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Yiddish Love Songs

Rokhl’s Golden City: Sing your heart out for Valentine’s Day

Rokhl Kafrissen
February 14, 2022
Inset photo: Lloyd Wolf
Sasha Lurje of ForshpilInset photo: Lloyd Wolf
Inset photo: Lloyd Wolf
Sasha Lurje of ForshpilInset photo: Lloyd Wolf

A good friend of mine just went through one of those gut-punch breakups. Lord knows, in this fast-burning hellscape we call a world, bad stuff is literally happening all the time. But an out-of-the-blue breakup two weeks before Valentine’s Day? That feels like an appropriate moment to, you know, take a moment to wallow.

This friend asked me if there were any good Yiddish breakup songs, and I had to stop and think for a minute. If you ask me (and they did), the raucous Russian party band Dobranotch hits the right note with its Yiddish cover of the German heavy metal band Rammstein’s “Du host.” (Yiddish translation by friend of the column Asya Fruman.)

The song isn’t precisely about a breakup, but it’s not not about a breakup, if you know what I mean.

du host mikh gefregt
kh’hob gornisht dir gezogt
Vilst mir zayn getray far eybik
bizn toyt, biz tifn keyver?
You asked me
I didn’t answer
You want me to be loyal to you forever?
Until death, until the grave?

It’s that emphatic Neyn! that really hits the post-breakup sweet spot. The meaning of the lyrics is a bit ambiguous, but great art allows ample room for personal interpretation.

But maybe “Du host” isn’t quite the Sad Songs Playlist mainstay you were looking for. I agree, it’s more headbanger than tearjerker. For the latter, I turn to the erotic excess of the great Yiddish modernist, Celia Dropkin.

In her classic essay, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” film scholar Linda K. Williams contemplates what she calls “body genres,” those films whose excesses of sex, violence, and emotion are dismissed by critics as “low” art. Specifically, she discusses the genres of pornography, horror, and melodrama, where audiences are presumed to be so caught up in the spectacle that viewers find themselves imitating the bodies on the screen (whether in ecstasy, terror, or despair).

I see something of the same dynamic between Dropkin and her contemporary critics. There was no conceptual room for a woman’s erotic poetry, nor the body from which such imagery flowed. As Faith Jones wrote in the Pakn Treger:

The critics skewered her. They were all men. She was all wrong. She wrote about sex and bodies—women’s bodies. A man’s passion is noble; a woman’s is embarrassing. She was unafraid and a woman. … “She has talent,” but “even her illusions can’t get away from her body—her body won’t let up,” read B. Rivkin’s book review in Tsukunft—the very journal in which many of the poems had first appeared.

When I first heard “Es vilt zikh mir zen” (I Want to See) on the Klezmatics’ Jews With Horns album, I’ll admit, I didn’t get it. I was probably 19 or so, and just trying to stuff as many up-tempo freylekhs into my ears as possible. I found the Klezmatics’ setting of Dropkin’s poem to be too weird, too unsettling for my naive ears. What was this?

es vilt zikh mir zen
vi du shlofst
ven du farlirst dayn makht
iber zikh, iber mir
I want to see
how you sleep
when you lose your power
over yourself, over me

We are at our most vulnerable when we sleep, and the narrator of the poem relishes the sight of her lover at rest, “helpless, weak, mute …” For Dropkin, sleep is barely a metaphor with which to figure this person, in whom love and hate are seemingly entwined:

es vilt zikh mir zen dikh
a toytn.
I want to see you

Is this a feminist horror movie or an exquisite love song? I’m still not sure.

The pain of love isn’t always one-sided. The psychedelic Yiddish duo Forshpil just rereleased their second album, Forshpil:Tsvey, on a brand-new specialty Jewish music label, Borscht Beat. Forshpil:Tsvey features a gorgeous take on “Oy dortn, dortn,” an old song about a very modern phenomenon: long-distance relationships.

oy, dortn, dortn, ibern vaserl, dortn,
dortn, ibern brik,
du bist avek iber vayte yamen
un benken benk ikh shtark nokh dir tsurik.

oy, du gotenyu, du liber gotenyu,
helf mir got, s’iz mir iz zeyer nisht git
shoyn tsvey dray yorelekh, az mir shpiln a libe,
un khasene hobn beyde kenen mir nisht.
Oh, yonder, yonder, over the water, yonder,
over the bridge,
you are gone over the far seas
and I long for you so.

Oh god, dear god,
help me, because I am not doing well
it’s been already two or three years, since we are in love,
and still we cannot get married.

Sometime you really need an over the top, “I’m a martyr for love” love song, something to sing your heart out to, like Enrico Macias’ “Zingarella.” Macias sang it in French, and apparently had a big hit with it in Israel and Turkey. The song subsequently had a couple different Yiddish translations (and even more versions). Zingarella is the kind of girl who’s just no good for you, but you love her anyway (and you love singing about her and all the bad things she does to your life). But also, have you considered that maybe you’re the problem here, not her? Just a thought.

Zingarella tayere zise
Far dir lig ikh haynt in tfise

Nit kayn libe, nit rakhmones
Du host mir farlengert dem goles
Zingarella my dear, my sweetness,
For you I’m here in prison

Without love, without mercy
You’ve made my exile so much longer

If that’s all a bit too macho for you, my friend Miryem-Khaye Seigel’s “Bahaltene libe” (Hidden Love) brings us back to a woman’s point of view. Seigel sings of a woman for whom a hidden love burns within.

Di bahaltene libe vos zi tut in mir brenen
Di bahaltene libe vos a mentsh kon derkenen

Ikh veys az dos iz oser
Nu, bin ikh a farbrekher
Un az men est shoyn khazer
Shrayt azh fun di dekher
The hidden love that she set aflame inside me
The hidden love that anyone can recognize

I know that it’s forbidden
Nu, I’m a criminal
And if I’m eating khazer (pork)
Then shout it from the rooftops!

We’ve got so many love songs, and so few happy endings. (See Dropkin, above.) So I’ll leave you with an image at least hinting at a happily ever after. Once upon a time, a girl sat atop an oven, embroidering a white dress. Tumba tumba tum ba-ba. Along came a boy, pulling on the girl’s threads. Tumba tumba tum ba-ba. The girl says, for that, I’ll make you pay, I’ll make you stay. Tumba tumba tum ba-ba.

(From a lovely rhyming translation I found here)

I won’t let you out of here!
I won’t tie you here with rope,
But within my white hand’s scope.
I’ll embrace you tenderly,
And you will stay on here, with me.
Tumba tumba tum ba-ba.

ALSO: Shenson Rewind: A Retrospective Film Series will host film critic Kenneth Turan in conversation about Brussels Transit (1980), “the only New Wave inspired Yiddish art movie.” Feb. 22. Register here … Live, in-person, big-band klezmer is back! Frank London and the Klezmer Brass All Stars featuring Eleanor Reissa will heat up the stage at the Mandell JCC in Hartford, Connecticut, Feb. 26. Tickets here … The Yiddish Philharmonic Chorus presents the Yiddish Song Workshop & Sing-Along: Purim edition. “Learn to sing a dozen Yiddish Purim songs in one free 90-minute session.” Feb. 27, at 7 p.m. Register here … The International Association of Yiddish Clubs will hold the 17th edition of its conference, now entirely online. The conference will be convened in honor and memory of beloved colleague and friend Shura Vaisman z”l, an accomplished scientist and pioneering figure in the field of animated Yiddish films and early Yiddish websites (and mother of my own beloved colleague Asya Vaisman Schulman). Feb. 27, all day. Tickets hereKlezmer on the moors? Sounds amazing, as long as the moon isn’t full. Join Kleznorth on Ilkley Moor, Yorkshire, U.K., March 6 and June 10-12.

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