Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Grandma, the Singer

Some more melodious memories about my Grandma, Chaya Toiba bas Reuven haLevi, a”h (peace be upon her)



Speaking of unique versions of songs I heard from my Grandma, I’d like to share one more.

Grandma loved to sing me her repertoire of Yiddish lullabies. “Rozhinkes mit mandlen” (“Raisins and Almonds”) was one of her favorites. It symbolically refers to the study of Torah as “the best merchandise” one can possibly obtain in one’s life. Indeed, Grandma, would tell me, Torah study is the most precious commodity, even more than raisins and almonds. Presumably, that was a delicious and exquisite delicacy in those times. (How ironic that for today’s kids, raisins and almonds are just considered “yucky health food” ;-) But in my Grandma’s times, it was really the greatest thing there was. No, in fact, there was one thing even better.

Grandma told me that in her early childhood in Russia, the absolutely greatest and most coveted treat was a simple piece of orange! Her papa (Zaida Marcus) would bring home an orange on extremely rare occasions, maybe even less than once a year. The slices would be carefully rationed out, piece by piece, to household members and guests. Grandma said she considered herself lucky to get one single slice! (Funny, my kids won’t even touch an orange unless it’s seedless. Go figure)

But then Grandma would conclude that Torah study is even better than that!

I recall the part of the song she emphasized the most was “Vos vet zain zain baruf?”

The song was telling of a little white goat behind the little boy’s crib, that would some day go out to make a living. “Un vos vet zain zain baruf?” “What will be its calling?”

Grandma would always pause at “baruf” – calling – and explain to me what a life’s calling is, and that the most important calling of all is to study Torah.

Anyway, that was just parenthetical.

The song I’d really like to mention is her version of “Oifen Pripechuk.”

The song goes like this:


Oyfn pripetshik brent a fayerl, un in shtub iz heys.
Un der rebe lernt kleyne kinderlekh dem alef-beyz.

   Refrain:

   Hert zhe, kinderlekh, gedenkt zhe, tayere, vos ir lernt do,
   Zogt zhe nokh a mol un takke nokh a mol: Komets-alef: o!

Lernt, kinder, mit groys kheyshek, azoy zog ikh aykh on,
Ver s’vet gekher fun aykh kenen ivre, er bakumt a fon. (Refrain)

Hert zhe kinder, az ir vet elter vern, vet ir aleyn farshteyn,
Vifl in di oysyes lign trern, vifil geveyn. (Refrain)

Az ir vet, kinder, dem goles shlepn, oysgemutshet zayn,
Zolt ir fun di oysyes koyekh shepn, kukt in zey arayn! (Refrain)

Here is an English translation:

On the hearth a little fire is burning, and it is warm inside,
And the rebbe is teaching the little children, the Aleph Beis.

   Refrain:

   Listen, children, remember dear ones, what you learned here;
   repeat it again and again, “Kometz Aleph ‘oh’”

Study, children, with great desire, that is what I tell you;
The one who'll know Hebrew first will get a banner (for a prize). (Refrain)

Listen, children, when you get older, you will understand on your own
how in these letters lie so many tears, so much weeping. (Refrain)

When you grow weary, children, and burdened with exile,
you should draw strength from these very letters, so look into them! (Refrain)



Grandma loved to sing that song.

I could never understand the final line of stanza three.

Why are there “so many tears” and “so much weeping” lying in these letters? Whose tears are they, anyway? And why so much sadness? I just couldn’t relate.

In recent years, I even felt somewhat compelled to change the words to “viff’l simcha” and “viff’l frayd” (much joy, much laughter), instead of “tears and weeping.”

Something about this always bothered me. And it never made sense to me, that is, until recently, in the few days after my Grandma’s passing as I began to reflect on her life.

But first, I’d like to point out that my Grandma sang this line a bit differently than the commonly sung way. Here’s her version:
“Viff’l treren in di oisyes liggun, viffil gevain”

It doesn’t really make a difference or change the meaning, but it’s subtly different. Instead of “…how in these letters lie tears,” Grandma sang it: “…how many tears in these letters lie.” (emphasis on last word)
The first time I sang this lullaby to my own daughter a number of years ago, my wife pointed it out to me. She commented that the line ends with “treren” (tears) drawn out, as that is where the emphasis should be placed, in contrast to the way my Grandma sang it, in which “treren is sung more quickly and the word “liggen” (are lying) is drawn out.

Since that time, I researched all the variations of this song, but have never found anyone who sang this song Grandma’s way.

Time is short, so I’ll try to finish this thought later.

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