Songs with Place Names in the Titles

Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,

Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home. ...
Home! Home! Sweet, sweet home!
There's no place like home! There's no place like home!

These lyrics, written by an American in 1823, have been sung by people the world over. So strong have the feelings of nostalgia evoked by the song been, in fact, that it was banned during the American Civil War for fear of soldiers' desertion!1 But "home" is not necessarily a specific place or geographical location: the counterpoint between "Home, Sweet Home" and "Somewhere over the Rainbow" at the end of Dorothy's journey through the land of Oz implies that the meaning of "home" includes the concept of an odyssey, a quest for paradise, the search for a safe haven. 2

For Jews, "home" has always implied both a geographical location and a journey. This essay will focus on songs in Yiddish and Ladino sung by Diaspora Jews about places which they felt was their home, songs of homesickness and songs reflecting intense feelings of displacement, especially during and after the Holocaust, and songs reflecting the yearning for Zion. It's organized from a geographical perspective, beginning with songs in Ladino about the Sepharadic diaspora, and continuing with songs about small towns and cities in Europe and the New World.


"By the waters of Babylon"

The exile in Babylon (present-day Iraq) could be regarded as the first Jewish diaspora. In Babylonia, the Jews developed alternatives to Temple worship, which was one of the factors in enabling them to stay and thrive3 in the country for over 2500 years. Simultaneously, they mourned for Zion, leading to the return 70 years later of a minority of the exiles. "By the waters of Babylon, there we sat and wept as we remembered Zion ... If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I remember thee not, if I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy." To this very day, Psalm 137 is recited constantly, as prelude to the weekday Grace after meals, at the apex of the Jewish wedding ceremony and on days of national mourning. It has been set to music in many different styles, from that of Renaissance composer Salomone Rossi to a religious rock version popularized by Meydad Tasa.

In contrast to the lamentation of Psalm 137, its counterpart, Psalm 126, "Shir Hama'alot" [A song of ascents], sings joyfully of the return to Zion and the overcoming of adversity: "When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like dreamers. ... They that sow in tears shall reap in joy." The psalm is traditionally sung prior to the Grace after meals on Shabbat and festivals, and is also sung on national events such as Independence Day; in fact, it was proposed as Israel's national anthem. Melodies vary according to occasion, but perhaps its most endearing tune is identified with Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt and, lately, popularized by Chanan Yovel. 

The pattern set by the Babylonian exile applied to the subsequent exile into Rome and thence to the rest of the world: on one hand, adaptating to and identifying with the social and cultural influences of the land of adoption, and, on the other hand, praying fervently for return to the holy land. There is a difference between "exile" and "diaspora": the former has strong religious overtones and emphasises the forced nature of the migration; the latter implies a sense of adaptation to the adopted country.4 Most of the great literature (especially the piyutim) of the Golden Age in Spain was "exilic" in nature, identifying with the mourning of the exiled shechinah (the feminine aspect of God) and praising the beauty of Jerusalem. Examples well-known today are the poems of Judah Halevi, which have lately been set to music by pop singer Etti Ankry. Here is her version of Yefe nof [Beautiful landscape].


The Sepharadic Diaspora 5

After the expulsion from Spain and resettlement of the Jews east and west of the Sephardic homeland, Jewish life and culture was affected by the concept of a "double diaspora": the longing for two homelands. This is exemplified by two Ladino songs: the traditional "Ir me quero, madre, a Yerushalayim" [Mother, I want to go to Jerusalem], and a recently composed song by Bosnian-born Flory Jagoda, "La yave de Espanya" [The key from Spain].

"Ir me quero, madre" (La alabanza de Jerusalem - In praise of Jerusalem) is one of the many songs reflecting the idealization of Zion nurtured throughout the generations, which often culminated in the desire to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem and to die there.6 Many variations have been sung throughout the years and across the Sephardic diaspora. Expressions of longing include wishing to kiss the earth and to enjoy it; wishing to step on the grass and to be satiated; wishing to eat the fruit of the land and to drink its water until the soul is satisfied; etc. Seeing Jerusalem with one’s own eyes is the ultimate wish – it is even more precious than one’s family. Each of the versions ends with an affirmation of faith in Lord of the Universe: the speaker will lean on Him, seek shelter in Him, embrace Him, and believe in Him. 

Other coplas, echoing piyutim from the Golden Age of Spain yearning for the redemption of Jerusalem, were also written during the 18th century, praising Jerusalem and other holy cities such as Tiberias.7 With the advent of the Zionist movement in the 1920's, new songs were composed in Ladino, often based upon melodies of local folksongs, and were sung in the youth movements along with Hebrew songs. Here is a video of Yasmin Levy singing "Ir me quero, madre" in Holland.

Flory Jagoda's "La yave de Espanya" [The key from Spain] is based on stories that families forced to leave Spain in the 15th century took along "the key to their home, treasuring it and passing it on through the centuries from one generation to the other as the symbol, both of their Diaspora and of their fervent hope to someday be allowed to return." (From the dust-cover of the CD, "Memories of Sarajevo"). As we hear in the song, the keys were kept in a special drawers or boxes, or hung on walls above the doors of homes in the new diaspora. It has taken more than 500 years for Jews to be welcomed back home in both Spain and Portugal; whether the keys actually fit the doors is a matter of legend.8 Flory has been called "keeper of the flame" for her dedication to preserving Sephardi culture - singing the songs she learned and composing new ones about Sephardi traditions. Her life and music have been documented in two films: "The Key from Spain: The Songs and Stories of Flory Jagoda" and "Flory's Flame". 

After the expulsion from Spain, the "key" to Jewish life and culture passed on to Turkey and the Balkan countries east of Spain, and to north Africa in the west. This symbolism is depicted in the poem "Una llave en Salónica" [A key in Salonica] by Jorge Luis Borges, not a Jew himself, but vigitantly anti-fascist:
Abarbanel, Farías or Pinedo,
Persecuted and driven out of Spain
By the unholy Inquisition, still retain
The key to a certain dark house in Toledo ... 
Salonica (Thessaloniki) became the major city for Jews expelled from Spanish territories and for those who had been forced to convert to Christianity (conversos). It was pre-eminent both from the point of view of leadership in Jewish tradition and learning - it was dubbed "Yerushalayim del Balkan" - and from accommodation into life of the general community. Music sung by the Jews of Salonica was both traditional and contemporary, with new texts in Ladino often sung to the melodies of local songs.9 Here are two songs about Salonica: the first, "Primavera en Salonico" [Springtime in Salonica], sung by Savina Yannatou, describes a Jewish singer, Fortuna, singing at a popular cafe-aman (Turkish-style cafe) run by Abraham Masloum, a Jewish proprietor. The second song, "El incendio de Salonica" (or: "La cantiga del fuego") [The fire of Salonica - text], describes the calamitous fire of 1917 which decimated the Jewish quarter; it is sung by David Saltiel, who is regarded as the last of the traditional singers of Jewish Salonica.

Another song featuring Salonica is "La muchacha en Selanik" [The young girl of Salonica], which tells about a young girl turning to Islam to escape from her domineering mother, who punishes her for burning the traditional dish of yaprakitos (stuffed vine leaves). Unlike the songs mentioned previously, which describe real-life features of Salonica, the term "Selanik" is probably used generically to denote a diaspora city. Underlying the text is a fear of assimilation - the mother insisting that her daughter learn how to prepare tradtional food, on the one hand, and the danger of adopting the religion of the surrounding population, on the other. Listen to Yitschak Levy singing.



"Yiddishland" maybe defined as "a region where Yiddish is spoken" which, before the Holocaust, ran from the Baltic Sea to the western edge of Russian, and incorporated hundreds of Jewish communities with a combined population of about 11 million people. It is not so much a geographical entity as a cultural concept: a territory "in the minds and mouths of its speakers".10

Songs were sung about the countries, cities and towns of Yiddishland out of a deep feeling of homesickness from the perspective of the New World. They speak about the difficulties and vagaries involved in adapting to new environments and and tell of a yearning for an idealized life in the old country. One of the functions of Yiddish songs was to record historical calamities such as the Kishinev pogrom of 1903; the lyrics and melody of "Dos lid funem Keshenever pogrom" were subsequently used to tell of the horrors of two later pogroms, those of Bialystok in 1905-6 and of Volodarka, Ukraine, in 1911. More recently, a satirical song based on the nonsense lyrics of "Ho tsa tsa" described the Chernobyl atomic disaster and initial cover-up by Soviet authorities. Most songs describing particular towns and cities were written during the course of the Holocaust and, in later years, in order to commemorate the total and unbelievable annihilation of the Jewish communities living there. A sample of these songs will be described below.

Hassidic songs

Hassidic dynasties are named according to the town of the rebe (principal rabbi). On the whole, Hassidic music - the nigun - is devoid of lyrics; those ditties sung about Hassidim are usually satirical and derisive. Nevertheless, there are a few songs which do express the piety of a particular rebe, an example of which is "Kayn Kotsk furt men nit" [One doesn't drive to Kotsk]. The rebe's abode at Kotsk (a town not far from Warsaw) is likened to the Temple in Jerusalem, and the lyrics discuss the triple meaning of "regl": on foot, habit or custom, and pilgrimage. "Going on foot to one's revered rebe, every footstep had its meaning, as a measure of inspiration and spiritual joy."11 Another beautiful song in the same vein is "Fun kosev biz kitev" [From Kosev to Kitev] (lyrics), which describes the countryside where the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hassidic movement, would go and meditate.

Many klezmer tunes, while not the subject of this essay, are similarly titled with European place names: for example, Tayere Odessa, Kolomayer badkhen, Basarabye, Kishinever bulgar, etc.

Songs about the East European

Say "music about the shtetl", and people the world over are bound to recall images of "Anatevka", the little town popularized in "Fiddler on the Roof". This musical represents a different type of "double diaspora": nostalgia about nostalgia. Written and produced for assimilated descendants of Jewish and other immigrants who had no living memory of the trauma of having to leave one's homeland, it harked back not only to the original story by Sholem Aleichem, but also to the early twentieth century, when Yiddish theatres and vaudeville, mainly in New York, churned out idealized images and songs of a European Jewish homeland to masses of enthusiastic audiences.

One of those songs was "Mayn shtetele Belz"12, which was written in 1932 by Jacob Jacobs and Alexander Olshanetsky for the operetta "Dos lid fun der geto". It was originally sung as a duet by famous soprano Isa Kremer and Leon Gold, both of whom were born in Beltsy in Bessarabia (present-day Moldava). Beltsy was never a shtetl, but the third biggest town in Bessarabia. The location of "Belz" subsequently became confused, especially when Moyshe Oysher sang about his hometown "Belz" in Eastern Europe in the film "The Cantor's Son". The song "Belz" became detached from its original setting and ultimately came to represent all Jewish shtetlekh [small towns], including the Hasidic Belz in Galicia, Poland. Tragically, the Nazis picked up on this generic meaning, and forced Jews to sing the song in aktions and extermination camps. Nowadays, the Holocaust connection has been forgotten, and the song retains its aura of nostalgia, both in Yiddish and in many translations (including into French, where it has become "belle", symbol of a happy childhood in a French village!) This page from David Assaf's blog includes an interesting selection of versions. Here are two videos, from the many versions available on Youtube: the first is accompanied by an exhibition of paintings by Polish artists, and the second features harmonica player Shmuel Gogol, a survivor of the "death orchestra" in Auschwitz.

Everything in the shtetele (little town) was depicted as ending with a diminutive "ele" or "l" - in other words, things were small, familiar, likeable, childlike, sentimental - at least in songs. Thus we have songs about a shtibele ("In an orem shtibele" [In a poor little house]) and a gesele ("Vu iz dos gesele?" [Where is that street?]), and when the khazndl [cantor] came to the shtetl to sing on Shabes ("A khazndl oyf shabes") he was heard by a shnayderl [taylor], a kovaltshikl [blacksmith] and a balegoltshikl [coachman]. The animation in the video below catches the endearing nature of the shtetl. One of the most charming songs, in my opinion, is "Bay dem shtetl", in which a child delights in all the farm animals, and wonders at the way his mother settles a hen on some eggs in order to hatch them into chicks!

There are many songs yearning for the lost world of the shtetl. To name just a few: "Vos iz gevorn fun mayn shtetele?" [Whatever became of my shtetl], "Slutsk, mayn shtetele" and "Baranovich" (Belarus), "Mayn shtetele Soroke" (Bessarabia) and "Mayn shtetl Yas" (Romania). A beautiful poem popular in the early 20th century, "Ot her ikh vider a heymishe lidele" [Now I hear again a hometown song] is featured in Yiddish Song of the Week; a variant of this song, "Mayn shtetele", is sung by Sidor Belarsky. More often than not, the lyrics were sentimental and vague, referring to a loss of "yiddishkeit" rather than the specific town of the song title: read, for example, this critical review of Slutsk and a description of the town by one of its emigrants.

The shtetlekh disappeared for many reasons - urbanization, emigration to Israel and the New World, but mainly because they were destroyed in pogroms - Gebirtig's iconic song "S'brent" was written in 1936 in response to the pogrom of Przytyk - and in the Holocaust. "Geven amol iz a shtetl" [Once upon a time there was a small town], by Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman, says it all: "Soldiers in green uniforms with rifles aimed to shoot on the bridge over the Dniester wiped all the Jews out ... Today the fields are now green again and the peasant puts his cows to pasture as if no Jews were ever there, as if nothing ever happened."

Songs about cities in "Yiddishland" before, during and after the Holocaust

Songs describing many of the prominent cities of Eastern Europe were written between the two world wars, either in America or in Europe, where there was a flourishing revival of all kinds of Jewish music, ranging from street songs to theatrical, cabaret, choral and religious music. (Here, for example, is an account of Jewish musicians in Poland).

The Jewish vaudeville singer most identified with nostalgia for "Home" was Aaron Lebedeff. As stated in this online biography, the titles themselves suggest the pervasiveness of this theme: "A Wedding in Odessa," "A Wedding in Palestine," "Motke from Slobodke," "The Roumanian Litvak," "Der Litvisher Yankee," "Roumanische Karnatzlach" [sausage], "Gib Mir Bessarabia," "Slutsk mayn shtetele," and many more. The song "Aheym, aheym" deals explicitly with homesickness for the Old World. Perhaps his most famous song is "Roumania, Roumania". Fellow Aussies will be sure to like Klezmania's take on this - "Oystralie"!

A city which Lebedeff loved to sing about was Odessa, or Ades,13 home to Jewish intellectuals such as Mendele Mocher Sforim, Ahad Ha'am, Dubnov and Bialik, but also to Jewish gangsters, as we read in Isaac Babel's "Odessa Tales". Lebedeff's "Odessa-mama" describes the "good life" to be found in the Black Sea resort's beautiful avenues, promenades, cafes and boulevards as well as in the tumult, tararam, hotels and young ladies!

During the Shoah, music was composed and sung in the extermination and concentration camps, in the ghettos, by partisans and freedom fighters, and in remembrance of the Shoah. There are quite a few websites and books dealing extensively with this subject; I will attempt only a very brief mention of songs featuring the names of the better-known ghettos. Although circumstances differed from place to place, it is possible to generalize that music played an important part in the life of the ghetto, whether as street songs, in cafes and soup kitchens, in the theater and organized concerts, or in private homes. The majority of street songs consisted of new words set to pre-existing melodies (contrafact); dance forms, especially the tango, underpinned the rhythms of many new songs. 

Vilna - the Jerusalem of Lithuania - was one of the most important centres of Jewish learning and Yiddish culture.14 The song "Vilne, Vilne", written by A. L. Wolfson and A. Olshanetsky in the early 1930's, was a loving tribute to the city; it was frequently performed in the Vilna ghetto, and has become an emblematic song at Holocaust memorial ceremonies. A relatively large number of Vilna ghetto songs have been preserved, due to the richness of musical life in the ghetto itself and also to the efforts of composer and collector Shmerke Kaczerginsky. One of his own songs was "Shtiler, shtiler" [Quiet, quiet], commemorating the massacre at Ponar at the beginning of the Nazi onslaught on Vilna in 1941. Another extremely moving song of the region is "A Yidish kind" - In a litvish derl vayt [In a distant Lithuanian village], written after the massacre of children from the Siauliai ghetto in 1943 and describing the torment of a mother forced to leave her child with a non-Jewish family. The words to "Geto", by Vilna composer and playwright Kasriel Broydo and sung here by Lodz Children's Choir, could apply to ghettos everywhere.

Before the war, Warsaw's 350,000 Jews constitued the largest Jewish population in Europe and a third of the total population in Warsaw. Jewish society differed with respect to Jewish practice, political outlook and economic standard of living. Abject poverty is the subject of "In My Father's Court", by I. B. Singer. Krochmalne Street, where he grew up is also the subject of a song, Krokhmalne gas, popularized by Ben Zion Witler. A collection of Yiddish songs heard in Warsaw during the two wars - the Itsik Zhelonek Collection, with three companion disks - has lately been revived by Jane Peppler, who has also produced a disk entitled "Cabaret Warsaw: Yiddish and Polish Hits of the 1920s - 1930s".

In the early days of the Warsaw ghetto, the musical scene was still richly diverse, ranging from orchestra, theater and cabaret to street music. Two songs by Reuven Lifshutz evoke life on the street: Der hoyfzinger fun varshever geto [The street singer of the Warsaw Ghetto] and Motele fun varshever geto, a song about a poverty-stricken boy hero. Deportation of the Jews to Treblinka began halfway through 1942: "Treblinke dort" [There lies Treblinka] was sung by workers in the Praga district of Warsaw, outside the ghetto, who knew that the trains bearing the deportees were headed not for work camps, as Nazi proganda led people to believe, but for death. It was on one of those trains that "Ani Ma'amin" [I believe] - is believed to have been sung by Reb Azriel David, a Modzitser Hasid. The song, based upon Maimonides' Thirteen Articles of Faith, is a declaration of faith that redemption will come in the form of the Messiah, even though he may delay. Reb David's melody was adopted by other Modzitz Hasidim, and eventually by people the world over. Also known as "Der Varshever geto-lid fun frumer yidn" [Song of religious Jews in the Warsaw ghetto], the song is regularly sung at Holocaust memorial ceremonies.

A memorial song, "Varshe", was written for the first anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising by Shmerke Kaczerginsky (see Vilna ghetto, above) with music by Leon Wajner. Another memorial song, "Varshe mayn", was composed by Ben Zion Witler; it harks back to the opening line of Warshavsky's "Oyfn pripetshik brent a fayerl." Today, 70 years after the Holocaust, it is possible to view Warsaw more optimistically: "O Warsaw, I am steeped in the song of love which I have inherited from you. A rainbow draws my soul from the still waters of the Vistula to the starry constellations." "Di varshever shtern" [Warsaw stars] was written and composed by Mikhoel Felsenbaum, and is sung by his daughter, Vira Lozinsky.

Another city which many songs have been written about is Bialystok - where my own family comes from. Bialystok, sung below by Ben Zion Witler, was never a "shtetele", as the lyrics imply, but a fully-fledged city, as attested by the postcards shown in the video. Two songs are entitled "Bialystok mayn heym" [Bialystok my home]: the one written in Tashkent by Yitzchok Perlov with music by A. Hirshin has now been given a modern setting by Karolina Cicha. The other was written by A. Shevakh and J. Ciganari, a song-writing duo who settled in Buenos Aires and also wrote "Bialystoker geselekh" [Bialystok streets]. If you can get by the crackling sound of the old recording, I suggest that you watch the scenes of Bialystok before the war, and listen to the beautiful rendering by Abraham Samuel Rettig. If you prefer modern klezmer-jazz-rock, listen to Golem's version. A tango entitled "Dos lid fun bialystoker geto" [Song of the Bialystok ghetto] has been recreated by Gustavo Beytelmann and sung by Lloica Czackis. Lately, a very moving memorial song has been composed in English by Miriam, Nathan and Sam Waks: Ghosts of the Ghetto (Bialystok, 1943) - highly recommended.

The songs of Lodz Ghetto have been described extensively in Gila Flam's "Singing for Survival: Songs of the Lodz Ghetto, 1940-45", a collection and analysis of songs from survivors of the ghetto. Most of these songs were extemporized by street singers, especially Yankele Hershkovitsh, who railed against the abuse of power by Jewish authorities, particularly against Khayim Rumkowski, head of the Beirat (Judenrat). Hershkovitsh's life is featured in a documentary film, "Song of the Ghetto"; the songs are performed by the klezmer group Brave Old World, who drew their inspiration from Flam's work.

Most of the lyrics used pre-existing melodies without any actual thematic connection between the new song and the original one. One of the few exceptions was "Oyf di Marysiner felder" [On the Marysin fields], which paraphrases the song "Af di felder, grine felder" [On the green fields], by Zalman Shneor. Hershkovitsh criticizes the Beirat (Judenrat) who built a pensjonat [recreation center] on the fields of Marysin on the outskirts of the ghetto and enjoyed a life of plenty while the ghetto dwellers starved.15 The song backgrounds a gallery of photos taken in the ghetto.

People the world over have learned about the Krakow Ghetto through the films "Schindler's List" and "The Pianist" (directed by Krakow survivor Roman Polansky). But for lovers of Yiddish folksong, the first name that the name "Krakow" conjures up is Mordechai Gebirtig. Just as Gebirtig's earlier "folksongs" reflect the "coziness" and familiarity of everyday Jewish life, so do his last poems help us understand the plight of a person caught in the senselessness of annihilation. His emotions zig-zag from hope to despair, from dreams of peace to wishes for vengeance. He looks at the portrait of  his oldest daughter, Shifrele, and hears her promise to return: "This war won't last for ever, I shall soon return to you, Spring is knocking at the door." But then he is forced to leave his home - "Blayb gezunt mir, Kroke" [Farewell to you, Krakow] - and we hear his anguished cry as he visits his parents' graves but cannot find his grandparents'. It's been so long since he's heard his fiddle - "Ikh hob shoyn lang" [It's been so long]; all he hears is wailing, a mother crying for her only child, a woman weeping for her husband. And yet this song, too, ends with a spark of hope: "Wake up! Sing with joy! Like the birds in springtime!" Bente Kahn declaims a medley of these poems, her voice echoing Gebirtig's swing from despair to hope.

Gebirtig calls for vengeance: "A tog fun nekome". But, surprisingly, he doesn't wish the same fate on the enemy as has been wrought upon the Jews: "Man will awaken, of this I am certain, to denounce the horror of war. As did the prophets of old, he'll proclaim: Vengeance! I shall take vengeance! / It's coming that day, yes, I see and believe it is, brothers, now on its way. Bringing us tidings of peace everlasting, The dove will emerge from the flood." Sinai Leichter says that Gebirtig was a prophet. As in "Undzer shtetl brent" [Our town is burning] he had a prophetic prescience of Jewish destruction, so in his poems "A tog fun nekome" [A day of vengeance] and "Mayn kholem" [My dream] he had the prophetic notion of a world in which the enemies of yesterday will become the friends of tomorrow. Gebirtig was shot dead by the Germans on a forced march to the Krakow ghetto, but it was a German, Manfred Lemm, who has composed music to his ghetto poems, organized Yiddish choirs in German schools and disseminated sensitive knowledge of Gebirtig's heritage in many parts of Germany.16

Although not part of "Yiddishland" linguistically, Salonica shared the destiny of other European cities whose Jews were almost completely annihilated in the Holocaust. 17 The fate of one family, representative of the populations of Saloniki and Rhodes, is described in the poem which one of the very few survivors, David Haim, wrote in the death camp: "De Saloniki a Auschwitz" [From Salonica to Aurschwitz]. "Khaki li Saloniki" ["Wait for me, Saloniki"] was also composed in Auschwitz and sung by the few people who were lucky to return to their hometown: it was subsequently written and sung in Hebrew by sons of Auschwitz survivors - Yehuda Poliker, whose father was from Salonica, and Yaakov Gilad, whose mother was from Poland. To commemorate his sister and family who perished at Auschwitz, David Ha'elion wrote "La djovenika en lager" [The young girl in the camp], part of a longer poem entitled "The camps of death". The Sephardic Jews of the Balkan countires, were also victims of the Holocaust. One of the survivors from Bosnia, Flory Jagoda (above), lived to keep the memory of her country and people alive. 

Songs about homelessness

One of Gebirtig's most harrowing songs, set to music by Emil Gorovets, was written after his home in Krakow was demolished. "Gehat hob ikh a heym" [I once had a home]: "I hunt for another home, it's hard, so hard to bear; who knows where to, and who knows for how long." These last lines echo what is probably the best known cry of homelessness, "Vu ahin zol ikh geyn?" [Where shall I go?], written before the war by S. Korntayer and Oskar Strock, and popularized in the US and the rest of the world by Leo Fuld and Menashe Oppenheim. There are many other songs with similar sentiments, such as "Briderlekh, aheym" or "Ikh for aheym" [I'm travelling home]. A particularly moving one is the song in German "Ich hab kein Heimatland", written by Friederich Schwarz when he was forced to leave Germany. However, no other song expressed in such a raw way the plight of the homeless immigrant: "Tell me, where can I go? There's no place I can see. Where to go, where to go? Every door is closed for me."

A poignant song of homelessness and yearning for Zion - In vildn vald [In the wild wood] - was sung by a newly-arrived immigrant to New York, temporarily housed in the Hotel Marseilles in New York. It is part of the Stonehill Yiddish Song Collection, an archive of refugee songs which was, as transcriber Miriam Isaacs says, "a snapshot taken only a short time after liberation, before pressures to Americanize and forget what had happened took away some of the inclination to express what had happened to them. Songs were the vehicles, often, of conveying their stories." Underlying all the songs was a craving for "home", but as yet, the concept of home was nebulous. One of the early songs that Gebirtig wrote was called "Dos lidl fun goldenem land" [The song of the golden land]. Which land was he referring to? The "goldene medine" - America? Palestine? Or simply the land of dreams? 



Under Soviet rule, Jewish agricultural settlement was encouraged in Crimea and in Siberia. The song Hey Dzankoye (Az men fort keyn Sevastopol) expresses the Soviet collectivization drive in Crimea in the 1920s and 1930s: Abrasha riding his tractor like a train, Auntie Leye at the mower and Beyleat the thresher are all symbols of progress in the revolutionary era.18

A Jewish homeland, while seriously considered by the Jewish leadership, was never actually established in Crimea; instead, Stalin used the proposal as a pretext for a major assault on Soviet Jewry. On the other hand, a Jewish autonomous region was established in Birobidzhan, near the Chinese border, in the early 30's, and massive propaganda was used to try  to get the Jews to settle in collective farms.19 Several songs reflect the hype: for example, "Kegn gold fun zun" [Toward the golden sunrise], "S'iz der step" [These are the Steppes],  and "Yogn zikh tsvey taykhn" [Two rivers are rushing], sung here by Jane Peppler.

The song Dzankoye was adapted as a ghetto song: instead of Abrasha, whose tractor races through the field, Avrom-Itshe hauls a wagon full of corpses from a nearby concentration camp to the cemetry in Bershad ghetto. More recently, the song was used by Zisl Slepovitch to deride Russia's forceful takeover of Crimea in 2014: Abrashe in his tractor is now fighting for a free land.

On the other side of the world, a Jewish colony, Moisesville (lyrics) was established in Argentina at the end of the nineteenth century, where a Jewish community is still active to this day, as we see in this very lively video. Several songs have been written about the colony: here is one written by popular Argentinian singer and songwriter Jevel Katz, sung by Jacinta.20 (Regarding music in Buenos Aires, see below).



Home in the New World 

As noted above, the main subject of songs written from America was nostalgia for the "old world". If one managed to make it through the gates of "Elis Ayland" [sheetmusic here], then the "goldene medine" was definitely a land of opportunity, but also a source of great disappointment. So says Elyakum Zunser, the classic bard of Yiddish-speaking Europe, after landing in "Das goldene land", and this sentiment was echoed in "Goodbye New York", "Di New Yorker trern", and many other Yiddish theater songs. "Mayn rue platz" [My resting place] is the bitter title of a poem written by Yiddish sweatshop poet Morris Rosenfeld in 1911 after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in NYC which killed 146 workers, mostly women and girls.

Of course most immigrants to "Amerike" stuck it out and didn't go back to Europe - thank goodness! Now, several generations down the line, a young Yiddish singer Miryem-Khaye Seigel sings optimistically of the early days of "Nyu-york, nyu-york": "Here we speak Yiddish 24/7, from Brooklyn to the Bronx. Amidst the urban cacophony, we're building a new life and striving. What a town!"

Recordings and information about Yiddish American songs, singers and composers are readily available on the webpages of the Milken Archive of Jewish Music, and lately Jane Peppler has been doing a great job of uncovering, publishing and singing early Yiddish street songs. "Tenement Songs", by Mark Slobin, is an extremely informative resource describing the popular music of the Jewish immigrants in America.

Similar work in unearthing and singing the Yiddish songs of London from the early years of the 20th century is being carried out by Vivi Lachs, who shows how Yiddish songs about "Vaytshepl" [Whitechapel] and the East End reveal the life of the immigrants there.21 Songs with titles such as "Victoria Park" and "Morgan Street" evoke the sights and smells in an area which, as Jews moved out to the northern suburbs, in itself became the object of homesick yearning.  

Buenos Aires, one of the great centres of Yiddish life and music in the New World, is mentioned in the title of a song depicting one of the shadier aspects of Jewish life: prostitution. "Oy, unter dem himl ligt di shtot Bunos-Ayres" [Oh, Under the sky lies the city of Buenos Aires] describes the plight of young Jewish women who were sold into "white slavery" by the notorious Zwi Migdal Society, an organization of Jewish gangsters who ran a world-wide prostitution ring.22  (That Jewish prostitution existed in America and London, too, is evidenced in the songs "Dzindzher" ["Ginger"] and "Di dray shvester" [The three sisters]).

Buenos Aires is more famously known as the birthplace of the tango, which has many connections with Yiddish music, the term "Yiddish tango" even being regarded as a musical hybrid. I haven't been able to find a Yiddish tango with a place-name in the title, but the influence of Jewish life and song on the tango has been well documented. In particular, the tango formed the basis of many songs written and sung in Europe during the Holocaust.



Searching for Home

I began this essay quoting "Home, sweet home" and "Somewhere over the Rainbow". Lately, it has been contended that "Somewhere over the Rainbow" was actually motivated by the age-old quest for a Jewish homeland.21 If the song is heard in the context of Jewish experience immediately prior to the Holocaust, when it was written by sons of Jewish immigrants to America, then the words are no longer about wizards and Oz, but about Jewish survival: "Somewhere over the rainbow / Way up high / There’s a land that I heard of / Once in a lullaby ..."

Quite a few contemporary singers are searching for the meaning of "a Jewish home" which has personal relevance to them. To mention a few disks which have been published recently: 
* Aheym, by Sklamberg and the Sheperds, featuring the song "Aheym" [Homeward], written by Polina Shepard: "I walk at a slow, quiet pace. Each breath brings me closer to peace. Softly and steadily I feel my way home... Home...
Strangely, painfully and with sadness a faraway light glimmers. I quicken my steps, let my fear go and fly up. Home... Home."
* Home: Jewish Songs, by Bente Kahn, featuring her composition "Heimve (Trondheim)" [Homesickness] about the home in Trondheim, Norway, where she grew up. "HOME is originally a concert in which I relate my own family’s journey through Europe, tracing it back to 13th century Spain. The story in HOME is linked to songs where the Jewish and non-Jewish traditions meet."

* Homesick Songs, by Golem - part of the "new klezmer" scene, in which rock and jazz sensibilities are mixed in with the traditional Eastern European sound.
* Jidyszland, by Polish singer Karonlina Cicha, based on texts by Jewish poets of north-east Poland. 

I'd be happy to hear of other disks produced in the same vein. For feedback regarding any aspect of this essay, please contact batyabev at gmail .


1 Browne, P. (2011). "Auld Lang Syne Banned".
Nathanson, Paul. Over the Rainbow: The Wizard of Oz as a Secular Myth of America.
3 Economic life and religious continuity in Babylon was documented in clay tablets; these have recently been displayed in a comprehensive exhibition of Jewish life in Babylon at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem.
4 For a discussion of the differences between "exile" and "diaspora", see "Diaspora Literature", by Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor.
5 Ray, Jonathan. (2013). Creating Sepharad: Expulsion, migration and the limits of Diaspora. Journal of Levantine Studies, vol.3, no.2
6 Weich-Shahak describes the custom of Mortaja [shroud], in which friends and family would celebrate with old people preparing to die in the Holy Land, helping them cut sheets into shrouds for burial. ("En Buen Siman", p.140).
7 Raphael, Shmuel. (2004). Asaper Shir [I will tell a poem: A study of the Judeo-
Spanish (Ladino) Coplas]. (In Hebrew). Part II: "Jerusalem and the Land of Israel in the coplas."
8 In 2015, Sephardic Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent were allowed to claim citizenship.
9 Havassy, Rivka. "New texts to popular tunes: sung-poems in Judeo-Spanish by Sadik Gershón and Moshé Cazés (Sadik Y Gazóz)". Proceedings of the Twelfth British Conference on Judeo-Spanish Studies, 24-26 June, 2001 (2004).
10 Roskies, D.K. & D.G. (1979). The Shtetl Book: An Introduction to East European Jewish Life and Lore. 2nd rev. ed. New Jersey: KTAV Press.
11 Comments made by the informant to ethnomusicologist Ruth Rubin, quoted in Yiddish Folksongs from the Ruth Rubin Archive, edited by Chana Mlotek and Mark Slobin, YIVO, 2007; p.209.
12 Kutzik, J. (2019). How a Yiddish song yearning for Moldova became an anthem for Jewish immigrants everywhere. Forverts. Hebrew readers will enjoy the fascinating three-part account of "Mayn shtetele Belz" in David Assaf's blog "Oneg Shabbat": Part I, Part II, Part III
13 Rothstein, R. (2001). How It Was Sung in Odessa: At the Intersection of Russian and Yiddish Folk Culture. Slavic Review 60(4), 781-801. doi:1. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2697495 doi:1
14 For a fascinating insight into musical pre-war Vilna, see this documentary of singer Masha Roskies - "Daughter of Vilna" - as presented by her children, Ruth Wisse and David Roskies, both well-known Yiddish scholars.
15 Flam, Gila. (1992). Singing for Survival: Songs of the Lodz Ghetto, 1940-45. p.98
16 Leichter, Sinai. (2000). Anthology of Yiddish Folksongs. Volume Five: The Mordechai Gebirtig Volume. Jerusalem: The Hebrew University Magnes Press. p.227.
17 Zezza, S. (2016). "A man who has no shoes is a fool": The Salonikan Jews in the concentration camps. Sephardic Horizons, 6,3-4.
18 Veidlinger, J. (2014). Before Crimea was an ethnic Russian stronghold, it was a potential Jewish homeland. Tablet.
19 Wiseman, M. (2010). Birobidjan: The story of the first Jewish State. Inquiries.
20 Baker, Z. (2012). "Gvald, Yidn, Buena Gente": Jevel Katz, Yiddish bard of the Rio de la Plata. In Berkowitz, J. & Henry, B. Inventing the Modern Yiddish Stage. Detroit, Wayne State University Press.
21 Lachs, V. (2009). Singing in Yiddish about London: 1880-1940." European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe,(2), 94-106. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41444032
21 Jacobivici, S. (2014) "Pink, the Oscars and the ... rebirth of Israel?"
22 Mlotek, Chana & Slobin, Mark (Eds.). (2007) Yiddish Folksongs from the Ruth Rubin Archive. C.11, p.262.