My mother, Sara, would have turned 77 this month. To celebrate her birthday, in addition to lighting a yahrzeit candle, I will also listen to what was her most beloved CD in the years before her death: Mamma L’shon–The Best Yiddish Songs, performed by the Israeli-born cantor and entertainer David “Dudu” Fisher.
With the exception of bissaleh, bubaleh, and a few other words, I don’t understand Yiddish and, to be honest, I don’t even like the CD that much—probably because my family listened to it so many times that even my mother’s longtime caregivers, one from Jamaica and one from Trinidad, could hum along with the klezmer-tinged tunes. While my mother was alive, the sound of Fisher’s voice would prompt an eye roll or perhaps a mild groan from me, but now I find the songs oddly comforting, a reminder of the times my mom relished a simple pleasure when her life was anything but simple.
No one in my family remembers exactly when, or even why, Dudu Fisher became a fixture in our home, but it was about six years ago, when my father came home carrying a small bag from West Side Judaica with the disc of 22 songs in it. My father joked that he had asked the salesman if they had any Dudu Fisher CDs. When the salesman, apparently not realizing that Dudu is a nickname for David, replied, “We only have David Fisher CDs,” my father, with mock disappointment, said, “OK, I’ll take it.”
My mother, brother, and I must have heard that anecdote dozens of times, but my mother was the only one who regularly chuckled at it. For my mom, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for nearly seven years before we lost her in August 2014, each time she heard that story was like the first.
Yet, unlike that story, the songs on the disc stayed with her. Throughout her illness, Fisher’s songs provided a constant. More than the classical music and opera she loved, more than the Israeli songs by Naomi Shemer and Shoshana Damari she grew up on, even more than Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” (which my mother also took a liking to later in life), those Yiddish tunes invigorated and animated my mom. For that, I will always owe a debt of gratitude to Dudu Fisher.
It is well established that music and memory are deeply connected and that people with Alzheimer’s and dementia respond to music, even as their memory dims, as words fail them, as they increasingly become unmoored and drift into a daunting, unfamiliar world.
In his book Musicophilia, the late neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote:
The response to music is preserved, even when dementia is very advanced. The aim of music therapy in people with dementia seeks to address the emotions, cognitive powers, thoughts and memories, the surviving “self” of the patient, to stimulate these and bring them to the fore. It aims to enrich and enlarge existence, to give freedom, stability, organization and focus.
My mother loved Dudu Fisher’s songs precisely because they enriched and enlarged her existence—and, in retrospect, they did the same for me. Those songs enabled me to spend quality time with my mother as her quality of life was diminishing. Even now, when I hear the upbeat, almost tongue-twister-like “Chiribim, Chiribom,” or the somber, pogrom-inspired “Es Brent,” I can picture my mother singing or lip-syncing along, extending her arm out like an opera singer while Fisher belted out an especially long note. (“Hey, this guy can sing!” she once exclaimed. Fisher, after all, is best known for playing Jean Valjean in Les Misérables on Broadway.)
In the early stages of her disease, before my mother’s gait grew unsteady, we would dance in the living room to some of the peppier songs on the CD like the rousing “Roumania, Roumania” or the folky “Tumbalalaika.” Before she became largely housebound, my brother even took mom to see Fisher perform at Carnegie Hall, and like a true groupie, she rushed the stage at the end to try to meet him (to no avail).
Later on, when my mother’s illness progressed and she preferred to stay in bed until the afternoon, we would often put the CD on in hopes of waking her, or “perking her up” before trying to persuade her to shower—just one of the everyday activities that becomes a challenge with dementia patients. The “Dudu strategy” didn’t work every time, but I knew we had a good shot if mom opened one eye after hearing a few notes and then, referring to the singer using the Yiddish diminutive, asked, “Who is that, Dudaleh Fisher?”
As Sacks also noted, music arouses thoughts and memories among dementia patients, and in my mother’s case those were mixed. Two of the disc’s songs in particular—“Wi Nemt men a Bissale Mazel” and “Mazl,” both about good fortune, or rather the absence of it—prompted my mother to lament the adversity that bookended her life.
Yiddish theater legends Molly Picon and Abraham Ellstein wrote “Mazl” for the 1938 film Mamele. In it, the film’s protagonist Khavshe sings:
Good fortune, sooner or later you shine on everyone,
On everyone, but not on me.
Good fortune, you bring happiness to everyone.
Why do you bypass my door?
Listening to Fisher’s rendition of the song with my mother, while witnessing her transformation from a brilliant doctor to someone who had difficulty following the plot of a 30-minute television episode, I often felt it rang true. Life had at times been unfair to her.
While my mother’s later years were devastated by dementia, she was robbed of her childhood by the Holocaust. Born in Warsaw in 1938, she’d spent her early years in hiding in Poland, first in the forest with her parents, then with a Catholic Polish woman who hid her for nearly a year before returning her to my grandparents when their money ran out. They survived the war, spent some time in a German displaced-persons camp, and moved to Israel in 1948, where my mother embarked on living what she called a “normal life.”
Still, despite my mother’s achievements as a dedicated doctor and mother, and despite not having dwelled obsessively on her past during my childhood, there was an inherent melancholy that would sometimes bubble up to the surface. On more than one occasion she told me, “I just hope you have a better life than I did.”
First-world problems aside, my life has already been far better than my mother’s. I haven’t had to contend with a fraction of the struggles she faced with a mix of grace and steely determination. Now, as a newish mother myself, when I hear Fisher sing “Mazl,” I think of my mother’s misfortune and of what a tremendous loss it is for me—and my son—that she is gone. Then I think of how privileged I was to have her as a mother and to have shared in the delight she derived from listening to Dudu Fisher.
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Anat Rosenberg is a New York-based editor and writer.