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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.