Friday, November 20, 2009

Jewish Music

I want to talk about MUSIC. There are many styles and genres. On this blog I think it best to speak of Jewish Music. The first piece of music I'd like to mention is a melody from the late 1800's to the early 1900's. One of the most popular Yiddish lullabies, regarded by many as a "true folk song" Der alef-beyz (The Aleph Bet, or The ABC), or, as it is commonly known Oyfn pripetshok (On the Hearth). Here is the story behind this wonderful song. But first the words:

On the hearth a little fire is burning,
And it is hot in the house,
And the rebbe is teaching the little children.
The Aleph Bet.

Study, children, with great interest,
That is what I tell you;
He who'll know his lessons first,
Will get a banner for a prize. (Refrain)

When you get older, children,
You will understand that this alphabet
Contains the tears and the weeping
of our people.

When you grow weary, children
And burdened with exile,
You will find comfort and strength
within this Jewish alphabet. (Refrain) Refrain:
See now children, remember dear ones,
What you've learned here;
repeat it again and again
Aleph with kametz is "o"!

This lullaby has an interesting history. Its author Mark
Warshawsky (1840-1907) was not a professional poet, composer or performer.
His songs, however, came to be sung along with the oldest Yiddish folk songs
in Eastern Europe and wherever Yiddish-speaking Jews resided. He authored
some fifty texts and tunes. Even before they were published, more than
twenty of these songs became household songs in many Jewish homes in the
Pale of Settlement (the territory within the borders of czarist Russia where
the residence of Jews was legally authorized), and it became officially
known that Warshawsky was their creator.
Mark Warshawsky's songs mirror his abounding love for his
oppressed, poverty-stricken people under Czarism of the 1880s and 1890s.
Simple, direct, musically familiar to the folk ear, retaining the folk
idiom, his songs deal with the period of disillusionment and suffering
wrought by the pogroms, the migrations to America, the yearning for Zion,
the daily concerns of the average Jew in the Pale. The success of
Warshawky's songs was immediate, especially after they were published in
1899 with an introduction of Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. Both men became
associated as traveling performers, with Sholem Aleichem reading his stories
and Warshawsky singing his songs before Jewish audiences. The most popular
of all of Warshawsky's songs, regarded by most people as a "true" folk-song,
is Der alef-beyz (The ABC) or, as it is commonly known Oyfen Pripetshok (On
the hearth). Warshawsky was the last folk bard of the nineteenth century,
bridging the gap between the songs in folk style and the Yiddish art songs
of the twentieth century.
The melody from Warshawsky’s song was later used as a theme in the film
based on the life of George Gershwin. During the Nazi Holocaust it was used
as a ghetto song: "At the ghetto wall a fire burns, the surveillance is keen." And in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, it became a theme song sung clandestinely by Jewish activists; the closing words were reworded thus: "Even should they beat you or throw you on the pyre, repeat kometz-aleph-o."
So the next time you hear or, even better, sing any of these
beautiful lullabies hopefully to your grandchild and their grandchildren
too, remember the wonderful heritage and culture of which these lullabies
were born.
Zei Gezunt


  1. Hello, Elmirans.

    There is a Jewish music program broadcast on the internet every Sunday from 1 - 2 PM (EST), from KBOO in Portland, Oregon. You can listen to it live at

    I am one of the rotating hosts of this show. I do it about once a month and my next program is December 13th. Hope you can stop by and listen.

    Regards to all,
    Barry Lavine (not-so-famous former Elmiran)