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The Robert and Molly Freedman Jewish Sound Archive at the University of Pennsylvania, located in the Jay I. Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts in the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center, is among the most important resources in the world for the study of Jewish culture, folklore, history, linguistics, and literature through the medium of sound. The Freedmans built the collection as a labor of love over the course of more than six decades, and in 1998 donated it to the Penn Libraries.

The Archive contains musical recordings from around the globe in over a dozen different languages. It is particularly strong in its holdings of Yiddish folk and art songs, as well as liturgical, theatrical, vaudeville, and klezmer music. As a sound archive, the collection also includes field recordings, personal sound recordings, and readings of Yiddish literature by some of the great writers and actors of the 20th century.

Among the most important features of the Archive is a database of over 40,000 keyword-searchable individual songs. Constructed over four decades, this online discovery tool makes the Archive an invaluable research destination for scholars, students, performers, composers, and the general public. It has been acknowledged in many films, plays, audio albums, musical programs, and books. The database is an unrivaled tool for finding a particular musician's recordings or locating Biblical or political references in songs.

About the Archive

There are currently 5,923 albums in the Freedman collection. The recordings include 78, 45, and 33 rpm vinyl recordings; reel to reel and cassette tapes; video cassettes, primarily from Israel, the U.S., and the former Soviet Union; one video cassette from Poland; and many CDs and DVDs. There are no early cylinder recordings in the collection. The vast majority of the recordings are commercially released and under copyright, but some are not. These include field recordings, songs recorded by friends of the Freedmans, a documentary by Robert Freedman’s mother describing her journey to America, a tape of Camp Boiberik songs, and tapes of Molly Freedman’s mother singing songs. New sound recordings in all formats are actively collected.

In addition to the sound collection, “ancillary files” in the collection include printed books, sheet music, and ephemera. There are currently 500 volumes in the print collection and 1,510 pieces of sheet music, including all the compositions (all classical) of Helen Medeweff Greenberg, which she gave to the Archive before she died. There are also myriad dance folios and other publications for instrumentalists, none of which have been catalogued. The ephemera file consists of items not likely to be noticed or preserved, mostly from periodicals and the internet, crossed referenced to a song, album, personality, or other keyword found in the database. There are some 2,000 items catalogued in ephemera. Many are letters from readers of the Yiddish American newspaper the Forverts of the column titled “Leyners Demonen Lider” (Readers Remember Songs). They show how the column functions as a kind of public reference service in which readers would request a song be identified, or a variant of a song, the text of a song or share any other relevant observation, hoping to gain the attention of the columnists, Yiddish song experts, researchers, and educators who would favor them with a response.

The Archive Today

Hebrew Folk Songs album cover

The Robert and Molly Freedman Jewish Sound Archive continues to be an active and growing collection used by a wide variety of patrons in a multitude of ways. First and foremost, it is used by students and academics as a reference library for their various fields of interest, including language and linguistics, literature, musical style, immigration, Eastern European Studies, and folklore. It is a source for those interested in the Jewish musical literature of the 19th and 20th centuries and contains a wealth of material of significant interest to scholars of Yiddish literature.

The Archive was a founding member of the Alliance of Judaica Sound Archives (JSA), formed for the purpose of furthering the goals of collecting, preserving, and promoting the cultural legacy contained in Judiaca sound recordings. The other founding members are Judaica Sound Archives at Florida Atlantic University Libraries (FAU) and the Feher Jewish Music Center of Beth Hatfutsot (Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora) at Tel Aviv University (FJMC). The goal of the Alliance is to establish an internet based closed network among its members to permit access to the sound recordings and other information in their respective collections.

Links have been established with JSA so that sound recordings at FAU may be accessed by visitors to the Archive. assuming that the recording is in the Archive database. Additionally, visitors to the FAU website may access the background information in the Freedman Archive with respect to a recording at FAU.

The Robert and Molly Freedman Jewish Sound Archive provides a music reference service. Queries have been received from Alaska to Uzbekistan, from performers, composers, clergy, educators, choral directors, music therapists, audio, video and film producers, authors, and representatives of various libraries, academic, and research institutions. Most interesting are the requests from individuals requesting that a song or prayer sung by a parent or grandparent from just a fragment or phrase which remained in memory.

The Founders

Molly and Robert Freedman
The Pennsylvania Gazette

Robert (Bob) and Molly Freedman established the Robert and Molly Freedman Jewish Sound Archive at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries in 1998. Bob, who is no longer actively involved with the Archive, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1954 and practiced law for over 50 years. Molly Freedman (nee Crasner) died on June 16, 2022. Molly had a 20-year career as a social worker at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and the Jewish Family Service at the David Neuman Senior Center in northeast Philadelphia.

Both were raised in immigrant homes in which English was co-equal with Yiddish. They were exposed to the rich cultural content imparted by the afternoon Jewish schools and summer camps they attended. Their homes resonated with Hebrew and Yiddish songs sung by parents, family, and friends long before the hootenanny was in style. 

The collection had its beginnings early in their marriage when Molly suggested that they should buy a few recordings. Shortly thereafter, they decided to build a collection by acquiring recordings wherever they traveled. Sometime in the middle or late 1970’s, at the cusp of the “klezmer revival,” researchers began to visit the Freedman’s. By that time the collection had outgrown the space available in the Freedman home.

The first person to use the collection was a 16-year old Gratz College student who wrote a paper on Holocaust songs. Bob was then asked to bring some of the music to a Jewish folklore class at Penn, which subsequently developed into an annual visit by Yiddish language classes to the Freedman’s apartment. In 1981, Bob bought his first computer and began to list the recordings. He subsequently developed the first Yiddish font for screen display and printer, and over the years developed the his song database.

There came a realization that the collection should be in an institution where it could be properly housed and preserved, available for wider use. In 1996 the collection was moved to the University of Pennsylvania.

Bob and Molly collected recordings, publications and ephemera wherever they traveled – the United States, Canada, Argentina, the British Isles, France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Spain, Hungary, Russia, Ukraine, and Holland. The Archive is also the beneficiary of gifts of recordings, books, sheet music, and ephemera from myriad donors.

For decades, in addition to continuing to collect recordings and catalog the Archive holdings, the Freedmans provided a worldwide music reference service and gave classes upon request of various professors using material from the Archive. As a result, they are cited in countless scholarly books, articles, and papers. They gave presentations at academic institutions and community groups all over the United States and at the Jewish Music Institute at the School of Oriental Studies at the University of London.