Yiddish Nostalgia…. Mamaloshen.

While dusting some bookshelves today I came across a sealed unopened CD of a 1998 recording of Yiddish Folksongs from the Jewish Theatre of Bucharest, Romania. Probably a gift from an un-remembered friend.

It contained 18 folksongs and lullabies in Yiddish sung by members of the Bucharest Jewish Theatre. I opened the wrapping and placed the disc gently into the recording machine and was surprised that I had not known of nor heard any of the recorded songs.

While I had expected to hear Yiddish classics like O’ifn Pripachek, or Az der Rebbe Elimelech iz gevoren zehr freilich, not one of the Yiddish songs that had for a century or more been treasured by Jewish communities particularly in Poland, these songs like Di Mamme kocht warenikes or Lamce ram ciam or Machatainiste Meine, some of the 18 songs, were more probably familiar to Romanian Jews. Not to me.

Yet as I listened to the voices of Ruchaleh Schapira, Dorian Livianu, and the “vici”” trio of Bebe Bercovici, Carol Bercovici and Trici Abramovici (all unknown to me) I was transformed back into the world of Yiddish nostalgia.

The Romanian names ending in “ vici” are equivalent to Polish and Russian family names ending in “itz” or “sky”. So in mamaloshen Yiddish, the “vicis” would have been Berkovitz and Abramovitz.

To be quite honest I did not understand much of the Yiddish verses. Give me an “O’ifn Pripachek” any day.

Nevertheless, I was emotionally overcome with the melodies… tunes that Jewish mothers would have sung to their infants as they rocked them to sleep. Lullabies that are no longer sung to Yiddish babies by their Yiddish mamas.

Spoken Yiddish language began in Germany in the 10th and 11th centuries and was transported by German Jews to the lands of the east.. Russia, Poland and Lithuania with different dialects in Hungary and Romania.

The very first appearance of Yiddish writing was in a Hebrew prayerbook, the Worms machzor, in 1272.

For centuries, Yiddish was the main spoken language of East European Jewry. It is a creative language, more so than Hebrew in its day. Operas, theater performances, printed newspapers, marketing, etc. were all confined to the Yiddish language wherever Jews lived in eastern European communities.

When the first group of Jews arrived in 19th century Palestine, the languages spoken by the Jews were Yiddish and Russian and by the Sephardim, Arabic or Ladino.. No Hebrew.

Hebrew developed slowly in the birth of Zionism. It was introduced by the linguist and Hebrew devotee, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, father of modern Hebrew , and became the official language on October 13, 1881, when Ben-Yehuda made it mandatory for all schools to conduct classes in the Hebrew language.

In 1912, prominent German Zionists laid the cornerstone for the Technikum in Haifa. German was required to be the official language of instruction until……until…..until Jewish students rebelled on October 26, 1913 and began the Language War. German was out. Hebrew was in. And the Technikum became the Technion , the renowned Haifa Institute of Technology.

When I was a young child,( in another lifetime), Yiddish was frequently spoken in our home, especially when our parents did not want the children to understand what they were saying.

It is not difficult for me to remember the words and the curses which enriched the Yiddish language.

When I was what my mother considered “naughty”, I was called “a vilde Chaya”. If I was too noisy at the supper table I heard, “Genug shoin. Geh shlofen”.

And my redeemer, my beloved zaideh, would tell my mother “Faigaleh, loz ihm alain. Er iz nor a kleine yingele”, imploring my mother to leave a young child alone. And to me he would say “Kum aher tataleh. Zetzich bei mir”… come here sweetheart and sit next to me.

And how could I forget the daily “reminders: “Geh washen. Geh essen. Geh davenen. Geh shlofen. Geh avec”…. Go wash up, go eat, go say your prayers, go to sleep, go away.

Yiddish is a much richer language than Hebrew. It has words which cannot be translated into proper nice language. And its abundance of curses could fill pages of a book.
One curse that my mother would tell my father about me in my presence still hurts me to this very day. My father never cursed me, even when he felt disappointed by some of my behavior. My mother, on the other hand, used Yiddish to her advantage. Even after she had learned spok

But some years before I married, her curses turned into blessings. Must have been her change of life ! Strange though… I don’t remember the blessings but I cannot forget the curses.

Yiddish has a charm of its own. The Yiddish versions of the plays “The Dybbuk” and “Tevya der Milchidiger” among others would lose its charm when performed in Hebrew at the Habima theatre in Tel-Aviv.

While I cherish the maxim “eved anochi l’ivrit la-netzach”… I am a servant to Hebrew forever,,, the nostalgia of Yiddish works its magic on me.

A tragic reminder… six million Jews in Europe went to their deaths speaking and screaming to God in Yiddish. “Gottenyu, hob rachmoness fur meine kinder. Helfen kennst Du, nur Gott alain”…. Please God, have mercy on my children. Only You, God, can help. Yiddish cries. Not Hebrew cries.

“Nu? Vos kenn ich tun? Yiddish iz noch nit toit. Es lebt noch in a yiddisher hertz, Gott sei dank”.

Now go and translate it into Hebrew if you can. Und zei mir gezunt !

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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