Yiddish Folk Songs


So often, Chazanim sing the same over-familiar repertoire when undertaking a Yiddish folk-song. True, many fine compositions abound, by Rund and Jaffe, Golub, Secunda and Rumshinsky, as sung by eminent Chazanim such as Hershman or Rosenblatt. But it would be well to consider the effect of a “Sh’tet’l Melody” on the public – “Mein Sh’tetele Beltz” is one popular example  – although this too has been weakened by repetition.

The Yiddish amatory folk-song, or love-song, can be likened in some measure to the Classical Lied: there is no crudity, but tender subtlety. While it must be remembered that the Yiddish masses then were, for the most part working class, they could be astonishingly refined in their approach to ‘affairs of the heart’, and the pathos and yearning expressed by a few composers  – poets would be a better ascription  – merits examination.

One such folk-composer was the late, lamented Polish poetcomposer, Mordechai Gebirtig, of whom little has yet been published. He was born in Crakow (in Western Galicia, which, until 1938, contained 50,000 Jews) in 1877, and eked out a humble and miserable life as a woodworker in a furniture factory. His wife, Blumke, and their three daughters, Shifrah, Chavah and Leah, are remembered by dedications in his work. They frequently performed his songs, which. became famous throughout Poland although not many people knew the composer. Gebirtig himself could not write musical notations: he either piped the tunes on a tin-whistle, or tapped them out with one finger on a piano, for a local musician, Hoffman, to transcribe.

When the Nazis occupied Crakow, Gebirtig and his family fled to a nearby village, where he composed a number of his “Ghetto Songs” – one is famous: ‘Undzer Sh’tet’l Brent’. In 1941, he was driven back into the Ghetto, and perished on the 4th of July, 1942, at the age of 65. His daughters, Chavah and Leah, died on the 5th of January, 1945, but the fate of his wife and other daughter, Shifrah, is unknown.

Perhaps the most famous of his ‘Sh’tet’l” love-songs is “Reisele” (pronounced ‘Raysele’). It tells of the love of a worker for an Orthodox girl. In return for her love, he is prepared to adopt ‘Yiddishkeit’, chiefly to please her ‘frum’ mother. The picture is carefully delineated: ‘Reisele’ lives in a garret in a mean little street. Her fiance whistles to announce his arrival, but is implored by his betrothed not to whistle, since this is not a Yiddish habit. He promised to obey.

It was a tradition in Eastern Europe that the bride presented her groom with a hand-embroidered Tallit and T’fihin bag, and this custom is lovingly described. Coupled with the beautiful melody, this song should prove very popular.

The accompaniment of this piece is highly important: it should be delicately, yet economically played. Gebirtig wrote many love-songs, but ‘Reisele’ has been selected for its delightful content.

The poet could also be introspective: in yet another superbly constructed concept, he conjures up the passing years in a man’s life in his “Kinder Yohren”. In his mind’s eye, he sees the ‘Shtieb’l’ in which he was born, the cradle in which he lay, and recalls his mother’s love, in spite, as he says, that she drove him to the Cheder – always dreaded by Yiddish boys for the ferocity of the ‘Rebbe’. Every pinch from her hand remains in his memory, ‘although, no sign remained’.

Coming to his love, he muses on his ‘Faygele’, and, in imagination, kisses her rosy little cheeks. Her eyes, he says, ‘were full of chayn’, and he had hoped she would one day be his own. The melody is nostalgic and lovable, yet another ‘gem’ from a Master’s hand.

At the risk of being repetitive, may we again stress the importance of correct accent. Just as an English singer faced with a new song in an unfamiliar language, will seek advice from an expert, so should an interpreter of Yiddish song. Remember, today’s audiences still contain Yiddish speakers, able to wince at a mixture of Litvish, Polish and German, served up by some of our younger colleagues.

(Taken from the issue for April 1980)