"The audience need not understand each and every word," comments Irma Kesler, the Stage Director of the annual Leah Todres Yiddish Song Festival, who appears in the documentary "but the songs always evoke an emotion."
The poignant song, Papirossen (Cigarettes), composed by Herman Yablokoff in 1922, exemplifies this observation about Yiddish song.
Herman Yablokoff (August 11, 1903 – April 3, 1981) was a Belarusian-born Jewish American actor, singer, composer, poet, playwright, director and producer who became one of the biggest stars in Yiddish theatre. He was born into a poor family in Grodno (Hrodna), then a predominantly Polish town in the Russian Empire, now within Belarus.
In 1924 he emigrated to the United States, and began performing in theatres in Toronto, Montreal and Los Angeles, finally settling in New York City. In the 1930s and 1940s, he was one of the most influential personalities in the Second Avenue theatre world, in the heyday of American theatre in Yiddish.
One of his plays, Papirossen ("Cigarettes") in 1932, featured the song of the same name which he had been inspired to write in 1922, after seeing children peddling cigarettes during the pogroms in Grodno after the First World War.
The song is about a little boy all alone trying to survive: wet, hungry, standing in the rain on a cold, foggy, night, a little boy is standing on the corner of a street begging: Please, buy my cigarettes, buy my matches! Help an orphan, save me from hunger! With no father or mother, and after a year roaming the streets together with his little sister, she also died, and he is now all alone, trying to survive. Thanks to its traditional folk tune and sentimental words, the song became very popular.
Here's something interesting to note - and that takes us back to the theme that with Yiddish song, there are many instances of 'something borrowed'. Actually, “Papirossen” was originally not a song, but a dance: a vigorous and joyful dance, not unlike “Mazl Tov”. Yablokoff wrote the words, and put it to the music of the popular dance, slowing it down considerably.
Stage Director, Irma Kesler, took the liberty of having a 'little girl', Beverley Chiat, sing the song, accompanied by Aviva Pelham. The Barry Sisters had also recorded Papirossen, so Irma certainly had a precedent on which to base that decision. And the audience didn't complain - responding enthusiastically to this beautifully haunting rendition of Papirossen by Beverley and Aviva, that is included in the documentary, Leah, Teddy & the Mandolin!
In the documentary, the Yiddish songs are all sub-titled in English, which certainly adds to your enjoyment. Not only can you respond emotionally, but you can also understand each and every word.