a meeting of friends in the new lodgings of a couple (also “new”), who both spoke the same language, Yiddish... And the friends – of all types, but with a “common ground” that was obligatory, and that was – that their mothers used to croon to them cradle songs with:

“Beneath the cradle of Yankele
a white kid stands
The kid went off to barter
almonds and raisins...”

That is to say, that they all spoke, and maybe even loved, the Yiddish language of their childhood.

For what did we gather? Not for idle gossip and not for a “round” of poker. The focus of the evening was a young man, a son of Czernowitz, a fellow whose reputation went before him throughout Bukovina and Moldova, places where he appeared for evenings of Yiddish reading and song and aroused storms of appreciation, – but in Bucharest he’d never been heard of. At the appointed time he appeared in our doorway: young and lean, eyes like glowing coals, and with a shy smile flickering engagingly across his face. For two hours straight this man captivated us with his unique charm, – as from his mouth and throat were produced pearls of Eliezer Steinbarg, Itzik Manger, Leivick, Halpern, Peretz – and afterwards, much to our amazement, also creations of words and melody of his own, miniatures of enchanting poetry, conquering, enthralling every receptive ear and feeling heart. He exuded an atmosphere of Yiddish folklore, both through the words themselves and the tunes with which he adorned the best of the generation’s Yiddish poetic creation.

Swiftly, like a lightning attack or the revelation of the Roman epigraph “he came, he saw, he conquered”, he humbled us and joined us to the devoted legions of his listeners and admirers in all of Romania...”

Idov Cohen (Knesset Member)
“Viaţa Noastră”, 11.3.1983
From his article on the occasion
of the thirty day memorial
following Leibu Levin’s death

“...Presented to us here is not only an outstanding interpreter of the poetic word in Yiddish, but an actual revealer of worlds. And not just because he was the first to discover the true faces of poets from whom we possessed not more than a faded remnant, but rather, due to his incisive understanding and rare ability to comprehend and live literature anew, he lit for us secret corners in well known literature as well, such as the fables of Eliezer Steinbarg, the writings of Moshe Leib Halpern, Moshe Nadir, Simha Schwartz, and above all – the poems of Itzik Manger. Leibu Levin apparently is the first one to read Manger . ... We can stress this with certainty: never have we become so drunk on the special and perfumed landscape of Manger’s poetry as when we heard how Leibu Levin reads his “Ballad of the Steppes”, or from the cosmic sense of identification in “The Ballad of the Lost Sheep”, or in “Sad Song”, where is made felt in such a distinct and pure way the eternal lyric sadness before the locked gates of the kingdom of poetry, guarded by the inevitable “soldiers of tin...”.

Haim Gininger, philologist
The literary weekly “Di Voch”
Bucharest, January 31, 1935

Itzik Manger’s poetry indeed holds a special place in the heart and in the creativity of Leibu Levin. “Sad Song” he once sang to Manger himself as they sat in one of the wine cellars in Czernowitz...

“...Dr. Landau introduced to the audience a young man whose name should not be forgotten. Probably, we’ll hear from him again and again. Levin isn’t a singer, rather he’s an artistic reader. He’s not a reader, rather he’s an actor. As a matter of fact he’s all in one: singer, artistic reader, actor and poet. Why also poet? He reads to us only the poems of others, does he not? That being so, this is the secret of his art. He reveals what is hidden between the lines. He brings the poet to completion. He draws from the poet’s soul riches the poet himself did not know of, riches that were hidden in his sub-conscious... Frequently the words of the text in his mouth serve solely as a stimulus that awakens – just for a passing moment – the poetic spiritual inheritance of his own, and that has always to be born anew, like the music.

The art of Leibu Levin needs not only to be heard, though, but also to be seen. He himself one has to hear and see, how he breathes into the dim hall, into the pearls of strangers’ poetry, his young burning soul, the creative,sometimes ecstatic, and sometimes weeping soul... His profound understanding drew one deeply into the fables of Eliezer Steinbarg and the ballads of Itzik Manger. From time to time the reader becomes singer, and only when he was seen as well as heard, did I finally understand the meaning of the old expression “to sing and to say” regarding troubadours and minnesingers. When his spoken word passes to song, it reminds me of a flying ship hovering above the earth and taking off to the blue heavens... Talent is as rare as gold. From the gold it is possible to forge a holiday crown for priests who serve gods and it is possible to pay with it the penance for sinful impurity... Talent can be refined to capture surpassing art, or can descend to cheap popular entertainment. It seems to me that all in Leibu Levin aspires toward and is uplifted to the shining heights of noble art .”

Dr. Meyer Ebner
The newspaper “Ost-Yiddishe Zeitung”, 2.6.1935

In the coming years my father appeared countless times in all the cities and towns of vast Romania. In Bucharest each Saturday he appeared in a literary matinee, and each Saturday his repertoire varied. In the city of Beltz in Bessarabia he met the teacher of Yiddish, folk singer Zelik Barditshever. Nine of Barditshever’s songs were rescued from oblivion thanks to him and thanks to Hersh Segal who published them in 1939. During the same year Hersh Segal also published the little album “Six Cradle Songs”, which included Leibu Levin’s compositions to poems of Itzik Manger, H.Leivick, Moshe Leib Halpern, Abraham Reisen and Nahum Yud, along with drawings by Isiu Scherf – my father’s childhood friend who later became the chief artist in the Yiddish theater of Jassi. Those pictures also adorn the present book.

It is not possible to speak of Leibu Levin’s prime years without honoring the memory of his close friend, Hersh (Hushke) Segal, a radiant personality in the Yiddish circles of Czernowitz, a connoisseur of both Yiddish and world poetry. Here are some of my father’s recollections in his tribute to Hersh Segal aired on Yiddish radio in February 1982:

“I first met Hersh Segal – great God, it was so long ago, I was 19 years old then – when Segal was one of our leaders in the seminar of “Yidisher Shul Farayn” in Czernowitz. From that time forward deeply etched in me was the impression made by the way of speaking that typified him: quiet and to the point... A year later I began to read and sing in small and large circles, with agreement from above from him and from our honored teacher of Yiddish, Haim Gininger. That was
the beginning of our wonderful friendship with Hushke Segal...

Innumerable times I sat in his home – for what is more dear than silent understanding between people, friends ... We also met during breaks in the “ORT ” (working youth) school, where he was the beloved mathematics teacher. The teacher who loved his students... Is it possible not to love them too? For me not to read and sing to them in the classes?..

During my tours in the cities and towns of Bessarabia, I met in Beltz Zelik Barditshever. He copied the texts of all his songs and I brought them to Czernowitz, to Hushke. It is understood that he immediately decided to publish the songs. I sang them, and the music teacher, L. Peretz, wrote down the notes... That was always Hushke’s way. When he’d get his monthly pay, he’d always set part of it aside and place it in a special drawer in his writing desk – this money was consigned beforehand for applications his heart was set on...

With the outbreak of war, there I just put a black mark on all the long maddening years. I only recall with pain your telegram, Hushke, my love, my dear, informing that my family is no more... And the card in which you part from me – both of them reached me in the concentration camp. So what? I became even more alone...”

In the year 1940 the territory of Bukovina was joined to the lands of the Soviet Union, and in 1941 it was overrun by Hitler’s armies. The war trapped Leibu Levin in Czernowitz. He was drafted to the Red army, and from there until 1942, over to the soviet gulags in Siberia, was only a narrow bridge...

“When we bring to mind the catastrophe that punished our nation in this century, filling our hearts with sadness and wrath, we’re accustomed to think of the European devastation. We weep for the six million martyrs and forget that our nation suffers from another great damage which in itself is an additional tragedy. That is the physical and spiritual isolation of millions of our brothers living on the other side of the “iron curtain”... When we think of the national energy that died off in those countries, Of the talents that were robbed from us there, of the thoughts and words That were stopped and of the songs that were unsung, we can only attempt to realize the great damage our nation suffers.

I’m reminded of our so very gifted artist of the word from Bukovina, Leibu Levin. I recall the lovely evenings of his readings in Czernowitz and in all the towns where the national Jewish cultural life pulsated most powerfully. He himself created music to Yiddish poetry. In his symphony of artistic words he expressed the deepest and finest emotions and thoughts of the poets he interpreted. All the youth came to his evenings of artistic readings. A fable of Eliezer Steinbarg, a song of Zelik Barditshever, a melody of Itzik Manger would penetrate the young souls and hearts and stay there ever after...

During the second world war my brother, in the course of his wanderings, met Leibu Levin, sad and very embittered, in the Ural Mountains. In his poetic soul he felt he’d never get out of there. He gave my brother a poem as a gift, in which he gives vent to his longing and loneliness:

“On foreign paths strays my wandering song,
Will it reach the place for which it longs? “

At present Leibu Levin is exiled in the far north guilty of “spying” For Hitlerian Romania. A preposterous accusation against a Jewish artist Whose soul aspires to the vision of beauty alone, and who lost in the camps Of the Nazis his parents and two sisters.

At the end of the war Leibu Levin used to still send letters from the camp including his very successful translations to Yiddish from the poetry of Pushkin and Tyutshev. But from after 1946 nothing further was heard of him. What happened to Leibu Levin? To whom does he sing his songs today? Who does he rejoice today with the poems of Leivick, Manger and Reisen? Is his voice silenced?

Reuven Katz
“Dos Yidishe Vort”, Chile, 17.6.’55

At 27 years of age he was imprisoned – and only in 1956 was he set free ... when 42 years old. In that same year he comes to Moscow in order to receive the certificate clearing his name. And there, in the home of Tshernya Entin-Guterman, the doctor who had saved his life in the camps, he meets her daughter Shura. After a month they marry. To Czernowitz he no longer cares to return; there no one and nothing remains for him...

And what is the first thing the freed prisoner does in his new home in Moscow? He buys two thick notebooks and notes down in them all the texts of the Yiddish writers and poets, and all the Yiddish folk songs he guarded in his memory during all the terrible years. “My sacred cameo” – so he calls it in his poem to the white kid from the Yiddish lullaby...

Only in 1962 does he arrive in Czernowitz, following an invitation to the 30th year observance of Eliezer Steinbarg’s death. When he ascends the stage, the crowd gets to its feet and applauds for a good fifteen minutes...

“...In the home of the last of the giants, the last of the rich era of Yiddish in the Soviet Union, Shmuel Halkin, of blessed memory, I first met Leibu Levin. From that meeting I went out enriched with Yiddish songs I’d never heard until then. Also the soviet public of those days hadn’t heard the names of H. Leivick, Itzik Manger, of the folk singer Zelik Barditshever... It was Halkin himself, so very sick, who requested from him that he “say something”. Leibu “said” a tune, and another poem, and another tune... He was a Jew in every part of him. Fourteen years in exile and in camps hadn’t affected the young man with the noble appearance and a glance imbued with the high spirits of youth... Leibu’s approach to Yiddish and to the creative work in Yiddish is divine service. Every word and every letter was sacred for him.

He bore witness to the pain and wrath of the people. He sought in song salvation and mercy. From him I learned the songs of the Jewish troubadours – Broder Singers, Zelik Barditshever... Also “The Ballad to Antosha” of Moshe Kulbak in his version, “The Rebbe Elimelech”, “The World Asks An Old Riddle” – all in his special rendition.

He had a very beautiful warm voice, perfect pitch and an unusual natural musicality. His tunes, written to the texts of the best of our poets, excel in melodic liveliness, interesting musical expression and structure that adheres with each note to the text and thought of the poet. Many of his songs are played in the tradition of Austrio-Hungarian classical romance, while preserving the Yiddish coloring.

The songs of Leibu await definitive professional evaluation. I want to pause here to reflect on H. Leivick’s cycle of Siberian poems...the sad and lyrical “Somewhere Afar”, the dramatic “Siberian Roads” and “Soldiers”, and the anguished “Dead Ways” that remains suspended, as it were, in the endless deadly cold of Siberia. The entire cycle is heard as an integral part of Leibu’s experience. Every note is organically bound with the word, every pause is full of content that conveys the feeling of the grey light-blue nuances of the landscape. All this together evolves to an unforgettable experience embracing all the senses... And at the same time – another Leibu in “Childhood Years” of Itzik Manger and in “The Green Tailors” of Shike Driz... full of lyric humor and playful...”

Nechama Lifshitz
“In Memory of Leibu”
Tel Aviv, Tashma”d – 1984

Shike Driz was a marvelous poet and a close friend of father’s. The poem “A Tall Tree, A Beautiful Tree, A Strong Tree” he wrote in one night under the powerful impression made on him by my father’s performance of Zelik Barditshever’s “Khotsh”("Even Though"). This poem Shike Driz dedicated to my father, and his poem “Green Tailors” – to me... After Driz’s death it was Leibu Levin who assembled his only book that was published in Yiddish (Shike Driz, “The Fourth String”, Moscow 1969).

So I was born in Moscow. But I always lived as if between two different worlds: a student in a soviet school, in the vicinity of my father I was immersed in a mysterious atmosphere interwoven from square black symbols in strange books that opened from the wrong side, from unintelligible poems written slowly with a trembling hand; there was the number: six million; my father’s family that was gone; the group photograph on the wall: “This is Michoels; this is Kvitko, Markish, Bergelson... they were murdered.” And above all this – were the songs. When I was very small there were also my father’s concerts. Afterwards he was obliged to leave the stage as a consequence of an old injury he received in the camps. But the songs lived in our house, and like living creatures, they got a little excited and changed their appearance with every performance, withdrawing a little and happy when a new song was born. I was acquainted with every one of them personally, I recognized each one by the way it walked, by the pleat in its dress, according to the expression of the mouth, hands, knees of papa. One came out dancing, like rain on a leaky roof, the second wrung its hands, the third winked at me, at the little one, and suddenly blossomed... Actually, the words weren’t important. Papa’s music spoke for them. The mysterious name "Itzik Manger" was for me then the embodiment of all that papa lived and breathed, and I felt touched by something very alive, bitter-sweet like Yiddish itself, permeated with the twinkling of the stars, cherry blossoms and the dust on the roads...

Like Job who guarded his faith, my father guarded his cameo, his art everlasting. He was and remained the troubadour of Yiddish poetry. But the troubadours die if there’s no one listening ...

In 1972 we immigrated to Israel. Papa continued to compose for poetry, but didn’t often make public appearances. The time and place are not as they were... He wrote:

Who will you sing to, to whom ?
When no one is listening...
Unless you throw back your head
And sing for the stars above.
The stars are all yours, they are yours.
How strange it would be, if
Oh heaven forbid, none of them
Understands Yiddish!

In Israel he first became acquainted with the poems of the young poet who was from his town, Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger. Selma had once been his student, when he was still the youthful teacher of the drama club in the Yiddish School Number 5 of Czernowitz. No one knew that Selma was writing poems. She wrote in German, like her famous relative, Paul Celan. When she was eighteen years old she died of typhus in a Nazi work camp beside the Dniestr River... But manuscripts, they say, are not consumed by fire. In 1976 Hersh Segal, Selma’s old mathematics teacher, publishes her poems in Rechovot, in the original language. My father translates five of the poems to Yiddish and composes to them, I draw, and Hersh Segal, as usual, brings them to light (“Five Songs”,1976, Rechovot). During a whole year Leibu Levin works on the Yiddish translation of all of Selma’s poems, and in 1978 the entire translation is made public (Y.L. Peretz publications, Tel Aviv).

In 1980 the song collection “In the World of Songs” (“Or-Tav” Publications, Tel Aviv) is brought out including 36 melodies (without accompaniment), among them four to poems by Hebrew poets, and also four poems of war and camps that Levin himself wrote. An additional poem of Selma’s that was set to music also appeared for the first time in this collection.

In the course of the ten years he was granted to live in Israel, Leibu Levin composed approximately half of his works.

He sang – almost without a voice – even in the hospital, until the day of his death,
on kaf daled b’shvat, tashma'g, 7.2.1983.

“...And here – his work, hardships and struggles in Israel, after years of suffering and illness, require some further biographical chapters, and I hope that the day will come when they will be duly written... However, the name of Leibu Levin that is etched now not only on a grave-stone but also on a splendid album of musical poetry, will be etched in our memory as well, as the image of a man who was both harp, clarinet-man, flute-man, man of the word and melody –
who went resounding to his end in a kind of finale to the Gustav Mahler's "Song of the Earth" - forever and ever....”

Idov Cohen
“Viaţa Noastră”, 11.3.1983
Ruth Levin
From Hebrew: Hadassa Haskale