Rebecka Gordon interprets a collection of old and traditional Yiddish songs with a tender and heartfelt feeling greatly supported by her co-musicians Claes von Heijne (p), Filip Augustson (b) and Gilbert Matthews (dr).
By the wayside stands a tree - Rabbi Motenyu - Beneath the little green trees - What will happen when the Messiah comes - Our Father Abraham - By the fireside - There once was a Jew - Little boots - Hi, little goats - Yidl with the fiddle - A little Gipsy - Morning prayer - My childhood years
YIDDISH - A LANGUAGE WITHOUT A COUNTRY
Yiddish is a language in exile, without a habitat in a nation protected and defined by territorial boundaries. It is in all likelihood as old as the German language. Both probably developed parallel with each other out of an older Germanic language which possibly existed in middle-Europe, Bavaria and as far eastwards as Hungary,the Czech Republic and Slovakia, along the River Danube and further in an easterly and westerly fork. As late as the Twenties - before the Second World War - Yiddish was the mother tongue for 11 million people. It was one of the most widely used languages in Europe and the spoken language for the major part of the Jewish population covering Germany and Poland in the west to Russia and the Ukraine in the east. Half of that population disappeared in the extermination camps and the other half were scattered as refugees around the world, remnants of a shattered European culture.
In the more aristocratic circles Yiddish was looked down upon as a vulgar and corrupted German language of the Middle Ages impregnated with words from the Hebrew, Aramaic and diverse Germanic and Slavic languages. It was so that language in particular was strongly related to matters of class. In eastern Europe where Jews to a greater extent became isolated and persecution continued, Yiddish came to be a part of the popular uprising both in regards to religious and political matters. But even those who propagated for idealistic enlightenment agitated in time for Yiddish as the Jewish language.
Up until the Nineteenth century Yiddish was primarily a spoken language, even though writings that date back to the Eleventh century have been found. As a spoken language, with its subtle yet distinctly noticeable local and regional differences, it is only preserved by way of those people alive today who still speak it. An intensive amount of work is now being carried out to document this language - or languages - with the help of recorded interviews, before it is too late.
Yiddish was not only an everyday language of villages in the country districts, conveying humorous tales, legends and the spoken equivalent of Kletzmer music, but it remains as part of modern political history: the language of modernity, social reforms, rebellion and national uprising within the Jewish sector known as Ashkenazi. It was the language of both secular rationalism and popular religious revival built on the same ideological basis; Yiddish was the language of the people, it should in fact be extolled and developed rather than contemptuously dismissed as "jargon". The more "refined" language, the written language, and the one used by the educated classes and the higher Jewish scholars was Hebrew. All synagogue services were held in Hebrew and "everyone" was expected to be able to read from the holy scriptures in this language. Hebrew was therefore not a living language and not applicable to everyday life and so it was Yiddish that was spoken amongst Jews north of the Alps and the Pyrenees.
Today those who speak Yiddish belong to a frail and aging population, but for the past two decades a renaissance for Yiddish has been growing. All around the world festivals and conferences on Yiddish as a language and culture are being organised and there are courses on every level from study federations to high schools. At the large American universities, particularly Columbia in New York, research is in progress investigating the origins and development of Yiddish and what this language can reveal to us about the history of the Jewish people.
Adaptation by Charles Gavatin from an excerpt of an article by Eva Ekselius which was published in Dagens Nyheter 30th January 2001.
Translation: Dave Castle
These songs are old and traditional, but (where possible) details of their origins are given followed by a synopsis over their subject matter:
1. Oyfn veg shteit a boim/ By the wayside stands a tree.
Words by Itzik Manger (1901-1969).
By the wayside stands a tree, bent against the storm. All the birds have deserted it, leaving it alone and unprotected. A child says to his mother:"I will become a bird and sit in the tree to comfort it with my song during the winter." "No, my child,"his mother weeps, "you will freeze to death, sitting in the tree. But if you really must, be sure to put on your scarf and galoshes, your fur hat and warm underwear."The child sings: "I lift up my wings but cannot fly. My clothes are too heavy. Sadly I gaze into my mother's eyes, knowing that it was her love for me that prevented me from soaring like a bird."
2. Rabbi Motenyu/Rabbi Motenyu
Words Aaron Zeitlin (1889- 1973).
Music Samuel Bugatch (1898-1884).
Rabbi Motenyu says: "Good Morning to You, dear Lord! Remove Your wrath from us and we'll act according to Your laws." Oh, the righteous ascend! Oh, the wicked fall down! Bam, bamS Rabbi Motenyu says: "Good afternoon to You, dear Lord! The day is hot and the struggle is hard, but we haven't given up."Oh the righteous ascend!S. Rabbi Motenyu says: "Good evening to You dear Lord! The day is now over and I've done everything in my power. Now, please give me at least a good night's sleep!"
3. Unter di grininke beymelekh/ Beneath the little green trees.
Words Chaim Nachmen Bialik (1873 -1934).
Music Platon G. Brounoff (1863?-1924).
Beneath the little green trees the little Jewish children play. With their fringed garments, little coats and their ear-locks they look like newly-hatched babies. Their fragile bodies are like straw, smoke and feathers that can be blown away by a puff of wind. They have one thing that is wonderful: little eyes that shine prophetically. Oh! I would give anything to have such pure little innocent eyes.
4. Voz vet zayn as Mosiakh vet kummen? /What will happen when the Messiah comes?
Words and music published by Z.Kisselgof. Additional stanzas by N. Prilutsky.
A Rabbi sits with his young disciples who are eagerly inquisitive. "Tell us dear Rabbi, what will happen when the Messiah comes?""We will have a great feast. We will eat the legendary giant fish that envelops the globe and the legendary Wild Ox.......We will drink the wine of the righteous......Moses will provide us with words of wisdom......and King David will play his harp for us."
5. Our Father Abraham. / Our Father Abraham.
A Spanish-Jewish folk song, sung in Ladino.
When King Nimrod was going out to hunt he looked up at the sky and the stars. He saw a holy light in the Jewish quarter; Father Abraham was to be born. Father Abraham. Blessed Father. Light of Israel. Terach's wife became pregnant, and every day he would ask her: "Why do you have such a change of complexion?"She knew well the blessing she was carrying.
6. Oyfn Pripet shik/At the fireplace.
Words by Mark M.Warshawsky (1840-1907).
A flame burns in the fireplace, the room is warming up, as the teacher drills the children in the Hebrew alphabet (alef-beyz): "Remember dear children, what you are learning here. Repeat it over and over. When you grow older you will understand that this alphabet contains the tears and weeping of our people. When you grow old and weary you will find comfort and strength in these letters."
7. A mol iz geven a yid/ There once was a Jew.
Words and music by Ben Yomen (1901-1962).
A Jewish man wishes to celebrate the most important day of the week Shabes (the Sabbath) in style. However, his wife is much more realistic over the fact that they are so poor. The man asks her to buy him wine for Shabes. She replies: "Oh Shabes, Shabes. Where do you get wine for Shabes when we have no salt, no fat?"But he continues to ask her to bake him a khale loaf and then cook him some meat, and then he implores her to at least make him tsimmes (carrot stew). This sad song ends with the words: "Oh Shabes, Shabes is almost over and it feels as bitter as death to be without a piece of bread. Oh, where can you find a ruble for Shabes?"
8. Di sapozhkelekh/ Little boots.
A Russian folk song collected by Michael Alpert from the Ukraine.
This love song also describes the hardships of a worker: I'll sell my boots and ride on wagons, just so that I can be together with you. Oh, me without you and you without me is like a doorknob without a door. My little kitten, my little bird. I'll go to railroad stations and sell scarves to strangers......I'll eat without a table and sleep without a pillow......I'll sleep in railroad stations and wash the floors of strangers, just so that I can be together with you.
9. Hey, Tsigelekh!/Hi, little goats!
Mordechai Gerbirtig (1877-1942).
Hi, little goats I will sing you a pretty song about a lovesick shepherd and a maiden. The little shepherd was once lively and happy but now he is sad. He doesn't even glance at the lambs and he longs for the maiden. Hi, little goats, listen to the end of the song. Like orphans his poor flock is wandering about. The little shepherd lies drowned in the river, and the maiden sits by the stream and weeps.
10. Yidl mitn fidl/ Yidl with the fiddle.
Words by Yiddish poet Itsik Manger (1901-1969).
Music by Abraham Ellstein (1907-1963).
Written for the film "Yidl mitn fidl"
The words of this song describe the wandering and carefree life of the Kletzmer musicians: Over fields and roads on a hay wagon, in the sun, wind and rain, two musicians ride. What a surprise! Tell me who they are! Yidl with the fiddle, Arye with the bass. Life is a song, so why get angry? Hey, Yidl fidl shmiddle, hey, life is just a joke! A goat stands in a meadow and bleats sadly meh! To be sad is silly! So he shakes his beard. Indeed, it's silly! A bird flies by: "Good morning to you! Forget about sadness and worry! Laugh at the wind and ride on!"
11. A tsigaynerl/ The little gipsy.
Words by Itsik Manger (1901-1969)
Music by Herts Rubin (1911-1958)
I am a little gypsy, but as you see, I'm handsome. Barefoot, hungry and happy, I live like a prince. I don't know where I was born - my mother lost me somewhere in the Steppes. My father went out to steal and was hanged. Oh, you fiddle of mine, play my sorrow into their hearts. Oh, you friend of mine, who knows as well as you that blood and wine are forever. From my father I inherited this fiddle of mine and I play on it: "Diddle, diddle."In my fiddling you can hear my mother's sorrow and my sister's tears. In my fiddle is captured the story of my father's hanging. When they drove him to his death, the fiddle was passed on to me. Whatever song you want to hear, you may request from me. You only have to pay three pennies - my pain doesn't cost very much.
12. Moide Ani
A song from the Warsaw ghetto. Words by M. Shweid.
The Morning Prayer, Moide Ani, is the Hebrew prayer of gratitude. In this case a young person cannot remember more than the first words and tries to explain why: "Thank Thee oh Lord. Thank Thee Almighty. Please do not be angry with me. Look what happened to Your child, wandering around in strange lands. Long years of suffering made me forget my prayer. Thank Thee oh Lord. Thank Thee Almighty. On crooked roads I went out to search for You. I am still young and lacking in experience. Strangers may lead me away from You".
13. Kinderyorn/My childhood years
Words by Mordechai Gebirtig.
Years of childhood, how you live in my memory! When I think of those times, I feel so sad. I have grown old so quickly. In my mind I still see the little house where I was born and raised. Everything has disappeared as in a dream. I can still see you, my beautiful little bird. I still kiss your rosy cheeks. Your eyes, full of charm, reach right into the depth of my heart. I believed that one day you would be mine. My childhood I have lost. My faithful mother I have also lost. There is no trace left of the house. The little bird is also gone. Oh, how quickly I have grown old.
- By the wayside stands a tree /Oyfn veg shteit a boim [6.08]
- Rabbi Motenyu/RebMotenyu [5.07]
(Samuel Bugatch/Aaron Zeitlin)
- Beneath the little green trees/Unter di grininke beymelekh [4.25]
(Platon G. Brounoff/Chaim Nachmen Bialik)
- What will happen when the Messiah comes?/Voz vet zayn as Mosiakh vet kummen? [6.28]
- Our Father Abraham/Abraham Avinu [6.06]
(A Spanish-Jewish folk song in Ladino)
- At the fireplace/Oyfn pripetshik [4.59]
(Words by Mark M. Warshawsky)
- There once was a Jew/A mol iz geven a yid [5.41]
- Little Boots/Di Sapozhkelekh [ 4.25]
(Collected by Michael Alpert from Ukraine)
- Hi, Little goats/Hey, Tsigelekh [4.55]
- Yidl with the fiddle/Yidl mitn fidl [1.50]
(Abraham Ellstein/Itsik Manger)
- The little Gipsy/A tsigaynerl [5.01]
(Herb Rubin/Itsik Manger)
- Moide Ani [3.32] (M. Schweid)
- My childhood years/Kinderyorn [3.32]
(Words by Mordechai Gebirtig)
Arrangements:Claes von Heijne (1-4, 6, 7, 11) & Niclas Brommare (5, 9, 10)
Recorded: January 18th & 19th 2001 at Swedish Broadcasting Corporation, Studio 9, Stockholm
Realease: August 2001
Recording & Mixing: Åke Linton
Mastering: Claes Persson
Cover Photo: Micke Berg
Graphic design: Jenny Rosenberg