Joseph Moskowitz was one of the foremost tsimbl players of the early twentieth century and a staple of the New York Yiddish community for nearly four decades. A child prodigy who began playing professionally before entering his teens, Moskowitz would later make the first tsimbl recordings in the United States.
Moskowitz was born in the port town of Galatia, Romania, in 1879 and studied the tsimbl with his father, Moyshe Tsimbler. The tsimbl (also cimbalom, cembalom, and cymbalom) has a long history in Jewish music, dating to at least the seventeenth century where it first gained prominence as a specifically Jewish instrument through its use in Eastern European klezmer ensembles. A trapezoid-shaped hammered dulcimer, the tsimbl is typically played today on a stand, though earlier and smaller version were carried with a strap around the musician’s neck. The modern, concert version played by Moskowitz and shown above was invented by Joszef V. Schunda in Budapest, Hungary, in 1874.
Moskowtiz first gained professional experience while playing aboard ships traveling along the Danube, and by 14 he was touring regularly on trips that would take him to Lviv, Hungary, and Constantinople. The international reputation he cultivated through years of touring preceded his arrival in the U.S. in 1908: posters in Yiddish, Italian, Hungarian, and Romanian announcing his performances dotted the landscape of East Houston Street on New York’s Lower East Side, while the New York Times heralded the arrival of “the world’s champion czymbalist.”
After touring the U.S., Moskowitz settled in New York where he opened his first café, the Moskowitz Wine Cellar, in 1913 on Rivington St. This was soon followed by the more famous restaurant, Moskowitz and Lupowitz, where the tsimbalist held court nearly every evening until 1943, his playing attracting both local diners and uptown audiences curious about his musical prowess. Writing in 1927, the communist writer and critic Michael Gold (né Itzok Isaac Granich) described a typical night listening and watching the master at work:
As Moscowitz played, his head moved lower and lower over the cymbalon. At the crescendo one could not see his face, only his bald head gleaming like a hand-mirror. Then, with a sudden upward flourish of his arms, the music ended. One saw his shy, lean face again, with its gray mustache. Every one cheered, applauded and whistled. Moscowitz drank off his wine, and smiling shyly, played an encore. (Moscowitz is a real artist, after twenty years he still makes restaurant music with his heart, and has never saved any money.)
After two unreleased recording sessions for Victor in January 1916, Moskowitz recorded five successful sides on February 4. The titles showcased the breadth of Moskowitz’s vast repertoire: “Argentine Dance,” Brahms’s “Hungarian Dance, No. 5,” and “Panama Pacific Drag” by Leo Edwards, the latter composed in honor of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco.
Listen to Joseph Moskowitz's "Hungarian Dance, No. 5" (Victor 17973, recorded February 4, 1916)
Between 1916 and 1917, Moskowitz recorded 18 other sides released by Victor that drew primarily from Romanian and Yiddish musical traditions. He recorded rarely after 1917: once in 1927 as a soloist, and then with Alex Olshanetsky’s Orchestra in 1928. In addition to his nightly performances at his restaurant, he gave an annual concert at New York City’s Town Hall. Moskowitz moved to Washington, D.C., in 1943, where he performed regularly at Michel’s Restaurant. He entered the studio again in 1953, when he recorded a 10-inch LP just before his death the following year.
“Champion Cymbalist is Playing Here Now.” New York Times, April 26, 1908: C4.
"Joseph Moskowitz, 76, Dies; Noted Player of Gypsy Music." The Washington Post, June 29, 1954.
Feldman, Walter Zev. "Remberence of Things Past: Klezmer musicians of Galicia, 1870-1940." Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry 16: 29-57.
Gifford, Paul M. The Hammered Dulcimer: A History (Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2001)
Gold, Michael. Jews Without Money (London: Noel Douglas, 1930).
Moskowitz, Joseph. The Art of the Cymbalom: The Music of Jospeh Moskowitz, 1916-1953. ROUNDER CD 1126, 1996. CD.
Photograph of Moskowitz from Archive.org, https://archive.org/details/JosephMoskowitzCymbalomArgentineDanceTangoAr...