Jewish folk songs

We are fortunate to have in our English-speaking community in Netanya a talented musicologist, Batya Fonda (Lederfein), who also has a lovely soprano voice.  She gave a lecture recently in English about the origins of some well-known Jewish folk songs, in Yiddish, Ladino and Hebrew (see   She asked various questions about the origin of each song: was it written by someone or was it truly an anonymous folk song, and what was the country/language of origin.  It produced some unexpected and fascinating answers.

Her first example was “Tum Balalaika,” a folk-song that all Jews know.  Was it originally Jewish, Russian or Vietnamese?  A well-known Jewish folk song expert tells the story that when he introduced this to his class some Vietnamese students came over and asked “where did you learn that Vietnamese song?”  They said the words didn’t make any sense to them, but the tune was a well-known Vietnamese song, but you have to sing it much slower, since all Vietnamese songs are sad.  So did it originate in Vietnam, was it a coincidence (after all how many tunes are there?) or rather was it an accidental sharing some time in the distant past?  Of course, the balalaika is a Russian instrument, so it must have a Russian connection; however, no-one knows what “Tum” means – it may come from Lithuanian. The song has a universal theme – courtship songs are very often composed of riddles – similar to that featured in some of the English-Scottish ballads.  So the origin of this song is obscure.

Another well known song is “What will happen at the Messiah’s feast,” that includes a refrain “we will eat a wild ox and a Leviathan” – two creatures mentioned in the Biblical account of the creation of the world. This song is sung both in Hebrew and Yiddish: which was the original? Actually, this was a Chasidic song, which Palestinian Jewish soldiers in the British Army in WWII transferred to the Jews in Libya. They brought it back with them to Israel when they immigrated here, where it was picked up in Hebrew, and it is now commonly sung at the end of the Seder.

Rozhinkes mit mandeln” (Raisins with almonds) is a classic Yiddish song, composed by Abraham Goldfaden, who based it on the well-known Yiddish lullaby expressing a mother’s desire that her son be a good Jew. What is the origin of the white kid in the lullaby? It may be based upon a German lullaby featuring the word “ziegel”, which means both “brick” and “kid”. Whatever the origin of the “kid”, it is a symbol which has been used continuously in Jewish tradition, from Biblical days through to the Holocaust.

The next song is “Morenica” about a dark maiden, sung in Ladino, but of Spanish renaissance origin about a Moorish girl. A dark girl is also the subject of the Biblical “Song of Songs”: are we talking about the same girl? A dark girl in Spanish folk literature represented someone who ventured out of the walls of her home – that is, somebody who probably had loose morals. What about the Jewish girl? Actually, this is one of the most common wedding songs in Ladino, hinting at the subject of a girl leaving her home and moving to another realm.

Oyfn pripetshik” is usually thought to be a song about how nice it is for children to go the cheder. It was composed by Marek Warshavsky (1848-1907), a Kiev lawyer whose songs became “instant” Yiddish folksongs. However, cheder was never very popular, as we know from another song by the popular Yiddish writer, Sholem Aleichem. So was Warshavsky’s song some kind of propaganda to persuade children that cheder wasn’t so bad? Actually, cheder is only the setting of the song, whose real name is “Der Alef Beys“, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The message is found in the last verses, which expresses the thought that the history of the Jews is written in tears.

Finally a Ladino song that is called “Adio querida” is suspiciously like Verdi’s aria “Addio del passata” from La Traviata. Did Verdi learn the song from the Jews, or vice versa? In fact, the Verdi aria was adapted by an opera fan in Bulgaria, and has remained a Ladino favorite ever since.

So there are all sorts of origins and subjects of Jewish folk songs, whether sung in Yiddish, Ladino or Hebrew.  It was fascinating to hear the stories behind some of these songs.


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