Mothers and Fathers

(This page is dedicated to the memory of my parents, Sara and Victor Fonda)

Rembrandt - Portrait of a Family, 1668-69

Say "Jewish mothers", and two conflicting pictures immediately come to mind: the image of the selfless, nurturing mother who would give her life for her child – "In vaser un fayer, vilt zi gelofn far ir kind" [Through water and fire, she would run for her child] – and the caricature of the selfish, overbearing mother who ruins her child's life, as depicted in countless Jewish mother jokes.1 Motherhood, of course, is far more complex than either of these two extremes, and the wealth of songs about mothers in both Yiddish and Ladino (as, I'm sure, in any other culture in the world) reflects that complexity. There are far fewer songs about fathers, but these, too, reflect a diversity of attitudes. On this webpage I can only mention a fraction of the songs about mothers and fathers, but will try to present a comprehensive selection.

Our first heroine was the mother of Avraham Avinu who, according to midrashic legend, defied the evil giant Nimrod by hiding her son in a cave, thereby saving the Jewish race (Cuando el rey Nimrod [When King Nimrod]). The most significant event in the life of a Jewish couple was the birth of a son, which was celebrated in a copla - El parto feliz [The happy birth] - sung on the night preceding the newborn's Brit Mila [circumcision]. There are lots of variations: Copla de parida / Cantica del parido / Ay, que mueve mezes  [Song of the new mother / Song for the new father / Oh, nine months].

The conventional image of the Jewish mother is portrayed in Sophie Tucker's iconic rendition of A yidishe mame, by Yellen and Pollock. Here is a version in both Yiddish and Ladino, and here is my own version of the song: "My modern Jewish Mum”.

A yidishe mame, sung by Sophie Tucker

Similar odes to motherhood in Yiddish include Nor a mame [Only a mother] and Mamele. A beautiful song of praise, Mome, comparing the mother to a tree (reminiscent of Goldfaden's A beymele) is sung by women in Hasidic communities. Motherhood is virtually synonymous with food; this is reflected in the nostalgic Mayn mames maykholim [My mother's foods], from Dzigan and Shumacher's film Undzere Kinder [Our Children]. In Grade's Tsu der mame, the son rocking his frail mother to sleep says, "Du bist in dayn tsar ale ibergevaksn" [You in your sorrow are bigger than them all]. A song in a similar vein about a Jewish father, written recently by Samson Kemelmakher, is A yidisher tate. The idyllic picture of both Mother and Father instilling a peaceful, reverential feeling into the Jewish home is captured in songs describing the atmosphere of Shabbat. For a wonderful, dynamic collection of Yiddish poems about Jewish mothers, I heartily recommend Sheva Zucker's blog "Candles of Song" [Liderlikht].

The classical expression of mother-child love may be found in the large body of lullabies.2 When singing her child to sleep, the mother expresses not only her hopes and aspirations, but also her forebodings and fears. Shlof mayn kind, shlof keseyder [Sleep soundly, my child], for example, tells of the economic hardships that the child would inevitably face. The baby was often compared to a little bird, nestling in and eventually leaving the tree of tradition (e.g., Amol iz geven a mayse [Once there was a story]; Viglid [Lullaby]; Der nisnboym [The nut-tree]). A Jewish mother traditionally wanted her son to grow up well-versed in Jewish law (e.g., Unter dem kinds vigele [Beneath the child's cradle], Yankele, Durme durme con sabor [Sleep, sleep]) and her daughter to marry a learned man (e.g., Unter soreles vigele or Shlof mayn kind - the folksong [Sleep, my child]). But she was realistic, as the famous lullaby Rozhinkes mit mandlen [Raisins and almonds] acknowledges: if her child is to leave his native country and grow rich in the New World, then at least he should remember the "melody" of tradition.3

Rozhinkes mit mandlen, sung by Judy Alpert

The absence of the father is a theme frequently mentioned in lullabies: fathers left their families to forge a new life in the New World – Shlof, mayn kind [Sleep, my child]by Sholem Aleichem – and even when the families were reunited, fathers seldom had time to spend with their children – Mayn yingele [My little boy]. Lullabies sung during the Holocaust expressed the horrors of orphanhood – Nit keyn rozhinkes un nit keyn mandlen [No raisins and no almonds] or Dremlen feygl [Birds are drowsing].

In Sephardic tradition, there are a few lullabies, notably A la nana [Rocka-bye] and Nani nani, a mother's plaint against her husband's infidelity, both based upon traditional Spanish lullabies. There are also many variations of the lullaby beginning with the fragment Durme, durme [Sleep, sleep] (a song originally addressed to a young maiden). Most often, the songs that a mother sang to her child at night were the lengthy romansas, ballads which conveyed a moral as well as a story.

Durme durme, querido hijico, sung by Janet & Jak Esim / Nani Nani, sung by Savina Yannatou

To listen to lullabies in both Yiddish and Ladino, I recommend the two disks by Tanja Solnik. There are also two good compilations: "Sleep My Child" and "Yiddish Lullabies").

Many songs in both languages are parent-child dialogues, mostly relating to shidduchim [arranged marriages]. Both mother and father seek wealth and yichus [family "pedigree"] while the daughter – and son – seek love! A typical song in Yiddish is Vos-zhe vilstu [What do you want?] There are lots of variations of this song, most of which end with the mother’s favourite choice – a rabbi. Parodies of this song end with the daughter’s choice – the klezmer [musician]! In the Ladino song Una matica de ruda [A sprig of rue], the mother prefers an old man to the young lover her daughter wants. A take-off in Ladino is the humorous Hija mia te quero dar [Dear daughter, I want to give you], where the daughter chooses a drunkard! Family conflicts are featured in folksongs all over the world; what makes each song "Jewish" is reference to a typically Jewish livelihood (e.g., distinguished rabbi, poverty-stricken tailor, beggarly klezmer) or custom (e.g., keeping kosher, wedding ceremony). Here is a list of some other parent-child dialogues.

Father-son relationships are featured in a few of these songs. Often the father exemplifies a devotional approach to God and prayer. A notable example is Meyerke, mayn zun [Meyer, my son], attributed to Rabbi Levi Itshak Berdichever, in which the son is encouraged to marry and serve God. Zing shtil, by Wolf Younin and Sholom Secunda, is a beautiful, reverential song of a father passing on his hasidic message to his receptive son. A song in a similar vein is Borukh ato zingt der tate, by Avraham Reisin and Solomon Golum, which describes the shine in a father's eyes as he lights the Hanukkah candles. Moyshele, by Mordkhe Gebirtig, depicts a father trying to instil values on a more prosaic level.

On the other hand, some songs scoff at the father's teachings. A well-loved example is Gebirtig's song Motele, in which the father attempts to discipline his son for misbehavior in kheder. In Dem tatns reyd [the father's words], a young man questions his father's values when he is reproved for straying from a religious way of life. A song refelecting the values of the Soviet Union rather than the traditional Jewish way of life is Nokhemke, mayn zun, a parody of Meyerke, mayn zun (above), in which the father's opinion regarding his son's marriage is completely disregarded.

Many songs feature the mother as confidante. Her daughter tells her that she has fallen in love (Oy, mame, bin ikh farlibt), that she has been duped (Bay mayn mames heyzele) or jilted (Mama yo no tengo visto; Oy vey mame; Mamenyu lyubenu), that she has sought love but been unable to find it (Di fishelekh in vaser). In Vi shlekht un vi biter, the daughter cries to her mother about being in service. Boys, too, turn to their parents: Fun gros dosade [From great sorrow] is a folksong about a young lad dying from love. Mother is called upon to interpret dreams: El rey de Francia tres hijas tenia [The king of France had three daughters]. Often, we address our deepest thoughts and feelings to our mother, as for example, in the song Ir me quero [I wish to go], the song of yearning for Jerusalem. It was to mother that one turned when one’s love was taken away – effectually for a lifetime - to serve in the army, as, for example, in the song Farvos zol zayn mayn khosn a soldat? [Why does my groom have to be a soldier?]. The young boy going to war – A la una yo naci [At one, I was born] - kisses his mother before his sweetheart; and it is the mother who mourns the untimely death of her soldier son in the Bulgarian wars – Mama mia, mi querida [My dear mother].

Mama yo no tengo visto, sung by Nitsa Termin, in Ladino / Hitrag'ut, sung by Esther Ofarim, in Hebrew

It’s not easy to be a mother. One of her many duties includes searching for a match for her children (viz the song - Di mame is gegangen [Mother has gone ... shopping for a groom / bride] featured in the video of family life below). She's blamed if things go wrong (Adio querida [Goodbye, my love]), for bearing too many daughters (Malana tripa de madre [Cursed is the mother's womb]), and may be perceived as the source of guilt (Zhamele). At the best of times, she has to remember what each of her children likes to eat (Kartofl zup mit shvomen) [Potato soup with mushrooms])! However, in times of war, she isn’t able to satisfy her children’s hunger (Hungerik dayn ketsele [Hungry cat]). With the father away at work or at war, she's often the only one at home to take care of the children (Farvos, zog mir, mamenyu [Why, tell me, mother]), and even if Father is at home, chances are he's too preoccupied with studying to think about the children's wellbeing (Der alter menashe [Old Menashe]). When her daughter falls victim to a violent marriage, the mother suffers in empathy (Shtey shoyn af tokhter mayn getraye [Wake up my faithful daughter]).

Di mame iz gegangen, sung by Michael Alpert and Kapelye; Kartofl zup, sung by
Genia Fayerman

Being a mother means that one’s freedom is seriously curtailed (A yor nokh mayne khasene [A year after my wedding]). Sometimes young girls are expected to take on a mother’s duties, e.g., Di mame [The mother], or the tragic Holocaust song Mayn shvester Haye [My sister Haye]. Der kashtnboym [The chestnut tree] is a telling expression of the “mirror-on-the-wall” complex, whereby a mother sees her daughter surpassing her in attractiveness. The problem of when to let a child go has been incomparably expressed in Oyfn veg shteyt a boym [By the wayside, stands a tree]. Here the mother smothers the child’s ability to attain independence, but in A brivele der mamen [A letter for mother] the opposite is the case: the son leaves his mother behind when he immigrates to the New World, and forgets about her completely. Leaving one’s parents behind was, sadly, a common theme, as we see in the letter exchange – A brif fun amerika [A letter from America] and Der mames entfer [Mother's answer] – by Warshavsky. As we hear in the theater song Di eybike mame [The eternal mother], motherhood is indeed a mixed blessing.

Di eybike mame, sung by Jane Pepper  / Oyfn veg shteyt a boym, sung by Yefim Chorny

What about the grandparents – Bobe and Zeyde, Nona and Nono? Mostly we meet them in songs of the family - their greatest oytser [treasure]. A favorite in Yiddish, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of an old couple, is Warshavsky's Akhtsik er un zibetsik zi [He's 80 and she's 70]. Gebirtig, too, wrote a song about Dos alte por folk [The old couple], which is slightly less upbeat but probably more realistic than Warshavsky's song. Grandmother is especially associated with Shabbat: in Rikordus di mi nona [Memories of my grandmother], Flory Jagoda remembers her grandmother singing to her family by the light of the candles; in the song Bobenyu, a grandmother is asked to delay singing the Got fun avrom [God of Abraham] prayer which is traditionally sung by women at the end of Shabbat. Grandfather is remembered warmly in the English song My zaydi (here is a version in Yiddish). It's from our grandparents' memories that we learn about our past: in Di bobe hot zikh dermont [Grandmother recalled], an old lady sits with her grandchildren and tells how their grandfather returned victorious from the "Great Fatherland War" (World War II); in Di mashke [Whiskey], Grandfather recalls his son's shidduch and marriage. Sometimes, however, memories remain elusive, as we see in the song Dem zeydns nign [Grandfather's melody], and his blessing, Dem zeydns brokhe, though bestowed with love and devotion, had only limited power.  

Dem zeydns nign, sung by Joanne Borts

Being without children is mourned in song. Ikh volt mikh gern erkindikt [I would like to know] expresseses the ache of childlessness, and Yosemame [Orphan mother] tells of the pain of miscarriage (both songs recorded by Lifshe Schaechter-Widman). Two of the most heart-breaking songs I have ever heard are A yidish kind [A Jewish child], sung by a mother giving her child away during the Holocaust in the hope of saving his life, and Babi Yar, by Shike Driz, the dirge sung by a mother for her two children lost in that infamous graveyard.

The parent-child relationship is not always ideal. In Mother Love, Adrienne Cooper z"l and daughter Sarah Mina Gordon sing an adaptation of a legend related in The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln, in which the problem of parent-child care is discussed. Whether or not we like to admit it, mothers and fathers do not necessarily act in the interests of their children. In Mi padre era de francia [My father was from France], the girl's parents marry her off to a rich man who mistreats her: this is a common theme among all traditional cultures. Many of the Sephardic romansas deal with topics that are difficult to face up to under conventional circumstances: Se paseava Silvana and Delgadina are both about incest - Silvana's mother saves her daughter from seduction by her father, but Delgadina's mother is powerless to act against her husband. In Landarico, the queen favours two of her sons over the others; and Porque llorash [Why do you cry?] tells about a mother who curses her son but, later, on regrets her actions and is distressed when he fails to return from the war. In a Yiddish ballad, Bay dem taykh [By the river], a young mother drowns her illegitimate baby; a song in Ladino, Adio Rashel Levi, finds the pregnant girl abandoned by her mother as well as by her lover.

Mi padre era de francia, sung by M. L. G. Sanchez (Raices)

To end up on a happy note, here is a song of bliss – Ver hot aza yingele / meydele? [Who's got such a little boy / girl?] – about the joys of parenthood, originally referring to a girl, but later adapted to apply to a boy, as well. And to prove those Jewish mother jokes right, here's Natan Alterman's Hebrew song, Haimke sheli [My little Haim - My life], about a soldier who can do no wrong in the eyes of his adoring mother.

Haimke sheli, sung by Rachel Attas

 For more information about the songs mentioned above, see this list.


1  See Korenman, below.
2  See the References below.
3 The term "Rozhinkes mit Mandlen" [Raisins and almonds] has become a catchword for Jewish culture, as can be heard in this two-part CBC Radio podcast: Part OnePart Two


Caplan, M. (1993). "Raisins and Almonds": Goldfaden's glory. Judaism.
Feldman, E. Cantorial comments: Lost Jewish lullabies.
Korenman, A. K. (2006). Princesses, Mothers, Heroes, and Superheroes: Images of Jewish Women in Comic Books and Graphic Novels. (Master's thesis).
Krasney, A. From cradle to sacrifice: On the transmutation of a song. The Mendele Review, Vol.2, Issues 32 & 33, 1998.
Krasney, A. The Jewish Mother Sings a Lullaby. 2012
Mark, J. (2003). Songs of innocence. The Jewish Week.
Metzger, E. (1984). The lullaby in Yiddish folk song. Jewish Social Studies

Ravits, M. The Jewish Mother: Comedy and Controversy in American Popular Culture. Melus.
Rothstein, R.(1989). The mother-daughter dialogue in the Yiddish folk song: wandering motifs in time and space. New York Folklore, 15, 1-2.
Vaisman, Ester-Basya (Asya). (2010). "She who seeks shall find": The role of song in a Hasidic woman's life cycle. Journal of Synagogue Music, Vol.35.