Tuesday, May 08, 2007

(click on Yiddish song title above for translation of transliteration below)
Refrain: Lomir ale zingen a zemerl
Lechem is broyt
Bosor vedogim vechol matamim.
1. Zog zhe mir, rebeynu, lekhem is vos?
Bay di negidim is lekhem a gut heys bulkele,
Ober bay undz kabtsonim, oy, kabtsonim, oy, ovyonim,
iz lekhem a dare shkorinke, nebekh.
2. Zog zhe mir, rebenyu, bosor is vos?
Bay di groyse negidim is bosor a gebrotene katshkele,
Ober bay undz kabtsonim, oy dalfonim,
Iz bosor a lung und a leberl, nebekh.
3. Zog zhe mir, rebenyu, dugim is vos?
Bay di groyse negidim iz dogim a hechtele!
Ober bay undz kabtsonim, oy dalfonim,
Iz dogim an oysgeveykt heringl, nebekh.
4. Zog zhe mir rebenyu, matamim is vos?
Bay di groyse negidim iz matamim a zise zimmesel,
Ober bay undz kabtsonim, oy dalfonim,
Iz matamim gehakte tsores, nebekh.
The above song, a remnant from my Yiddish chorus days, has been going through my head lately. The chorus recorded a glorious version of the song in our last days in NYC, and I was proud to be a part of that. However, it began going through my head for different reasons recently.
Yiddish is a mix of many languages, most recognizably of German and Hebrew, and in many ways, it is considered to be a bastard language. It belonged to people without a country, to a marginalized group of Other that was confined to their own kind and expected to stay there. Even when they stayed there, however, Jewish people were not safe. Once assimilation became a more viable option for large numbers of Jews in western Europe and in America, they largely left Yiddish behind. It was a language of oppression, a tongue that pulled its speakers backwards into the murky depths of shtetls and pogroms.
Forget that Isaac Bashevis Singer won a Nobel for his works which were written in Yiddish. "Translate all those books by I.L. Peretz, Sholom Aleichem, Avraham Reisen, and Sholem Asch into the vernaculars of the countries in which we are now citizens," assimilated Jews said. Yiddish books that were bought by or carted with scholars of a certain age were never passed on to knowledgeable progeny - if they were passed on at all, it was to organizations that were thought to be able to safeguard the books, or to relatives who had no clue as to what was in them and were more likely to toss them. Which is why I'm glad that organizations such as this one are still around. I was also mighty proud to be singing in that chorus, which took me on when I was seven months pregnant, roped my husband in, too, and embraced our entire nuclear family. A big reason why Yiddish is still alive is because of these kinds of connections: organizational, familial, and religious.
One morning the assistant principal at McMain, a brawny gym teacher, called me into his office. This usually meant some discipline was about to be meted out, and I was trying to figure out what I had done...
"What were you doing in Preservation Hall at midnight on a school night?" he asked sternly. He had caught sight of me from a bar across the street that was actually owned by another McMain gym teacher named Johnny White.
"Listening to the music," I said. "I go there with my parents."
"Your parents take you down to the French Quarter? What for?"
"I'm trying to learn to play the clarinet."
He frowned. "Why don't you play in the school band? Why do you want to hang around with all those old colored guys? Half of 'em can't even read music."
"Because I want to play jazz." - Tom Sancton
Yeah, I'm in the middle of Song For My Fathers as well. I'm also in the middle of contemplating questions such as this, and events such as this. Times are indeed a-changin', and people's instincts are to cling to the familiar, in good AND bad ways, as an act of self-preservation. These are the conditions that contributed to the development of Yiddish - isolation, persecution, demonization. These are also conditions that contributed to the development of jazz.
So what? Does this mean New Orleanians - displaced and in place, naturalized and native, sane and insane - are some kinda twenty-first century chosen people? How much good can come out of skyrocketing insurance, energy, and water costs? Out of a storm protection system that is probably not ready to protect this city from a glass of water? Out of a Road Home program...uhh...winding goat path home through the Himalayas that is seemingly designed to deny folks rebuilding money? How much more tsuris can possibly be piled on the victims and survivors of 8-29?
Maybe I am one of the misguided Pollyannas here, grasping at any and all signs of hope and life for sustenance, but hey, I gotta do something. Though the "Lomir Ale Zingen" song is comedic in tone, it recognizes a basic fact: that though a rabbi is revered as a fount of Jewish wisdom, a counselor, and all-around wise man (or woman), the rabbi is not set apart from his/her community. In fact, rabbis are fully expected to marry and have children. To see that the rich eat, drink, and behave differently from the poor, one must be there among the rich and the poor, buying food from the same places, educating their children in the same schools, celebrating and mourning as a community.
Ladies and gents, we are our own best leaders, no matter where we are. I have read many, many blog posts, over and over again, written by people who are basically good. People who want to get the truth of what is happening out there because they know that someone will be reading their words. People who are right smack in the middle of all this sludge called recovery. These people are doing pretty darn well at keeping their heads above it all, but everyone is gonna falter occasionally. That's just life.
Lo mir ale zingen a zemerl. Whatever song you sing, it will carry your voice, and your experience, along to the next phase, the latest development. This will take time. Energy. Maybe even another lifetime or two. Make yourselves strong. Get back into shape. Keep your eyes and ears, hands and hearts open. Pass it on. Pass it on...


saintseester said...

Oooh. New book tip - thanks! I've been needing something to read, and that book looks good. My dad took me to Preservation Hall for the first time when I was 8. It is my first "cemented" memory of New Orleans, even though I had been there before and done other things.

Leigh C. said...

Preservation Hall and Snug Harbor are also the two music venues in this city that will let kids in to hear the music. Glad to hear that it imprinted on you, too!