Yiddish—the conversational language of Ashkenazi Jews—had about 11 million speakers before World War II. Six million or so of these were killed in World War II; many of the ones that were left, hoping for safety in a Western (American, Australian, etc) identity, became hesitant to speak the language too loudly. About 600,000 people worldwide know it now.
Jewish contributions to popular music over the last century, both in English and Yiddish, have defined and redefined Jewish cultural identity in both the Jewish and goyish imagination. The use of, or lack of, cultural signifiers in songs spanning a range of genres traces a path upon which individuals and peoples push and pull between insider and outsider, assimilation and tradition.
🎼 Unit 1
Bei Mir Bistu Shein (“To Me You're Beautiful” or, more literally, “By Me
You’re Beautiful”) (1932) is a Yiddish song composed by Jacob Jacobs and Sholom Secunda and popularised by Sammy
Cahn. Popular entertainer Eddie Cantor was offered the rights to the song but said, “I can't use it. It's too
Jewish.” The best-known version in its original Yiddish was performed by the Barry Sisters, first known as the
In 1937, the song was recorded by the Andrews Sisters in English under a Germanised title (“Bei Mir Bist Du
Schön”). Cahn wrote the English version after the Andrews Sisters—who initially thought the song was in
Greek—took the time to learn the Yiddish phonetically only to have their label decide the Yiddish was too
Out of the mouths of this Lutheran trio of Norweigan sisters, the song became a hit in Nazi Germany and amongst Nazi sympathisers abroad. Jews and Non-Nazi gentiles liked it as well. Chaos ensued in Germany when the song’s Jewish history was discovered and publicised, but it stayed popular enough for the Nazi propaganda band Charlie and His Orchestra to perform an anti-communist rendition in 1942. The Nazi Degenerate Music exhibition opened the same year the Andrews Sisters made Bei Mir Bistu Shein accessible to an Aryan audience. The exhibition brochure cover presented a caricature of an African American jazz musician, playing a saxophone and wearing a Star of David on his lapel.
Useful idioms, expressions, proverbs
|דער אַפּעטיט קומט מיטן עסן||✡||The appetite comes with the eating|
|אַזוי גייט עס||✡||So it goes|
|אַבי געזונט||✡||As long as you’re healthy|
Grammar practice: tense
|איך זינג דאָס ליד||✡||I sing the song|
|איך האָב געזונגען||✡||I sang the song|
|מיר האָבן געזונגען||✡||We sang the song|
|מיר וועלן זיי איבערלעבן||✡||We will sing the song|
|די זון וועט אַרונטערגיין אונטדערןבאַרג||✡||The sun will set|
This is how I remember.
This is how I ground myself in the present.
This is how I ground myself into dust.
🎼 Unit 2
The 1993 film Swing Kids is based on the Swing Youth who came of age in Hitler’s Germany with an irrepressible passion for jazz. The film stars a young Robert Sean Leonard, who would grow up to be House M.D.’s best friend; Christian Bale, who would grow up to be American Psycho; and Frank Whaley, who is perhaps better known for his death as Brett in Pulp Fiction (spoiler alert) than his death as Arvid in Swing Kids (spoiler alert).
In an early scene, Bale sticks his neck out for someone being beaten by a group of Hitler Youth. The trio of main characters are fairly disappointed when it turns out the victim is a Jew and not a Swing Kid. This scene establishes the difference between a larger social conscience and the desire to listen to good music and dance and protect your buddies.
After 40 minutes or so of internal conflict (including some very hurtful external words), Leonard comes to a fuller understanding of how Nazis aren’t great and Jews are probably people too. An instrumental version of (what one hopes is Bei Mir Bistu Shein but is probably) Bei Mir Bist Du Schön plays as Leonard sheds his Nazi uniform for his Swing Kid outfit once more. A band plays Bei Mir Bist Du Schön for Leonard’s final dance until a group of Nazis, including Bale, raid the dance hall.
In the subsequent final scene of the film Leonard loudly sings It don’t mean a thing while being hauled away, presumably towards very hard labour if not death. The Holocaust was very sad, and repression of musical expression is very bad, but Leonard’s slow-motion “doo-wop doo-wop doo-wop doo-wop doo-wop doo-wop doo-wop” with emotional background music is, like, a lot.
|אַמעריקאַניש משוגענער||✡||American psycho|
|דער (ליבער) חבֿרים||✡||buddies|
|די שווערע אַרבעט||✡||labour|
New idioms, expressions, proverbs
|וואָס הערט זיך ? וואָס זאָל זיך הערן ?||✡||What’s happening? [Standard response:] What should be happening?|
|עס גייט (ניט) אַ (קיין) רעגן||✡||It is (not) raining|
|עס מאַכט ניט אויס||✡||It doesn’t matter|
Grammar practice: possessive
|מײַן פֿרײַנד||✡||My friend|
|דײַן פּראָבלעם||✡||Your problem|
|אונדזער מוזיק||✡||Our music|
|אונדזער ליד||✡||Our song|
In the meantime, stitch me together from your scraps and let me know the plan so I can sing along.
🎼 Unit 3
In Theresienstadt—the “model” Jewish ghetto—a band called the Ghetto Swingers were forced to play songs like Bei Mir Bist Du Schön in the main square for hours at a time. Many ghettoes and camps had similar bands.
“When I played I forgot where I was. The world seemed in order, the suffering of people around me disappeared—life was beautiful,” Ghetto Swinger’s guitarist, Coco Schumann, would later recount.1 “We knew everything and forgot everything the moment we played a few bars.”
Eventually Theresienstadt was dissolved and most of its inhabitants were sent to Auschwitz. Two of the band’s dozen or so members survived.
New idioms, expressions, proverbs
|איידער וואָס און איידער ווען||✡||Before you know it|
|פֿון וואָס לעבט אַ ייִד?||✡||How does a Jew earn a living?|
Grammar practice: plural
|די קלעזמאָרים שפּילן||✡||The musicians play|
|מיר זינגען לידער||✡||We sing songs|
|די קינדער עסן די סאַרדינען||✡||The children eat the sardines|
|איך האָט ליב פֿריידיק געשיכטעס||✡||I love happy stories|
🎼 Unit 4
After being discovered by Cahn during a performance by jazz duo Johnnie and George at the Apollo, Bei Mir Bistu Shein spread far and wide, becoming the catalyst of the Yiddish swing era. It melded American jazz and shtetl culture in perfect harmony, helping “ease Jewish immigrants' assimilation into American society.”2
The song was originally created for a Yiddish operetta, but the English lyrics “…transcend the song’s Jewish roots and celebrate America’s melting of multiple languages and cultures,” Charles Hersch writes in Jews and Jazz: Improvising Ethnicity. As the song’s love-struck protagonist imagines saying bella bella or sehr wünderbar, each foreign tongue is simply a vehicle to express how ‘grand’ the beloved is.”3
Bei Mir Bistu Shein—a “catchy” song originally created for a Jewish audience and eventually watered down to sate a wider “public’s thirst for ‘exotic’ musical fare,” according to Hersch—is a crucial plank in the bridge between klezmer music—a genre the exclusive domain of Ashkenazi Jewry—and something more contemporary, something more popular.
New idioms, expressions, proverbs
|אַ וועלט מיט וועלטלעך !||✡||A world with small worlds!|
|עס פֿעלט אַ דרײַערל||✡||To lack a small but crucial sum for necessary expenses|
|אַ ייִדישער גנבֿ גנבֿעט נאָר ביכער||✡||A Jewish thief steals only books|
🎼 Unit 5
The genre of klezmer was constructed from Jewish niggun and moulded to the restrictions of the era. Legislation banning Jews from playing anything but “quiet” instruments in various states influenced the instrument selection, later diversified by second-hand instruments brought home by Jewish boys who had served in the Czar’s army bands.
The immediately post-Holocaust generation of Jews perhaps rejected klezmer as a thing of their immigrant parents’ past—a hindrance to assimilation. Later generations perhaps embraced klezmer as a forgotten part of their own pasts—a musical key to a less exclusively Western identity.
Musicians like Brave Old World, The Klezmatics, Yiddish Princess, Daniel Kahn, and Tsibele carry klezmer’s legacy into the modern age. Michael Alpert of Brave Old World says “We’re like the vanished race. We’re on the national conscience, and the postwar generation tends to romanticize us a lot—you know, like, Oh wow, weren’t these people cool until our parents and grandparents came along and murdered them?”4
“Imagine the Holocaust never happened. You’re on a cruise ship on the Danube,” Brave Old World member Stuart Brotman writes in the album notes of Waltz Român à Clef.
|פֿאַרשוווּנדן ווערן||✡||to vanish|
|אויסמאָלן זיך||✡||to imagine|
|דער קרייסער||✡||cruise ship|
New idioms, expressions, proverbs
|די אַלטע היים||✡||the old country|
|טראָג(ט) געזונטערהייט||✡||Wear it in good health|
Grammar practice: negative
|איך זינג ניט קיין א ייִדיש ליד||✡||I do not sing a Yiddish song|
|מיר זײַנען ניט דאָ||✡||We are not here|
|דאָס אַרט מיך ניט (זאָג איך:)||✡||It does not bother me|
I’m proud of my heritage,
Yet I envy you,
Today’s children of yesterday’s enemy,
Because yours is the future,
One land and a language,
While we are left here, speechless…
Actually he sings
כ׳האַלט שטאַרק פֿון מײַן ייחוס,
נאָר איך בין אײַך מקנא,
איר, הײַנטיקע קינדער פֿון נעכטיקן פֿײַנט,
ווײַל אײַך איז די צוקונפֿט,
איין לאַנד און אַ שפּראַך,
בעת מיר האַלטן שטומערהייט דאָ...
But I don’t hear that—I’m on a cruise ship on the Danube and the lights are dim and the music is good so I hold you close and whisper a recipe for homemade candles instead.
1 Qtd in Amanda Petrusich, “The Jewish Trumpeter Who Entertained Nazis to Survive the Holocaust,”
The New Yorker, 22 April 2019, newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-jewish-trumpeter-who-entertained-nazis-to-survive-the-holocaust.
2 Arielle Kaplan, “The Yiddish Song That Kicked off the Swing Era Is Due For a Comeback,” Kveller, 8 July 2020,kveller.com/the-yiddish-song-that-kicked-off-the-swing-era-is-due-for-a-comeback.
3 Charles Hersch, Jews and Jazz: Improvising Ethnicity (New York: Routledge 2017), 51.
4 Qtd in Tim Page, “Klezmer: Revival of the Traditionalists,” The Washington Post, 8 June 1996, washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/klezmer-revival-of-the-traditionalists/2018/08/09/30b213d6-9b12-11e8-843b-36e177f3081c_story.html.