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Raisins and Almonds and Shavuot

Rokhl’s Golden City: What a song can teach us about a holiday with many meanings

Rokhl Kafrissen
May 14, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

“We never learned that in Hebrew school.” Sometimes that is as basic as someone (me) needing a second-semester Yiddish class to learn what shvues (Shavuot) is. And sometimes, it’s as NSFW as someone (also me) learning why the rabbis of the Talmud eroticized their love for Torah study by comparing it to a gazelle’s vagina. As we learn in Pirkey Oves (Sayings of the Fathers): “It is not your responsibility to finish the work … but you are not free to desist from it either.”

That work may start in a Brandeis basement classroom, but then one day, two decades later, you find yourself loudly insisting to an empty living room that “Rozhinkes mit mandln” (Raisins and Almonds) is not actually a lullaby, or not only a lullaby, anyway, but a shvues lid, a song for Shavuot, and you’re gonna blow this whole thing wide open. And I will! But first, we have to go back to the beginning.

What is shvues? Well, the word means weeks. The Israelites left Egypt and wandered in the desert until Moses told them to get ready, because some stuff was about to go down. Today, we count the oymer (the Omer, i.e., the days) from the second night of Passover until shvues and when we get to 49, or seven weeks, voila, here we are—or there we were, at Mount Sinai.

In Yiddish we also refer to shvues as zman matn toreseynu, the time of the giving of the Torah, when Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the law. In the meantime, as described in the 1934 Yiddish textbook Fun yidishn lebn, the Israelites were summoned to Mount Sinai, amid much fearsome shoyfer blowing. And then “… es dunert arop gots shtime, un es tsutrogn zikh vayt arum di tsen gebot, di aseres hadibres.” (God’s voice thundered out, and it carried the Ten Commandments far and wide.)

Where it gets confusing, however, is that shvues has another, totally different, identity. It is also known as khag habikurim, the festival of the first fruits. It was an ancient harvest festival during which some of the first harvest would be brought to the Temple as an offering. Fun yidishn lebn tells us shvues has yet another name: khag hakitser, or der yontev fun shnit, the festival of harvest, when di tvues, the grain, was harvested from the fields. And now we’re getting closer to Raisins and Almonds territory.

Rozhinkes mit mandln” opens with the widow, Bas Tsioyn, sitting in a corner of the Temple in Jerusalem. She is rocking her son Yidele (a name that also means “little Jew”) and singing of his future: He will find himself flung across the world and his calling will be to trade in raisins and almonds. Depending on the verses being sung, we are assured that Yidele’s business will do just fine. It’s a beautiful, somewhat cryptic song with a haunting melody. If you’ve been in a coma for the last 150 years, please do yourself a favor and listen to it immediately.

Rozhinkes mit Mandln (Raisins and Almonds)

Unfortunately, the most interesting lines are rarely sung (at least on recordings). The song tells us that Yidele will be a soykher, a merchant, dealing in tvues, grain. This image ties the ancient world of the Temple and its agricultural sacrifices to the post-Temple, post-agricultural future of diasporic Jewry, ultimately thriving on its transnational trade networks:

In dem lidl mayn kind,
Lign fil nevues
Az du vest amol
zayn tsezeyt oyf der velt.
A soykher vestu zayn fun ale tvues,
Un vest fardinen in dem oykh fil gelt.
Within this song, my child
you will find many visions
that some time you will
be scattered across the world.
A merchant you will be, of all kinds of grain
And you will earn from them much wealth

Though “Rozhinkes mit mandln” is usually attributed to Avrom Goldfaden (it appeared in his 1880 operetta called Shulamis), Goldfaden was reworking a well-known Yiddish folksong with numerous variations. One example is “Unter yankele’s vigele(Under Yankele’s Cradle). In this one we find a rhyming pair that doesn’t appear in “Rozhinkes mit mandln,skhoyre and toyre:

Gezunt iz di beste skhoyre
Yankele vet lernen toyre

A guter un a frumer yid
Vet Yankele farblaybn
Good health is the best merchandise
Yankele will study Torah

A good and pious Jew
Yankele shall remain

It would seem that Goldfaden’s innovation was to take the imagery and characters of this folksong and project it across time and space. The white goat appears in both versions, but in “Unter yankele’s vigele,” it is only the goat that engages in business. But within the logic of “Rozhinkes mit mandln,” it is the grains Yidele takes with him as his skhoyre (merchandise) that maintain that connection between ancient and modern Jewish life. Goldfaden elevates the idea of merchants and merchandise, harmonizing, or at least finding a way for the hustle bustle of modern mercantile life to coexist with the past.

There is something both deeply appealing and deeply satisfying in a good rhyming pair. And we see the toyre-skhoyre rhyme pop up in a lot of places across Yiddish culture. When I was still in my Yiddishist cocoon in that Brandeis basement, we read a short fable called “Toyre iz di beste skhoyre,” which is also reproduced in the shvues section of the 1934 textbook, Fun yidishn lebn.

In the story, a group of merchants are on a ship, talking about their business and their respective wares. Among them sits a learned man who stays silent on the exact nature of his goods. Alas, the ship is attacked by yam-royber (pirates) and the merchants lose everything, including their shirts. But when the ship reaches its destination, it is the learned man who is thronged by students and fans. The merchants realize that the learned man’s wares could neither be robbed nor lost. Toyre iz di beste skhoyre. (Torah is the best merchandise.)

It’s a nice moshl (moral lesson), it rhymes, and it speaks in the highly pertinent commercial terms of the day. Who wouldn’t want merchandise that is always in demand and always pirate-proof?

My friend Lorin Sklamberg, sound archivist at the YIVO Sound Archive, hipped me to this fantastic recording of Cantor Israel Bakon singing Sholem Secunda’s song Toyre iz di beste skhoyre:

What’s so interesting to me is that the toyre-skhoyre image coexists with an entirely other world of images pertaining to our relationship to Torah. In the chapter “Lusting After Learning, the Torah as ‘the Other Woman’” (in Daniel Boyarin’s book Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture), Boyarin explores how the rabbis of the Talmud figured a life of passionate Torah study with the competing imperatives of marriage and procreation. He looks at a number of texts where the wives of Torah students were understood as romantic rivals to the Torah, such was the students’ “erotic abandonment” to the life of study.

Boyarin says that the rabbis referred to their “attachment to Torah as erotic,” and quotes the Talmud, which says that the Torah itself was “like the narrow sex of the gazelle, for whose husband every time is like the first time.” Thus it is, too, for those studying Torah.

We’ve now traveled from the imaginary ancient world of the widow Bas Tsioyn to the “real” ancient past, one that sounds less like a bittersweet ay-lyu-lyu, if we’re being completely honest, and more like Madonna being touched for the very first time.

I promise I won’t say it again (this month), but they never, ever told us in Hebrew school that the rabbis were this horny.

What I love about these shockingly erotic images is that they capture the absolute drama we are supposed to feel as we imagine ourselves, too, standing at Sinai. The shoyfer is blowing and thunder and lightning crackles around us as the sky is verily split in two by the Almighty. Of course, the thought of being part of that should get your blood flowing.

In Fun yidishn lebn, the text tells us of a legend that on shvues night, “shpalt zikh der himl, un zol men tsuhitn di rege ven der himl shpalt zikh, un epes betn, azoy vet es bald geshen.” That is, you should watch for the moment on shvues night when the sky splits open, and make a wish: “azoy vet es bald geshen” (so it will soon come to be). (We’ll ignore for the moment that shpalt is a vulgar Yiddish word for female genitalia.)

But if you can, imagine yourself earnestly looking into the sky this shvues, waiting for the heavens to open so you can make your wish. It’s not terribly sexy, but after more than a year of devastating insecurity, surely many of us would ask for nothing more than the assurance that our business was healthy, our skhoyre the beste, and that it be possible for a Jew to live in material safety, as a Jew, in the modern world.

ALSO: The good folks at the London International Klezmer Experience (LIKE) have been producing lots of great online programming as well as a summer festival. On May 19 they present “The Tolner Tish: An Immersive Nigunim Experience” with the brilliant Frank London. More information here … On May 20, my friend Sonia Gollance will celebrate the publication of her important new book, It Could Lead to Dancing: Mixed-Sex Dancing and Jewish Modernity, in conversation with Naomi Seidman. Register here … Join Itzik and the Golden Peacock: Celebrating 120 Years of Itzik Manger on Sunday, May 30 at 2 p.m. Presented by the Congress for Jewish Culture together with the California Institute for Yiddish Culture and Language, the League for Yiddish, Ot Azoy London, and Yung-Yidish Tel Aviv. Watch live on the Congress for Jewish Culture Facebook page … In Warsaw, the 19th International Summer Seminar in Yiddish Language and Culture is going ahead both in person and online. Classes run from June 28 to July 16 and applications are due June 6 … London’s Jewish Music Institute (JMI) is offering two festivals of note: July 12-15 is Klezfest, with both instrumental classes as well as ensemble sessions. The JMI’s Yiddish Songwriting Academy runs at the same time, July 12-15. Scholarships available for both … Yiddish Summer Paris will be offering both online and in-person classes, Aug. 9-27, including an in-person beginner section.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.