Archive for disease

About Lyricist Harry Bennett (Boens) by Michael Bennett

Posted in Main Collection with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 15, 2020 by yiddishsong

I never met my paternal grandfather Harry Boens (pictured left, b. March 17, 1891, Odessa; d. August 9, 1943, Los Angeles), and practically nothing about him was revealed to my brother and me. Innocent childhood questions about family history were met with stoicism and the subject quickly changed. Eventually, I did learn quite a bit about Harry through discovery of hidden documentation and much research. The journey to those revelations began in 2004, weeks before my father’s death in the hospital.

Harry Boens/Bennett. Image courtesy of Michael Bennett; all rights reserved.

Originally admitted for a respiratory virus, my father had become infected with multiple strains of hospital-spread bacteria. Months into his illness, through an internet search for Harry Boens, I discovered a piece of Yiddish sheet music entitled Di Shpanishe cholera (The Spanish Influenza) for sale. The cover sheet featured a photograph of the composer Nathan Hollandar and the lyricist Harry Boens. My father’s younger brother Philip had years earlier told me that Harry had changed the family name from Boens to Bennett and shared with me an old, color-dyed photograph of Harry and my father taken in 1933. From that photograph I saw a strong resemblance to the Harry Boens featured on the cover of Di Shpanishe cholera. I purchased the sheet music, printed out a copy of the title page, and brought it to my father in the hospital for verification. “Absolutely,” my father responded when I asked if the picture was that of his father, and then he added, “I never knew about this,” before angrily handing back the picture. Nothing further was discussed about the topic. However, the fact that my father was dying from infectious diseases struck me as tragically ironic in light of the subject of Harry’s song and my discovery of it at that heart-wrenching time.

Image courtesy of Michael Bennett; all rights reserved.

My father’s last request to me before he passed on June 13, 2004, was to write a book about his life. And so began years-long research into my father’s life, which of course included an in-depth look into Harry Boens, including the circumstances of his writing and co-publishing Di Shpanishe cholera. I fulfilled my father’s charge and self-published My Father: an American Story of Courage, Shattered Dreams, and Enduring Love in 2011.

Harry Boens immigrated to America in 1907. In about 1913 he married a Bessarabian émigré named Dora Ladyzhensky, and settled into a 3-room tenement apartment in New York’s Lower East Side. Harry worked as a waiter and accordionist in a subterranean diner on the corner of Rivington and Allen Streets in the same neighborhood. Dora worked as a seamstress in a sweatshop. Their first child, Clara, was born in 1914, their second, Irving (who would become my father) in 1915. Three months after Irving’s birth, Harry left his family. He returned in early 1917 and later that year Dora gave birth to the couple’s third child, Philip. Shortly after Philip’s birth, Harry left his family again. He returned in August 1920, but the reconciliation lasted only six weeks. This time he left his family for good.

The problem of male abandonment was common amongst Russian immigrants at that time—so common that Jewish organizations formed the National Desertion Bureau (NDB). The NDB served as a Jewish FBI whose goal was to locate AWOL husbands and fathers and force them to reconcile with their spouses, or at least support their families. Dora reported Harry to the NDB after his first desertion, and it was at that time that Harry began to pursue a career in music. He partnered with Nathan Hollandar who had a small recording studio where would-be immigrant artists could realize their dreams. The two developed a strong friendship and collaborated on several musical compositions. When the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic emerged, Harry aptly wrote the lyrics to Di Shpanishe Cholera; Nathan composed the music. They filed copyright for the piece in 1919, when Harry was twenty-eight years old.

But Harry’s musical career did not generate income. Instead, he moved to Brooklyn, partnered in a liquor store business and bought an automobile. Dora, meanwhile, languished on the Lower East Side. The children eventually were placed in foster homes and ultimately became inmates of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum (HOA) due to Dora’s inability to care for them. My father was not yet six years old at the time and he remained in HOA for the next twelve years. Harry’s liquor store business folded with the passing of the Prohibition amendment. Harry then left New York and settled in Los Angeles (a common destination in those days for wayward husbands and fathers like Harry). His surname now Bennett, Harry married a wealthy California socialite who was decades his senior. He used her money to start a Yiddish newspaper, buy a gas station, and build a small real estate empire. He returned to New York to visit his children and financially supported them in the HOA. When his children reached the age of liberation from orphanage, Harry invited them to join him in California.

Spurred by his wealthy father’s promises of a college education and membership in an exclusive beach club, in 1933 my father eagerly boarded a steam ship headed for the California coast. Harry waited for him in his legendary Stutz automobile. Harry’s promises of a new life for his son never materialized, and he reneged on his commitment to pay for college tuition. Instead, Harry wanted his son to work for him managing his businesses. My father grew increasingly resentful, and eventually sued Harry for past child support and college tuition. Harry disinherited his son. After my father was drafted in to the United States Army and shipped overseas, Harry reinstated him into his will. Harry Boens died in 1943 at the age of fifty-two; his early demise likely brought about by his five-and-half-pack-a-day cigarette habit. My father’s angry reaction to seeing Harry’s picture on the cover of Di Spanishe Cholera in 2004 was certainly understandable in light of all that I later discovered. However, I believe my father reconciled those emotions when he said to me days before his passing, “I don’t hate anybody.” I too reserve judgement of my grandfather in favor of understanding him in the context of his times and circumstances.

In 2010, while completing the book about my father, I had a desire to hear what my grandfather’s song actually sounded like. So I asked longtime family friend Cantor Sam Weiss—an accomplished singer, musician, and specialist in Yiddish music—if he would get Di Spanishe Cholera recorded for me. Cantor Weiss obliged in short order by recording it himself, and sent me the MP3 file that you hear on this page. Fast-forward to 2020: During this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, in a strange sort of way, the words and music of Di Spanishe Cholera provide some comfort in knowing that our ancestors—in fact the entire world—went through a similar experience. For that I thank the grandfather whom I never knew.

“Parekh-lid” performed by Moyshe Kupit

Posted in Main Collection with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2010 by yiddishsong

Notes by Itzik Gottesman

What is a parekh? Medically speaking, it is a disease of the scalp – Favus. As a result of the disease, which is a fungus, you lose your hair, and lesions form. It is not a pretty site. Many Jews were afflicted with this disease and a large folklore developed around it. Parekh or Parkh, if you look it up in the Yiddish dictionaries came to connote „wicked man‟ (Harkavy‘s dictionary) or „a rat‟ „a stingy person‟ (Weinreich‘s dictionary). So parekh indicates both the disease and the person who has the disease. Parekh came to mean a filthy person as well, as in the old insult Ashkenazic Jews hurled at non-Ashkenazic immigrants in Israel in the 1950s – Frenk parekh.

Illustration: This “train ticket” was collected by the folklorist Shmuel-Zanvil Pipe in his hometown of Sonik, Galicia, (Sanok) for the YIVO Ethnographic Commission in the 1930s. It says on top “Parekh-commission” and then under it: “(from) Sonik – (to) Egypt: the journey is free. Attention: During the trip you cannot scratch yourself. The transport is leaving Shabes, 2:00 PM. We can assume this was distributed on Shabes-hagodl, when the parkhes were exiled to Egypt.

I made this recording of singer Moyshe Kupit at the Yidish-vokh retreat in Copake, NY in September 1989.  Kupit was born in Yedinits, Bessarabia (today’s Republic of Moldova). The recording was a result of my research into a specific custom on Shabes-hagodel, the Sabbath  before Passover, in which a mock parade took place in the towns of Eastern Galicia, Bukovina, Bessarabia and Romania, during which the Jews with a parekh in the town were singled out and mocked, and told to „Go back to Egypt!‟ Sorry I can‘t go more into this custom at this time; I have accumulated much material on it. The best account in Yiddish is found in Itzik Shvarts‘ (I. Caro) memoirs „A moldovish yingl.‟ It‘s not a very nice custom, one in which Jews denigrate other Jews in a vulgar manner, so I doubt the parekh-song will ever make the top 10 Yiddish song charts.

Yet it is a fascinating cultural document. The reference to tar in the song is connected to the belief that smearing tar can cure the  parkeh. Symbolically, the song is just wonderful – a line of parekhs connecting the dirtiest place in the town, the hekdesh – poorhouse, to the cleanest – the bathhouse.

Adds Pete Rushefsky: Musically, the piece shares charcteristics of many Ukrainian kolomeykes, employing a running series of descending eighth notes, though Parekh-lid lacks the characteristic cadential couplet of two quarter notes that typifies a true kolomeyke.

Ale parkhes hobn zikh arumgenemen in a reydl,
hobn getontst funem hekdesh bizn beydl.
Hey-hu, parkhenyu,
gib zikh a krots in kepenyu.

All the parkhes formed a circle,
danced from the poorhouse to the bathhouse.
Hey-hu, parkhenyu,
Give yourself a scratch in your head.

Ver se vil gikher loyfn,
der zol geyn smole koyfn.
Hey-hu, parkhenyu,
gib zikh a krots in kepenyu.

Whoever wants to run faster,
he should go buy the tar.

S‘iz gevorn a groys gezeml,
der eltster parekh hot farloyrn zayn keml.
Hey-hu, parkhenyu,
gib zikh a krots in kepenyu.

A big gathering then formed,
the oldest parekh lost his comb.

 אַלע פּאַרכעס האָבן זיך צוזאַמענגענעמען אין אַ רעדל,
האָבן געטאַנצט פֿונעם הקדש ביזן בעדל.
היי־הו, פּאַרכעניו,
גיב זיך אַ קראַץ אין קעפּעניו.

ווער סע קען גיכער לויפֿן,
דער זאָל גיין סמאָלע קויפֿן.
היי־הו, פּאַרכעניו,
גיב זיך אַ קראַץ אין קעפּעניו.

ס‘איז געוואָרן אַ גרויס געזעמל,
דער עלטסטער פּאַרעך האָט פֿאַרלוירן דאָס קעמל.
היי־הו, פּאַרכעניו,
גיב זיך אַ קראַץ אין קעפּעני.