Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman, a Yiddish singer, songwriter, poet, artist, and educator, died on Thanksgiving in her Bronx home at the age of 93. Schaechter-Gottesman’s songs about separation, homelessness, joy, and celebration are now part of the standard Yiddish song repertoire for performers internationally.
Beyltse, as she was known, was born in Vienna to Lifshe, an accomplished singer and songwriter, and Binyumen, who as a young man made a miles-long pilgrimage on foot to the famed Yiddish Language Conference of 1906. Later, the family moved to Czernovitz; she returned to Vienna at the age of 16 to study art.
The family moved to the United States in 1951 after its own variety of wartime hell: the Czernovitz ghetto, her father’s exile to Siberia and his death at the hands of the Soviets, and the death of her infant son Binyumele.
She portrayed her start as a writer in modest terms: “I needed something for the children to read.” But her work reached a far wider audience than her children Taube, Hyam, and Itzik (she is survived by Itzik, a folklorist and journalist, among a number of other relatives). She composed songs for children; wrote and produced plays; edited journals of children’s literature; and taught nursery school. She performed her work for children and adults around the world.
The breadth of her contribution was recognized by the National Endowment of the Arts in 2005, with a commendation presented by then-Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. She is most known for her Yiddish art songs, many of them paeans to fleeting beauty and transient friendship. Perhaps her best known song, “Harbstlid” (Autumn Song), talks about the “falling leaves/flying days”—“where will I wander,” she asks, “when thick fog covers my way?” She also wrote songs in a satirical and celebratory vein.
As an anchor of the quixotic community known as Bainbridgifke (a name taken from Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx), she spoke Yiddish to her family, friends, and community. Together with her neighbors, she and her husband, physician Jonas Gottesman, made speaking Yiddish as normal as the D train and trips to the park.
But at the same time as she infused the quotidian with mameloshn, she was a steadfast maintainer of standards in high culture. Her home was hung with her sketches and watercolors, and stacked with literature in many languages. Her eye was keen and her judgment discerning.
Her five volumes of poetry enable the reader to plumb the depths of a difficult life which might not always be evident in song. The suffering she underwent, coupled with an unsentimental intelligence, together with her role as the pre-eminent standard-bearer (with her brother, philologist Mordkhe Schaechter) of living Yiddish-language culture, gave her poetry a dark, world-wise, and sometimes weary cast.
She wrote about gunshots in the Bronx, saxophone players on the subway, forced exile in the Transdniester, and fellow Yiddish writers. One poem of hers is a shiv in the ribs of the great M.L. Halpern, who famously wrote a poem about meeting the Angel of Death—but who did not, she points out, manage to encounter his own wife and children too often. Her style was spare, relatively unencumbered by formal flourishes, but enlivened by the native vocabulary of Czernovitz. Beyltse’s poetic recounting of her own many homes and voyages reminds me of Joyce’s oft-quoted maxim, that if Dublin no longer existed it could be recreated from his work. (Though the differences between Dublin and the world of Yiddish letters are too obvious to point out here.)
In memory of Beyltse, I will read her poetry and sing her songs to my children. For many of us Yiddishists, whether young, old, or middle-aged, Yiddish is the language of Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman, poet-bard of Czernovitz and Bainbridge Avenue—and, for that reason, of us too.
Zackary Sholem Berger is a Yiddish- and English-language poet and translator living in Baltimore.