The early Chassidic movement attributed profound importance to the power of music. “If words are the pen of the heart,” taught Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Chassidism, “then song is the pen of the soul.”

The historic regions of Volhynia and Podolia, west of Kiev, were the birthplace of the Chassidic movement. Violent pogroms had long impacted the Jews of what is now Ukraine, none worse than the violent peasant uprising led by Bogdan Chmielnicki in 1648-49. Tens of thousands of Jews were massacred, leaving the Jews of the region in despair. It was partially as a result of those attacks that Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, born in the region in 1698, began to reveal his teachings, to raise the spirits of a broken nation.

Successive generations of Chassidic leaders left their mark on Ukrainian Jewry. Historic Jewish communities in the west, and newer Jewish agricultural colonies in the Kherson region to the east, became home to millions of Jews. That history has survived pogroms, the Holocaust and the Soviet Union to form today’s vibrant Jewish community.

The songs of the Jews in the region, adaptations of Ukrainian peasant songs, mined for meaning and elevated through application, or wordless original compositions, can uplift the soul to profound heights.

Far from a comprehensive list, (cities such as Nikolayev and Kremenchug spawned not only prominent composers of Chassidic melodies, but entire genres of Chassidic music) these songs give a taste of the rich musical history in the region.

1. Stav Ya Pitu - став я питу

This song typifies what’s known as a macaronic, where the words or inflections from one language are blended and played off the context of another. In this case, a mournful Ukrainian drinking song - “I started drinking on Friday, on Friday” - is followed by Yiddish and Hebrew lyrics that transform a bitter song about drinking away life’s troubles into a deep, soul-stirring contemplation of the spiritual stocktaking with which one can be freed from the shackles of bodily indifference and human limitations.

This melody was taught by the Rebbe on the holiday of Simchat Torah, 1962.

Click here to read the full lyrics and their meaning.

2. Kol Bayaar קול ביער

The text and the melody of this supplication were composed by Rabbi Arye Leib, one of the followers of the Baal Shem Tov. He was known as the Shpoler Zeide, after the town of Shpola, Ukraine, where he lived. This soulful nigun, which tells the story of a father looking for his lost child in the woods, is a parable for the cosmic dialogue between G‑d and the Jewish people. The Shpoler Zeide sang it each evening.

The text is divided into four stanzas. Each stanza is repeated in Hebrew, Yiddish and Ukrainian. Learn more about the song, and the Shpoler Zeide’s life, here.

3. Hopp Cossack - гоп козак

Also attributed to the Shpoler Zeide, this largely wordless tune ends with the Ukrainian words Hopp Cossack - “Jump Cossack!” The tune and associated dance are similar to the Hopak, the National Dance of Ukraine. The song accompanies a story about the Shpoler Zeide using the tune, taught to him by Elijah the Prophet, to outdance a Cossack in a competition, thus saving the life of a Jewish family. This lively song is often performed at the end of weddings. The Rebbe also noted that it's customary to sing it on Purim, Simchat Torah and Acharon shel Pesach - due to the Shpoler Zeide's message of love for his fellow Jews and miraculous efforts to help free them. Some also sing it at a Brit Milah.

4. The Poltava Nigun

This tune is attributed to the famed chassid Rabbi Yaakov Mordechai Bespalov, the rabbi of Poltava, Ukraine, who would spend hours in prayer, singing the words of prayer to this tune. Poltava was a chassidic stronghold, home to an important chassidic printing press and in the initial years following the First Word War, the primary branch of the Chabad-run Tomchei Temimim network of yeshivas. This nigun is filled with deep soul-searching notes typical of the nigunei gaaguim, “songs of yearning.”

5. Nigun Vollach ניגון וואלח

This nigun is attributed to Rabbi Meir Shlomo Yanovsky, the Rebbe’s maternal grandfather, who was the rabbi of Nikolayev, Ukraine. The beginning expresses bitter longing and morphs into joyful hope. Its style typifies the Vollach genre of nigun—slow meditative melodies that recall the songs of the Jewish shepherds in the rolling hills and pastures on the banks of the Danube river, where southern Ukraine meets Romania.

6. Di Kremenchuker Berelach

This melody of four stanzas, also a Vollach, is attributed to Di Berelach, “the Bears” — a famous group of chassidic disciples in Kremenchuk, Ukraine, all known by the same first name, Dov-Ber (which translates as “bear”).

This melody expresses deep yearning for religious inspiration and spiritual elevation. From the beginning of the first stanza, the yearnings and spiritual anguish gradually become more insistent, reaching their climax with the close of the third stanza. The fourth stanza constitutes a joyful finale, giving utterance to feelings of encouragement, hope, and confidence in G‑d.

7. Kaddish By Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev

A song composed by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Ukraine (1740–1809), one of the most beloved chassidic leaders, who is remembered for his legendary love for every Jew, no matter his or her spiritual or material state. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak once said, “If after I pass away I have the option of being alone in paradise, or going to purgatory in the company of other Jews, I would certainly choose the latter. As long as I’m together with other Jews!”

This song, composed to be sung before the Mussaf prayer of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, combines Hebrew and Yiddish verses beseeching G‑d on behalf of the Jewish people.

Art by Rivka Korf Studio
Art by Rivka Korf Studio

8. Nigun Nikolaev

A heartfelt Chassidic melody from the town of Nikolayev, Ukraine, popularized by the chassid Reb Shmuel Betzalel Althaus.

9. Nigun Hakafot of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Schneerson, the Rebbe’s father

A spirited rhythmic march in three stanzas, sung on the holiday of Simchat Torah at the Hakafotof Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Schneerson of Yekaterinoslav (today Dnipro), Ukraine, father of the Rebbe. The melody has its origins in the time of the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, who lived in what is now Belarus. However, it has become inextricably linked to Rabbi Levi Yitzchok and his legacy of sacrifice for Jews in the Soviet Union. Though originally associated with the Hakafot of Simchat Torah, the Rebbe would often request that it be sung throughout the year, as it remains popularly sung by Jews of all backgrounds today.