Mayrent Institute Now Home to Oldest Surviving Recordings of Yiddish Music

The Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture has acquired the twelve earliest known cylinder recordings of Yiddish music, released c.1901 by the one-time Chicago-based Thomas Lambert Company. The recordings enhance the Institute’s offerings in combination with the Mayrent Collection of Yiddish Recordings, a repository of over 9,000 78rpm recordings of Yiddish and Jewish music, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mills Music Library.

These rarest of earliest American recordings trace Yiddish theater’s journey from its European provenance to its reinvention as a major American venue. “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen” (“Raisins and Almonds”), the evergreen lullaby composed in 1880s Romania by the father of the Yiddish theater, Abraham Goldfaden, and recorded six years before his death in the New World, echoes continuity, while others of the two-minute recordings clue us in to the diversity of the Yiddish stage’s pioneer participants.

The remarkable sound quality of the recordings is due to the transfer skills of the historian/sound engineer/collector David Giovannoni (UW-Madison, 1980), who made the collection available. It is also thanks to the pristine condition of their original celluloid surface, and to its inventor.

In 1900, Thomas Lambert began recording on celluloid, an early form of plastic that produced superior sound and resiliency. Unlike Thomas Edison’s 1877 invention — metal followed by wax cylinders that could be played only a handful of times before wearing out — Lambert’s cylinders were labeled “Indestructible.” He, unfortunately, was not; frivolous patent infringement lawsuits initiated by Edison drove Lambert out of business by 1906.

In the end the Thomas Lambert Company’s 1008-song catalog came to reflect mainstream popular music. Yet half its first releases — some forty in all — were Yiddish. The extant dozen has found its rightful home. The Institute is cooperating with Grammy Award-winning Archeophone Records, which will reissue the recordings later this year under the title Attractive Hebrews: The Thomas Lambert Yiddish Cylinders 1901-1904.