“Di gantse velt iz hevl-havolim” Performed by Lillian Manuel

Commentary by David/Dovid Braun
Lillian (“Libby”) Manuel née Schwartz was born in or around 1910 in the town of Sukhovolye (Polish:  Suchowola), now northeastern Poland by the border with Belarus (a.k.a. White Russia), where she was originally known as Libe Shvarts or, among her townspeople, “Libe Yankl dem shvartsns” – ‘Libe, Black Jake’s [daughter]’).  She immigrated to Philadelphia in 1926 and later lived with her family in New York City and northern New Jersey.  She died in 1990.

“Yiddish-vokh” at the Workmen’s Circle “Circle Lodge”, NY 1987.  Libby Manuel is in the middle of the front row. Shirley Manuel top row at left. Dovid Braun is in the second to last row in a striped shirt.
Photo courtesy of Itzik Gottesman (click to enlarge).
She would reminisce about having sung all the time with her two elder sisters, Maryashe and Khay-Sore, who raised her, as their mother had died when Libe was in her very early childhood and their father was rarely home during the week, instead on the road in neighboring villages trading in hemp and other fibers which were used for rope and pig hair which was used for brushes.  From what she recounted, the sisters kept a home-made songbook into which they’d write the lyrics to songs they’d learned.
I am her grandson.  As I was growing up, I recorded her singing in the late 1970s through the late 1980s.   In 1980 she suffered a stroke which significantly affected her pitch and the strength of her voice, but her melodies were still generally discernible and her memory of long texts remained prodigious.  Her love and habit of singing inspired her daughter, Shirley (Yiddish:  Zelde-Leye) Manuel, to a musical career as a violist and teacher of string instruments, just as her attachment to Yiddish language, lore, and letters inspired her grandson.
I recorded my grandmother performing Di gantse velt iz hevl-havolim (The Whole World is Vanity of Vanities) in the latter half of the 1980s. Variants can be found in the folkloristic literature, sometimes under the name based on a slightly differing first stanza, “Hevl iz havolim” (‘Vanity is vanities’) or “Un Hevl iz Havolim‟ (‛And Vanity is Vanities‛).  One version was typically performed, as her signature song, by the late activist for secularist Yiddishism Gerry Revzin of the Chicago area (thanks to the late Max Rosenfeld of Philadelphia for this information).  A particularly long version appears in print in Ginzburg-Marek (song #124, no melody); others are in Beregovski-Fefer 1938 (pages 384 – 385 with melody), Ruth Rubin’s Voices of a People (pages 54-55). I. L. Peretz cites the song in his essay ‟Dos yidishe lebn loyt di yidishe folkslider‟ (Jewish Life As Reflected in Yiddish Folksongs), YIVO-bleter 13:1-2 (1937). In volume 9 of Idelsohn‘s Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies, page 178, a verse with a different melody is printed.
All versions of this song are introduced by the Hebrew and Yiddish phrase that corresponds to those words beginning and ending the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, namely, “Vanity of vanities!” (or in other translations:  “Absurdity of absurdities!”, “Futility of futilities!”, “Utter meaninglessness!”,  “Sheer emptiness!”).
According to Mrs. Manuel’s account, this song was beloved by her next-door neighbor in her shtetl, her sickly Aunt Itke, who would frequently warm herself by the oven and would have Libe entertain her with this song.  Mrs. Manuel believed there was a continuation to the song but didn’t know any more of it herself.  In the recording presented here, the melody of the first two stanzas is slightly different from how she sang it on other recorded and unrecorded occasions, and in hevl-havolim, we hear a diphthong in the first syllable ([eyvl]) which, again, was not her typical way of pronouncing or singing that first word – it was usually [evl]. Her dialect lacks [h].
Di gantse velt iz hevl-havolim,
un di velt iz nor a kholem,
un a kholem iz di velt,
un zi shteyt dokh nor on gelt.
The whole world is vanity of vanities
and the world is just a dream
and a dream is the world
and it’s constantly without money.
Un far gelt koyft men bir,
un vos dray iz nit fir,
un vos fir iz nit dray, 
un vos alt iz nit nay.
And for money one buys beer
and three is not four
and four is not three
and what is old is not new.
Un vos nay iz nit alt,
un vos varem iz nit kalt,
un vos kalt iz nit varem,
un vos raykh iz nit orem.
And what is new is not old,
and what is warm is not cold,
and what is cold is not warm,
and what is rich, is not poor.
Un vos orem iz nit raykh
un vos krum iz nit glaykh
un vos glaykh iz nit krum
un vos reydn iz nit shtum.
And what is poor is not rich,
and what is crooked is not straight,
and what is straight is not crooked.
and what is spoken is not mute.   

3 Responses to ““Di gantse velt iz hevl-havolim” Performed by Lillian Manuel”

  1. Asya and Sebastian Shulman created this wonderful translation to an expanded version of the song as sung by Lorin Sklamberg on the Klezmatic’s album Rise Up! (Shteyt oyf!):

    vanity of vanities
    vanity of vanities
    the world is insanity
    insanity’s the world
    vanity of vanities
    vanity of vanities
    insanity’s the world
    and the world stands on gold

    and for gold you buy mead
    and what’s sour isn’t sweet
    and what’s sweet isn’t sour
    and what’s rice isn’t flour

    and what’s flour isn’t rice
    and what’s mean isn’t nice
    and what’s nice isn’t mean
    and what’s fat isn’t lean

    and what’s lean isn’t fat
    and a mouse is not a cat
    and a cat is not a mouse
    and a shack is not a house

    and what’s a house is not a shack
    and what’s white isn’t black
    and what’s black isn’t white
    and the peasant is right

    and right is the peasant
    that jarring isn’t pleasant
    and pleasant isn’t jarring
    and healing means scarring

    and scarring means healing
    and giving isn’t stealing
    and stealing isn’t giving
    and dying isn’t living

    and living isn’t dying
    and cooking isn’t frying
    and to fry is not to cook
    and to see is to look

    and to look is to see
    and to think is to be
    and to be is to think
    and to grow is not to shrink

    and to shrink is not to grow
    and what’s faster isn’t slow
    and what’s slower isn’t faster
    and a slave is not a master

    and a master’s not a slave
    and the peasant’s in the grave
    in the grave is the peasant
    and it’s jarring, and it’s pleasant


    hevl iz havolim hevl iz havolim
    un di velt iz a kholem
    un a kholem iz di velt
    hevl iz havolim hevl iz havolim
    un a kholem iz di velt
    un di velt shteyt af gelt

    un far gelt koyft men bir
    un vos dray iz nit fir
    un vos fir iz nit dray
    un vos alt iz nit nay

    un vos nay iz nit alt
    un vos varem iz nit kalt
    un vos kalt iz nit varem
    un vos raykh iz nit orem

    un vos orem iz nit raykh
    un vos krum iz nit glaykh
    un vos glaykh iz nit krum
    un vos redt iz nit shtum

    un shtum iz dokh shlekht
    un der poyer iz gerekht
    un gerekht iz der poyer
    vos zis iz nit zoyer

    un vos zoyer iz nit zis
    un vos sheyn iz nit mis
    un vos mis iz nit sheyn
    un vos tsum zitsn iz nit tsum shteyn

    un vos tsum shteyn iz nit tsum zitsn
    un tsum layb iz gut tsu shvitsn
    un tsu shvitsn iz gut tsum layb
    un vos a man iz nit keyn vayb

    un a vayb iz nit keyn man
    un vos a top iz nit keyn fan
    un a fan iz nit keyn top
    un vos kiml iz nit keyn krop

    un vos a krop iz nit keyn kiml
    un keyn erd iz nit keyn himl
    un keyn himl iz nit keyn erd
    un a biks iz nit keyn shverd

    un a shverd iz nit keyn biks
    un a futer iz fun fiks
    un fun fiks iz a futer
    un shmalts iz nit keyn puter

    un puter iz keyn shmalts
    un matse bakt men on zalts
    un on zalts bakt men matse
    un a ferd iz nit keyn klyatse

    un a klyatse iz nit keyn ferd
    un a poyer ligt in dr’erd
    un in dr’erd ligt a poyer
    un es iz im zis un zoyer

  2. itzik gottesman Says:

    A digression, but in “Koyheles: der mentsh un dos bukh” by Yehude Elzet , Montreal 1929. He gives a history of the Yiddish translations of the phrase Hevl-havolim through the ages: pp. 119 – 141. Some examples:
    Taytsh-khumesh 1560 טורהייט טורהייט דא אלץ איז טורהייט
    Tsene-rene 1622 אלע די באשעפענישן פון דער וועלט און אלץ וואס דא איז אין דער וועלט איזט אייטל נרהייט
    Sholem-Aleichem: בלאטע שבבלאטע
    Peretz: קהלת קינדיקט אייטלקייט
    Yehoash: 1910 נארישקייט פון נארישקייטן
    Yehoash: 1927 נישטיקייט פון נישטיקייטן

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