Klezmer musicians at a wedding, playing an accompaniment to the arrival of the groom, Ukraine, ca. 1925. Photograph by Menakhem Kipnis. (Forward Association/YIVO)

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Kipnis, Menakhem

(1878–1942), singer, critic, photographer, and ethnographer of Yiddish song. Born in Uzhmir, Volhynia, Menakhem Kipnis was a cantor’s son who entered the world of Jewish music at a young age. He served as a cantor’s assistant in local synagogues on the High Holidays and as a choirboy at the Choral Synagogue in Zhitomir. He also performed throughout the Pale of Settlement.

As a young man, Kipnis studied at the Warsaw Conservatory of Music and became the first Jewish tenor to join the Warsaw Opera, where he performed for 16 years (1902–1918). During World War I, he and his protégé and later wife, Zimra Seligfeld (ca. 1900–ca. 1942), gave joint concerts throughout Poland and in Western Europe. Many consider Kipnis and Seligfeld to be the first true interpreters of the Yiddish folk song; their concerts, which were immensely popular, were not just nostalgic reproductions of the genre but emotional renditions that preserved the original character of the songs while making them accessible to contemporary audiences.

Jewish coach driver, Warsaw, ca. 1924; photograph by Menakhem Kipnis, who wrote a caption for it: “The oldest Jewish coach driver in Warsaw. Moyshe Dovid he’s called, and that’s what all the Polish drivers yell after him in the street mockingly. Eighty-two years old and he still enjoys a good schnapps.” (Forward Association/YIVO)

In 1907, Kipnis began contributing pieces on Jewish music to Hebrew and Yiddish newspapers, writing the first authoritative articles on this subject. Eventually he became a regular contributor to the Warsaw Yiddish daily Haynt. His pieces, many of which were reprinted in the New York Tog, included critiques about music and theater, reviews of local cantorial concerts, humorous anecdotes, travel sketches, and feuilletons. Kipnis’s opinions were widely respected and his endorsements were eagerly sought.

Through his concerts and articles in the press, Kipnis championed the Yiddish folk song. He published many of them in two collections: Zekhtsik folks-lider (Sixty Folk Songs; 1918) and Akhtsik folks-lider (Eighty Folk Songs; 1925). In addition, he was fascinated by Jewish folk stories. His Khelemer mayses (Chelm Stories; 1930)—which were gleaned from Jews in cities and shtetls across Eastern Europe—were collected and published as a book.

Kipnis died of an aneurism in the Warsaw ghetto. Seligfeld, who continued to give folk music concerts in the ghetto, had hoped to preserve his diaries and papers so that they could be published after the war, but following her deportation to Treblinka they were lost in the destruction of the ghetto.

Suggested Reading

Lucjan Dobroszycki and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Image Before My Eyes: A Photographic History of Jewish Life in Poland, 1864–1939 (New York, 1977), includes a selection of the photographs Kipnis took on his travels through Poland; Itzik Nakhmen Gottesman, Defining the Yiddish Nation: The Jewish Folklorists of Poland (Detroit, 2003), chap. 3; Berl Koyn, Azriel Naks, and Elye Shulman, eds., “Kipnis, Menakhem,” in Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, vol. 8, cols. 196–197 (New York, 1981); Joachim Neugroschel, trans. and ed., No Star Too Beautiful: An Anthology of Yiddish Stories from 1382 to the Present (New York, 2002), includes an English-language excerpt from Chelm Stories on pp. 600–607; Zalmen Zylbercweig (Zilbertsvayg), ed., “Kipnis, Menakhem” and “Seligfeld, Zimra,” in Leksikon fun yidishn teater, vol. 5, cols. 3799–3803 and 4196–4207 (Mexico City, 1967).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 112, Music, Collection, 1846-1973; RG 1139, Abraham Cahan, Papers, 1906-1952.