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Slutsk is one of an entire category of theatrically sentimental—but not necessarily theater-born—American Yiddish songs with romanticized visions of immigrants’ former life in eastern European towns. This one differs a bit in that its nostalgia resides more in recollections of family Sabbath observance and early childhood Jewish learning than in painted pictures of the town itself—in this case, Slutsk, in Belarus (formerly Lithuania). And one could argue that for many, adherence to orthodoxy, especially with regard to Sabbath observance, was more difficult to maintain in the early period of eastern European immigration, with six-day or even seven-day workweeks often required for survival, than it had been in Europe—where Jewish religious life was simply a given condition for those who wanted to perpetuate it. In America, there was also the newly available array of temptations (including the Yiddish theater itself, which ignored the Sabbath altogether). In general, however, the “longing for home” songs of that era were not meant to be taken literally in their imaginations of the shtetl or, for that matter, of anything to do with Europe. These songs—including Slutsk—are basically fictional and, in that sense at least, theatrical. As a group, such songs reflect little actual sentiment among Jewish immigrants, precious few of whom missed the Europe they had so eagerly left. Even among the most disillusioned laborers in sweatshop conditions, there was never any organized expression of a desire to return (witness the song Lebn zol kolumbus, also in Volume 13), although a very small number of orthodox Jews did occasionally go back for religious reasons. Still, these songs of an idealized (fanciful) past made for emotionally satisfying entertainment.
Slutsk has not been identified as belonging to any larger theatrical piece, although it could easily fit into any number of shows. The song as recorded here was published in 1936 with attributions to Herman Wohl (melody) and Aaron Lebedeff (lyrics), and a notation, “as sung by the famous stage and radio artists, Mischa and Celia Boodkin.” Whether the inference was that they were performing or had performed “Wohl and Lebedeff’s” song, or that Wohl and Lebedeff had formulated the song as they had heard it sung, liberally claiming authorship in connection with notating it and reshaping a few details, is impossible to know. The song’s popularity seems in any case to have stemmed from that time frame. The same song, with only minor variances in the lyrics, was published in Buenos Aires (undated) simply as an anonymous “popular song”—leaving the impression that at least there it was perceived almost as a folksong. Twice in 1925, however, Lebedeff registered a copyright for himself as author of both the lyrics and the music for a song of the same title. Other than the first strophe, the lyrics and the tune are similar to those of the 1936 publication, but we do not know how to account for the apparent discrepancy in the attribution of the tune’s composition. Further frosting our looking glass is the song’s inclusion, with minuscule text variances, in Abraham Zvi Idelsohn’s scholarly anthology of eastern European Jewish folksong, Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies Vol. IX (1932), as Idelsohn heard it sung by an informant who had come from the Russian sphere. Perhaps only the words of the first strophe of the 1936 published song, which is not in these other sources, was actually Lebedeff’s original work—appended to a preexisting anonymous song. European folksongs have on occasion been registered with the United States Copyright Office as original items. Still, these nostalgic, backward-looking lyrics do suggest the American immigrant-era shtetl song repertoire. The haze surrounding the true identity of the melody is even thicker.