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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

My joy in Yiddish (part one)

I've decided to start taking Yiddish lessons with Sheva Zucker in January. I've loved the language since I was in the audience of the very first concert of the New England Klezmer Conservatory band in 1980. I went nuts and memorized every song Judy Bressler sang that night; then I got my future grandfather-in-law Albert Farber and his crony Max, who both read the Jewish Forward every day, to write out translations for me. I still have the yellow legal-pad they scrawled over in pencil, with the wandering, spiky handwriting of old men.

When I moved down here, I began singing for Sheva's yearly Yom HaShoah remembrances and then was hired to direct the Triangle Jewish Chorale. I took my kids to KlezKamp several times. My love of the language has grown and grown.

I've tried learning Yiddish on my own - I started the Uriel Weinreich textbook about five times and got about a third of the way through it each time - but since I only had time for it just before bed and it put me to sleep, it didn't stick. Hopefully next time it will go better.

This is the first Yiddish song I ever understood while it was being sung - by Chava Alberstein, at KlezKamp. The text is by Binem Heller, the music by Alberstein herself. First it gave me goosebumps and then I cried and cried.

You can hear it on the cd called The Well which Chava made with the Klezmatics.

Update: Bob Vasile and I (the Pratie Heads) recorded it in 2006, here's our version.

Alberstein introduced the song that night by telling us that Heller, a prize-winning poet living in Israel, was often asked by the media: "why do you bother writing in Yiddish, a dead language?"

This poem was his explanation: Khaye, his sister, who had taken care of him and his brothers when they were young, and who had died in Treblinka, had never known any other language -- he wrote in Yiddish for her and hoped that somewhere, she was listening.

Binem himself died in 1998. How few are left who remember Yiddish as a living language. Here is the translation:

Mayn Shvester Khaye (My Sister Khaye)

My sister Khaye, her eyes were green
My sister Khaye, her braids were black
Sister Khaye, it was she who raised me
In the house on Smotshe Street with tumble down steps.

Mother left the house at dawn
When there was hardly light in the sky.
She went off to the shop, to earn
A wretched penny's worth of change.

And Khaye stayed with the boys,
She fed them and watched over them.
And at night, when little kids get tired,
She'd sing them pretty songs.

My sister Khaye, her eyes were green
My sister Khaye, her hair was long
Sister Khaye, it was she who raised me
She wasn't even ten years old.

She cleaned and cooked and served the food,
She washed our little heads
All she forgot was to play with us
Sister Khaye, her braids were black.

My sister Khaye with her eyes of green
Was burnt by a German in Treblinka.
And I am, in the Jewish world,
The very last one who ever knew her.

It's for her that I write my poems in Yiddish
In these terrible days of our times.
To God Himself she's an only daughter,
She sits in heaven at His right hand.

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At 1:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a touching reason to keep writing in one's mother tongue.

Live language study is so much more effective than a page.

At 3:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ich redde eyne Duitse diokelt dat iz eyn bissle vie yiddisch und desvegen ich kann het verstayn... ik hab' auk geweint...het iz so eyne shayne leyde aber het hegnte an eyne tauriges fech .... Gedank

At 12:57 PM, Blogger Strange Little Girl said...

Would Albert and Max Farber happen to have lived in Buffalo, NY for a time? I have relatives by the same names, and I am searching for family...

ladyqortni @ yahoo . com


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