I have been told repeatedly that music is a great medium through which to learn language. It makes sense—I remember every stupid song lyric that was on the radio when I was a teenager. But it never took with me as an adult learner of Yiddish. I think after a certain age, music is either a central part of your life or it isn’t.
I did have a strong feeling for the two Theodore Bikel records that I heard repeatedly during my childhood. And, probably because of those Bikel records, when I happened across a group of musicians playing on the street in Harvard Square one day in the mid 1980s, at the front edge of the klezmer revival, it felt momentarily as though they were waking something that had slept in me half my life. Thank you Hankus Netsky and Don Byron. So I’m not completely impervious, but it seemed that was as far as it went.
Anyway, when I walked into one of Josh Waletsky’s Yiddish song classes (missed some Fridays for other commitments, but we were allowed to drop in), it was more of the same. I could recognize the song Di Grine Kuzine from Bikel’s album, but learning new songs, particularly any with long melodic lines or with even slightly complex phrasing, was so hard for me that the words barely registered at all. I guess music works as a scaffold for language learning either when music itself is your natural first language, or else only after long repetition.
I really wanted to like Waletsky’s class. He had been music director at Camp Boiberik, that mythic Yiddishist Eden where I spent a summer and a half as a very young (probably too young) child. He knows my family well. For example, as a young man he had worked with my Aunt Judy to make a short film. And he is a sweet guy, and an esteemed and prize-winning musician and songwriter. But, as I had been at Boiberik itself, I was really hovering at the margins, singing only in snatches when I was able to catch on.
Then we got to the song “Oy Der Heyser Tog Fargeyt”. This was a beautiful and tender song sung at Camp Boiberik on Tisha B’Av, with lyrics from a poem by Mani Leib. I recognized it instantly, and was more or less able to sing it, though I had not heard it for 47 years. Amazing.
Here are the lyrics, from a Boiberik song sheet I found online:
And here is the original Mani Leib poem. It took some hunting. It wasn’t in his “Greatest Hits” book Lider un Baladn, so I had to prowl through his earlier ones, until I found the 1918 edition of a book titled simply, Lider. It had no index, and no table of contents, but when I am wasting time hunting down a Yiddish poetry lead (that’s pronounced, ‘leed’), nothing will stop me.
You can see that only a tiny word or two was changed in converting it to the song lyric:
Nevertheless, I have not been able to turn up any online video or audio to play for you. Too bad. It’s really sweet. If I could figure out how to post a video to YouTube, I would gladly sing it for you. Even my butchering rendition would at least give you some idea of how it sounds.
For those not up on the traditional holidays, Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and exiling of the Jews from the Land of Israel. Twice. First by the Babylonians and then by the Romans. Various later catastrophes also occurred on or near the same date. It is a solemn day and a fast day, “the saddest day of the Jewish year.” This year it begins on Saturday evening, August 13.
How does one teach children about this holiday, particularly at a summer camp? And how should a contemporary secular Jew think about it?
As the loyal grandson of a diaspora nationalist and as a contrarian, I am tempted to argue that the destruction of the temple and exile were not tragedies at all. Only in exile did we cease to be Israelites or Judeans and become Jews. Only after the temple was gone did the sacrificial cult end, to be replaced by ethical teachings, by the more modern versions of the holidays, and by prayer.
It’s true, even in the Temple period, there were prophets who railed against the idea that animal sacrifices were an adequate way to serve God, in the absence of righteous conduct.
Isaiah 1-11: “Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me? says the Lord. I am sated with the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle; and the blood of bulls and sheep and goats I do not want.
Jeremiah 7-22: “For neither did I speak with your forefathers nor did I command them on the day I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning a burnt offering or a sacrifice.”
Hosea 6-6: “For I desire loving-kindness, and not sacrifices, and knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” (all translations by Chabad.org. thanks)
But would those books of prophecy, railing against corruption in general and the sacrificial system in particular, even be in the canon had those prophets’ dire warnings of catastrophe not come to pass? And wouldn’t the sacrificial system have ended only many many centuries later? The truth is that the Judaism we know could never have come into being in a kingdom where the monarchy was strong and church and state were fused. Only in exile could we have become who we are. It has been suggested, for example, that the Talmudic interpretations rendering the Torah’s many death penalties impossible to impose from a practical point of view, came only after the Roman exile had stripped Jewish courts of the power to impose it anyway. From that point of view, the Torah was being reinterpreted after the fact to show it was consistent with contemporary practice. [note that I am not a historian, religious or otherwise, and am probably way out of my depth here].
The song brings me back down to earth. The first Khurbn* was not just a destruction of a building and a dispossession of land. It was not principally or immediately about changes in religious practice. It was a military defeat and occupation. There were deaths, and there were refugees.
A child is suffering. Exhausted and sad and lonely. What is needed is kindness. The way to teach children about loss and about exile is to connect them to the universal experience of it, and equally importantly, to an image of how to help.
* In Yiddish, the same word is used for the destruction of the Temples as for the holocaust.