Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Rivka Boyarska


Born 1893 in Rzhitsev, Kiev Province, Ukraine. Father—a lumber merchant who, according to Natan Zabara, loved to bring home from each of his trips to Kiev a new melody, an aria from Samson and Delilah, a little tune from Eliakum Zunzer or from one of Goldfaden’s musical comedies. From childhood, B. was absorbed in sounds, tones, and motifs.

From her earliest youth, she was noted for her musical aptitude, and thanks to the local music teacher, Paskovski, she was sent to a general studies gymnasium in Kiev when she was no more than ten years old, while at the same time, she was also studying in the Kiev state music school, and she finished her schooling in both in 1914. B. entered the Kiev Froebel Pedagogical Institute, graduating in 1918, after which she began her teaching career. In order to care for the great number of homeless Jewish children during that time, she helped to establish a kindergarten for them, where she was the manager for some time, while also teaching rhythm, music, children’s plays, and children’s literature in the higher pedagogical courses. She carried out this work in Kiev, Kharkov, and Kremenchuk, using her own songs and compositions.

N. Zabara relates that, on one occasion when B. was a child, her sharp ear detected the retreating sound of a strange tumult as she entered school, and she saw that a circle of policemen were arresting the shtetl teacher, a friend of her brother.

She gave a start and grabbed the teacher’s hand, but a policeman pushed her forcefully away from him. This incident awakened a desire in her to express the experience in sounds, and most likely, this is when the seeds were planted for the later creative process for all her compositions.

In 1922 she settled in Moscow, where her musical talent ripened. In 1924, she began composing full-time. The themes of her songs were enriched with new motifs. In addition to the nature songs, she wrote social songs and songs about labor. She began to write music for the texts of works for children and she became popular in Moscow musical circles. M. Gnesin arranged her two songs, “Song of the Machines” and “Spring is Here.”

In 1925, the music sector of the state publisher in the Soviet Union published her first collection for pre-school children, Little Hammers Resound, with forty songs. This book quickly became beloved among children and educators in the broad network of Yiddish pre-school institutions. In 1932, the “Truth” publishing house released her second songbook, Work, Play, Song, for children in higher grades, and finally, in 1936, the same publisher released her songbook, Little Drill and in 1939 (there), Let’s Sing. In 1940, the state music publisher released her fifth collection of songs.

The second world war did not interrupt B.’s creative activity, and she wrote a number of new songs with music, particularly the composition for the poem, “Babi Yar” by Shike Driz, which was sung by Nehama Lifshits. At the same time, she devoted herself to pedagogical work as a teacher of song and rhythm in pre-school courses.

B. worked with a number of Soviet Yiddish poets and wrote music for the poems of Hofshteyn, Markish, Fefer, Halkin, Fininberg, Vergelis, and Kushnirov, as well as for texts of Peretz and Reyzen, and her compositions were heard on the stages of cabarets, performed by actors and singers: Clara Young, Sara Fibich, Saul Liubimov, Zinovii Z. Shulman, L. Rozina, A. Shekhter, Nehama Lifshits, etc. Some of her compositions were made into records (music-disks).

In 1966, the Moscow publishing house “Music” released her book Yiddish Songs (for solo and choir with piano accompaniment). Though she was already very ill, she made a strong effort to read the proofs of the book and she gave firm instructions to her husband, the literary researcher and theater critic Yehoshua Liubomirski, to make sure that the final publication was corrected.

B. died April 26, 1967 in Moscow. Natan Zabara described her work thus:

“When a listener first encounters Riv[k]a Boyarska’s work, he or she gets the impression that the compositions were meant to grow up together with the children for whom she first created them. For example, the first two collections … were for children in upper pre-school, the later songs were for school-age children, then for youth, growing up to become diverse adults. Boyarskaya began her creative work at a time when she was deeply involved in the world of children, among homeless, abandoned children, and, knowing that the songs were for them like bread, she was simultaneously writing both the text and the music. She rocked them to sleep, played with them, enriched their world-view, describing nature, beauty, the world around them. Though they were created at different times, in general her songs were suffused with motherly tenderness.

Remarkably, Boyarska was never interested in cultivating or revising folksongs, and yet her music sounds totally like folk music. Her songs capture the listener with their sincerity, simplicity. For this reason, they are familiar and accessible for the masses. It sounds as though it should belong to the people. The characteristic of Boyarska’s music is its tender lyricism, its colorful, national melody. But, it’s important to note that Rivka Boyarskaya did not remain in the narrow confines of her Yiddish origins. She struck out on a broader road. In Fefer’s “Birobizhaner Lullaby,” in the music for Vergelis’s “Open Hearts” the listener senses the distinctive breadth of the composer’s musical compass.”

Zabara recalls that when the poet Shmuel Halkin discovered that she wrote music for his famous poem, “Deep Pits, Red Clay” during a period of illness, despite being ill himself (three weeks before his death), he visited her in order to hear her music, and from his meager words, the idea emerged that his song would become a new salvation.

Munye Gleyzer wrote the following for the first anniversary of B.’s death:

“For more than fifty years of her life, she not only created musical interpretations for the poems from such poets as Leyb Kvitko, David Hofshteyn, Itsik Fefer, Shmuel Halkin, S. Rosin, and others, but she also created 40 song-texts of her own with original melodies that were sung in Yiddish schools and on cabaret stages by such artists as Clara Young, Sara Fibik, Shmuel Liubimov, Z. Shulman, R. Ros, and others. Some of her melodies were also recorded (phonograph-records) for example by Nehama Lifshits (the lullaby, “Babi Yar”, text—Sh. Driz).

 Writers, artists, musicians, and readers of Soviet Homeland gathered in the editorial office in order to celebrate the memory of gifted artists. In his short introductory remarks, Arn Vergelis dwelt on the complete body of R. Boyarska’s creative corpus and pointed out that with her 6 songbooks, Rivka Boyarska showed herself to be the celebrator of the productive process of the Jewish folk-masses in Soviet manufacturing. The last period of her life was occupied with the journal Soviet Homeland, where her musical work was printed.

The Moscow composer Atilie Lichtenshteyn (wife of Yankev Shternberg) described the national and international praise for Rivka Boyarska’s work. She spoke about the sincerity of Boyarska’s melodies and the simplicity of their musical composition. At the end, she played a musical fantasy by R. Boyarksa, “A Yiddish Wedding-Song” on the piano. The theater critic Yehoshua Liubomirski (husband of the deceased) told about the pitfalls that the artist encountered in her life and how the musician Z. Kiselgof, who had at that time “infused” with Yiddish folk music the spectacle The Sorceress in the Moscow [Yiddish] State-Theater, helped Rivka Boyarska conquer her difficulties and publish her first songbook, Little Hammers, in 1925.”

The musical portion of the memorial service, composed exclusively of B.’s work, was performed by Dina Potopovska, Mikhail Magid, Mark Shekhter, Olga Velmozshina, Leonid Vaynshteyn, and Boris Tsitovitsh.

Sh. E. and Sh. E. from Y. Liubomirski.

  • G. Pres—Rivka Boyarska, “M.F.” N.Y., June 5, 1967.

  • N. Samarov—A Songbook by Rivka Boyarska, “M.F.” N.Y., August 7, 1967.

  • Munye Gleyzer—Boyarska’s memorial takes place in Moscow, “M.F.” N.Y., July 10, 1968.

  • Natan Zabara—“A Song Goes Around the World”, Sovietish Heymland, Moscow, N. 8, 1967.








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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 6, page 5354.

Translation courtesy of Beth Dwoskin.

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