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Yiddish is the language that used to work like magic for the Jews of Europe. You could be from Russia, Romania, or France, and even if you couldn’t understand a lick of each other’s official languages, you could almost certainly speak the Jewish language of Yiddish, and all talk together. Or sing.
Coming this Dec. 24–29 you can do (or attempt) both, at the first annual Yiddish New York Festival sponsored by the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, on the Lower East Side. But those activities are also what the Jews who survived the Holocaust were asked to do in the hobby of an Upper West Side hotel in 1948: Talk and sing.
Sing your hearts out.
The man requesting this was Ben Stonehill, the owner of a flooring company in Sunnyside, Queens. He had heard that Jewish refugees were being temporarily housed at the Marseilles Hotel on 103rd Street, and wanted to save their songs that came from a world literally gone up in smoke. So he schlepped into Manhattan with the best sound equipment he could find: A big, bulky wire recorder. He set himself up in the lobby, which was teeming with Jews only recently arrived from Europe. “Sing,” he told them in the Yiddish he, too, had grown up speaking. “Sing whatever you’d like.”
Those are the recordings socio-musicologist Miriam Isaacs will play at the Festival on Dec. 24. And then she will teach some of those songs to the audience.
“Stonehill’s recordings are a kind of time capsule,” says Isaacs, herself born in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany. “It’s a snapshot taken only a short time after liberation, before pressures to Americanize and forget what had happened.”
Some of the songs date from before the war. They come from the Yiddish theater, or synagogue. But believe it or not, there are also some that are positively bawdy.
“A lot involve rabbis or rabbis’ wives,” said Isaacs, laughing. “I’m not a psychologist but I guess these boys who were studying in the yeshivas [religious schools] were so protected from sex, who do they [see] who’s a female at all?” Only the rabbi’s wife. So there’s a song, for instance, about how her “apron goes higher” — that is, she’s pregnant. Except, being yeshiva boys, they could never say that. Other songs mention delicious pastries that make it clear that pastry is not what they’re singing about at all.
But of course there are also the heart-wrenching songs, including some composed in the concentration camps to remember and tell what happened there — if the singers survived. And there are many songs from after the war about never being able to go home again. “Where Shall I Go?” is one. “Pack Up,” another.
And then there are the songs just trying to make sense of the world — “songs philosophizing about the brevity of life, questioning God,” says Isaacs. She grew up hearing some of these. “My mother was a survivor who had been in Auschwitz and Ravensbruck [concentration camps]. She never talked about it, but she did sing while she was doing housework, and there were some songs that I’d never heard elsewhere.” One of these was, “God in His Judgment Is Right.”
Isaacs’ father did not agree that God could possibly have approved the Holocaust.
“So my parents used to quarrel in a good-hearted way over theological issues,” Isaacs recalls. “And my mom would say, ‘Well, you just have to have faith in God.’ ” And she’d sing that song.
It was a song Isaacs had never heard again — until she heard it on a Ben Stonehill recording from the Hotel Marseilles.
The recordings are not pristine, but that’s part of their moment-in-amber magic. In the background horns honk, people call out lyrics when someone forgets a line, and babies cry. There are lots and lots of babies crying, because after the war, many of the survivors were young. Their parents and grandparents had been killed, and some of their children, too. They wanted to create new life.
That is why many of the Stonehill recordings are simply love songs.
“Singing is restorative,” says Isaacs. “The survivors who made it through the war were not treated to therapy. They were as traumatized as human beings can get. But remarkably and wonderfully, music is very healing, and this gave them an opportunity to express what they had been through and to meet people of the opposite sex.”
Amazingly, life goes on.
Thanks to Ben Stonehill, it is also frozen forever.
For more information on Yiddish New York, please go to www.yiddishnewyork.com.
Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker and author and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids.