Rachel Levmore

‘Tell me where shall I go?’

The songs my mother sang to me in my early childhood were in Yiddish. I had my favorites with one particular song standing out in its poignancy—which I sensed even as a very young child.

“Vi ahin zol ich gayn” was written before WW II by Igor S. Korntayer, a Yiddish actor, who was murdered in Auschwitz. It was put to music by Oscar Strock. Variants were sung in ghettos, by those who fled and then in the camps of displaced persons. Loosely translated (as I remember it sung in Yiddish and in English) and abbreviated, with the song’s haunting melody giving depth, desperation and yearning to the words:

Tell me where can I go?
Who can answer me?
Where to go where to go
every door is closed for me,
To the left to the right
it’s the same in every land,
Tell me where shall I go
and it’s me who should know
where to go, where to go

Now I know where to go
To my land which is free,
To there I will go
Where the old is new for me.
A land where Yiddishkeit thrives
Where every Jew lives truly free,
Yisroel is our home
The Jew lives free in his home
To there I will go.

Both literally and figuratively “Vi ahin zol ich gayn” crosses boundaries – double entendre intended. Sung by Jewish singers whose roots lay in various countries – Russia, Hungary, Austria, etc., The United States and Israel – it speaks of the desperate wandering Jew, searching for a safe haven. Moreover, It was only as an insightful teen did I understand that the unspoken, underlying power of the song — as sung by my mother — was due to her actually living the words of this Yiddish existential state: escaping Nazism in Austria by crossing borders to Belgium; only to be driven out to France; then reaching Portugal; traversing the Atlantic Ocean; arriving in Jamaica and then on to Cuba; to finally finding a home in the US and in Israel.

As is known, the Yiddish language carries nuances and depths which cannot be transmitted in translation. I wonder how the eternal message of what turned into a Yiddish anthem in the 1940s can be effectively transmitted as personally relevant to the generation of heroes in Israel, fighting for “Yisroel is our home”, as well as the generation in the diaspora facing shocking antisemitism. There are many variations of “Vi ahin zol ich gayn” in both Yiddish and English to be found on the internet, which can give one the feel for this song — an expression of the state of being of the Jews. However, there is one rendition where the symbolism wrenches the heart. It is the video of the March of the Living’s Memorial Ceremony in the Krakow Philharmonic Concert Hall on April 11, 2018. Survivor Hank Brodt, together with Shai Abramson, Chief Cantor of the IDF, accompanied by the IDF Rabbinate Choir conducted by Ofir Sobol – all embody together the two-thousand-year span of the generations of Jews from the diaspora to the “Home of Israel”.

My mother, Mina Picker née Rosen, passed away in Israel while visiting her only daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, on 14 Sivan 5747 (1987). I can hear her singing: “Yisroel is undzer heym, Der Yid lebt fray in zayn heym, Dort ahin vel ickh geyn”. Yisroel is our home, The Jew lives free in his home, To there I will go.

And here I shall stay.

About the Author
Rachel Levmore, PhD in Talmud and Jewish Law from Bar Ilan University, is the director of the Agunah and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of Young Israel - Israel Region and the Jewish Agency; one of the authors of the prenuptial "Agreement for Mutual Respect"; author of "Min'ee Einayich Medim'a" on prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get-refusal; member of Beit Hillel-Attentive Spiritual Leadership; and the first female Rabbinical Court Advocate to serve on the Israel Commission for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges.