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Yiddish was the principal daily language of European Jews for nearly one thousand years.  Yiddish is a fusion language based on German, written in Hebrew script, with additional vocabulary drawn from Slavic, Hebrew, Aramaic, and other sources. It reflects the dispersal (‘diaspora’) of a whole people through many lands; from the sixteenth and especially during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a rich literature developed, fuelled by Hasidic emotionalism, comprising song, fiction, poetry, disputation and polemical writing and as such had an impact on politics, national and social movements.  The language was nearly extinguished by the Shoah, remaining today as the ordinary language of only a remnant of the Jewish people – Hasidim and elderly survivors.  The past four decades, however, have seen a revival of Yiddish as a cultural phenomenon: language courses are now given at major universities; Yiddish phrases, humor, music are common parlance among Jews and even non-Jews; perhaps also as a reassertion of Diaspora Jewry against the hegemonic rule of Hebrew in the State of Israel.

Folksongs in Yiddish existed as far back as the fourteenth century. But the genre especially flourished from the eighteenth century onward, originally because of the rise of ecstatic Hasidic prayer, and expanded generally in  the Pale of Settlement – the old Lithuanian and Polish empires – where Jews were banished until the end of the nineteenth century. Conditions there were appalling: persecution, pogroms, military conscription, and poverty.  The thousands of Yiddish folksongs reflected the plight of the people, as well as their hopes, prayer and daily lives.  “Yiddish folksongs are in a vernacular closest to the popular speech of the folk,” wrote Ruth Rubin, pioneer archivist of Yiddish folksong. “…Into folksong were poured feelings, thoughts, desires, aspirations, which often seemingly had no other place to go.” [1]

The categories in chapter headings to Rubin’s seminal work, “Voices of a People. The Story of Yiddish Folksong,” [2] are illustrative: “At the Cradle…The Children’s World…Love and Courtship…Marriage…Customs and Beliefs…Merriment…Dancing Songs…Historical and Topical…Chasidic Melody and Songs…Of Literary Origin…Poverty, Toil, and Struggle…Out of the Shadows (Underworld songs)…To America…To Zion…Soviet Yiddish Folksong…The Struggle to Survive.”  As Isaac Bashevis Singer explained in his Nobel Lecture (delivered in Yiddish), “In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of a frightened and hopeful humanity.”

Some folksongs began as poems, some became poems adapted from the songs. (In Yiddish lid means both song and poem.) The folksongs were, in any event, fluid, often altered and adapted in passages from one person, time, or country to another. Adaptation and transformation of Yiddish songs to new purposes is an honored tradition. As the composer Stefan Wolpe once said,
When using folklore material for creative purposes the composer strives to reveal and to remould in a novel fashion what nobody but himself is able to detect in it….He thus preserves and transforms the original at the very same time.”

As a Jew rediscovering his own cultural history, and as a poet, I noticed that most English translations of the folksongs’ lyrics are mainly dutiful, literal, stilted, capturing none of the rich idiom and feeling of the original; certainly none of the felicitous rhyming or cadence as conveyed in both the language and the melody. As I scanned through nearly one thousand texts from Rubin’s archives and others, from collections on the Internet and CDs, many ‘spoke’ to me, begging for recomposition or ‘re-imagination’, as I term it: aI penetrated the lyrics to distill their essence; I recreated, advanced, and sometimes subverted the original in order to create a vibrant poem in English.

This poem, published in the April 2010 issue of Modern Poetry in Translation (used with permission), is an example – I give the recomposition first, then the original (a perennial klezmer favourite):


I had a pretty cousin, just over on the boat, a real greenhorn.  Her hair cascaded in curls, her cheeks flushed with freedom, she was the kind who skipped when she walked, trilled when she talked. “Listen greenhorn,” I warned, “this may be the goldene medine, but it’s no land of milk and honey. The streets are pocked, the men are goats, you’ve no mama no tate to watch out for you.” Yet her feet begged to dance, her eyes to flirt, and no bent-backed tailor or pasty-faced scholar for her, God forbid!  But you can’t eat gaiety. Soon she was tied to a machine, working for some lecher himself once green. Meantime, I had my own troubles, so when I saw her again her feet were wrapped in rag-slippers, her hair cut blunt, her cheeks, once like pomegranates, now sunken and sallow, her belly swollen. “Nu, greenhorn, how goes it?” She stared past me as if not knowing that anyone spoke. Finally: “To hell with your goldene medine.

Notes: greenhorna newcomer (as to a country) unacquainted with local manners and customs; esp: a recently arrived immigrant.’ – Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged.


goldene medine –  land of gold.

Di Grine Kuzine (music by Abe Schwartz (1881-1963), lyrics by Hyman (Khayim) Prizant, a perennial favorite for Klezmorim. (hear a sedate version of the song at

and a raucous one at

Tsu mir iz gekumen a kuzine                        A girl cousin arrived, a greenhorn.
Sheyn vi gold iz zi geven, di grine              Beautiful as gold she was,
Bekelakh vi royte pomerantsn                    Cheeks red as oranges,
Fiselakh vos betn zich tsum tantsn.          Tiny feet, just made for dancing.

Herelakh vi zaydn-veb gelokte                    Her hair was as a silk web,
Tseyndelekh vi perelakh getokte                Her teeth as pearls on a string,
Eygelakh vi himl-bloy in friling                   Her eyes, blue as skies in spring,
Lipelekh vi karshelekh a tsviling.                Her lips, just like twin cherries.

Nisht gegangen is zi, nor geshprungen,     She did not walk, she leapt.
Nisht geredt hot zi nor gezungen                 She did not talk, she sang.
Lebedik un freilech yede mine                     Her every feature joyful and gay —
Ot aza geven is main kuzine!                          Such a one was my cousin!

Un azoy ariber tseyner yorn                        But, as the years passed by
Fun mayn kuzine iz a tel gevorn                  My cousin went downhill
“Peides” hot zi vokhenlang geklibn             From working hard week after week.
Biz fun ir iz gornisht nit geblibn.                  Nothing remained but a wreck.

Haynt az ikh bagegen mayn kuzine            Today, as I meet her on the street,
Un ikh freg ir: S’makhtsu epes, Grine?      And I ask: How’s everything, Greenhorn?
Ziftst zi op, un kh’leyen in ir mine:              She just sighs and I read in her eye:
Brenen zol Colombus’ es medine!               To hell with Columbus’s paradise!

Norbert Hirschhorn

May 2010

[1] Yiddish Folksongs from the Ruth Rubin Archive. Edited by Chana Mlotek and Mark Slobin (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007; pp. 16, xii).

[2] Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois University Press, 2000.