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Voices Fall-Winter 2005:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Poet Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman Receives National Heritage Award” by Ethel Raim here.
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Volume 31

Poet Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman Receives National Heritage Award by Ethel Raim

On June 15, 2005, the National Endowment for the Arts announced the 2005 recipients of the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. Among the twelve winners was Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman, Yiddish singer, songwriter, and poet. This is the first time that a Yiddish writer or singer has received the prestigious National Heritage Award. The fellowship includes an award of $20,000, a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and a concert performance showcasing the artists and their work. Culturally active in the New York area for over fifty years, Beyle Schaechter- Gottesman has been a key figure in maintaining Yiddish traditions in America and has played a central role in reviving and inspiring interest in Yiddish song and poetry among a new generation.

Poet Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman
Poet Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman. Photo: Martha Cooper, courtesy of City Lore
Beyle was born in 1920 in Vienna, Austria, but was raised in Chernovitz (Cernauti), Romania.

Her mother Lifshe Schaechter- Widman was a businesswoman and an admired traditional Yiddish singer with a prodigious repertoire; her father Benyumin, an intellectual active in the Yiddish cultural world of the city. Beyle studied art in Vienna from 1936 to 1938, and married Dr. Jonas Gottesman in 1941.

Before the war, Chernovitz was one of the centers of Yiddish culture in Romania: the capital of the Bukovina, a region whose Jews were sensitive both to the older traditional Jewish folklore and to the coterritorial folklore of Ukrainian, Romanian, and German speakers. At the same time, the Jews of Chernovitz forged a modern Yiddish culture using those folk materials; local Yiddish poets Itzik Manger and Eliezer Shteynbarg are prime examples of this cultural complex. This synthesis of tradition and innovation informed Beyle’s performance of folksongs and her songwriting craft in the post-war period.

Beyle survived the war in the ghetto in Chernovitz and then lived in Bucharest and Vienna, before arriving in the United States in 1951. She settled in the Bronx, New York, where she lives to this day. Beyle worked as a teacher in the 1950s and 1960s in the Yiddish shuln (afternoon secular Jewish schools) in the Bronx and also wrote a number of musical plays. Several of her children’s songs from this period became popular in the Yiddish schools in America; three of these were recorded on the CD Di grine katshke (“The Green Duck,” 1997).

In the mid-1960s she began to write Yiddish poetry and soon established herself as one of America’s premier Yiddish poets. She cofounded the Shraybkrayz (writing circle) of the Yiddish student organization, Yugntruf, where she served for many years as the elder mentor for the participants. Beyle’s original Yiddish songs that she began to write in the early 1970s introduced compelling new material for the next generation of performers, which included singers who were eager to express themselves with songs outside of the usual canon. These poetic works reflected themes that had rarely appeared in Yiddish songs: a contemporary woman’s perspective on life and nature, daily life in the big city, and the distressed position of Yiddish culture after the Holocaust.

When the now twenty-five–year-old renaissance in Jewish klezmer music and Yiddish song began to take root and branch out among American Jews and non-Jews alike, Beyle’s large repertoire of older traditional Yiddish songs that she had learned from her mother, her modern Yiddish urban songs that she learned in Chernovitz, and the performance of her own songs drew many leading singers to her door in the Bronx. As new singers performed her songs and she herself taught and performed, Beyle made her mark on the Yiddish repertory through such popular festivals and cultural workshops as the Yiddish Folk Arts Program (“Klezkamp”) and Buffalo on the Roof in New York, “Klezkanada” in Montreal, Canada, and the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto, which have become the new centers of Yiddish cultural creativity.

Perhaps more importantly, she has served as an important link between the Old World and the New World, so that new performers and students of Yiddish song can understand the past of this tradition and see a living inspiration for new creations in the present and future. In 1998 City Lore inducted her into its People’s Hall of Fame, saying, “Her compositions have helped spur a revival of Yiddish song.” After the release of the songbook and recording Zumertegk (“Summer Days,” 1991), and Af di gasn fun der shtot (“On the Streets of the City,” 2003), acclaimed Yiddish singers such as Theodore Bikel, Michael Alpert, Adrienne Cooper, and Lorin Sklamberg began to perform her songs. Today, singers and klezmer groups all over the United States, Canada, Europe, and Eastern Europe have recorded her songs.

Beyle’s contribution to her community and to the wider public has indeed enriched all our lives, and we offer her our heartfelt and enthusiastic congratulations.


Perhaps more importantly, she has served as an important link between the Old World and the New World, so that new performers and students of Yiddish song can understand the past of this tradition and see a living inspiration for new creations in the present and future.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 31, Fall-Winter 2005. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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