This week’s Yiddish Song of the Week, Urke Nakhalnik’s Din-toyre, was recorded by Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman in the Bronx, 1980s. The singer was a neighbor, M. Bauman, from either Lodz or Warsaw.
Urke Nakhalnik (1897-1942?) was a convicted criminal and after his release from prison in 1933, he became a writer in Yiddish and Polish writing a hit book based on his experiences in the Jewish underworld. During the Second World War, living in Otwock, he died a hero’s death. His life was truly amazing. See Edward Portnoy’s entry on him in The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, but even better, see Portnoy’s article on him in Tablet in which he discusses the play Din-toyre (a “din-toyre” is a case before a rabbinic court) produced in Warsaw 1933. Portnoy believes this song was sung by the character who played Urke.
Another Yiddish song that refers to a din-toyre is Levi-Yitskhok Bardichever’s 19th century “A din toyre mit Got” and one wonders whether this one is dialogically connected to the earlier one.
Bauman does not have a strong voice, and is barely on key, but he nicely captures the theatrical nature of the song– particularly his “Rex Harrison/My Fair Lady” spoken lines in the middle of the performance. The fine line between the underworld and revolutionaries is underscored in the text.
Finster khoyskhek shpet bay nakht
Tir un toyer zenen farmakht
Krikh ikh, zikh ikh broyt far vayb un kind
Sʼvert nor tinkl af der gas
Nemt zi bald dem shvartsn pas*
In a vinkl, gants tinkl
Farkoyft zi dort ir layb.
Dark, gloomy late at night,
Door and gate are locked
I crawl, I search a piece of bread for wife and child
As soon as it gets dark on the street
She takes out her black pass*
In a corner, quite dark
She sells her body.
Oy vi biter iz dos lebn fun a nash brat
Finster khoyshekh iz dos lebn fun undzers a yat.
Es felt keyn mol key mure-skhoyre, skhoyre
Shtendik nor in shrek, in moyre, moyre
Vi shver kimt undz on dos trikn shtikl broyt.
Life is bitter for a fellow in crime
Dark and gloomy is the life of one of us lads.
Gloom is never short in supply,
Always fearful, afraid, afraid,
How hard it is to get a piece of bread [to make a living]
Farvos kimt aynem raykhkayt farmegn
dem tsvaytn nisht?
A din-toyre vil ikh fregn
An entfer git.
Why is one rewarded with riches and wealth,
and not the other?
I want a lawsuit [before a rabbinic court]
Give me an answer.
Farvos kimt aynem raykhkayt, ashires, ashires,
Lukses oysgeputste, dires dires,
Un azoy ﬁl lebn in tsores un groyser noyt?
Why is one rewarded with wealth and riches
luxurious decorated apartments,
and so many live with troubles in great poverty?
Ikh trakht un ken dos nisht farshteyn
Farvos men halt undz far gemeyn
Shpasn, undz hasn,
ver git zey dos rekht?
I think but I canʼt understand
Why we are considered so vulgar,
who gives them the right?
Farvos iz haynt aza min velt?
As shtark iz der vos nor hot gelt
men shekht, men blaybt gerekht.
Why do we have such a world today?
Where only the one with money is strong?
They slaughter and are considered just.
Zey zaynen dos di faynste mentsn,
zey, alts far zey
Far zey horoven oreme mentshn,
far zey, alts far zey.
Hey are the ﬁnest people,
everything goes to them
Poor people slave for them,
everything goes to them.
Kleyne ganovim hengt men, hengt men.
Groyse ganovim, shenkt men, shenkt men,
Un azoy iz dos lebn, tomid ayngeshtelt.
Small thieves get hanged
Important thieves are rewarded
Thatʼs how life has always been.
Un azoy geyen di teg un di yorn
shnel, gikh farbay.
freg keyn kashes, un keyn khasroynes
And so the days and years go by
Donʼt ask questions, and see no faults,
still, remain quiet.
Se helft kayn veynen un keyn trern, trern,
keyner vil dem krekhts nit hern, hern,
zey zaynen dos di faynste mentsn
zey alts nor zey.
Your crying and tears wonʼt help,
No one wants to hear your groaning
They are the ﬁnest people,
All goes to them, only to them.
*shvartser pas = black permit. In interwar Poland, prostitutes could legally work with a “black permit”
Notes by Itzik Gottesman