A short ballad or a fragment? In just one verse it tells quite a story and I rather think it is a dramatic one verse song in classic ballad form (first a description of the scene, then a dialogue) about a problem we usually think of as a Jewish immigrant’s dilemma. It clearly was an issue in the old country as well. This recording of Lifshe Schaechter-Widman, (b. Zvinyetchke, Bukovina, 1893 – d. New York, 1973) was recorded by Leybl Kahn in the Bronx in 1954.
Erev yoym-kiper af der nakht iz geshtanen a gevelb afgemakht. Hot men gefregt vus tisti rushe Im yon-kiper aza groyse zind? S’i nishkushe, s’i nishkushe Ikh darf farnern vayb un kind.
Yom Kippur evening a store stood open. So they asked – “What are you doing wicked one? Such a sin on Yom Kippur!” “It’s not so bad, not so bad – I have a wife and child I must feed!’
This week for the first time we present a nigun with no words instead of a Yiddish song. The nigun and the custom connected to it was learned from the singer and writer Arye-Leibush Laish (אריה ליש, also spelled “Arie Leibisch Laisch”) and became the basis for the annual backwards march tradition at Klezkanada on the eve of the sabbath.
Laish’s original field recording 1998, Bnei Brak, Israel:
Klezkanada Backwards March 2011 (one of many clips on YouTube):
Laish was born in 1929 in Stanisesti, in the Bacau district of Romania, and attended kheyder and talmud toyre. During the Second World War he worked in hard labor camp for the Germans. After the war he acted in the Romanian Yiddish theater before immigrating to Israel in 1963. He has written several autobiographical works in Hebrew as well as plays and scenes in Yiddish. He recorded an album of the songs of Zelig Barditchver (“Freyen zikh iz gut”), and has been featured in documentaries on Yiddish culture, including one on Itzik Manger directed by Radu Gabrea “Itzik Manger” 2005). He lives in Bnei-Brak, Israel.
I recorded Arye Laish singing Yiddish songs in his apartment in Bnai-Brak in 1998 and he told me about a rare custom from Stanisesti,
The Jews of the shtetl would gather at the river where the Friday night sun was setting and the Sabbath would arrive. Walking backwards so as not to dishonor the Sabbath, the entire community accompanied by two or three local Jewish musicians sang and played this nigun until they reached the shul where they left the instruments, and began the Sabbath prayers.
In 2001 the theater director, writer and performer Jenny Romaine led a theater workshop that summer at Klezkanada on the theme – “How do Jews Walk?”, and upon hearing about this custom and nigun she introduced them into the Klezkanada program preceding dinner Friday night. Frank London transcribed the music and taught the nigun (parts A and B) to the music classes, asking them to prepare the melody. Here is Jenny Romaine discussing the Backwards March recorded by the Yiddish Book Center:
Since then, Arye Laish’s Staniseti nigun and backwards march have been integrated into the Klezkanada program by the entire community.
The spoken parts of Laish in the original recording are:
“Un dos khazert zikh iber di gants tsayt. Farshteyt zikh mit variatsyes.” [And this repeats the whole time. Of course with variations.}
“Me kert zikh um tsu bidibidmmm…” [Then you return to the bidibum, bidibum, bidimbum…]
“A mol hert men stam ge__(?)hay! hay! hay! hay!” [Every now and then you could hear – hay! hay! hay!]
This weeks’ Yiddish Song of the Week, “Zingen a lid iz a mekhaye” (“To Sing a Song is a Joy”) by Chaim Berman (d. 1973) was recorded by Rabbi Victor Reinstein, now of Boston, in late 1960s, early 1970s. Rabbi Reinstein writes:
Chaim Berman, ‘Hymie,’ was short and of slight and wiry build. Born and raised to early adulthood in Proskurov in the Ukraine, he lived most of his life in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, New York. His eyes twinkled with life, and there was almost always an impish smile on his lips. Hymie was a Jewish type that is no more. He was a self-described atheist and a card-carrying communist, a worker and an organizer in the ladies’ handbag industry, who in one moment would quote from Lenin or Marx and in the next, from Sholom Aleichem or Yud Lamed Peretz.
Steeped in Jewish tradition, he exuded Yiddishkeit from every pore of his being. Bridging the worlds and times of his life, he would put on a yarmulke and lead the Pesach seder with a profound and poignant depth of feeling. Hymie loved to sing and would perform for family and friends ‘in der heym,’ and to larger audiences at Yiddish summer camps. He was a man in whose veins coursed both joy and sadness, a reflection of the realities of his life, of Jewish history, of human reality. He worked and sang from the depths of his being to help bring a better world for all.
Certainly the first song we have chosen from the recordings of Hymie Berman for the Yiddish Song of the Week reflects that last sentiment – singing for a better world.
The melody is well-known: it is used for the Yiddish song to honor guests “Lomir ___bagrisn” and for the Purim nign “Utsu eytsa” (עצו עצה, “Take counsel together”, Isaiah 8:10), which is attributed to the Chabad/Slonim tradition (thanks to Hankus Netsky and Steven Greenman for this information).
From my mother, who belonged briefly to the leftist Zionist youth group Hashomer Hatsair, I know a one-verse song with the same melody from Chernovitz, circa 1930s:
Lebn zol Bistritski mit zayn hora. Lebn zol Bistritski mit zayn hora. Nisht keyn rekhter, nisht keyn linker, nor a Mizrakhist a flinker. Zol lebn Bistritski mit zayn hora.
Long live Bistritski and his hora. Long live Bistritski and his hora Not a right-winger, not a left-winger, but a clever Mizrakhist Long live Bistritski and his hora
Other field recordings in the Israeli National Sound Archives (NSA) in Jerusalem confirm that this was a ditty from the East European Hashomer Hatzair movement (NSA call #Y/05890, #Y/05898 – I was not able to listen to the NSA recordings to hear the lyrics in these versions).
In the Kremenits Yizkor book (1965) [Kremenits is in the Volin/Volhynia region] page 152, there is a description of the end of a Zionist youth meeting which actually connects the ditty to the dance hora, here written hoyre: (my translation from the Yiddish)
Finally someone yells out – ‘Enough of this chattering’ or ‘Leave the academy alone’. At that point someone would start singing “Lebn zol Bistritski and his hoyra” [!]. It seemed that this is what the gang was waiting for and everyone stood up, hands and shoulders interlocking and the circle got bigger and bigger. And so we danced a hoyra till the break of day. We danced so long that some people started to faint away.
Someone more familiar with Zionist history please clarify. Are they singing about the Hebrew writer, editor Nathan Bistritsky?
Please see the comments below for a number of additional points on the melody.
Zingen a lid iz a mekhaye
sung by Chaim Berman
Words by H. Goldberg
Zingen a lid iz a mekhaye Zingen a lid iz a mekhaye Oy zingt zhe brider, zingt zhe munter A folk vos zingt geyt keyn mol unter. Zingen a lid iz a mekhaye.
To sing a song is a joy. To sing a song is a joy. So sing brother, sing with cheer A people that sings never dies. To sing a song is a joy.
A nign – an olter [alter] tsu a nayer. Zingen – vet ir filn frayer. Oy zingt zhe brider, zingt zhe munter A folk vos zingt geyt keyn mol unter. Zingen a lid iz a mekhaye.
A melody – an old one or a new one. Sing and you’ll feel more free. So sing brother, sing with cheer, A people that sings never dies. To sing a song is a joy.
Hostu fardrus tsi hostu dayges? Oder bistu kholile broyges? Oy zingt zhe brider, zingt zhe munter A folk vos zingt geyt keyn mol unter. Zingen a lid iz a mekhaye.
Do you have regrets? Or have worries? Or God forbid angry at someone? So sing brother, sing with cheer A people that sings never dies. To sing a song is a joy.