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Bay dem shtetl 03:10
Bistu mit mir broyges? 02:36
Klip klap 02:45
Royz, royz 02:37
Di dray neytorins 03:42
Der rebbe tantst 04:04
 

Liner Notes

To Ofer Ben-Amots, and to many of his generation, it often seemed as if Yiddish were spoken only by elderly immigrants from eastern Europe who were, for the most part, Holocaust survivors. “Growing up in Israel just a few years after the state was born,” remarked the composer, “Yiddish was known to me—especially as the son of a Bulgarian Sephardi mother and a father from Libyan Jewry—erroneously as a ‘vanished tongue’ of a bygone era and a distant place.”

Indeed, many among the younger generations of Israelis then, like their predecessor ḥalutzim (pioneers) before them in Palestine, had attached to the Yiddish language the opprobrium of association with the “old order” and the Old World, and thus in their eyes it was a cultural artifact of bitter memories: exile, ghettos, pogroms, disenfranchisement, poverty, and helplessness. Those perceptions were at odds with the new spirit of youthful regeneration, a fresh start, national pride, and statehood, fostering the notion that Yiddish represented an encumbrance of the past that deserved shedding, if not extinction. Even the very sound of the language appeared in that naïvely arrogant perception to clash with the modern image of a proud, strong, and free sabra—a native of the “old-new” land.

There were also political overtones. Those among the establishment who had come from German Jewry sometimes had an aversion to Yiddish as the aural-cultural logo of eastern European Jewry. And to those, like Ben-Amots, from non-European backgrounds altogether—Sephardi, Yemenite, Persian, Babylonian, Syrian, Bukharan, and other Jews from the Arabic world and the Jewish orient—Yiddish and its culture were simply foreign.

“In retrospect,” reflected Ben-Amots, “many of us chose simply not to be aware, or to let ourselves become aware, of the proud legacy of Yiddish culture and Yiddish-speaking Jewry during the previous hundred years—the defiance and assertiveness of the Jewish Labor Bund in eastern Europe; the sophisticated Yiddish artistic life that had reigned in many cosmopolitan European cities; the rich body of secular Yiddish literature; or the heritage of Yiddish song.” True, there were small, cloistered resident circles of non-Zionist, and even anti-Zionist, Yiddish-speaking extreme orthodoxy in Israel then, including certain deeply pious Hassidic sects. For them Hebrew was exclusively a “holy tongue,” not to be profaned by vernacular use—at least not until the messianic era arrived. Moreover, to them, modern Hebrew (as opposed to biblical or liturgical Hebrew) represented the secular parameters of the Haskala, or the Jewish Enlightenment, as well as the Zionist cause and its nonreligious state—the very developments to which they were opposed. But the Hassidic connection to Yiddish had to do with daily communication and religious study, not Yiddish culture. And in any case, Ben-Amots’s circles had little or no contact with those self-segregated groups. If anything, the very association of Yiddish with such intensely orthodox religious adherents only seemed to confirm to the majority of young Israelis their youthful misperception of the language as outdated, fossilized, and tied to backwardness.

Ben-Amots later reflected that—apart from those very pious religious circles—it seemed to these young Israelis that, even if some of the older generation of eastern European immigrants did speak Yiddish, they must have done so exclusively in private. For them, as for all who were committed to the Zionist ideal of resettling and rebuilding the ancient homeland, the new language—the symbol of long-sought nationhood—was modern Hebrew, and Hebrew was inextricable from the Zionist ideology of national rebirth.

Ironically for a young Jewish composer, it was in Germany, while he was a student there in the 1980s, that Ben-Amots really “discovered” Yiddish. “My introduction to German culture and language during that sojourn,” he recalls, “provided me with the key to one of the two basic original linguistic components of Yiddish. I began to acquaint myself with that Jewish language as well, and soon I gained access to a wealth of eastern European literary works by poets, novelists, and playwrights such as Sholom Aleichem, Isaac Leyb [Yitskhoh Leyb/Leybush] Peretz, S. An-Sky, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholem Asch, Mendl Mocher Sforim, and so many others.” It was also in Germany that Ben-Amots stumbled by chance upon an old, almost tattered copy of a collection of Yiddish folksongs that had been published in Europe decades before. He was intrigued by the simple beauty of those tunes and the mixture of pain and humor in the poems. His instinct as a composer was to rearrange the songs with a fresh artistic and personal interpretation. “In a way,” he later remarked, “I felt as if I was doing my share not only to elevate these marvelous songs from their natural folklore milieu to an art form, but also to preserve them.” The songs he selected became the material for his new song cycle, Shtetl Songs, which he completed shortly after his immigration to the United States. “This cycle thus became my first ‘American work,’ ” he has said with great pride. He describes it as:

"...a musical tour of the enclosed Jewish neighborhood or small town in eastern Europe during the 19th and even early 20th centuries. The work portrays aspects of the daily life of those inhabitants, which encompasses their happiness as well as their pain and daily struggle, their hopes as well as their despair. Throughout the cycle one meets characters and situations typical of our perceptions of shtetl (market town) life . . . . I looked for the harmony and form suggested to me by each song. There is dissonance, and there are clusters and chromatically oriented runs in the piano part. Overall, the piece is far from being tonal in the traditional sense; but parts of it can be very modal, depending upon the tune."

The complete cycle comprises nine songs, of which six have been included on this recording. There is also a version for mixed chorus.

The charm of the first song, Bay dem shtetl (words by Zalmen Rozental, 1892–1959), resides in its simplicity. A poor but contented family lives in a small cottage. As he has done all his life, the father labors continuously, and he even manages to buy a number of animals for the family: a dog, a horse, a goose, and a hen. When the hen finally lays eggs, it is a major event and cause for rejoicing, and when the chicks are hatched, it seems miraculous to the children. Like most folksongs, which, as folklore, were known exclusively by oral transmission long before any collector transcribed them, this song has many text as well as musical variants—probably only some of which are extant today.

Bistu mit mir broyges (Are You Upset with Me?) describes a typical moment in the interaction of a married couple in many religious or even quasi-religious circles of small-town eastern European Jewish life of that period—especially among those attracted by Hassidic beliefs and superstitions. The wife appears to be “out of sorts”—in low spirits or somehow distressed. Her husband, protesting that he doesn’t know why she would be angry with him—or perhaps more out of classic concern for sholem bayes (household peace) and as a sign of his love and concern—suggests a visit to the rebbe (rabbinic-type leader of Hassidim) for counsel and to request the rebbe’s prayers on behalf of their marriage, a common practice in that world regarding personal matters. The husband also tries either to defuse his wife’s anger or to brighten her mood (depending on how one interprets the words) with promises of gifts. The piano part consists of a set of variations depicting the mood of each strophe.

The vagueness of the text could also invite other, complementary as well as colliding, planes of interpretation—including modern psychological, psychosexual, or sociological constructions. Gender-driven contemporary readings might intuit a cynical inference in the husband’s attempt to placate his wife, and some might interpret the visit to the rebbe, and especially the suggestion of his supposed powers of intercession, not merely as an innocent reference to a common folk practice, but as a satirical jibe at what many outside the Hassidic world perceived as foolishness. Indeed, during the 19th and early 20th centuries—influenced especially by more rigorously academic rabbinic circles and mitnagdim (opponents of Hassidism), probably at first in Lithuania—a specifically satirical, so-called anti-Hassidic, Yiddish song repertoire accumulated. These songs mocked Hassidic ways and superstitions and poked fun in particular at the nonintellectual orientation and the alleged self-serving charisma of certain Hassidic rebbes.

In some cases the anti-Hassidic genesis of such songs is known; in others the message is transparent in the words. But the viewpoint or bias is not always so clear. It is not always certain whether the words actually bespeak a satirical agenda, whether they simply extol or even romanticize perceived Hassidic virtues or attributes—or whether the very ambiguity is itself part of the satire.

Some songs long assumed to be of anti-Hassidic genesis, however, have been subjected more recently to reassessment by folklorists. Sometimes such modern reexamination leans toward accepting the Hassidic references at face value. Bistu mit mir broyges presents us with these many possibilities.

Klip klap can be interpreted as a humorous interchange, in a slow waltz tempo, presumably between a young man and the woman he courts. He implores her to open the door and let him in from a rainstorm, but either she is too shy and hesitant or she thinks it improper—and improper for him to ask. On the other hand, perhaps they have had a quarrel and her response is purely sarcastic. One might also infer erotic overtones.

Typical of many European Hassidic songs, Royz, royz owes its origin to a non-Jewish secular song—in this case a Hungarian shepherd’s love song—from which it was consciously adapted. This procedure was consistent with a view espoused by certain Hassidic circles, and promulgated by some Hassidic masters, that the inner musical essence of even a profane tune is redeemable by Judaic spiritual and mystical appropriation, thereby transferring that musical element to a higher, or holy, purpose. The history of this song provides an illustration of the process by which such songs sometimes evolved from foreign, completely nonreligious ones to those encapsulating specifically Hassidic religious concepts. In Royz, royz the transferred idea concerns the intertwined relationship between the Divine Presence and the Jewish Diaspora, which is seen not only as a political-geographic and physical dispersion, but as a spiritual exile. Within that context, a long-held belief among certain Hassidic circles is that all tunes originated in the sacred music of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem—viz., that all music is inherently holy and originated as such, emanating from God. Accordingly, melodies—like the people Israel—were expelled from their source and dispersed “among the other nations and peoples.” Far from perceiving the musical adoption process as either theft or imitation, “redeeming” such songs is said to restore them to their appropriate spiritual status, allowing them to regain their sanctity.

The Hassidic adoption and adaptation of the song now known as Royz, royz is attributed by legend to Rebbe Yitzhak Taub of Kaliv (Hungary), also known as the Kaliver Rebbe. According to the legend, he was walking in a field when, upon hearing a young shepherd singing this tune to the Hungarian words Ruzha, ruzha, yak ti daleka (Rose, rose, how far away you are), he discerned a profound sense of spiritual longing and pain deep beneath its outer layers. The Kaliver Rebbe gave a few coins to the lad as a symbolic ransom to redeem the song—and also to cause him to forget it permanently, which he did immediately. The rebbe then altered and adjusted the words to suit the deeper meaning he intuited in it, connecting it now to the sh’khina (the Divine Presence, or Holy Spirit) who is far away, and to the galut (Jewish exile) that seems so endless. In the Midrash—a collective body of interpretive commentary and explanatory literature on Scriptures that incorporates much teaching by way of allegorical, legendary, anecdotal, and parabolic means—the sh’khina, seen as the “feminine manifestation” and merciful side of God’s presence, is said to have joined the House of Israel as it was dispersed into exile. In the song’s new guise, the shepherd’s sentiments of worldly romantic longing have given way to a spiritual longing for the sh’khina, almost as if the singer is challenging the sh’khina to demonstrate the reality of the Midrashic anecdote by shortening the exile. For if the sh’khina accompanied Israel into the exile of the Diaspora, how could it now appear to be so far away? And if the Divine Presence indeed were not so distant, the exile would not last so long. Yet in Hassidic perception it is this very longing for, and seeking to cling to, the sh’khina that will bring greater closeness and, ultimately, redemption and an end to exile.

Royz, royz is still a popular song—with many text variants and adaptations, including liturgical ones—among some contemporary Hassidic groups. These extant variants include one that combines Hebrew and Yiddish fused with the original Hungarian, and one that is a parody expressing marital longing. Ben-Amots was particularly interested in the wide range of this melody, which is unusual for folksongs. In its descent over a span of one and a half octaves, he heard a gathering lament.

The melody of Di dray neytorins is attributed to M. Shneyer (1885–1942). Its words, by the famous Yiddish poet and writer Isaac Leyb Peretz, describe the anguish and despair of three seamstresses who work endlessly in a sweatshop, with no hope of normal married life and only eventual death to anticipate. The continuous clicking sound of the sewing machines is mirrored throughout the piano part in this setting.

Der rebbe tantst is a folksong that is also known by its text incipit, Sha, shtil. It is commonly assumed to have originated as one of the satirical anti-Hassidic songs, in this case mocking the dancing rebbe (rather than one who is studious or scholarly—although in another extant variant strophe the rebbe discourses on the Torah), his blindly devoted followers (his Hassidim), and their superstitious belief in his powers. But it could also be viewed—as it is by many Hassidim themselves—more benignly as a simple testament to the spiritual power of music and dance. In the present transformed setting, the successive strophes are presented as a set of variations on the principal theme. But Ben-Amots also has given this otherwise strophic song a through-composed treatment, whereby it gains in intensity and motion from beginning to end through continuous or developing variations.

By: Neil W. Levin

 

Lyrics

BAY DEM SHTETL (NEAR THE TOWN)
Words by Zalmen Rozental

Near the edge of town stands a cottage
With a little roof,
And around the cottage
Many little trees are growing.

My father with my mother,
Khanele and me,
All four of us have been living there
Together a long time.

And my father works and works
All his days,
And he buys and brings us
Nice, pretty things.

Buys a little horse that neighs
Whose name is mutzik,
Buys a puppy that barks
Whose name is tsutsik.

Buys a goose with a white neck
And feathers white as snow.
Buys a hen that cackles, cackles
Until she lays an egg.

Mother takes these eggs,
Oh, what a miracle!
She sits the hen on them
And we have beautiful chicks.

BISTU MIT MIR BROYGES (ARE YOU UPSET WITH ME?)
Hassidic Song

Are you upset with me?
I don’t know why.
All day you walk around
With a long face.

Maybe you want to know
If I love you—
Let us then take a trip together
To see the rebbe.

We’ll go to the rebbe
And give him a pidyen [token gift],
So that he should pray to God for us
That we may have a good life.

Oh, the rebbe
He will bless us
So that from now on both of us
Will live like people should.

And as we journey
Back from the rebbe,
We’ll take a detour
Over to the Salva Market.

There I will buy for you
A watch and chain,
And a large, pretty piece
Of silk for a dress.

So don’t be upset anymore,
And quickly set the table,
And sit down to eat with me,
And get a kiss from me.

KLIP KLAP (KNOCK, KNOCK)

Knock, Knock: Let me in!
Are you asleep? Tell me.

I might not be sleeping,
But I’m certainly not opening up the door!

Knock, knock on the golden door:
Open up for me, my love!

You should not be knocking.
I will not open for you!

Such a wind is blowing; such a rain is falling;
I will drench my silk outfit.

Take off your silk outfit
And lay it under the little trees.

With what should I cover myself?
And who will wake me?

The little tree will cover you;
The little bird will wake you.

ROYZ, ROYZ (ROSE, ROSE)
Hungarian Shepherd Song

Rose, rose, how distant are you?
Forest, forest, how vast are you?
Were the rose not so distant,
The forest would not be so vast.

Divine Presence! how far are you?
Exile, exile, how long are you?
Were the Divine presence not so distant,
Exile would not have been so long.

DI DRAY NEYTORINS (THE THREE SEAMSTRESSES)
Words by Isaac Leyb Peretz

Red of eye and blue of lip,
Not a drop of blood in the cheeks,
Their foreheads are pale, covered with sweat,
Their breath is burning and heavy.
Three maidens sit and sew.

The shining needle, the snowlike fabric—
And one thinks: “I sew and sew.
I sew by day. I sew by night,
But I never got to sew myself a wedding dress.
What do I get out of my sewing?

“I neither sleep nor eat;
I should give to meyer balanes charity box.
Maybe he will succeed in finding me
A widower, at least, an older Jew
With lots of little children."

The second one thinks: “I sew and knot.
I am knotting a gray braid for myself.
My head is burning, my temples are bursting,
And the machine bangs away to the tick of:
Tata ta tata ta tata ta.

“I understand that man’s wink,
But there’s no khupe [wedding canopy] and no ring.
It would be a play, a dance,
A love affair for one year.
But then what? Then what? Then what?”
The third one spits up blood and sings:
“I sew myself sick, I sew myself blind.
My breast is pierced with every stitch,
And he is getting married this week.
I wish him no harm.

“All things must pass:
The community will provide for my burial shrouds,
And a little tiny piece of earth.
I will sleep undisturbed.
I will rest, rest, rest...”

DER REBBE TANTST (THE REBBE IS DANCING)
Folksong

Shh! Quiet! Don’t make much noise:
The rebbe is about to dance again.
Shh! Quiet! Don’t cause a commotion:
The rebbe is just about to dance.
And when the rebbe dances
The walls dance along.
Let us all clap our hands.

Shh! Quiet...

And when the rebbe dances
The table dances along too:
Let us all tap our feet.

Shh! Quiet...

And when the rebbe dances
They tremble in heaven:
Let none of us Hassidim make a tumult.

Shh! Quiet...

And when the rebbe sings
The sacred melody,
Satan drops dead.

BAY DEM SHTETL
Words by Zalmen Rozental

bay dem shtetl shteyt a shtibl
mit a kleynem dakh,
un arum dem shtibl vaksn
beymelekh asakh.

un der tate mit der mamen,
khanele mit mir,
shoyn a lange tsayt in eynem
voynen ale fir.

un der tate arbet arbet
alle yoren zayne,
un er koyft undz un er brengt undz
zakhn sheyne fayne.

koyft a ferdl vos es hirzhet
mit dem nomen “mutzik,”
koyft a hintl vos es hafket
mit dem nomen “tsutzik.”

koyft a gandz mit a vaysn haldz,
federlekh vays vi shney,
koyft a hun vos kvoket kvoket
biz zi leygt an ey.

nemt di mame ot di eyer,
oy iz dos a moyfes!
zetst zi oyf af zey a kvoke
hobm mir sheyne oyfes.

BISTU MIT MIR BROYGES
Hassidic Song

bistu mit mir broyges
veys ikh nit farvos,
du geyst a gantsn tog arum
aropgelost dem noz.
ta ra ta ra da da,
ta ra ta ra...

efsher vilstu visn
tsu ikh hob dikh lib,
lomir beyde ariberforn
tsu dem gutn yid.

tsu a gutn yidn
a pidyen im opgebm
zol er far undz got betn
af a gut leybn.
ta ra ta ra da da...

oy, der guter yid
er vet dokh undz bentshn
az mir veln beyde fun haynt on
vayter zayn mentshn.

un az mir veln forn
tsurik fun gutn yid,
veln mir beyde ariberforn
in salve afn yarid.
ta ra ta ra da da...

dort vel ikh dir koyfn
a zeyger un a keyt,
un a groyse sheyne shtik
zaydns af a kleyd.

to zay zhe mer nit broyges,
un greyt af gikh tsum tish,
un zets zikh mit mir esn
bakumstu fun mir a kush.
ta ra ta ra da da...

KLIP KLAP

klip klap efn mir!
shlofstu? to zog zshe mir!

shlofn, shlofn ikh aflie nit,
nor efenen vel ikh avade nit!

klip klap in goldn tir,
mayn libe efn mir!

klapn klapn zolstu nit!
efnen vel ikh dir nit!

sara a vint es veyt, sara a regn es geyt,
‘khvel aynnetsn mayn zaydn kleyd.

dos zaydn kleyd vest du oyfheybn,
untern beymelakh avek leygn.

mit vos zol ikh zikh tsudekn?
un ver vet mikh oyfvekn?

dos beymele vet dikh tsudekn,
dos feygele vet dikh oyfvekn.

ROYZ, ROYZ
Hungarian Shepherd Song

royz, royz vi vayt bistu?
vald, vald, vi groys bistu?
volt di royz nit azoy vayt geven,
volt der vald nit azoy groys geven.

shkhine, shkhine, vi vayt bistu?
goles, goles, vi lang bistu?
volt di shkhine nit azoy vayt geveyn,
volt der goles nit azoy lang geveyn.

DI DRAY NEYTORINS
Words by Isaac Lieb Peretz

di oygn royt, di lipn blo,
keyn tropn blut in bak nitdo,
der shtern iz blas, badekt mit shveys,
der otem opgehakt un heys.
es zitsn dray meydlekh un neyen.
es zitsn dray meydlekh un neyen.

di nodl blank, der layvnt shney,
un eyne trakht: “ikh ney un ney.
ikh ney bay tog, ikh ney bay nakht!
keyn khupe kleyd zikh nisht gemakht.
vozhe kumt mir aroys az ikh ney?
vozhe kumt mir aroys az ikh ney?”

“nit ikh shlof un nit ikh es,
ikh volt gegebn af meyer balanes.
efsher volt er zikh gemit
an almen khotsh an alter yid
mit kinderlekh a shok.
mit kinderlekh a shok.”

di tsveyte trakht: “ikh ney un shtep.
ikh shtep mir oys nor groye tsep.
der kop er brent di shleyf zi hakt,
un di mashin klapt tsu tsum takt,
ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta,
ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta.”

“ikh farshtey dokh yenems vunk.
on a khupe on a ring.
volt geven a shpil a tants,
a libe af a yor a gants,
nor dernokh, dernokh, dernokh.
nor dernokh, dernokh, dernokh.”

di drite shpayt mit blut un zingt:
“ikh ney mir krank ikh ney mir blind.
es tsvikt di brust bay yedn shtokh,
un er hot khasene di vokh.
ikh vintsh im nit keyn shlekhts.
ikh vintsh im nit keyn shlekhts.

es fargeyt vos amol
takhrikhim vet mir gebn kool,
oykh a kleyntshik pitsl erd.
ikh vel shlofn umgeshtert.
ikh vel ruhn, ruhn, ruhn...
ikh vel ruhn, ruhn, ruhn...”

DER REBBE TANTST
Folksong

sha, shtil, makht nit keyn geruder,
der rebbe geyt shoyn tantsn vider.
sha, shtil, makht nit keyn gvald,
der rebbe geyt shoyn tantsn bald.
un az der rebbe tanst
tantsn mit di vent,
lomir ale pliesken mit di hent.

sha, shtil, makh nit keyn geruder,
der rebbe geyt shoyn tantsn vider.
sha, shtil, makh nit keyn gvadt,
der rebbe geyt shoyn tantsn bald.
un az der rebbe tanst
tanst dokh mit der tish,
lomir ale tupen mit di fis.

sha, shtil, makh nit keyn geruder,
der rebbe geyt shoyn tantsn vider.
sha, shtil, makh nit keyn gvald,
der rebbe geyt shoyn tantsn bald.
un az der rebbe tanst
tsitert men in himl
lomir ale hasidimlekh nit makhn keyn tuml.

sha, shtil, mach nit keyn geruder,
der rebbe geyt shoyn tantsn vider.
sha, shtil, makh nit keyn gvadt,
der rebbe geyt shoyn tantsn bald.
un az der rebbe zingt
dem heylikn nign
blaybt der sotn a toyter lign.


 

Credits

Composer: Ofer Ben-Amots

Length: 18:52
Genre: Art Song

Performers: Re'ut Ben-Ze'ev, Soprano;  John Musto, Piano

Date Recorded: 12/01/2001
Venue: Lefrak Concert Hall/Colden Center for the Arts (C), Flushing, New York
Engineer: Tom Lazarus (editing), Tim Martyn (editing)
Assistant Engineer: Frost, David
Project Manager: Lee, Richard

Additional Credits:

Publisher: The Composer’s Own Press
Translation: Eliyahu Mishulovin

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