Featured Post

Abroad with Mordechai Gebirtig

The songs of a Yiddish poet and songwriter from Poland killed long ago resonate with me so deeply that I must thank him publicly
The plaque commemorating Mordechai Gebirtig at 5 Berek Joselewicz Street in Krakow, Poland. (Feigeles-Olko, via Wikimedia Commons
The plaque commemorating Mordechai Gebirtig at 5 Berek Joselewicz Street in Krakow, Poland. (Feigeles-Olko, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the things I miss about Krakow is having Mordechai Gebirtig as my neighbor.

In the 1920s and ’30s, Gebirtig lived in the Jewish quarter of Krakow at Number 5 Berek Joselewicz Street: a humble courtyard apartment. A plaque was affixed — rather tardily — in 1992.

His wife would die in 1915, while he was at war on behalf of Austro-Hungary. He was left with three girls.

He earned a living fixing furniture. He had been fascinated by music from a young age but could not read or write musical notation. He taught himself to play a wooden flute. He was murdered in the Krakow ghetto on Bloody Thursday: June 4, 1942.

His old address is now a peculiar sort of memorial, and, according to the internet, Gebirtig’s songs can be heard day and night there, playing through an open basement window. Never noticed that.

Some readers will remember that, as a Dominican friar, I lived in Krakow quite a long time. Now in the Alps, I look back across Germany in longing.

Krakow is an odd city to long for. Many residents longed to get out — not only Jews, but also Poles. Lots landed in my native region of the United States. Emigrating from a land to which people immigrate; being an “in-wanderer” in countries from which everyone wandered out: that’s the context of my European experience.

* * *

Mordechai Gebirtig’s is a voice I knew years before I went to Poland. His was one of the voices that lured me there, and his sensibility — communicated in unforgettable melodies and delicious Yiddish — helped me feel at home once I arrived.

Gebirtig’s name is known in Poland, to those who know. There must be a handful of cabaret artists who perform his works. In our monastery, he was less well known. And yet, for me, he was there.

I first heard something by Gebirtig on a CD I bought at Tower Records on Union Square. Even in his lifetime, Gebirtig reached New York — virtually.

It is easy to forget that there was a constellation of Yiddish publishers and playhouses all over Europe and America. Singers crossed borders. Songs too. Gerbirtig published his first collection of songs, Folkstimlekh, in 1920, when Poland was getting used to the idea of being an independent country for the first time since the 18th century. A second collection came out in 1936. But his songs spread even before they were published. They were so natural — so Yiddish — that some at the time assumed they were folk songs with no known author. I’m sure some still assume so.

Molly Picon, the singing actress and spry gamine who appeared in Yidl mit’n Fidl and then (much later) inaugurated the role of Yente in the original stage production of Fiddler on the Roof, gave Gebirtig a lift. Picon was born in New York and died in Pennsylvania, but in the pre-Shoah world she could flit back and forth across the Atlantic. She made a big Yiddish film in Vienna when she was 25 (Mezrach und Maarev, 1923) and did Yidl on location in Poland when she was 38, in 1936 — a date that makes one hold one’s breath. Thanks to her and others, Gebirtig’s songs became staples of the Yiddish theater.

I used to imagine I heard them in New York as I walked past the Village East Cinema on 12th and 2nd — that’s the former Yiddish Art Theater, built in 1925 and ’26 for a company founded by Maurice Schwartz. Or in passing the Sunshine Cinema on Houston at Eldridge — once the Sunshine Theater, opened in 1909 as the Houston Hippodrome, a Yiddish vaudeville house. I’m told the Art Theater was for highbrow plays; the Sunshine was for shund (trash).

By the way, the Sunshine has now gone the way of Tower Records.

* * *

Avreyml der marvikher (Avreyml the pickpocket) might have been a native of Krakow, but he was perfect on New York’s gum-spotted sidewalks:

Ikh bin Avreyml der feikster marvikher
a groyser kinstler, kh’arbet laykht un zikher…

This was published in 1936. Chava Alberstein recorded it magnificently in 1999:

I am Avreyml, the most accomplished pickpocket.
A great artist, I work light and sure.

I don’t visit the market, like those common thieves.
I lift only from the stingy, dirty rich.
It’s a pleasure to hit such magnates.
I’m Avreyml, a truly successful guy.

Avreyml, for me, is Gebirtig. Was Gebirtig a pickpocket? Yes: he stole joy out of a wretched situation, without forgetting that it was wretched.

There’s a tendency to sentimentalize Gebirtig that does not serve his memory well. More than the little-bit-pretentious postmodern recordings that have been made of S’brent (“It’s Burning,” about the Przytyk pogrom) or Arbetsloze marshsung in the voice of the unemployed, Avreyml expresses Gebirtig’s spirit.

Is it socially conscious? Certainly. Gebirtig was a Bundist. In the prologue, the pickpocket sings:

I became an orphan when very young,
poverty drove me outdoors before I turned thirteen.
Away from home, far from mother’s care,
the dirty gutter raised me, and I became a thief.

But there’s humor and there’s pleasure in the lyrics, and the music, too.

Those fine people, who always have plenty, would often drive me away, miserable, yelling ‘he’ll grow up a thief’ — well, they were right. A thief I am, but a successful one.

How can one hear that last line without feeling delicious secondhand satisfaction?

The song has been called a self-eulogy. The chorus is sung in march-time, like an anthem. Some hapless interpreters (like the soprano Willa Weber) have been fooled by this and decided that the song is supposed to be merry. It’s not: it’s too smart to be sweet. That bittersweetness is all Gebirtig.

Why am I writing this? To thank Mordechai Gebirtig.

Years ago, I listened to him and felt I understood. I listened, too, and felt understood. Along with some Eastern European foods and, of course, Catholicism, Gebirtig’s songs showed me a path to Europe from America. His jostling tunes and the sparkling handfuls of words he wrote (which, like a nut, I recited over and over in my own humble courtyard apartment) have been a golden lining in my pocket wherever I go.

About the Author
Born in Wisconsin, Erik Ross is a priest of the Dominican Order who lives in Switzerland and comes often to Israel. For many years, he was stationed in Poland. He has long been active in Jewish-Christian conversations. He writes here with the permission of his major superior.
Related Topics
Related Posts