“Oy vey mame” Performed by Ita Taub

Notes by Itzik Gottesman

Ita (or Eta) Taub (1908 – 2003) was born in the Ukrainian town of Stidenitse on the Dniester river. She immigrated to Montreal and then New York. She published two volumes of autobiography in Yiddish, Ikh gedenk (I Remember), with one volume appearing posthumously. She also wrote a volume of poetry, In klem fun benkshaft (In the Fetters of Longing, Jerusalem, 1993) and published the Yiddish love poetry and love letters sent to her by an admirer (Libe briv un lider by Itzik Freiman).

She was well known for her philanthropic generosity and financially supported numerous Yiddish causes, especially those connected to Soviet Yiddish literature. She was a classy lady, as they say, with a huge apartment on 106th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. By the time I recorded her, her voice was clearly not very powerful, but she still could sing an unaccompanied Yiddish folksong in a compelling way.


Ita Taub in the Gottesman’s Sukke in the Bronx, 1990s

The song Oy vey mame was one of two she remembered from her shtetl. Ruth Rubin recorded her singing both in 1962 and they are in included in the publication Yiddish Folksongs in the Ruth Rubin Collection (Mlotek/Slobin, 2007). Oy vey mame is on page 54; a scan of that page is reproduced below. As Rubin notes, the closest variant found to this song is in I. L. Cahan’s collection Yidishe folkslider mit melodyes (1957, #150). The dramatic last line that Ita sings about commiting suicide is not found in that version. This recording was made in the Bronx in the mid-1980s at the Gottesman’s house.

Ita’s other shtetl song, Got hob bashafn mentshn af der velt is found in the Rubin collection on pages 61-62. She picked up many other songs on her travels which we hope to present in future postings.

Pete Rushefsky adds: Each verse of Oy vey mame is comprised of two sections employing distinct modal characters. The modulation between the two sections creates a haunting sound that imbues the piece with gravity and tragedy. The first section is transcribed in B-major, but the melody initially implies the subdominant F# major. The second section shifts to a tonal center of C# in a mode described by the pioneering Jewish musicologist Abraham Zvi Idelsohn as the “Ahava Raba” scale, also known by cantors and klezmorim as “freygish” (an allusion to its similarity to the phrygian scale). Ahava Raba is additionally consistent with the Turco-Arabic maqam of hijaz/hicaz. Here, the melody descends from F# to the new C# tonal center, followed by a second descending passage from F# further down to the subtonic B.  Finally the section resolves through an ascending/descending sequence with an ending that mirrors the initial F# to C# descent. The written musical transcription below contains a few discrepancies from the recording – it is likely there are errors in the transcription, though I have not heard Rubin’s recording of Taub to analyze differences with the Gottesman recording made two decades later.

4 Responses to ““Oy vey mame” Performed by Ita Taub”

  1. Hershl Hartman Says:

    דו מוזט טאקע באלד קאָרעגירן די לעצטע שורה

  2. Here’s an exchange from Cantor Sam Weiss (Paramus, NJ) and Professor Robert Rothstein (U. Massachusetts) that appeared on the Jewish Music List on August 8, 2010 quibbling with Rubin’s translation:

    Professor Rothstein writes:

    With all due respect to Ruth Rubin (o”h), “I’m Playing at Love” is
    not a good translation of “Ikh shpil a libe,” as is clear from the
    second line of the Yiddish Song of the Week
    (www.yiddishsong.wordpress.com):

    Oy, vey, mame, ikh shpil a libe,
    In fin der libe tit mir vey man harts…

    This isn’t playing; this is for real. Or consider the folksong that begins

    Lomir beyde a libe shpiln,
    Mir zaynen beyde fun Got a por…

    Also a serious matter.

    Depending on the context, “shpiln a libe” can mean “to have a love
    affair,” “to court or flirt with,” “to be in a committed relationship”
    (to use current jargon) or simply “to be in love.” Perhaps someone with better linguistic intuition than mine can explicate the difference between “shpiln a libe” and “zayn farlibt” in this last meaning. It may
    be that the grammatical distinction (active vs. passive) reflects
    different attitudes toward the relationship – cf. the two texts quoted
    above with, e.g., Abe Ellstein’s “Oy, mame, bin ikh farlibt.”

    Cantor Weiss writes:

    To my ears the distinction between the two is that the former more strongly implies a reciprocal relationship whereas the latter expression is also suitable in a case of unrequited love or a one way ”crush.” And yes, ”playing at love” is clearly off the mark.

  3. […] This recording of Ita Taub was done in our dining room in our Bronx home in the 1980s after a meal, as you can hear rom the clanging of dishes. For biographical information on Taub see the earlier post on “Oy vey mame”. […]

  4. […] the song Taub talks about the impression this song and her other song, Oy vey mame (also on the Yiddish Song of the Week Blog) left on her friend, the historian Raphael Mahler (who […]

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