Something old, something new, sometimes borrowed, often blue, is one way to describe the rich and varied range of Yiddish song.
Yiddish Song was not simply songs fun aheim - from back home. The songs might have been about the old world of Eastern Europe, but in fact the golden age of Yiddish Song was probably in the 1900’s to early 1940’s and mostly emanating from the USA and New York in particular.
It was a case of old world meets new world that had a critical mass of Yiddish speakers and the modern infrastructure to publish, record and promote music. The goldene medina was a cultural cauldron of opportunities too, as traditional Jewish musicians – the klezmorim – interacted with new opportunities and genres of music.
There’s an interesting cross over with jazz, which like Klezmer music, is often written in a minor key. And there was also an affiliation between the immigrant Jewish musicians and black jazz musicians in the sense of both being ethnic, minority groups. By the way, today Klezmer music is regarded as an ethnic American music form. And an interesting aside is that it was the Jewish big band leaders – Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman - that first included black jazz musicians in their orchestras.
Abraham Goldfaden is often acknowledged as the father of Yiddish Theatre. Lacking any musical training, but, by his own assertion, possessing a wide knowledge of Jewish and classical music, he borrowed heavily from cantorial and folk sources and from European opera for the songs that he included in his operettas. ("In art," he once observed, "there is no eighth commandment.") Rozhinkes mit Mandlen - Raisins and Almonds is drawn from (or stolen from) an old Yiddish lullaby, "Unter Yidele’s Vigele’ and was composed for Golfaden’s operetta Shulamit.
So, in fact, here we have a case of something old, something borrowed, and turned into something new – which has now been redefined as ‘folk’.
Leah, Teddy & the Mandolin includes the Herzlia Yiddish Festival Choir singing Rozhinkes mit Mandlen. (See photo above).
The other lullaby that must be mentioned is Oyfn Pripitchik - At the Hearth written by Mark Warshavsky (1848-1907) – another hauntingly familiar melody that evokes Eastern European roots.
Warshavsky was a lawyer in Kiev, who initially wrote and performed Yiddish songs for his friends. It was Sholem Aleichem who recognised his talent and had the songs published. They often performed together – the master of folk tales reading from his works and Warshavsky performing his songs.
An interesting note is that when composer Philip Miller was looking for that quintessential Yiddish Song to incorporate into the Kadish to Kovno exhibition, Fay Singer suggested Oyfn Pripitchik. Philip recorded her singing the lullaby on his cell phone and played this to the Lithuanian students he was doing a workshop with. They immediately identified the melody as a Lithuanian folk song and played it for him on traditional instruments. They learnt the words in Yiddish and played the melody on their traditional instruments and this was one of the variations of the song that Philip incorporated into the sound track that formed an integral part of the installation at the Kaunas Biennale.
So Yiddish song continues along its own path and Leah, Teddy & the Mandolin has hopefully created a vehicle to bring back memories and allow us to re-assess and re-evaluate the importance of this powerful and emotive art form in the 21st Century.