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A brivele der mamen 07:38
 

Liner Notes

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.

By: Neil W. Levin

 

Lyrics

Lyrics by Solomon Smulewitz

My child, my comfort, you are going away.
Remember to be a good son.
With anxious tears and fear I beg you,
your loyal, dear mother.
You are traveling, my child, my only child,
across distant seas.
Just arrive in good health
and don’t forget your mother.
Oh, travel in health and arrive in good spirit.
Please send a letter every week,
and thus lighten your mother’s heart, my child.

A letter to your mother 
you shouldn’t delay. 
Write right away, 
dear child.
Grant her this consolation.
Your mother will read your little letter
and she will recover.
You’ll heal her pain, 
her bitter heart.
You’ll delight her soul.

These eight years I’ve been alone.
My child has sailed far away.
His childish heart is hard as stone:
Not a single letter has arrived.
How can my child go on?
How is his life going?
He must be doing very well there,
since he’s forgotten me.
I’ve sent him a hundred letters,
and he still has no sense
that my pain is so deep.  

A letter to your mother …

In the city of New York there’s a wealthy home,
with hearts that have no feeling.
Her son lives there in lavish style.
He has a lovely family:
a beautiful wife and two children
with radiant face.

And as he sits and beams with pride at them,
he receives a letter:  
“Your mother is dead,” it has happened.
In life you neglected her.
This was her last wish:

Say a little kaddish for your mother,
don’t delay. 
Say it now, 
dear son.
Grant her this consolation.
Your mother will hear the kaddish 
from her grave. 
You’ll heal her pain, her bitter heart.
You’ll delight her soul.

Lyrics by Solomon Smulewitz

mayn kind, mayn treyst, du forst avek,
ze zay a zun a gutter;
dikh bet mit trern un mit shrek,
dayn traye libe muter.
du forst mayn kind, mayn eyntsik kind,
ariber vayte yamen,
akh! kum ahin nor frish gezunt, 
un nisht farges dayn mamen…
oy, for gezunt, un kum mit glik,
ze yede vokh a brivl shik.
dayn mames harts, mayn kind, derkvik.

a brivele der mamen
zolstu nit farzamen.
shrayb geshvind, 
libes kind,
shenk ir di nekhome.
di mame vet dayn brivele lezn,
un zi vet genezn. 
heylst ir shmerts, 
ir biter harts,
derkvikst ir di neshome.

dos akhte yor ikh bin aleyn, 
mayn kind iz vayt farshvumen.
zayn kindersh harts iz hart vi shteyn.
keyn eyntsik briv bakumen.
vi ken mayn kind gor hobn mut?
vi geyt im ayn dos lebn?
es muz im geyn dort zeyer gut…
vayl er keyn nakhrikht gebn.
kh’hob im geshikt a hundert briv
un er hot nokh keyn shum bagrif,
az mayne shmertsn zenen tif….

a brivele der mamen …

in shtot New York, a raykhe hoyz,
mit hertser on gefiln.
dort voynt ir kind, er lebt gor groys.
a gliklekhe familye.
a sheyne froy un kinder tsvey 
mit likhtike geshtaltn.

un vi er zitst un kvelt fun zey,
hot er a briv derhaltn:
“dayn muter toyt,”— es iz geshen;.
in lebn hostu ir farzen,
dos iz ir letster vuntsh geven:

a kadishl der mamen 
zolstu nisht farzamen,
zog geshvind, 
libes kind,
shenk ir di nekhome… 
di mame vet ir kadish hern
in ir keyver gern.
heylst ir shmerts, ir biter harts,
derkvikst ir di neshome.


 

Credits

Composer: Solomon Smulevitz

Length: 07:44
Genre: Yiddish Theater

Performers: Elli Jaffe, Conductor;  Elizabeth Shammash, Mezzo-soprano;  Vienna Chamber Orchestra

Date Recorded: 10/01/2001
Venue: Baumgartner Casino (A), Vienna, Austria
Engineer: Hughes, Campbell
Assistant Engineer: Hamza, Andreas
Assistant Engineer: Weir, Simon
Project Manager: Schwendener, Paul

Additional Credits:

Publisher: Music Sales (Ethnic Music Publ)
Arranger/Orchestrator: Paul Henning
Yiddish Translations/Transliterations: Eliyahu Mishulovin & Adam J. Levitin
Arrangement © Milken Family Foundation

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