Notes by Michael Alpert
A frequently overlooked and still under-researched genre of Yiddish folksong and folksinging is the significant body of songs with Jewish religious themes and spiritual intent. Such songs are most frequently found today among Hasidic Jews throughout the world. They fulfill both a spiritual and didactic function, affirming traditional Ashkenazic religious practice and spirituality as well as serving as a guide and exhortation to younger generations.
It can be said that older songs of this genre like Dos Shabes Lid (“The Sabbath Song”), whose lyrics are in a Yiddish heavily interlaced with Hebrew and Aramaic quotations from Torah/Tanakh, Talmud, Jewish liturgy and other religious texts, are imbued with much of the spiritual significance associated with nigunim (paraliturgical Hasidic spiritual melodies sung to fragments of Hebrew and Aramaic religious text and/or wordless syllables). They are a kind of Ashkenazic gospel song or spiritual, summoning forth and embodying an atmosphere of deep contemplation and mystical transcendence.
Dos Shabes Lid, popular to this day in many Hasidic communities of Hungarian and Carpathian descent, is a classic and majestic example of a religious Yiddish folksong. Its many verses describe an idealized ambience of the Friday night home and family celebration marking the arrival of Shabes – the Jewish Sabbath. It is in many respects a quasi-balladic paean to the intricacies and pleasures of traditional Shabes observance and the interweaving of spiritual exaltation, mystical devotion, traditional cuisine, home and family, sacred time and the repose from the cares of the week it can bring. All of which are bound together and expressed through the complex interweaving of quotations from and allusions to Jewish religious texts for Friday night or referring to Shabes and conjuring up its atmosphere. The song is both nostalgic – it’s about Shabes, not for it – and deeply reflective of its ambience. It is simultaneously outside of Shabes, looking in, yet entirely embedded within it.
Similar religious folksongs in Yiddish continue to be created in today’s thriving Hasidic communities, particularly in the New York area and Israel. Frequently they are didactic songs for children and young people– a sub-genre representing to a sort of Hasidic “Sesame Street,” though many are appreciated by older youth and in some cases all generations. They are disseminated today through the vibrant Hasidic recording industry, as well as in religious school, shtibl / synagogue and family contexts. In recent years, Yiddish scholar and songwriter Asya Vaisman has pioneered the systematic study of Yiddish song among women and children in Hasidic communities in Brooklyn, and wrote her Harvard Ph.D. dissertation on this subject.
The Transcarpathian region of Ukraine, known in Yiddish as “di Karpatn” (the Carpathians), is located at the meeting point of Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. It encompasses the eastern tip of the Hungarian plain and climbs the southern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains. Historically known as Ruthenia, it is home to a plethora of ethnic groups including Ukrainians, Hungarians, Roma, Romanians, Slovaks, Poles and Jews fluent in their distinctive regional dialect of Yiddish in addition to Hungarian, Ukrainian, German, and other local languages.
In Soviet times Transcarpathia was the most traditional Ashkenazic Jewish area of the USSR. The Yiddish language was almost universally spoken by the region’s Jews, even children born in the late 1980s. Traditional religious practice and education – usually secret but quite successful education – continued there to a degree unparalleled among Ashkenazim in other parts of the USSR.
Since 1972, the vast majority of Jews from Transcarpathia have emigrated to North America, Israel or Hungary. Time-honored Jewish communities that continued to thrive even in Soviet times now remain nearly devoid of Jewish life, though their legacy is maintained in immigrant communities in New York and throughout the world. A significant number of today’s Hasidic dynasties have their roots in the Transcarpathian area or adjacent regions.
Avrum Yitskhok “Izu” Moskovitz, a extraordinary traditional Yiddish singer and Ashkenazic bal-tfile (lay prayer leader), was born in 1934 in the Ruthenian town of Svaljava, Czechoslovakia (now Svaliava in the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine). Raised in a traditional Jewish family who were adherents to the Hasidic tradition of Sasov, he learned the art of davenen (leading prayer) and Torah cantillation from his father.
Photo by Martin Koenig, Center for Traditional Music and Dance Archive
During the Second World War, after first Hungary and then Nazi Germany occupied the Carpathian region of Czechoslovakia, Moskovitz was interned in Hungarian labor and concentration camps and later escaped, surviving by hiding in the forest. After the war, his fingers damaged by cold and deprivation, he worked as an accountant in Svaliava and became the leading bal-tfile (lay prayer leader) and khazn (cantor) in the Transcarpathian SSR from the 1950s-early 1970s. He would sing at weddings and other Jewish occasions as well as in synagogues in the region. Typically he would daven the yontoyvim – officiate at High Holiday services — one year in Minkatsh (Mukacheve / Munkács), the next in Beregsas (Berehove / Beregszász), then Ingvar (Uzhhorod / Ungvár), and so on.
In 1972, at the very beginning of the mass emigration of Jews from the USSR, Moskovitz left with his family for the US. He and his wife, children, and grandchildren live in Brooklyn, where they continue to speak Yiddish at home in addition to Russian, Hungarian and English, and lead an Orthodox Jewish life. Like many Jews from Transcarpathia, they inhabit the Orthodox and Hasidic worlds as well as the Former Soviet Jewish sphere. Moskovitz is proud of having learned English well and reading the US press for years. His wife Sure (Sarina) is a virtuosic traditional Jewish cook and has worked as such in several yeshivas in Brooklyn.
A word on the singing style heard in Dos Shabes Lid: it is classic folk khazones, a wonderful example of the musical art of the bal-tfile. It features much of the rich, melismatic ornamentation typical of men’s singing in the Orthodox Ashkenazic religious context, yet is also straightforward and powerful in relatively unornamented phrases. Like much Yiddish traditional singing in a variety of genres, it features the occasional insertion of extra, interstitial syllables in vowel sounds, e.g. “meli-ye-khu” for melikhu (His reign), and some of the same tendency between consonants, but less of the latter in comparison to many Yiddish folksingers from further east in Ukraine.
Regarding the pronunciation of Yiddish and Hebrew/Aramaic here: it is largely but not entirely characteristic of Carpathian Yiddish, which is also the predominant dialect in today’s Hasidic communities. However, Izu’s hometown Svalyave is not far from the dialect border between Hungarian and Galician Yiddish. Like the majority of 20th century Yiddish speakers and singers – even native and lifelong speakers – Izu is not 100% consistent in his dialect or pronunciation in this or any performance of this song. Though he primarily uses his own Carpathian pronunciation, especially in the Hebrew and Aramaic portions of the song, he occasionally utilizes forms more typical of northeastern (“Lithuanian”) Yiddish, which in the course of the 20th century became the pronunciation basis for klal-yidish, the largely standardized literary language now learned by almost all students of the language outside of the Hasidic world. The vast majority of native Yiddish speakers today are Hasidic and – other than Lubavitcher Hasidim and a few smaller groups — do not use Lithuanian or standard Yiddish, nor the pronunciation of Hebrew and Aramaic that accompanies it. Izu’s pronunciation may be influenced slightly by the encroachment of a literary or performance standard – unusual in the religious Jewish world but common in official Yiddish films, theater and recordings in the USSR, even after 1948. In addition, the influence of modern German characteristic of much 19th- and early 20th-century Yiddish, especially from former Austro-Hungarian areas like the Carpathian region, is evident in usages like “a portsyon mit fish” – a portion of fish (Ger. “Portion” rather than the more Yiddish “portsye”). Itzik Gottesman very correctly adds that in the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the northern (Litvish) pronounciation increasingly infuenced cantorial singing, becoming both a status symbol and eventually a virtual standard among khazonim, even many folk khazonim / baaley-tfile like Izu Moskovitz.
As with most Yiddish singers, Izu’s pronunciation varies even within this performance of the song. E.g.: tsi/tsu “to”; tsvey/tsvay “two”; kavone/kavune “intention, fervor, spirit,” etc.
Musically, Dos Shabes Lid employs the freygish mode in the verses, shifting to a minor refrain based on the fourth degree of the freygish – a classic device in many Yiddish musical genres. The song is likely of a more modern Yiddish melodic type, probably dating from the later 19th and early 20th centuries. The verse melody, typical of the Greco-Ottoman influenced dance and song melodies of that era, has variants in klezmer tunes – the A section of the playoff bulgar in violinist Abe Schwartz’s 1920 National Hora, Part II; secular Yiddish folksong – Shimke Khazer, Beregovski/Slobin 1982, Nos. 107 and 108, and the Lodz Ghetto song S’iz Kaydankes, Kaytn by street-singer Yankekle Herszkowicz; as well as the popular Yiddish theater song Vi nemt man parnose.
Recorded by Tom Van Buren for the Center for Traditional Music and Dance at the final concert for Nashi Traditsii (Our Traditions) Soviet Jewish Community Cultural Initiative, May 2002, The Danny Kaye Theater, Manhattan, New York.
Dos yidele kimt zikh fraytik tsi nakhts
fun der shil ahaym.
Baglaytn im tsvey malukhim in zayn shtib arayn.
Der malekh hatoyv vintsht im un: “Leshabes habu keyn”
In der malekh haray [sic: haro] miz zugn bal korkhoy: “Umeyn”.
The Jew comes Friday night from the shul to his home
Two angels escort him into his house
The good angel wishes him: ”Shabes is here!”
And the evil angel must unwillingly say “Omeyn.”
Dos yidele nemt zikh tsi zugn, azoy vi men broukht,
Fayerdik un haylik: “Shabes shuloym imvoyrokh‟
Tsvay malukhim baglaytn im in zugn dem pusek fur:
”Vesar avoynekhu vekhatusokh tekhipor” [sic].
The Jew pronounces, as one is required.
With fire and with holiness: “A peaceful and blessed Sabbath!‟
Two angels escort him and quote the verse:
”Your sins will be forgiven‟
Er fargest fin ale zorgn, fin der gantser vokh.
Fin gesheftn shmist er gurnisht, er geyt nukh zey nisht nokh
Azoy vi in pusek shtayt geshribn: “’Uveyoym hashvii ’
Yehi beeynekhu kilu kol melakhtekhu asim’”.
He forgets all the worries of the week.
Of business matters he says nothing, they don‘t bother him now.
As is written: “’On the seventh day’ –
You should feel that all your labors will have been completed‟
REFREN / REFRAIN
Dem shabes ver es haylikt, der vert geraynikt fun a yeyder aveyre.
Ver es farshteyt di kavune, (bay) deym i’ dus a matune
Der bakimt a neshume yeseyre.
Der shabes iz tayer, er brent vi a fayer
S’iz mamesh min ([me’eyn] oylem habu
Ober nor der ken dus shpirn, ver es tit zikh yidish firn
Voyl iz eym bezey ivabu.
Whoever makes the Shabes holy will be purified
of every sin.
It is a gift for whoever understands the inner meaning
He receives the additional, holy Shabes soul.
The Shabes is holy, it burns like a fire
Truly like the world to come.
But the only person who can feel it is the one who conducts himself in a Jewish way
He will be fortunate in this world and the world to come.
Kidush tsi makhn mit groys kavone, nemt er zikh dertsi.
Er zugt „Vayhi erev, vayhi voyker, yoym hashishi
Vaykhili hashomayim vehuoretz vekhol tsevuom.”
”Vehi yoytsrom, vehi boyrom.”
Making Kiddush with great fervor,
He says: “And it was evening, it was morning – the sixth day.”
“The heaven and earth were completed with all their hosts.”
”He is their Creator, He is their Maker.”
Di kedishe hersht in shtibl, es laykhtn di lekht.
Ofn tish ligt lekhem mishne mit a shayn geflekht.
Tsvay malukhim baglaytn im in zugn deym pusek fur:
“Vesar avoynekhu vekhatusokh tekhipor.”
Holiness reigns at home,
The candles shine,
On the table lie the two khales,
Two angels escort him and quote the verse:
”Your sins will be forgiven.”
Er vasht zikh tsi der [sic] lekhem mishne, zetst zikh tsi tsim tish.
Di balebuste shtelt im tsi a portsiyon mit fish.
Er zugt: “Azamayr beshvukhin…” ”Vehey ravu…” dernokh.
In me shtelt im tsi a frishn teler youkh.
He washes for the two khales and sits down at the table.
The woman of the house gives him a portion of fish.
He recites „Let us sing praises…‟ and then „May it be his will…‟
And he gets a fresh bowl of chicken soup.
Flaysh in tsimes feylt dokh oukh nisht, s‘iz fin alem du.
Afile payres brengt men eym t si der shabes-sidu.
Bay an ureman iz oukhet ungegrayt fin “bakoyl mikoyl koyl.”
Vi der pusek zugt: “Loy niker shio bifney dol.”
[sic: Veloy niker shoya lifney dol]
Meat and tsimes are also not lacking, there’s a bit of everything.
Even fruits are brought to him for the Shabes feast.
For the poor man too, ”the best of everything” is prepared
[From bentshn (Birkas Hamozon), the grace said after meals].
As it is written: „He does not favor the rich over the poor‟
Reboynoy shel oylom, vi lang
veln mir nokh in gules shrayen:
Leshono habo beyerishulayim.
Helf zey shoyn bezekhus der tfile
Vos dos yidisher eylem [oylem] beyt zikh of der geile.
Master of the universe, how long
will we still cry out in exile:
”Next year in Jerusalem‟?
Help us soon, on account of this prayer,
That we Jews may be redeemed.
Er shrayt mit a yimerlekh kol: “Tate ziser!‟
“Eylohu di ley yekar [yikor] ir visu
Proyk yas unokh mipim aryevuso
Veapeyk yas ameykh megoy guliso.”
He exclaims with a woeful voice:
“Sweet Father! Almighty to whom honor and greatness belongs,
Redeem your sheep from the mouths of lions,
And bring your people out of exile.”
[from the Shabes zmires (spiritual table song) “Yo Riboyn Olam” (God, Lord of the World)
Shoymeya tsakas dal umaazin tekhinu.
Helf zey shoyn gikh in bald mit (de’) gules hashkhinu.
Se zol shoyn kimen hoysu lashem hamelikhu
Tankhileynu leyo(y)m shekiloy shabos umenikhu.
The one who listens to the cry of the poor man,
and the one who listens to prayer.
Help us soon to liberate the Shekhinah.
May the reign of God soon come.
May we live to see “The day that is entirely Shabes and peace.” [another quote from the grace after meals].
Transcribed and translated by Itzik Gottesman and Michael Alpert, with generous assistance from Yoel Matveyev and Sruli Dresdner. Below text is a version of Dos Shabes Lid in an undated songbook “השיר והשבח” (Hashir Vehashevakh), printed in Bnei-Brak (ca. 1970?).