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How One Half-Yiddish, Half-English Song Connected Generations of My Family

‘Bei Mir Bistu Shein’ always reminded my mother of her father. And now that my mother is gone, it reminds me of her.

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The Andrews Sisters (left to right: Maxene, Patty, and LaVerne) go over a song together on May 7, 1945. (AP)
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When I was a little boy, my mother used to tell me a story about her father, Ben Morris—born Beryl Marchefsky in Varklani, Latvia. When Ben would take my grandmother, my mother, and her younger sister to spend the summer in the Catskills in the 1930s, he would always ask the bandleader in their hotel to play his favorite song, “Bei Mir Bistu Shein.”

Mom told me he requested the song so many times that whenever he walked into the hotel nightclub, the band would automatically start to play it. My mother would sit at a table and watch her father grab her mother and swing her around the dance floor.

The song was originally from a Yiddish musical comedy Men Ken Lebn Nor Men Lost Nisht (You Could Live but They Won’t Let You). It was recorded in the 1930s by the Andrews Sisters and became a huge success. Later it was performed by artists as diverse as Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, and Guy Lombardo. It was even a hit in Nazi Germany until they learned of its Jewish roots, at which point it was banned.

To me (or should I say, by me?), “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” is the quintessential Jewish song: the slightly mournful minor key, the swing beat that Jews like Benny Goodman made famous, and, of course, Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin’s half-Yiddish, half-English lyrics.

When my mother sang “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” and told me about her father, she usually wound up with tears in her eyes. The song sounded kind of happy to me, despite its minor key, and my grandfather was still alive, so as a little boy, I couldn’t figure out why it made her cry.

But years later, as my mother suddenly lay in critical condition in the ICU, “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” ultimately brought tears to my eyes, too, as it became the tie connecting me to her—and her past.

***

One Wednesday in December 2009, I was unable to reach my mother despite countless calls. In the late afternoon, I finally got hold of her neighbor Nettie who had a key to her house. Nettie went in and found my mother on the floor. She called the paramedics and I drove the 60 miles to the hospital as fast as I could.

When they let me into the ICU, I ran to my mother and took her hand. Her eyes were closed and her face distorted. She’d had a major stroke on the right side of her brain and, in the complex cross-hatch of human anatomy, this meant the left side of her body was paralyzed.

One of the doctors told me that the stroke was huge. Another doctor asked me if she had a living will with end-of-life decisions. Still another told me that a neurologist would only see her in the morning. Fighting back fear, nausea, and fury, I asked the first doctor for clearer details on the stroke, informed the second one that now was not the time to talk about a living will, and told the third one that he’d better get a goddamn neurologist there right away.

I sat with my mother, held her hand, and, since I didn’t know what else to do, I sang.

I started with show tunes: South Pacific and My Fair Lady. And then I remembered “Bei Mir Bistu Shein.” I held her hand a little tighter and began:

Bei mir bistu shein
Please let me explain
Bei mir bistu shein
Means that you’re grand

Bei mir bistu shein
Again I’ll explain
It means you’re the fairest in the land

I finished the song and asked, “How was that, Mama?” She nodded. It was good.

Singing became part of our daily routine in the ICU and then in rehab and then in the nursing home. Sometimes we sang together. When it got harder for her to sing, I would sing alone and have her fill in the last word of each line. And when that got too hard, she would pantomime.

Over time, I expanded our repertoire, adding “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” as well as “Daisy, Daisy, Give Me Your Answer Do” which I turned into “Phyllis, Phyllis, Give Me Your Answer Do.” But every time, I would finish the set with “Bei Mir Bistu Shein.” I would dance and, in bed or in her wheelchair, she would hold my hand and we would swing.

My mother’s world was now delineated by very narrow boundaries: her room in the nursing home, the hallways I would wheel her around, and the small flower garden where we would sit some days. In addition to her left-side paralysis, her short-term and medium-term memories were severely damaged, which meant her internal world had also become a small, dark place. “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” had been transformed into a rescue cable I was tossing down the mineshaft for her to hold on to in the desolation and solitude.

One day I was singing the song and ended the way I always did: “So, kiss me and tell me that you’re mine.”

“And say you understand,” my mother said.

“What?”

“And say you understand.”

“What should I understand, Mama?” I didn’t understand.

And then I did. I had been singing the wrong words and she was correcting me. The lyrics were so firmly cemented in her long-term memory that not even a traumatic brain injury could pry them loose.

I said, “Sorry, Mama, sorry!” and from that day on, I sang: “So, kiss me, and say you understand.”

Four months later, I walked in for my daily visit and found her having a second massive stroke. On the frantic, chaotic ambulance ride to the hospital, I sat up front with the driver while the EMT worked on her in the back.

The ambulance was longer than any emergency vehicle I’d seen before. My mother felt miles away. The seat belt and shoulder harness kept me from turning around so I twisted my neck and screamed “Everything’s OK, Mama. You’re going to be fine!”

I couldn’t see or hear anything so I started to sing. Or, rather, shriek in panic and anguish:

Bei mir bistu shein
Please let me explain
Bei mir bistu shein
means that you’re grand

As the ambulance tore through the Haitian neighborhoods of North Miami, and with the Cuban driver looking at me out of the corner of his eye, I sang to her in mamaloshen. The siren wailed, and I wailed louder:

I’ve tried to explain
Bei mir bistu shein
So kiss me and say you understand

The song was now much more than a tender way to evoke my mother’s childhood. “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” had become a lifeline from me in the front seat of the ambulance to her in the back where the EMT was keeping her alive.

Early one Friday morning two years, eight months, and 25 days later, the call came, as it always does: “Mr. Weinstock, go to the E.R. Hurry.” And once again, I drove as fast as I could.

I ran into the E.R. through the double swinging doors and told the receptionist who I was. A minute later, a doctor approached me and said, “I’m very sorry.”

It took nearly four hours for the paperwork to be done and the chevra kadisha to arrive. I sat with my mother, told her I loved her, and kissed her still-warm forehead. And I sang her “Bei Mir Bistu Shein.”

During the 12 months following my mother’s death, I tried to follow the laws of avelut (Jewish mourning) and avoided listening to music. But sometimes when the grief attacked me especially savagely, I would play different YouTube versions of the song: the Andrews Sisters, the Barry Sisters’ all-Yiddish version, even one by a girl band from the Netherlands accompanying themselves on accordion and ukulele. It was oddly comforting.

Now I understand why my mother used to tear up when she sang me “Bei Mir Bistu Shein.” It is the song that binds my family to itself, to those we love, alive or departed.

***

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How One Half-Yiddish, Half-English Song Connected Generations of My Family

‘Bei Mir Bistu Shein’ always reminded my mother of her father. And now that my mother is gone, it reminds me of her.

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