We sometimes think of our childhood in musical terms. Seymour Bernstein mentions hearing Schubert’s Standchen that brought him to tears. Otherwise his home was bereft of music, let alone the time-honored Classics. It was mostly silent.
I was bathed in Yiddish melodies that my South Bronx grandmother (bubbe) sang in her beautifully tremulous voice, but even from an old victrola placed on a corner table came the wailing voices of Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce (both Cantors) before they acquired operatic fame.
This particular recording stays with me to this day, and has deep significance because my father, a railroad worker and very schmaltzy man, sang it in a less than perfect tenor, but with great emotion:
Here’s Peerce in a soulful rendering:
The heart-wrenching song was so embedded in my DNA that it rose above the drone of a short wave radio that my zayde, (grandfather) blasted from sunrise to sunset. It was Radio Moscow, with static that drove my bubbe crazy. She shouted “Shweig,” which meant shut-the damn thing off, NOW! He would roll the tuner around to capture Radio Free Europe that had even more static, at which time, bubbe would escape to the kitchen and shut the door. (I remember her braided Chalah, fatty flanken, feathered chicken legs, and soup with luction.. add a few kreplach; burnt peas/carrots–and for dessert, apple pie with a lumpy crust)
Otherwise, when not cooking, she would cavort with plump Mrs. Lox who barely made it down a flight of stairs with her edematous ankles. Together they would gossip about this or that neighbor who was adulterous or in search of a Match. My father mimicked one of their pairings between a deaf man and stuttering woman in perfect comedic rhythm, a talent nourished by my bubbe who took him to the Yiddish Theater on the lower East Side.
Not to overlook the Shule that bordered the tiny apartment. I would see and hear davenning men droning prayers through parted curtains. It was an auditory hypnosis, snuffed out quickly by bubbe Besse who deemed it sacrilegious to eavesdrop. She worried that the Rebbe would get wind of it, and the Evil Eye would interminably haunt her. (That’s why she often met my father on the corner of Longfellow Avenue to have a bite of Chinese pork, well out of Rebbe’s range)
Somewhere around 1956 or so, my Marble Hill project dwelling (in the North Bronx) was another repository of emotion-filled musical outpourings. Would you believe that between vinyl servings of David Oistrakh, Isaac Stern, and Arthur Rubinstein, came Perry Como singing the “Kol Nidre?” (Incidentally, my late aunt Leepee, was Perry’s secretary and social assistant before she moved over to Mary Martin, and eventually Bella Abzug.)
Perry is no Peerce, but gives it a warm framing:
This lament or prayer, is sung at the end of Rosh Hashanah during the Day of Atonement–Yom Kippur, which leads me to my bubbe’s tremulous outpouring of two Yiddish songs: One is a Lullaby– “Schluf Meine Kind” with these lyrics in part. (English translation)
“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.”….
The other is “In the Glowing Stove.. ”
“In the glowing stove
Flames leap merrily
And fill the house with heat
And the rebbe teaches
All the little ones
Our Aleph Beth.”(the alphabet)
L’Shana Tovah! (Happy New Year to all!)