Nostalgic Jewish Songs

Batya Fonda gave another of her excellent concerts at Temple Beth Israel in Netanya, this time with the theme “Home,” including songs in Yiddish and Ladino that specifically mention places where Jews settled and considered their home.  Batya sang in her beautiful soprano voice and also played recordings and videos while projecting the words in Yiddish or Ladino with English translations.

Many of these songs commemorate the idea of the shtetl, which could mean a village or town of even a district of a city where the Jews lived, but more specifically “shtetele” meant the locale where you lived.  Jews in the Diaspora, despite the persecution and estrangement, were nostalgic for the places where they had lived, sometimes for centuries. Examples of such songs with place names are:

  • Belz, was a center of Hassidim in western Ukraine near the Polish border. The song “Mein shtetele Belz” is nostalgic for the place and the life the Jews lived there.  The town was predominantly Jewish and was decimated by the Nazis in 1941, ca. 150 Jews were burned alive in the Great Synagogue, now commemorated by a plaque.  The Belzer Hassidic sect survived and have rebuilt their Great Synagogue in Jerusalem.
  • Warsaw, was a great city that had many Jewish neighborhoods.  One was on Krochmalna Street, commemorated in song, which was famous as a poor but intensely Jewish area, where the father of Issac Bashevis Singer held his Rabbinic Court, featured in his first novel, “In My Father’s Court.”
  • Roumania: The song “Roumania” is perhaps one of the most famous and popular Yiddish songs.  It idealizes Roumania as a beautiful and pleasant country and shows that at least for a while Jews were able to live there and were nostalgic for it.
  • Vilna, was known as “The Jerusalem of the North” for being a center of Jewish learning and it was commemorated in song. The Lithuanians massacred the Jews of Vilna in the forest of Ponar in 1941, and bragged to the Nazis that they had made their country the first Judenfrei in Europe.
  • Bialystok, was a large city with a large Jewish population, the song “Bialystok meyn hame” was well-known in the 1930’s.
  • Crimea, also known as Dzankoye, the Jews who settled on collective farms in Soviet Russia and formed a Jewish community there, which was decimated later by Stalin.
  • Sarajevo.  There are many nostalgic songs composed in Ladino by Sephardim who were exiled from Spain over 500 years ago.  Flory Jagoda who lives in Washingotn DC has recorded many of them, including songs about her birthplace Sarajevo in Bosnia that had a Sephardic Jewish community.
  • Salonika, was also a center of Sephardic Jews who spoke Ladino and Greek.  They were almost totally wiped out by the Nazis.
  • Odessa, had a large Jewish community and Isaac Babel wrote stories about them, including the Jewish gangsters.  The song “Odessa” in Yiddish is well-known.
  • Vytshepl, or in English Whitechapel, was the center of the Yiddish (Ashkenazi) settlement in London, England and there was a Yiddish song composed about it. I grew up near there and it did not seem so pleasant to me.
  • Birobidzhan, was a false homeland for Yiddish-speaking Jews that Stalin concocted on the remote Russian border with China. There were never more than 17,000 Jews there, yet some Yiddish songs were composed about this “homeland.”
  • Moizesville, was a completely Jewish town established in Argentina in the late nineteenth century by Baron Hirsch for Yiddish-speaking Jews and it flourished and songs were composed about it. But, now it has very few Jews remaining.

Batya played “Over the Rainbow” from the “Wizard of Oz” composed in 1939 with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg, two Jews writing at a particularly poignant time. Batya’s research was detailed and impressive and you can find an amazing collection of Jewish folksongs on her website at http://www.jewishfolksongs.com/en/about .

 

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