Nechama Lifshitz was born in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1927 and immigrated to Israel in 1969. She was perceived as the symbol of “the Jews of silence,” which were not allowed to immigrate from the U.S.S.R. to Israel in the sixties and seventies. Her father, Dr. Yehuda Hirsch Lifshitz, who had studied in Yitzchak Yaacov Reines’ Yeshiva in Lithuania, was a doctor, businessman and Jewish communal activist. Both of her parents were active in Zionist circles.
During WWII her family fled to Eastern Uzbekistan. After returning to Soviet Lithuania in 1946, Nechama studied at the Vilnius conservatory and appeared as a soloist with the Vilnius Philharmonic Orchestra in 1957.
Her greatest joy, however, was singing in Yiddish and Hebrew. Beginning in 1951, she toured the USSR as a Yiddish singer despite the many restrictions against Jewish performers in those years and quickly became a symbol and a voice for the country’s silenced Jews.
In 1969 she made Aliyah to Israel. She continued to give concerts of Yiddish songs, including “Am Israel Chai,” which the poet Yosef Kerler wrote in her honor and became known as her signature song.
Recordings of her concerts were extremely popular not only in Israel and the USSR but were also a hit with Jews all over the world. She was often invited to give concerts in the USA, Australia, England and Latin America.
Nechama Lifshitz also directed the city of Tel Aviv’s municipal musical library. In 1978, she was awarded the Manger Prize and in 2004 – the Tel Aviv-Jaffa prize. In her final years, she ran a singing workshop to train young Israelis in the art of Yiddish song.
Nechama Lifshitz, who traveled the length and breadth of the Soviet Union singing in Yiddish and Hebrew, died on Friday at age 89.
One of her great joys was the establishment several years ago of the National Authority for Yiddish, which each year hosts a multi-faceted Yiddish cultural event. In the interim Yiddish theater has flourished, some universities have courses in Yiddish, there is Yiddish cabaret and Yiddish klezmer, and Chava Alberstein is not the only Israeli singer whose repertoire includes a vast number of Yiddish songs. In fact among the singers in the Yiddish song groups established by Lifshitz, there were some who did not come from European backgrounds or Yiddish-speaking homes – but were drawn to the songs and the language.
They will continue to sing and will thus perpetuate Lifshitz’s legacy.