A brivele der mamen
A Little Letter to Mama
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Solomon Smulewitz’s A brivele der mamen (A Little Letter to Mama) is one of the longest-running and schmaltziest tissue-soaking tearjerkers in the aggregate repertoire of sentimental American Yiddish popular song. It was written and first published in 1907, at a time when its lyrics resonated with considerable boom in the hearts of many immigrants who had left parents behind in Europe, knowing that they would probably never see them again and that letters would be their only form of communication. First recorded by its composer-lyricist, the ballad’s popularity was instantaneous, telling the story of a mother whose only request to her departing son is that he remember to write “a little letter” from America to ease her bitter pain of separation. He never does, despite “a hundred letters” from her. And by the final strophe—which renders this a “lesson song” but has become obscure (only the first strophe is generally known)—it is too late. The son, now an exceedingly prosperous New Yorker with a lavish lifestyle and a beautiful family, receives word that she has died while waiting for his letter. But she had one last wish: that at least he remember her in death by “reciting kaddish” for her—referring to the obligation of Jewish children to recite that doxology in memory of parents during the eleven-month mourning period, as well as annually on the yortsayt, the anniversary of death. “Your mother will gladly hear her kaddish from her grave; you will heal her pain and delight her soul.”
A brivele der mamen reverberated for decades from music halls, variety shows, and subsequent recordings in many arrangements. It touched off a virtual category of mother-related and letter-based songs, as well as some thinly veiled imitations. The melody became popular on its own, even in Europe, beginning with Smulewitz’s publication (1908) of a version without text, for violin or mandolin. And although the song was not composed in connection with any operetta or other theatrical piece, it spawned subsequent full-length productions of the same title that built around or incorporated it, such as S. H. Kohn’s four-act comedy-drama (subtitled The Golden Dream). A brivele der mamen was also the title of a 1938–39 Yiddish film with a score by Abraham Ellstein, yet Smulewitz’s song recurs throughout the film, and strains from its melody are used as a quasi-leitmotif. The story line, however, departs from the story related in the final strophe of the original song. The film, subtitled The Eternal Song, centers around an immigration tale connected to the First World War.
Smulewitz reputedly sold his rights to the song for twenty-five dollars—before it achieved its immense popularity and long before its use on the stage or in a film. When the film was released with his song in the title, without so much as mention of him as composer, his anger was understandably heightened, and he vented his moral protest in the press—to no avail. Unfortunately, he had no legal recourse. To add posthumous mendacious insult, a Hebrew song, Mikhtav me’ima (A Letter from Mother), circulated in Israel. It was included on the 1973 recording Songs of the Yom Kippur War, where it was credited exclusively to N. Alterman and S. Fershko with the claim of having been “written during World War II [World War I?] for the soldiers of the Jewish Brigade.” The text is a parody variant of A brivele der mamen, but the melody is completely Smulewitz’s.