Sing in Good Health!
Yiddish Songs about Food
Jews love food - who doesn't? - and they describe the dishes or wax philosophical using food-based metaphors in a huge repertoire of Yiddish songs. (See the companion page demonstrating the same point about Sephardic food and songs).1 As we learn from the drinking songs at the bottom of the page, Jews are also not averse to a little wine or spirits, with or without the food!
Song and Food Survey 2
Beser eyn fraynt mit gekekhts eyder hundert mit a krekhts. [Better one friend with a dish of food than a hundred with a sigh.]
Let's begin with an alphabetical overview: Alef-indikes [A is for Turkeys], a litany of differences between what the rich and poor eat, is set ironically to the melody of the alphabetically organized Akdamut [Introduction] hymn.3 A song with a similar list of contrasts is Lomir ale zingen [Let's all sing]:
Reading through the names of the songs themselves gives us an idea of the wide variety of dishes which Ashkenazi Jews eat and sing about: Borsht, Bulbes, Bublitshki/Beygelekh, Gefilte fish (two songs), Hudl mitn shtrudl, Kartofl zup mit shvomen, Shabes nokhn kugel, Rozhinkes mit mandlen, Shvartse karshelekh, Di mame kokht varenikes, Varnitshkes, ...
Gefilte fish, sung by Adrienne Cooper, z"l (1946-2011).4 Read the wonderful article she wrote in 2008: Esn un zingen: The cook's tour of food (and drinking) in Yiddish songs.
There are so many songs about potatoes that they make up a category all of their own: Bulbes is the classic expression of a poor family's diet; both Freyen zikh iz gut and Tsigele-Migele show us how potatoes give us strength to enjoy life; Kartofl was regarded as man's best friend in the ghettoes; and the thought of being able to add anything to one's potato soup - as in Gebirtig's Kartofl zup mit shvomen [Potato soup with mushrooms] - is but a utopian dream!
Food represents a mother's love, protection, safety. Mayn mames maykholim [My mother's dishes], from Dzigan and Shumacher's 1948 film Undzere Kinder [Our Children], not only describes Mother's food which we long for, but symbolizes a bygone era.
Mayn mames maykholim [The song begins at 2:30]
Festival Foods 5
Es, bensh, zay a mensh. [Eat, pray, be a decent human being.]
A sakh zmires, un veynik kneydlekh. [Many songs, but few dumplings.]
How good it is to be a Jew! - Akh vi gut s'iz tsu zayn a yid! This song lovingly enumerates all the special foods that we eat on the Jewish festivals. A similarly adoring song is Yidishe maykholim [Jewish foods], by Samson Kemelmakher. For the pious Jew, the partaking of food does not only satisfy physical and sensual needs; according to the song of chasidic Rabbi Levi Itschak of Berdichev, Meyerke mayn zun, food also provides us with an opportunity to bless God.
A Jewish wife is expected to be able to prepare traditional dishes. The highest praise that can be heaped upon a rebetsn [Rabbi's wife] is to compare her to delicacies such as a purim-koyletsh [a Purim loaf], a milkhedike blintsele [a dairy blints] or a lokshn-kugele [a noodle pudding] - as in the song Sha, sha, es zol zayn shtil [Sh, Be quiet]. On the other hand, a burnt kugel could earn a wife a beating – Hot a yid a vaybele [A Jew has a wife] or Soreles khasene [Sara's wedding]. (Dire punishment also awaits a Sephardic lass who fails to learn how to prepare traditional dishes properly, viz the song Una muchacha en Selanica [A young girl in Saloniki]).
Az a yidene ken keyn kugel makhn, kumt ir a get! [If a Jewish woman can't make a kugel, she deserves a divorce].
Songs about particular festivals include mention of typical foods and associated rituals. For example, the pre-Pesach tradition of preparing matsa [unleavened bread] collectively is preserved in the folksongs Mir nemen veytslekh [We take wheat] and Dos lid fun matse bakn [The matsa baking song].6 Besides matsa, foods traditionally eaten on Pesach include kneydlekh [dumplings]5 and beetroot (including borsht). But you've got to be able to afford it - lack of money to buy food for festivals is a common theme in Jewish folksongs, as we hear in Burikes [beets]6 and Sha, shtil un nit gezorgt [Sh, hush, and don't worry]. For Ashkenazi Jews, the festival of Hanukkah means potato latkes (see Drey dreydl [Turn, dreidel]), and Purim means homentashn [Haman's pockets], the three-cornered pastries traditionally filled with poppyseed. Listen to the plight of hapless Yakhne-Dvoshe delivering her "half-burnt, half-raw" homentashn to (gossipy) Auntie Yente.
A shabes on kigel iz vi a feygl on a fligel. [Shabbat without kugel is like a bird without a wing.]
Der kugel ligt im afn ponim. [You can see the kugel on his countenance.]
Shabes [Shabbat] is the apex of Jewish life, featuring such foods as kugel and tsholnt, which have evolved as a result of having to warm up slowly overnight, as lighting any type of fire is prohibited on the sabbath. According to Hasidic thought and pracitce, kugel is a Shabbat dish with added significant value.7 No more enthusiastic description of tsholnt 8 (or Schalet, in German) has been written than the one in Heinrich Heine's poem, "Princess Sabbath": "Schalet is the pure ambrosia / that the food of heaven composes, / the bread of Paradise." 9
There are three Shabbat meals, each of which has a particular menu. We learn about this in the song Lekoved shabes [In honour of Shabbat]. There are a few variations with the same title: in one of them, beginning "Gabe, vos vil der heyliger rebe?" [Sexton, what does the holy rabbi want?], Shabbat food is laid out for the rabbi and his wife, the rebetsn. In another, the food is presented to the rabbi and his khsidimlekh [Chasidic followers].
An ironic comment on the these songs is Lekoved dem heylikn shabes [In honour of holy Shabbat]: we don't have any fish, meat, challah [braided loaf] or wine. "God will provide," says the rabbi, and this is the answer that Der alter Menashe also gives his wife Zlate when she asks, "Vu nemt men oyf shabes?" [Where will we get food for Shabbat?]; a similar message is conveyed in Amol iz geven a yid [Once there was a Jew] and Bin ikh mir a khosidl [I am a little Chasid]. If there was no fish, at least there were potatoes – Bulbes – with a double portion, disguised as a kugel [pudding], on Shabbat.
When Shabbat ended, worries began. People wished each other "A gute vokh" [A good week] while wondering where the food for the next week would come from: "Nothing remains of all the foods, and the 'lucky' week is approaching!"
In Hasidic communities, festive meals - and, in particular, the third meal of Shabbat, shalosh sudes - were conducted at the Rebbe's tish [table], at which the rabbi would speak about the Torah, lead the singing of nigunim [songs without words], and give shirayim ["leftovers"] to his Hasidic followers. We hear about this in the song and the nigun Baym rebns tish [At the rabbi's table] (song; nigun) and the song Der rebe hot oysgeteylt shirayim [The rabbi dealt out "leftovers"]. Among the many songs poking fun of Hasidim are two dealing with the rebe's tish: the well-known Kum aher, du filozof [Come here, you philosopher] and Der rebe mit di khasidim, a tale of one fish multiplying miraculously to feed all the hasidim. Another song employing emblematic Shabbat foods (tsholnt and kugel) to express the hostility between Hasidim and Misnagdim is Ven du volst geven der boyre-oylom [If you were Creator of the universe].
Finally, a different type of feast will be celebrated when the Messiah comes: the songs A sudenyu [A feast] and Melave malke [Accompanying the Queen] refer to the heavenly feast which will consist of Wild Boar and Leviathan, washed down by wine preserved from the time the world was created!
Az men est khazer, loz es shoyn rinen ibern moyl! [If you eat pork, eat it till you slobber!]
Der khazer iz treyf, ober der mekekh iz kosher. [Pork isn't kosher, but buying and selling it is.]
In the not-too-distant past, it would have been inconceivable not to abide by the Jewish dietary laws, and so metaphors referring to kashrut would have been instantly clear. For example, "Di mame kokht varenikes un ikh bin bor fleyshik" [Mother is cooking (cheese-filled) dumplings, but I have just eaten meat] refers to laws of separating dairy and meat-based products, and means that the singer and his mother have deep differences of opinion: the young lad wants to marry his penniless love, and his mother - naturally! - won't hear of it. (See the recipe for potato kreplekh here).
A more extended metaphor regarding laws of meat and milk is Tsvey shayles [Two questions]: a housewife asks the rabbi how to kosher a meat cup into which her gentile neighbour has poured milk. She then asks the rabbi what to do about her husband, whom the neighbour has been dallying with. The rabbi pronounces the same judgment regarding both questions: "Give him/it a good wash and a good rub, heat him over coals, bury him with straw, and in a year, God willing, he will be kosher!" (Some versions are more lenient: the pot/husband only need to be buried for three days!)
Poverty and Hunger
Dem oremans yeytser-hore iz a skorinke broyt. [The poor man's temptation is a crust of bread.]
Tsores mit yoykh iz gringer tsu fartrogn vi tsores on yokh. [Troubles with soup are easier to bear than troubles without soup.]
Poverty has been a theme running through all the sections of this survey so far. Mordechai Gebirtig's musical portrayals of everyday life are full of references to the scarcity of food: see, for example, Di lyalke [The doll], Di mame [The mother], or his songs of the unemployed - An arbetlozer and also Arbetloze marsh. (Two other songs mentioned on this page - Kartofl zup mit shvomen and Hungerik dayn ketzele - were also written by Gebirtig).
The ingredients of Mayn mames maykholim (mentioned above) - onions, garlic and radishes - are tasty but meager. Dos bisele shpayz [This morsel of food] similarly gives us a rundown of a simple menu: cabbage, herring and bread, raddishes and salt, kasha with shmalts [rendered fat]. Haynt hob ikh a vetchere (from "The Adventures of Hershele Ostropolyer") is a beggar's fantasy of a delicious meal.
If "potatoes" symbolizes a sparsity of diet, lack of bread indicates destitution. Der kranker shnayder [The sick tailor] is a portrait of abject poverty: "There's no bread in the house ... If this is life, what is death?" Another scene of winter hardship is painted in the well-known Bublitshki [Bagels]10: "It’s freezing out here, My hands are frozen stiff, This sad song comes out of my desperate troubles!" On the other hand, Dos lid fun dem broyt [Song of bread] is an upbeat hymn: "Let our children know that this bread and all the food we eat is the fruit of our own fields."
Many songs about the shortage of bread refer to children: Dos broytele [The little loaf] shows Mother magically feeding one loaf of bread into eight hungry mouths - all except her own! Lack of bread symbolizes the hardships of war: in the song Milkhome [War], a child pitifully asks his mother for bread to still his hunger; Kikhelekh un zemelkh [Cookies and bread rolls] tells about a child in the ghetto who didn't even know what these two "delicacies" were. Two lullabies encourage children to deal strategically with hunger: in Hungerik dayn ketzele [Your hungry kitten], Mother urges her child to ignore the hunger, while the message of S'iz keyn broyt in shtub nito nokh [There's still not any bread at home], is one of stoicism: "Hard work will be your friend; rich earth your home." Immigrants to the US, shocked by the living conditions imposed upon African-Americans, sang Negershe Viglid [Negro lullaby]: "There's no bread, my little Tommy, to feed your hunger."
Es, mayn kind! [Eat, my child!]
While on the topic of lullabies, food is a natural form of comfort. In Shlof, shlof, shlof [Sleep, sleep, sleep], Mother tells her child that Father will go to the village and bring back an apple, nuts, soup - and also some little animals! Rozhinkes mit mandlen [Raisins and almonds], our most beloved bed-time song of all, is also based upon the symbol of food - implying both material and spiritual wealth: "You will become rich and travel to the new world," says the mother, "but make sure not to forget this Jewish melody."
This ditty - probably one of many - was sung by mothers while trying to get their children to open their mouths! There are a few children's songs which mention food in passing: Hob ikh a por oksn [I have a pair of oxen] is a cumulative song based on nonsense rhymes: the oxen crumble lokshn! Dray yingelekh [Three little boys] is based on a play of words: the word "nisele" means "nut" and is also a boy's name. Watch Bobe Chana singing it! (Roll down for the lyrics).
Food around the Yiddish-Speaking World
Beser bay zikh krupnik, eyder bay yenem gebrotns. [It's better to have one's own barley than another's roast.]
Kreplekh in kholem iz nisht keyn kreplekh nor a kholem. [Kreplach (filled dumplings) in a dream is not kreplach but a dream.]
The song Rumenie, Rumenie has indelibly stamped Romanian dishes onto the culinary map of the Jewish world: mamelige [cornmeal mush], pastrami, karnatsele [spicy grilled beef sausage], kastravet [cucumber pickles], patlezhele [eggplant dish], kashkaval [hard sheep’s cheese], brindze, a sharp white sheep’s cheese, often served with mamelige, kugl for the Sabbath, and Romanian wine.2 An Australian parody - Oystralie, Oystralie - lists such "delicacies" as a pavlovele, a vegemitekele, a four and tventele [meat-pie] and a fleshele bir [a bottle of "Fosters" beer]! Ozzies such as myself can only kvel [beam with pride]!
Immigrants to America brought traditional foods from their countries of origin11, and introduced them to the English language: bagels, gefilte fish, knishes, etc. They established "kosher style" delicatessens, such as the one mentioned in Mickey Katz's "Sixteen Tons". American Jewish food - or rather, the way it was eaten - is caricatured in Esn [Food / Eating], a vacationer's typical day in the Borscht Belt of the Catskill Mountains, and in Allan Sherman's "There is nothing like a lox". "Hot dogs", which were both "kosher style" and cheap, were added to the menu, as the title "Hot dogs and knishes" implies. These songs were sung in an English-Yiddish "interlanguage" - either heavily accented English "gemisht" [mixed up] with Yiddish, or in Yiddish peppered with English, such as Kapelye's "Chicken".
Libe iz take gut - ober mit a zemele. [Love is fine - but with a bread-roll.]
Ven dos harts iz biter, helft nit keyn tsuker. [When the heart is bitter, sugar doesn't help.]
Love? Love-Shmove! It was the parents who were traditionally responsible for matches (arranged in Heaven) being organized to mutual economic advantage! For example: now that Hirsh Dovid has successfully sold his potted cheese and the rest of his dairy produce, his friend Borukh talks about a shidduch [match] between their two children.
We all know that the colour of love is red, but some associations are still surprising - especially when love is compared to Borsht! "She" - in Lebedeff's hit "I like she" is also compared to a "galitsyaner borsht". Red is the colour of the varnish that the young servant has to brush onto her nails in order to hide the horseradish stains entailed from toiling in the kitchen: Vi shlekht un vi biter - "How bad and bitter" her life is! But she can finally go out and see her young man after the Shabbat tsholnt and kugel, a time for young lovers to meet and for potential lovers to be met - as we learn from the song Shabes nokhn kugel. Disappointment is shown in dark hues: beautiful girls are compared to Shvartse karshelekh [black cherries], but what's the point of "plucking the fruit" if love isn't returned? A "sweet treat" with amorous connotations is shtrudl [strudel pastry], as we hear in the racy American vaudeville song Hudl mitn shtrudl:
Perhaps the most endearing love song relating to food is Varnishkes ["bow-tie" noodles]: we watch a young lass go through all the stages of preparing the varnishkes, but where is the young man who will eat them?
Az me trinkt ale mol esik, vays men nit az es iz do a zisere zakh. [When one always drinks vinegar, one doesn't know that anything sweeter exists.]
Traditional Judaism frowns upon excessive drinking12, and there's a Yiddish saying which implies that Jews don't imbibe: "Shiker iz a goy; shiker iz er. Trinkn muz er, vayl er iz a goy. Nikhter iz a yid; nikhter iz er. Davnen muz er, vayl er iz a yid." [A gentile is drunk; he's a drunkard. He has to drink because he's a gentile. A Jew is sober; he's sober. He has to pray because he's a Jew].
Geyt a goy in shenker [A gentile goes to the pub]13
However, there are lots of drinking songs which imply that this image we Jews have of ourselves is not quite correct. Most songs refer to drinking at family celebrations (Di mashke [Whiskey])14 and festivals (Simkhes Toyre [Pentecost]). However, some songs speak of drinking to drown one's sorrows (A glezele yash [A glass of wine] or Dos fleshl [The bottle]). A Chabad Hassidic song, Stav ya pitu [I started to drink], speaks metaphorically about the need to "drown" one's body and animal spirit by moral stocktaking. On Purim it's a mitzvah [religious commandment] to imbibe - viz the Talmudic [Megilla 7b] verse: Chayav inish livesumei [Man has to drink]! According to Grandfather, the very special melody of all melodies is hidden in the third glass of wine (Dem zeydns nign [Grandfather's melody]), and some people even associate the coming of the Messiah with a little spirits (Zol shoyn kumen di geule [Let deliverance come] or Riboyno shel oylom, hurrah! [Master of the Universe, Hurrah!])
As we see in the songs A glezele lekhayim [A glass of cheer] and Tayere Malke [Dear Queen], far from abstaining, we drink and sing about drinking to celebrate our Jewishness: "Lekhayim vil ikh trinken far dem pintele yid" [I drink to the life of the little Jewish spark]!
"Di mashke", sung by Michael Alpert
To conclude ...
This has turned out to be quite a long page, and I've only begun to survey the vast number of songs which employ food as a theme or symbol.
Est gezunterheyt! - Eat in good health! - and remember:
Host broyt mit puter, iz der mazl a guter. [If you have bread and butter, you have good luck.]
* * * * *
1 What's better: Ashkenazi or Sephardic food? One would think that this is a matter of culture and taste, but at a recent (2013) "Gefiltefest" at the London Jewish Cultural Centre, Ashkenazi and Sephardic cooks were pitted against each other to see who could make the best potato and egg dish. Guess who won?!
4 See the memorial concert "A kholem" [A dream] held in tribute to Adrienne Cooper, z"l, in December 2012.
In fact, some people associate all Jewish festivals with feasting, but there's actually a healthy balance between feasting and fasting, viz the Yo-Yo diet guide to Jewish holidays :
Seventeenth of Tammuz -- Fast (definitely no cheesecake or blintzes)
Tisha B'Av -- Very strict fast (don't even think about cheesecake or blintzes)
Month of Elul -- End of cycle.
8 See Vaisman (below), who discusses origins and variations of the word tsholnt.
9 Here is more praise for tsholnt and kugl, written in 1889. Note that Heine was well and truly converted to Christianity when he wrote his ode to tsholnt, but, as the author of this 1889 article points out, "To understand [Jewish national foods], one must be a scholar, to describe them a genius, to eat them with devotion a Jew, but to appreciate them a Meshumed [apostate]."
10 See this comment about the parallel histories of the songs "Bublitshki" and "Papirosn".
11 Food was a popular topic in American Yiddish theatre songs. Isidor Lillian wrote Gefilte Fish, Hot Dogs (popularized by Molly Picon) and Herring mit Potatoes. Aaron Lebedeff wrote Hot Dogs and Knishes, and included references to food in many of his songs, including Rumenie and I Like She. See Denker (below) for more on American Jewish food.
12 The rabbinical warning against intoxication is symbolized in the following parable: "When Noah set out to plant the vine, Satan encountered him and asked upon what errand he was bent. 'I am going to plant the vine,' said Noah. 'I will gladly assist you in this good work,' said Satan. When the offer of help was accepted Satan brought a sheep and slaughtered it on the plant, then a lion, then a pig, and finally a monkey. He thus explained these symbols to Noah. 'When a man tastes the first few drops of wine he will be as harmless as a sheep; when he tastes a little more he will become possessed of the courage of a lion and think himself as strong; should he further indulge in the liquid produced by your plant he will become as objectionable as a pig; and by yet further indulgence in it he will become like a monkey'." [Midrash Tanhuma, Noah, 13]
13 For more about this song and its variations, read this very interesting blog (in Hebrew): Assaf, David. "Why a gentile drinks spirits, and what the Jew does in the meanwhile". (Oneg Shabbat, October, 2013).
14 Read Philologos about the difference between bronfn, mashke and yash.
Cooper, A. (2008). Esn un zingen: The cook's tour of food (and drinking) in Yiddish songs. Living Traditions: KlezKamp 24 - "AshkeNosh: Yiddish Culture / Yiddish Food"
Denker, Joel. (2003). The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine. C.4: "The 'Heartburn of Nostalgia': Jewish Food in America"
Der Yidisher Tamtam: Lekhayim! - 10 year anniversary edition. June, 2005. [In Yiddish].
Diner, Hasia. (2001). Hungering for America: Italian Irish, and Jewish foodways in the age of immigration.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, B. Food and Drink. YIVO Encyclopedia.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, B. (1990). Kitchen Judaism. In Getting Comfortable in New York: The American Jewish Home, 1880-1950, edited by Susan L. Braunstein and Jenna Weisman Joselit (New York: The Jewish Museum).
Marks, Gil. (2010). Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Nadler, Allan. (2005). Holy Kugel: The sanctification of Ashkenazic ethnic foods in Hasidism. In Food and Judaism: A special issue of Studies in Jewish Civilization. V.15, edited by L. J. Greenspoon, R. A. Simkins, & G. Shapiro. Creighton University Press.
Roden, Claudia. (1997). The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, New York, Knopf.
Rothstein, Robert & Rothstein, Halina. (1998). “Food in Yiddish and Slavic Folk Culture: a Comparative/Contrastive View,” in Yiddish Language and Culture Then and Now, ed. Leonard Jay Greenspoon. Omaha: Creighton University Press, pp. 305-328.
Strom, Yale & Schwartz, Elizabeth. (2005). A Wandering Feast: A Journey Through the Jewish Culture of Eastern Europe. Jossey-Bass.
Vaisman, Asya. (2012). Well Said - Cholent: The very food of Heaven. PaknTreger, Vol.66.
Recipes, stories and food-related blogs
Beyond Bubbie - "Every Bubbie has a recipe, and every recipe tells a story."
Roots and Recipes (including both Ashkenazi and Sephardic recipes)
"Leket" Weekly Parasha Project - food-related themes in the weekly portions of the Torah
"Poopy Roll cut up from Zishe's Homemade Bakery"? - Er ... no thanks!!