Discovering and reviving Frydman's lost music

As I’ve written in these pages before, the wonderful thing about the Discovery Project is that it brings things to life that might have simply disappeared otherwise. The story of this month’s feature, the “badkhones” book of Yosif Frydman, is a great case in point.

Shortly after Boston's last European-born klezmer (Jewish wedding musician), Carl Frydman, died in 1978, his wife, Yiddish vocalist Sally Frydman, phoned me to see if I might be interested in taking a look at the sheet music he left behind. Here was the deal: for $40 and whatever amount of additional money I could rustle up trying to sell her late husband’s clothes (don’t ask), I would be given the privilege to select as much or as little of his music as I wanted to keep. While going through the collection, I soon found an extraordinary artifact, a handwritten book of Yiddish folk poetry entitled simply "Yosif Frydman, Badkhn."

I had heard recordings of badkhones, mostly fairly predictable parodies of Jewish wedding entertainers singing provocative verses to would-be brides who suddenly became unable to restrain their sobbing, but I knew that was only the tip of the iceberg. Actual badkhonim were usually traditionally educated rabbinical school dropouts who knew Torah, Mishna, and Gemorrah and could, at the drop of a kopek, turn it backwards and upside down so that other less clever traditional Jews would have something to laugh at. Much of Itzik Manger’s poetry is in such a tradition, the necessary yang to our more formal and carefully calibrated rabbinical yin.

I had grown up hearing that my own great-grandfather on my mother’s father’s side had earned a living in his young years entertaining in such a manner at weddings, but no trace of his work seemed to remain. Now, here I was holding a book of actual badkhones. The only problem was that there was no way that I could possibly read the Yiddish script. I decided that the best course of action would be to make a copy of the manuscript, in case I might ever know enough Yiddish to try to read it: the original I brought back to Sally. Years later I found out that Sally had given it to her son and, one day when his basement flooded, that was the end of the badkhones book.


That is, until last summer. Looking for intern projects for last summer’s program, I stumbled upon the faded copy I had made years ago, and decided to bring it to Amherst, just in case. Then in walked Josh Schwartz, looking for something challenging, “preferably in hand-written Yiddish script.” He had apparently attended one of those religious Yeshivas where they routinely assign their students manuscripts comparable to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Soon, Josh was sitting with Yuri Vedenyapin, the Academic Director of our Steiner Summer Internship Program, transcribing and translating my faded Xerox of the book, line by line. Realizing that he was seriously committed to the project (which, in total, encompasses fifty-eight pages of transcription and translation), I decided we should call on David Freedman, Carl’s brother, whom I was pretty certain was still alive and living in Framingham, Massachusetts. From David, we found out that his father was born in 1887 in a suburb of Krakow, Poland (or, in Jewish geographical terms, western Galitsye), and spent much of his adult life in the smaller Polish town of Chmielnick, where he worked as a tailor and, on many special occasions, as a badkhn under the stage-name Yosl Marshalik, often with his son, Carl, as one of his accompanists. Fleeing pogroms and antisemitism, Yosif immigrated to Boston in 1927, bringing along several of his children. But America of the late 1920s had no use for badkhonim. Changing his name to Joseph Freedman, he worked exclusively as a tailor until his death in 1952.

The only trace of his career as a folk poet (as a link in a chain of Jewish cultural transmission leading back to the middle ages), was the manuscript that Freedman seems to have completed in 1925, back in Chmielnick. And thanks to 2009 Steiner Summer Program intern and Discovery Project fellow Josh Schwartz, that manuscript has been brought back to life once again.

December 10, 2009