Archive for Michael Bennett

Harry Boens & Nathan Hollandar’s Song “Di Shpanishe kholere” Performed by Cantor Sam Weiss

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

Di Shpanishe Kholere / The Spanish Contagion
Lyrics by Harry Boens (Bennett), Music by Nathan Hollandar.
Performance by Cantor Sam Weiss.

Commentary by Cantor Sam Weiss

Around 15 years ago my friend Michael Bennett discovered his grandfather’s name (see Michael Bennett’s post about his grandfather, Harry Boens / Bennett) listed as lyricist on a piece of Yiddish sheet music about the 1918 Spanish flu. As there were no extant recordings or performances of the song, in 2010 he emailed me to see if I could arrange to get it recorded. I glanced at the lyrics and was quickly captivated by their colloquial directness and interesting vocabulary. In short order I printed out the file, placed the sheets on my electronic keyboard, ran through the song, and emailed the mp3 to Michael.

Image courtesy of Michael Bennett; all rights reserved.

The song remained our private little adventure until COVID-19 reared its head and Michael reached out to me again: “…Maybe it’s an appropriate time to release to the public your rendition of my grandfather’s lament.” I hesitated, not really thinking of that quick take as a “performance, “and his idea remained dormant. Right before the High Holidays, however, it occurred to me that the Yiddish Song of the Week website would be an appropriate vehicle for sharing this gem, and Itzik Gottesman agreed to host it along with Michael’s back story on his grandfather.

Cantor Sam Weiss by Robert Kalfus

As the song is equal parts humor and pathos, I adopted a theatrical singing style along with the “stage Yiddish” dialect suggested by the printed notation. The initial sound in the Yiddish word for “Spanish” is clearly intended to be pronounced “S” rather than “Sh,” being spelled here with a samekh in place of the standard shin, and that is how I sang it.

In the case of the word for “heart” I vacillated between the standard pronunciation harts and the printed word hertz. In these two cases the transcription reflects standard Yiddish spellings rather than the pronunciations heard on the recording; the remaining words are transcribed as sung. Although the notation indicates a repeat of the final phrase in the verses, these repeats were skipped in verses 3-6.

I was struck by an interesting word that occurs three times, neveyre, which I have translated as “plague.” Strictly speaking neveyre is simply the colloquial version of aveyre, meaning “sin” (the “n” resulting from conflating the two words an aveyre), but in this context neveyre implies a divine punishment that may have come about as a result of our sins. Although I have yet to find this particular meaning in any Yiddish dictionary or thesaurus, the usage is amply supported by Jewish lore from the Ten Plagues onwards. The song itself, moreover, expresses a plea for God’s compassion (to reverse the punishment, as it were) as well as the darkly comical idea of the Spanish flu as Woodrow Wilson’s vengeance for Germany’s role in World War I.

The title word kholere is especially noteworthy. Unlike the English word “cholera,” it has a much broader connotation than any specific type of illness. Indeed, the technical name of the disease appears only on the Yiddish lyrics back cover page as the title—but nowhere in the song—as Di Shpanishe influentsiye. In verse 5 kholere appears unmodified by Shpanishe; I therefore translate it as “contagion.” Kholere is found in a great number of Yiddish curses where the speaker is not particularly concerned with which krenk befalls the victim, as long as it is grueling and punishing. Indeed “punishing” is the word’s operative intention, as in the case of neveyre. Note the antiquated spelling of the word on the title page with a khes instead of the standard khof. This older Yiddish orthography hints at a presumed Hebrew origin, as if kholere were a retributive disease related to kadokhes (biblical kodokhas), which is always spelled with a khes. The back cover lyrics are below.


1. Ikh gey mir arim in strit fartrakht
Say bay tug in say bay nakht.
In mayn hartzn kokht dus blit,
Ze’endik vi mentshn faln in strit.


Vayl di gantse velt iz yetst in trobl,
In yeder eyner zikht dem knobl.

I walk the streets deep in thought,
Be it day, be it night.
The blood is seething in my heart
As I watch people collapsing in the street.


Because the whole world is now in trouble,
And everyone is searching for garlic.

2. Mentshn zitsn in hoyz mit der neveyre,
Zey hobn moyre far der Shpanisher kholere.
Nemt mayn edvays in seyft zikh fin dem trobl,
Trinkt a glezl vayn in est dem knobl.

REFRAIN: Vayl di gantse velt…

Everyone is stuck at home with this plague,
They’re all afraid of the Spanish flu.
Take my advice and save yourself from trouble,
Drink a glass of wine and eat some garlic.

REFRAIN: Because the whole world…

3. Der Daytsh iz oykh a groyser diplomat!
Er hot gevolt farnikhtn di velt vi a rats;
Wilson hot ober genimen zikh di ere
In geshikt dem Daytsh di Shpanishe kholere.

REFRAIN: Vayl di gantse velt…

The Germans are some diplomats…
Seeking to destroy the world as if it were a rat;
But Wilson stepped right up
And sent the Germans the Spanish flu!

REFRAIN: Because the whole world…

4. Sobveys, kars, gepakt oykh fil mit mentshn;
Ikh bet bay dir, oy Got, di zolst indz bentshn!
Nem fin indz oykh di neveyre
In hit indz up fin der Shpanisher kholere.

REFRAIN: Vayl di gantse velt…

Subways, cars, all packed with people;
I beg you, God, please bless us!
Remove the plague from us too,
And shield us from the Spanish flu.

REFRAIN: Because the whole world…

5. Barbers loyfn arim azoy vi di nyankes;
Fin hoyz tsi hoyz shteln zey ayedn bankes.
Zey aleyn trugn arim di neveyre;
Zey danken Got es halt on di kholere!

REFRAIN: Vayl di gantse velt…

Barbers scurry about as if they were nurses,
From house to house, with cupping glass treatments;
They themselves are carriers of the plague,
Thanking God that the contagion perseveres!

REFRAIN: Because the whole world…

6. Mikh tsi hern zingen is nisht kayn vinder;
Mentshn, past nor oyf of ayere kinder.
Di froyen in Eyrope zenen geblibn vi ofn yakor,
In di mener in Amerike brenen vi a flaker

REFRAIN: Vayl di gantse velt…

Don’t act surprised to hear me singing;
Folks, just watch over your children.
The wives are all marooned in Europe
While their husbands are ablaze in America

REFRAIN: Because the whole world…

Below images courtesy of Michael Bennett; all rights reserved.

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.