My Russian Grandmother’s music: Preserving a Yiddish culture of Song

From earliest childhood, I remember my bubbe Bessie’s tremulous voice as she sang Yiddish lullabies. The words, faintly heard, were upstaged by rapturous melodies.

She was otherwise a fixture in a small kitchen, preparing chicken soup with luction (noodles); kneading dough for Shabbat challah; chopping fresh carp to make gefilte fish cakes, and throwing together a bowl of komput. (stewed fruit) Sponge cake followed as last on the list of savory offerings that filled us to the gills before we wound our corpulent selves down the staircase of her South Bronx tenement.

A shule bordered the apartment and provided a parted-curtains view of Chasidism (Orthodox Jews) davenning. (Bending forward and back in solemn prayer) Bubbe would scold me for my voyeurism because it was a violation of the Almighty. She would pay dearly for it in the next life.. if there was one.

Like Molly Goldberg of TV fame, she would message her neighbors through the window, across clothes lines and homing pigeons that came and went. Everyone and every thing managed to communicate what they needed in one form or another.

Apparently, bubbe was a woman of many talents. Her fame spread far and wide as the neighorhood’s matchmaker or “shadkhin” after she tried to pair a stutterer with a hard-of-hearing woman. The way my father re-enacted the whole scene, it was worth a Comedy Central feature.

***

Visitors frequented my grandmother’s dim lit flat on Longfellow Avenue.

Mrs. Lox, the upstairs neighbor, sometimes knocked on the door to get a little attention. She barely sauntered in with legs so full of edema you wondered how she managed her life. A gulp of gossip filled a half-hour of conversation before my zayde (grandfather) came home from the railroad yards where he toiled as a freight man. Nick-named “Pineball” because of his shiny bald head and stocky frame, he would sometimes deposit a “live” fish in the bath tub. The first time I saw one I had to wipe my eyes making sure a real angler was beside me. I was otherwise preoccupied, pulling a chain to flush the toilet.

Years later I learned that bubbe prepared the catch for dinner so it went to good use.

Invariably, she always intoned prayers in a white satin shawl while zayde cursed under his breath, denying the existence of God. Nothing was ever resolved at mealtime and life went on.

After encore desserts, tea, and more sponge cake, songs followed which were memorable. My favorites are revisited.

“Shlof Mayn Kind,” (Sleep My Child) is at the top of my memory archive. Like so many of these songs embedded in the minor mode, they reflected a people’s suffering over centuries. The music naturally flowed through the veins of our Jewish forebears preserved by those who memorialized them in well-researched collections.

Ruth Rubin, one of these archivists, published Let’s Sing a Yiddish Song that contained two selections that I chose to play and sing.

Both have lyrics in Yiddish followed by the English translation:

I.

“Shlof Mayn Kind” (Sleep, My Child)

Shlof mayn kind—, shlof ke-sey—der,
sin-gen vel ikh dir a lid
As du mayn kind—vest el-ter ve—-rn
Ves-tu vi-sn an un-ter shid.

Sleep my child, sleep, be peaceful,
There’s a song I want to sing;
When you, my child, are somewhat older
There’s something you will come to know.

II.

“Oifn Pripetchik”

“In the Glowing Stove” (Perhaps “By the Glowing Stove” would have been a better translation)

Oif-n pri-pe-tchik
brent a fay-er-l,
Un in shtub iz heys
Un der re-be ler-nt
kley-ne kin-der-lekh
dem al-ef beyz

Un der re-be ler-nt
kley-ne kind-der-lekh
dem al-ef beyz

Interlude

Reprise second stanza
Zogt zhe nokh a mol
un ta-ke nokh amol
ko-metz al-ef o

Repeat above

In the glowing stove
Flames leap merrily
And fill the house with heat
And the rebbe teaches
All the little ones
Our Aleph Beth.

And the rebbe teaches
All the little ones
Our Aleph Beth

Interlude

Say it once again
And even once again
Our Aleph-O

Say it once again
And even once again
Our Aleph-O

***
These songs evoked poignant memories of my first musical appearance in Fresno when I accompanied the late, Cantor Michael Loring in a concert of Jewish Liturgical Music. We presented “The History of a People Through Song” at the College Community Congregational Church, known for its yearly offering of the St. Matthew Passion. Its musical director, John Donaldson, a member of the Board of Supervisors, always programmed fine, classical music throughout the year.

Our ecumenical convergence took place in an acoustically divine space that held a modest, old upright. The instrument soared like a grand, belying its size. An echo chamber would have best described the setting.

In preparation for this event, Loring had given me hand-written manuscripts on parchment that were so fragile, I could barely shuffle the pages without losing a line of notes in the process. At least rehearsals in my home afforded ample time to go over these scores that had long intervals of chanting. As a consequence, I had to be cued in for my entrance–quite a separate learning experience, than that derived from daily 3B’s exposure. (Bach, Beethoven and Brahms)

Here’s a photo of Cantor Loring, to the Right, beside Rabbi David Greenberg at our local Temple Beth Israel.

***

The icing on the cake, was my father’s appearance in Fresno on the stage of Temple Beth Jacob. We, two collaborated on selections from Fiddler on the Roof. While such a Broadway spectacular may have been a bit removed from the original Yiddish traditional folklore passed down by our ancestors, it still revisited the shtetl where it all started.

Link:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/11/09/little-apple-big-apple-mayhem-murder-and-music-my-familys-history-and-genealogy/

About arioso7: Shirley Kirsten

International piano teacher by Skype, recording artist, composer, piano finder, freelance writer, film maker, story teller: Grad of the NYC HS of Performing Arts, Oberlin Conservatory, NYU (Master of Arts) Studies with Lillian Freundlich and Ena Bronstein; Master classes with Murray Perahia and Oxana Yablonskaya. Studios in BERKELEY and EL CERRITO, California; Member, Music Teachers Assoc. of California, MTAC; Distance learning and Skyped instruction with supplementary videos: SKYPE ID, shirleypiano1 Contact me at: shirley_kirsten@yahoo.com OR http://www.youtube.com/arioso7 or at FACEBOOK: Shirley Smith Kirsten, http://facebook.com /shirley.kirsten TWITTER: http://twitter.com/arioso7 Private fund-raising for non-profits as pianist--Public Speaking re: piano teaching and creative approaches
This entry was posted in "Let's sing a Yiddish Song" by Ruth Rubin, Cantor Michael Loring, ethnomusicology, Fiddler on the Roof, Jewish Liturgical Music, pianist, piano, Russia, Russian bubbes, Ruth Rubin, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Uncategorized, word press, wordpress.com, yiddish folk song, Yiddish Folk Song Tradition, Yiddish melodies, you tube, you tube video, Zero Mostel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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