Kapela Żydowska (Jewish band). Painting by Kolodorfer. Poland, late nineteenth century. Watercolor. The young boy (3rd from right) plays a tsimbl. (Moldovan Family Collection)

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The tsimbl (Eng., cimbalom) is an instrument of the dulcimer family, a trapezoidal box with strings in courses of two to six, some of which are divided into fifths by a partitioning bridge. The cimbaloms played by Jews generally had a range of two and a half octaves and were tuned chromatically; the metal (mainly brass) strings were struck with wooden hammers. Jewish association with the instrument was continuous from the early seventeenth until the early twentieth century in much of Eastern Europe. In Belorussia and Galicia, it was an essential component of the klezmer band until the Holocaust; in Ukraine and in large cities in Russian Poland and Lithuania it had been replaced by brass instruments by the last third of the nineteenth century. (See image at right, top.)

The use of the term cymbal (from Gk., kynbalon) for the dulcimer originated in sixteenth-century Hungary. By the early seventeenth century in Lwów, the cymbal was part of the trio ensemble led by syrbska fiddles playing Balkan-derived music. This usage was apparently combined by klezmorim with Western chordal practice in Bohemia, whence it spread back to Poland and westward to Germany. The association of Jews with the instrument is found as far west as Holland and Ireland.

"Skotshne." Music: Traditional. Performed by unknown musicians on violin and tsimbl. Recorded in 1912. The Historic Collection of Jewish Music 1912–1947, Volume 1: Materials of J. Engel Ethnographic Expedition 1912, Institute for Information: Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine, Kiev, 2001. (The Phonoarchive of Jewish Folklore at the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine)

The (singular) Hungarian word cimbalom and the Yiddish tsimbl became the plural forms cymbaly in Polish, tsymbaly in Ukrainian and Belorussian, and tambal in Romanian. The old Romanian word tambelar for a performer derives directly from Yiddish. Despite the older Hungarian use of the instrument, the small ensemble with cimbalom favored by Roma musicians seems to have derived from Jewish klezmer usage in the eighteenth century. Likewise, the appearance of the tambal mic (little cymbal) in Roma tarafs (ensembles) was a reflection of a Jewish klezmer presence in the early to mid-nineteenth century. The chromatic tuning of the Jewish instrument is documented only in the early twentieth century, but the presence of the same tuning system in Latvia in the north and Romania, Greece, and Turkey in the south can be accounted for only by the influence of the klezmer tsimbl.

In 1926, the Russian musicologist Nikolai Findeisen devoted an article to the Lepianski family of cimbalists in Vitebsk, in which he testified to the long Jewish association with this instrument in Belorussia. Renderings of the tsimbl frequently appear in the paintings of Marc Chagall, who was born in Vitebsk. The name Zimbalist (in various spellings—e.g., Cymbalista) appears in documents relating to Jewish musicians from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Bohemia, Poland, and Hungary, and it remained a Jewish family name into the twentieth century.

Until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the tsimbl had been the principal accompanying instrument within the klezmer ensemble, but in the previous century there had been famous soloists as well, such as Solomon Tambalarul of Iaşi and the literary figure Jankiel Cymbalist in Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz (1834). The tsimbl is still regarded as a Jewish instrument in Poland, and as a Jewish-derived home instrument among the former Polish gentry of Belarus. Recordings from pre–World War I Lwów document the use of the tsimbl as an accompaniment for violin and flute playing.

Suggested Reading

Walter Zev Feldman, “Remembrance of Things Past: Klezmer Musicians of Galicia, 1870–1940,” Polin 16 (2003): 29–57; Nikolai Fedorovich Fendeizen (Findeisen), “The Jewish Tsimbal and the Lepianski Family of Tsimbalists,” Muzykal’naia etnografia (1926): 37–44; Paul Gifford, The Hammered Dulcimer: A History (Lanham, Md., 2001).