Thursday, December 8, 2011

Fun Vigl biz in Keyver -- From the Cradle to the Grave

We return this week to Liudmila Shor from Vinnitsa, Ukraine, who sings a haunting song that she learned from her mother. "Fun Vigl biz in Keyver" was written by Anshel Schorr with music composed by Yosef Rumshinsky. The sheet music was published in New York by the Hebrew Publishing Company in 1911. Although Liudmila is unaware of the song's origins or authorship, "Fun Vigl biz in Keyver" is a theater song, written for Rumshinsky's operetta "Shir Hashirim - Dos Lid der Libe" ("Song of Songs - The Song of Love"). The operetta "has been described as the first [Yiddish] stage musical about love" (Mark Slobin, Tenement Songs, 128.)

Below is Liudmila's version of the lyrics. The words differ slightly from the original, as the song went through a process of folklorization before reaching Vinnitsa. While there are a number of Yiddish songs about growing old and searching for one's youth (see, for example, Mordechai Gebirtig's "Hulyet, hulyet kinderlekh," and the folk song "Avek di yunge yorn"), this piece is perhaps the most somber in tone, coming to the rather hopeless conclusion that "It is but a short stride from the cradle to the grave." The melodramatic nature of the song can be attributed to the fact that it comes from an operetta, a famously melodramatic genre in Yiddish culture.

I have lived just eighty years.
How quickly, how quickly it has flown by.
White as snow is my blond hair.
My back is bent in three places.

My childhood years will not be forgotten,
How they were formed.
How my mother sat by my cradle,
And sang me a song.

The whole world is a black dream,
And everything is vanity of vanities.
It's but a short stride from the cradle to the grave,
And everything is no more than a dream.

I was not a child,
Oh how quickly and swiftly,
And the grave is already waiting for me.
כ'האָב אָפּגעלעבט ערשט אַכציק יאָר.
װי שנעל, װי שנעל איז עס אױספֿאַרפֿלױגן.
װײַס װי שנײ זענען די בלאָנדע האָר,
דער רוקן אין דרײַען איז אײַנגעבױגן.

די קינדעריאָרן, זײ װעלן זיך נישט פֿאַרגעסן,
װי אַזױ זײ האָבן זיך אײַנגעבילדעט.
װי די מוטער מײַנע איז בײַ דעם װיגעלע געזעסן,
און האָט זיך מיר, אױ אױ, אַ לידעלע געזונגען.

די גאַנצע װעלט איז אַ פֿינצטערער חלום,
און אַלעס איז הבֿל הבֿלים.
אַ קורצער שפּאַן איז פֿון דעם װיגעלע צום גרוב,
און אַלעס איז נישט מײן װי אַ חלום.

איך בין נישט געװעזן אַ קינד,
אױ װי גיך און געשװינד,
און עס װאַרט שױן אױף מיר דאָך אַ קבֿר...

--Asya Vaisman

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"Bris" for a boy, "Brisitse" for a girl

In 2009, AHEYM interviewed a small group of people in Tul'chyn, Ukraine: Pesia Kolodienko, Nisen Kolodienko, Aleksandr Kolodienko, Yenta Tolkovitz, and Khaye Katsman. In this clip, the three women of the group discuss different customs associated with the birth of a child -- the bris (brit milah) for a boy, and the brisitse (bris, with a feminine suffix) for a girl. 

Khaye talks about her son's bris, at which a Rabbi performed the circumcision and refreshments were served. Then Pesia describes a brisitse, where children were given special spice-cakes. In the midst of this discussion, Yenta mentions a krishme-leyenen, a term that literally means "reading the Kriyat-Sh'ma", a prayer that must be recited every evening before bed. Traditionally, krishme-leyenen referred to the custom of boys coming to the parents' house in the days leading up to the bris to recite this prayer as a means of keeping the baby safe. Over time, however, the term came to symbolize any number of customs associated with the bris; in this case, it seems that Yenta uses the term to refer to the "rocking the cradle" custom, which Pesia then describes.

In "rocking the cradle", which Pesia associates with the brisitse ceremony, the baby is temporarily removed from the cradle, and a cat is put in its place. The cradle is then filled with candy and other sweets, and as the cradle is rocked, the sweets fall out, and the invited children must catch them. This custom is also intended to bring good luck to the baby.

--Asya Vaisman

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Two Remedies for the Whooping Cough

Etia Shvartzbroit was born in Mohyliv Podilskyi in 1928. She comes from a religious family -- her grandfather was a Rabbi, and her parents kept a kosher household. Her family was quite wealthy -- they kept two servants and donated generously to the poor. Her mother, however, had trouble having children. When Etia was finally born after 13 years of trying, her mother wanted to make sure that she would grow up healthy.

Lutsk, 2003

Etia was, unfortunately, a sickly child -- she had whooping cough and was not responding to treatment. When the cough returned after a treatment with a doctor in Odessa, her parents turned to folk remedies. First, her father attempted to ward off the illness by "giving it away" to various streams in the town. When that did not help, her mother "sold" the child to a widow with many children who was so poor that bad luck (and thus, sickness) would stay away from her.

--Asya Vaisman

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Soviet Yiddish Schools

Efim (Chaim) Rubin (born 1922) was interviewed in Uman in 2002, along with his cousin, Matvei (Motl) Rubin (born 1928). Both men grew up in Buki, Ukraine. In this clip, Efim recalls his education: he went to a Soviet Yiddish-language school for four years and completed his education (10 grades in all) at a Ukrainian school. The Yiddish schools were meant to be "national in form and socialist in content", utilizing the Yiddish language to promote sovietization and anti-religious propaganda.

Efim mentions that despite his advanced age, he still remembers how to read and write in Yiddish the way he was taught in the school. Although it is difficult to see in this segment, Efim spells two Yiddish words, "shobes" [Sabbath] and "khover" [friend] using Soviet orthography. Traditionally, words of Hebrew origin are spelled in Yiddish the same way they are in Hebrew, thus ‏שבת and חבֿר. In Soviet orthography, however, which deemphasized the Hebrew element in accordance with anti-religious policies, words of Hebrew origin were "naturalized", or spelled phonetically, as seen here with Efim's שאָבעס and כאָװער.

--Asya Vaisman

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Fur Coat

Sonia (Sure) Litvak was born in Zvil (Novohrad-Volynskyi), Ukraine in 1925. AHEYM interviewed her in Rivne, Ukraine, in 2003. Sonia was discussing the extreme poverty during the Great Famine (Holodomor) in Ukraine, 1932-1933. She explained that despite the terrible conditions, no one in her family died from the hunger, because her grandmother had managed to save some money for the family.

Sonia's grandmother was a "bube," a kind of midwife and folk healer in Zvil. It is interesting to note that this profession was sufficiently lucrative for her to be able to save up a significant amount of money, enough to sustain the family in years to come. The story Sonia tells in the clip took place in 1918, during the Russian Civil War. Sonia's grandmother had hidden her savings in a fur coat. A "Denikinovets," a soldier from the army of Anton Denikin, entered the house and tried to take the coat. When the grandmother resisted, she was beaten, and she died two days later.

General Denikin was commander of the Volunteer Army, one of the many factions fighting for control of Ukraine during the Civil War that broke out in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. The Volunteer Army, commonly known as the Whites, was made up mostly of conservative officers from the tsarist army. They opposed the Red Army's efforts to extend the Revolution and fought for the maintenance of the rights of property owners and priests. During the battles, attacks on the Jews, among other minorities, were quite common. One survey counted 688 cities, towns and villages affected by pogroms. Many of these locales suffered multiple pogroms, as armies and brigands came and went. The pogroms were attributed most often to Ukrainian nationalists, though the White Volunteer Army is said to have been responsible for about twenty percent of the attacks, with Sonia's grandmother being one example of the latter.

Because of the grandmother's bravery, Sonia's family kept the hidden money and used it to survive the Famine.

--Asya Vaisman

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Lemon for Sukkes

Semyon Later was born in 1919 in Smotrych, Ukraine, where he received an extensive Jewish education. He attended both kheyder (religious Jewish school) and a Soviet Yiddish school. When AHEYM interviewed him in Kamianets Podolsk in 2003, he remembered how his family observed Jewish holidays before the war.

Semyon begins by recalling two of the Four Questions traditionally recited by the youngest child in a family during the Passover Seder. He mentions that he would recite these questions at his grandfather's house. He then talks about the rituals involved in the celebration of the Sukkoth holiday, which he mistakenly remembers as Shavuoth. Semyon insists that instead of the traditional esrog (citron), his family would buy a lemon for the holiday. Likely the lemon was the closest approximation of the esrog that was available to the family. Semyon additionally recalls eating his meals in the Sukkah.

--Asya Vaisman

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Three Generations of Religious Expression (Gaysin, Ukraine)

Mira Murovanaia was born in Nikolaev, Ukraine in 1926. During World War II, she was evacuated to Central Asia. After the war, she moved to Gaysin, Ukraine, where the AHEYM team interviewed her in 2002. Mira worked as a pharmacist in Gaysin for 45 years before retiring in 1990.

In this fascinating clip, Mira describes a broad spectrum of Jewish religious belief, practice, and custom of Soviet Jews before and after World War II. Her mother, though she believed in G-d "in her heart", felt that Jewish practice compromised her status as a Communist Party member.

Mira depicts a different manifestation of Jewishness in her account of holidays at her in-laws'. In this context, Communism and Judaism coexisted, as revolutionary and religious holidays both found their place in the home. Mira's memories of these holidays, however, are not marked by traditional observance, but rather by the foods that her mother-in-law taught her to prepare. The observance of holidays "without praying," as she says, suggests a more secularized form of celebration.

Finally, in her grandson's generation, Mira describes the reclamation of Jewish tradition by youth in the late Soviet period, reflecting the era of increased freedoms and social experimentation.

--Sebastian Schulman and Asya Vaisman

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Prayer and Schooling in Berdichev

Efim Grigoryevich Skobilitskii was born in 1919 in Berdichev. In this clip from a 2002 interview, he talks about his mother, a Rabbi's daughter, who acted as a "zogerin" in a synagogue. The "zogerin", as Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Michael Wex write in the YIVO Encyclopedia, was "a cross between a prompter and cantor, her position was informal, honorific, and unremunerated, though indispensable; she led less literate women in Hebrew and Yiddish prayers in the women’s section of the synagogue." Efim's mother was able to fulfill this role, because she had received a formal Jewish education.

At the end of the clip, Efim talks about the Yiddish-language school that he attended. He notes that there were a number of non-Jews at his school, who, as a result of their education, could speak Yiddish better than Russian. For more on Soviet Yiddish schools, see here.

--Asya Vaisman

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Women's Prayers in Bar, Ukraine

Klara (Khayke) Vaynman was born in Vinnitsa in 1939, but her family moved to Lvov when she was only a few months old. She spent World War II in evacuation with her mother in the Ural mountains. After the war, she moved to Bar, Ukraine. In this video, Klara talks about her mother, who was a learned and religious woman from Lubenets, northern Ukraine.

Whereas in previous clips we have heard about men gathering to pray together and women's personal prayers in Yiddish, here we have an interesting story about women gathering to pray together under one woman's leadership. Note that all of these prayer meetings take place after World War II, during a period in which prayer was very taboo and dangerous, but the idea of gathering together as Jews in the aftermath of the war was an important means of asserting community.

--Asya Vaisman

Thursday, September 22, 2011

You'll Never Cough Again! - Folk Remedies

We return this week to Bella Chirkova from Vinnitsa, who speaks this time about folk remedies. When asked if she knows how to ward off the evil eye, she begins by saying that she can tell what's wrong with a person by using an egg. (See also this post about using eggs in folk remedies.) She then gives an example of one way a person can be healed without conventional medicine -- Bella suggests drinking your own urine to cure a cough.

The suggested treatment is but one example of what is known as "babske refues" -- or old wives' medicine. As Lisa Epstein notes in the YIVO encyclopedia, "The approach of the East European Jewish population to health care made no distinction between what would now be considered “scientific” medicine and “folk” medicine.... Among Jews, a rich oral tradition of folk remedies for physical, as well as emotional, ills existed." The cures could be found in various recipe books, but by the time Bella was learning them, they were primarily transmitted orally, from one woman to another.

--Asya Vaisman

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Blessing the Sabbath Candles

Bella Chirkova from Vinnitsa describes the process of lighting the Sabbath candles and talks about the personal prayers she usually says while lighting the candles.

Bella was born in 1912 in Krasni, in the Vinnitsa region. Her father was a rabbi and her grandfather was a cantor. In the clip, you can see the clear distinction Bella makes between men's and women's religious roles -- she initially is hesitant to tell the interviewers how she blesses the candles, because she insists that only women can perform this function (and the interviewers are male). 

When the interviewers ask Bella what blessing she says over the candles, rather than reciting the traditional formula, she explains that she asks G-d for what she needs, engaging in a very personal style of prayer. She speaks in Yiddish, asking for G-d's help, for her children's health, and so on. See also this post for a similar way that Avrom Gelman's mother prayed over the Sabbath candles in Kamenets-Podolsk.

--Asya Vaisman

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

I sit in the tavern...

While we're on the topic of drinking songs, Semyon Krotsh in Kolomyia sang "Zits ikh mir in kretshme" for AHEYM in 2007. He did not remember all of the verses, but the ones he did sing seemed quite a bit more lighthearted than the lyrics of "Der Furman." He mentioned that he learned the song before the war, in Shtefanesht (Ştefăneşti), Romania, where he was born in 1922.

A different version of this song appears on the Vernadsky archive compilation "Treasure Of Jewish Culture In Ukraine" from 1997. The piece is sung by Arn Shmuel Kahan and was recorded in Proskuriv, Podolia Region, in 1913. Both the mood and the lyrics in this version differ quite a bit from Krotsh's rendering: the melody is more melancholy than upbeat, and in the last verse, the drunken narrator beats his wife with a chair.

Krotsh's version appears below:

איך זיץ מיר אין קרעטשמע אָן דאגות, אָן זאָרג.

דער קרעטשמער איז שיכּור, ער גיט מיר אױף באָרג.

איך מעג טרינקען בראָנפֿן, איך מעג טרינקען װײַן.

איך װעל אַלעס טרינקען, כ'װעל שיכּור ניט זײַן.

װי איך קום נאָר אַרױס בײַ דער טיר,

די גאַסן זײַנען שיכּור, זײ דרײען זיך אַרום מיר.

איך גײ לינקס, איך גײ רעכטס, איך דערקען נישט מײַן הױז.

די גאַסן זײַנען שיכּור, דאָס זע איך אַרױס.

אױ די לבֿנה דו שײַנסט אין גאַנץ אױבן אָן.

אױב דו זאָלסט זײַן שיכּור, װי שטײט מיר דאָס אָן?

I sit in the tavern with no troubles or worries.

The tavern keeper is drunk, he puts it on the tab.

I can drink whiskey, I can drink wine.

I'll drink everything, but I won't get drunk.

As soon as I walk out the door,

The streets are drunk, they spin around me.

I go left, I go right, I don’t recognize my house.

The streets are drunk, I can see that.

Oh, moon, you shine up on high.

If you are drunk, how can that be appropriate?

--Asya Vaisman

Friday, July 29, 2011

Vyo, vyo, ferdelekh! Giddy-up, my ponies!

In 2002, AHEYM interviewed Liudmila Shor, an amazing singer in Vinnitsa, Ukraine. Liudmila informally directs the Jewish Women's Choir in Vinnitsa, sharing with the group her rich repertoire of Yiddish songs. When singing solo, Liudmila exhibits a beautiful, authentic Yiddish singing style. 

The song in this clip, "Der Furman" -- "The Coachman", composed by Khazn (Cantor) Pinkhos Jassinovsky, is about a poor wagon driver who drinks away his horses and wagon in a tavern. The song has been recorded by well-known Yiddish singer Sidor Belarsky, among others; Yiddish folklorist Chana Mlotek has written about it in an article on two songs about coachmen in the Yiddish Forward (12/16/1988). Liudmila learned the song from her father.

The lyrics are very reminiscent of another Yiddish song, "Shprayz ikh mir", (lyrics by Sh. Kahn, music by Eliyahu Teitelbaum) about a man who goes to the fair to buy a horse but stops by a tavern on the way and drinks away all his money. The song has been recorded by numerous artists; perhaps the best-known version appears on the Klezmatics album "Possessed", performed by Lorin Sklamberg. Unlike "Shprayz ikh mir," which has a very upbeat tempo and cheerful melody, "Der Furman" is a much more melancholy song, as you can see in Liudmila's rendering.

Below you will find the lyrics of the song in Yiddish, transliterated in Liudmila's Southeastern dialect, and translated. Check out our Youtube channel aheymproject for more of Liudmila's songs, as well as clips from a private performance of her choir.

I ride out in my own buggy,
Four little horses bridled across.
Outside there's a blizzard, outside it is raining,
It's dark, you can't see the road.

Giddy-up, my little horses! Giddy-up, my eagles!
Lift your little heads up high!
Giddy-up, my little horses! Giddy-up, darlings!
Giddy-up! Kick up some dust already!

One says, "Hey, Mister, please go faster!"
“I have to get to the tsadik's house!”
The second one says, "Oy, Mister, slower!
My hemorrhoids!"

Giddy-up, little horses! Giddy-up, darlings!
Can't you hear what the folks are saying?
Giddy-up, little horses! Giddy-up, darlings!
Giddy-up! The tavern is not so far!

Arrived in the tavern on Friday night.
Had a glass, considered a second.
Drank away the horses, drank away the buggy.
All I had left was the whip.

Giddy-up, my little wife! Giddy-up, my dove!
There's not a penny for the Sabbath.
Don't worry, my little wife, don't worry, my dove!
Giddy-up! It's a good thing I still have the whip!
And it's good that I'm still here!
Fur ikh mir aroys mit mayn eygener bayd,
Fir ferdelekh geshpont in der breyt.
In drusn iz a vyuge, in drusn iz a reygn,
S’iz fintster, me zeyt nisht deym veyg.

Oy vyo vyo vyo ferdelekh, vyo vyo vyo udlerlekh,
Heybt zhe di kepelekh hoykh,
Vyo vyo vyo ferdelekh, vyo vyo vyo tayere,
Vyo! Geyn zol azh bold a roykh.

Oy eyner zugt, “A, reb yidl, fur gikher!”
Er darf zikh tsun a gitn yidn.
Der tsveyter zugt, “A, reb yidl, pameylekh!
“Oy, mayne meridn!”

Vyo vyo vyo ferdelekh, vyo vyo vyo tayere,
Ir hert nisht vus zugn di layt?
Vyo vyo vyo ferdelekh, vyo vyo vyo tayere,
Vyo! Di kreytshme iz shoyn nisht vayt.

Gekimen in der kreytshme, fraytik tse nakhts,
A koyse genemen, di tsveyte fartrakht,
Fartrinken di ferdelekh, fartrinken di bayd.
Geblibn bin ikh bay der baytsh.

Oy vyo vyo vyo vaybele, vyo vyo vyo taybele,
Af shobes kayn groshn nishtu.
Nisht gezorgt vaybele, nisht gezorgt taybele,
Vyo! Git vus di baytsh iz nokh du.
In git vus ikh bin nokh du.

פֿאָר איך מיר אַרױס מיט מײַן אײגענער בױד,
פֿיר פֿערדעלעך געשפּאַנט אין דער ברײט.
אין דרױסן איז אַ װיוגע, אין דרױסן איז אַ רעגן,
סאיז פֿינצטער, מע זעט נישט דעם װעג.

אױ װיאָ װיאָ װיאָ פֿערדעלעך, װיאָ װיאָ װיאָ אָדלערלעך,
הײבט זשע די קעפּעלעך הױך,
װיאָ װיאָ װיאָ פֿערדעלעך, װיאָ װיאָ װיאָ טײַערע,
װיאָ, גײן זאָל אַזש באַלד אַ רױך.

אױ אײנער זאָגט, אַ, רעב ייִדל, פֿאָר גיכער!
ער דאַרף זיך צום אַ גוטן ייִדן.
דער צװײטער זאָגט, אַ, רעב ייִדל, פּאַמעלעך!
אױ, מײַנע מערידן!

װיאָ װיאָ װיאָ פֿערדעלעך, װיאָ װיאָ װיאָ טײַערע,
איר הערט נישט װאָס זאָגן די לײַט?
װיאָ װיאָ װיאָ פֿערדעלעך, װיאָ װיאָ װיאָ טײַערע,
װיאָ! די קרעטשמע איז שױן נישט װײַט.

געקומען אין דער קרעטשמע, פֿרײַטיק צו נאַכץ,
אַ כּוסע גענומען, די צװײטע פֿאַרטראַכט,
פֿאַרטרונקען די פֿערדעלעך, פֿאַרטרונקען די בױד.
געבליבן בין איך בײַ דער בײַטש.

אױ װיאָ װיאָ װיאָ װײַבעלע, װיאָ װיאָ װיאָ טײַבעלע,
אױף שבת קײן גראָשן נישטאָ.
נישט געזאָרגט װײַבעלע, נישט געזאָרגט טײַבעלע,
װיאָ! גוט װאָס די בײַטש איז נאָך דאָ.
און גוט װאָס איך בין נאָך דאָ.

--Asya Vaisman

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Woman's Prayer

Occasionally, Avrom Gelman's mother was able to make challah on Shabes. He recalls that before she baked the challah, she would cut off a small piece and throw it in the oven. This tradition -- of separating a piece of dough from bread about to be baked -- is a Biblical commandment for Jewish women. In times of the Temple, the separated bread was consecrated for use by Kohanim (priests), but today it is just discarded or burned.

Taking challah was not the only commandment Avrom's mother kept. She would also light the Sabbath candles every Friday night and say prayers over them. Avrom remembers what his mother would pray for: she would speak to G-d in Yiddish, asking for livelihood and health for her family.

--Asya Vaisman

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Poverty in Kamenets-Podolsk

In 2003, AHEYM interviewed Avrom Gelman in Kamenets-Podolsk. When asked about how his family observed the Sabbath before the war, he recalled that Shabes was particularly special, because it was the only time the children got to eat meat. Sadly, abject poverty is a theme that runs through many AHEYM interviews, particularly when the interviewees retell their memories of the 1930s. Gelman's family was so poor, in fact, that his mother could not afford to provide both meat and challah for the family on Shabes. Instead, she baked malay, cornbread, for the meal. In the middle of the interview, you can hear Dov-Ber Kerler and Avrom discuss the various Yiddish words for "corn" -- one of Romanian origin, and the other, that Avrom uses, of Slavic origin.

Towards the end of the interview, Gelman mentions the various professions that Jews in his town practiced. He tells AHEYM that to be a craftsman alone was insufficient to make a living. To make enough money, one had to both practice one's trade and be able to sell the items one made.

--Asya Vaisman

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Secret Prayer Meetings in Teplik

Regular followers of the AHEYM blog will know that one of the ways in which many Jews of Ukrainian small towns express their Jewish identity is through food customs.  They often associate holidays with food and speak of sharp distinctions between Jewish and non-Jewish modes of eating.  Today's clip looks at a couple of the other ways that Jews expressed their identity in the 1930s—through prayer and pilgrimage to the graves of Hasidic rebbes.  

Many synagogues were closed during the anti-religious campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s, forcing those who continued to practice to do so outside of the official synagogue.  Judaism does not require a formal structure, such as a synagogue, for prayer; it only requires a prayer quorum, or minyan, for the recitation of certain prayers.  Thus, those who continued to practice could do so in private homes.  Believers established minyans that met clandestinely when there was no synagogue available.   Reports from local authorities indicate that they were aware of the presence of minyans, but for the most part chose not to act against them, so long as the members were predominantly elderly and were not attracting the youth away from Communism.   

In this clip, Maria Yakuta, who was born in Teplik in 1921, recalls how her father would go to a minyan to pray.  She also discusses how her father would make pilgrimages to the graves of Hasidic rebbes, particularly Nahman of Bratslav (also known as Nahman of Uman).  Largely neglected in the postwar period, the graves of Hasidic rebbes have once again become popular sites of pilgrimage both for Hasidic Jews from around the world and for the local Ukrainian population—Jewish and Christian—who sometimes ascribe supernatural properties to the graves.  

In the selected clip, the viewer also sees Dov-Ber's interest in the linguistic properties of the Yiddish language.  Dov-Ber asks Yakuta to repeat certain phrases in order to hear her dialect precisely, and he is very interested in the terminology she uses to describe the rebbe.  Whereas she describes him as a "pious Jew," Dov-Ber is curious to see whether the archaic term for a Hasidic rebbe, "a good Jew," still has any resonance.

--Jeffrey Veidlinger

Friday, July 1, 2011

Varenikes (Dumplings) and Jewish Life in Gaysin

While AHEYM was interviewing Mira Murovanaia from Gaysin, Ukraine, she was busy making varenikes -- dumplings. In the video clip, you can see her rolling out circles of dough, sprinkling the dough with sugar, adding a few sour cherries, and pinching the dumplings closed. Her daughter, meantime, is boiling some water on the stove to cook the dumplings.

While they cook, Mira and her daughter discuss Jewish life in Gaysin. Although Mira herself attended a Russian school, she recalls that there was a Jewish school in town before the war. There were also three synagogues, all of which were destroyed in World War II. Even after the war, however, Mira remembers there being a shoykhet -- ritual slaughterer in town.

--Asya Vaisman

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Kosher Meat -- Not for Vegetarians!

This week, Moyshe Vaynshelboym from Berdichev talks about all the stages involved in the process of making kosher chicken, from slaughtering to plucking to cooking. Vaynshelboym remembers a kosher butcher (shoykhet) being active in his town in the 1930s, and he recalls how his mother would salt a slaughtered chicken at home.

Vaynshelboym emphasizes the fact that the chickens were plucked without the assistance of hot water. Scalding a chicken is an oft-used method of facilitating plucking, as it loosens the feather follicles; it is, however, not allowed when making kosher chicken. Salting, additionally, is a process particular to kosher chickens, as it ensures that all of the blood is properly drained.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Oh My Beloved Bessarabia!

The Latest Photos and Songs from AHEYM’s Current Expedition

This week’s post comes to you from Chisinau, Moldova where the AHEYM team has just passed through on their latest (and still ongoing!) expedition throughout the cities and shtetlekh of Podolia, Bukovina and Bessarabia.  Led by Professor Dov-Ber Kerler and Dr. Moisei Lemster, this current trip has included both return visits to some of our most informative interviewees and sessions with new Yiddish-speaking friends in numerous Eastern European towns.

As the video from this trip has not even been downloaded off the camera, our regular video clips are not yet available. In the meantime, however, we are pleased to share with you some of our latest photos and a special audio excerpt.

Photo Credit: Sebastian Schulman and Anya Quilitzsch

In this audio clip, we hear Zelda Davidovna Roif (b. 1930) sharing the opening lines of Oy mayn libe basarabye (Oh, My Beloved Bessarabia).  The words, a folklorized version of a poem by Moyshe Pintshevski, are sung to the tune of a doina, a Moldovan and Jewish musical form often associated with the region’s shepherds.

The words, transcribed as she sings them in a Bessarabian dialect, are as follows:

S’iz geveyn a mul a postekhl
Nokh a kind fin tsvishn kinder
Fleyg er ba zayn totn posn
Shufn, lemlekh, tsig in rinder
Fleyg er ba zayn totn posn
Shufn, lemlekh, tsig in rinder

Vi of a mul ‘ot er fargesn
Dus tirl tsi farmakhn
Zenen ole zayne sheyfelekh oyf der velt tselofn...

O mayn libe basarabye
Lond fin freyd
In lond fin trouer!

There once was a young shepherd
Just a child among children
He used to shepherd his father’s
Sheep, lambs, goats and oxen
He used to shepherd his father’s
Sheep, lambs, goats and oxen

One time he forgot
to close the gate
and all his sheep ran out into the world...
Oh my beloved Bessarabia!
Land of joy
And land of sorrow!

As Zelda explains earlier in the interview, for her, the young shepherd and his scattered sheep represent the relationship between G-d and the Jewish People, especially during the Great Patriotic War.

On YouTube, one can find a complete, yet very different variant of the same song featuring the ground-breaking klezmer band Brave Old World (including IU’s Spring 2011 Paul Artist-in-Residence Michael Alpert and Bloomington native Alan Bern) and renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman:  

The AHEYM blog returns next week with our usual video postings from past expeditions.

-- Sebastian Schulman

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Homentashn on Shvues

"Homentashn on Shvues?!" you might ask. But the triangular pastry is usually eaten on Purim! Indeed, Purim is the time to indulge in prune- or poppyseed-filled treats, but on Shvues, Donia Pressler's family in Tulchyn (Ukraine) would make a filling of dairy rice pudding for their homentashn:

The holiday of Shvues (Shavuoth, Shavuot, Shvies), the Festival of Weeks, is coming up next week. The day commemorates G-d giving the Torah to the Jewish people on Mt. Sinai after the Exodus from Egypt. Because the holiday lacks any distinguishing commandments (like the eating of matse on Passover or the building of a suke on Sukes, for instance), it was often one of the first to be forgotten by acculturating and assimilating Jews. In the Former Soviet Union, those Jews who do remember observing the festival usually recall eating dairy foods on that day, a well-known custom among Ashkenazi, Syrian, Iraqi, and other Jews. And that's how it came to pass that Donia's family ate homentashn on Shvues -- they were special, dairy, rice pudding-filled homentashn.

--Asya Vaisman

*Note: There will be no post next Wednesday in honor of the holiday. We'll see you the following week!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mama's Mamaliga -- Elizaveta Bershad'skaya shares her recipe

"Aunt Masha ceremoniously delivered cheese to the table, accompanied by butter and cups of spicy garlic gravy. As she tossed the mamaliga down onto the table from the cast-iron pan, the house filled up with steam. The thick cornmeal pudding, the mamaliga, lay on a white, linen tablecloth, bringing us back to summer fields and sunny autumn days, to flute melodies and Moldovan wedding handkerchiefs. As it lay there hot and round, glowing gold and yellow, I could even have said that the sun itself had suddenly fallen on the white linen. And when she sliced that sun with a string, we could feel it melt in our mouths, even before it ever touched our lips. We dipped hunks of mamaliga into the cheese and butter mixture, drenched them in the garlicky muzhdey and just like that, with everything, relished those first fresh slivers. We ate quickly and noisily, just as we had been speaking earlier."
--Yekhiel Shraybman, "Dimples", translated from Yiddish by Sebastian Schulman (Dirty Goat, issue 25, forthcoming).

Photo Credit: Robert Cohen

The Bessarabian Yiddish writer Yekhiel Shraybman's celebration of mamelige, that cornmeal staple of the Eastern European Jewish (and non-Jewish) diet, is but one manifestation of the food's significance in Jewish life. Mamelige is lauded far and wide to this day for its versatility, affordability, and heartiness. In the Podolian town of Bershad (in Ukraine, just northeast of Moldova), AHEYM recorded the recipe for mamelige that Elizaveta Bershad'skaya learned from her mother:

Because mamelige is parve -- that is, neither meat nor dairy -- it can be enjoyed with milk and cheese or with meat, making it an easy base for any meal. You'll notice that Dov-Ber and Elizaveta also discuss the texture of the dish -- for the mamelige to come out "as it should be", it must be firm enough to slice with a cotton string, a process also mentioned by Yekhiel Shraybman.

Mamelige has been well-document in the Jewish blogging world. See, for example, Leah Koenig, Robert Cohen, and Eve Jochnowitz for more tastes of this fabulous food.

Est gezunterheyt!
--Asya Vaisman

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Keyn Eyn Hore! -- No Evil Eye!

"Incantations must not be taught to anyone," writes Avraham Rechtman in his 1958 book Yidishe Etnografie un Folklor (Jewish Ethnography and Folklore). During an expedition to Tomashpol (a shtetl in the Podolia region of Ukraine) in 2003, AHEYM met Liza Petrunenko, who believed in this rule of silence. Although she knew the formulas that one must say in order to ward off the Evil Eye, she refused to tell the interviewers. However, she did agree to demonstrate the procedure of "rolling an egg", which is done to dispel fear.

After a careful examination of a number of Jewish sources, I could not find any direct references to rolling eggs, though I did learn that eggs were used for other purposes in Jewish folk customs; for instance, the Talmud mentions eggs being used for divination (Sanhedrin 101a). I did find, however, an almost exact description of the procedure Liza performs on Dov-Ber on a website about remedies to ward off the Evil Eye among Mexicans and Latin Americans.

Scholars have proposed that the Evil Eye, as a folkloric and cultural symbol, originates in ancient Sumer and is present to this day in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim folk beliefs. The remedy of using an egg in the way we see above is most likely a fairly old practice and was probably brought over to Mexico by European settlers.

In Jewish custom, the Evil Eye is mentioned as far back as Proverbs in Tanakh (see, for instance, 23:6 and 28:22), and many preventative and curative measures for it exist, including spitting and incantations (mentioned in the video). Folklorist Dov Noy writes that "Although practices of this kind were disapproved of by rabbinic authorities... they persisted... In the Middle Ages there is evidence of a more widespread use of folk medicine among Jews. There are many folk prescriptions in the Sefer Hasidim (13th century), most of them derived from the contiguous Christian culture" (Encyclopaedia Judaica, Second Edition).

How does your family ward off the Evil Eye? Have you ever seen someone "roll out an egg"? Let us know with your comments below!

-- Asya Vaisman

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


May 9 marks Victory Day (Den' Pobedy) in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Victory Day is the Russian equivalent of the American holiday Memorial Day, but without the Indy 500. Instead, veterans of what Russians call “The Great Patriotic War” dress up in their military regalia and march together with their former comrades-in-arms to celebrate the victory of the Red Army over Nazi Germany. The sacrifices that Soviet soldiers made in the Great Patriotic War were staggering: approximately eight million Soviet soldiers lost their lives fighting for their motherland. Among the many soldiers who heroically fought the German invaders were about half a million Jewish soldiers. They were fighting not only to defend their motherland, but also to avenge the murder of their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters.

AHEYM has interviewed numerous Jewish veterans over the years, many of whom have shared their wartime experiences with us on tape. The pride they feel in their achievements are palpable; and the respect and admiration they have earned should be limitless. However, Victory Day celebrations in Ukraine have become contentious. Many veterans seek to memorialize Victory Day by marching under the Hammer and Sickle — the flag under which they defeated Nazism. Others, mostly younger Ukrainians, view the Soviet period as an occupation, and bristle at the idea of honoring the Red Army, which wiped out their dreams of establishing an independent Ukrainian state. Since it is often the Jewish veterans who feel most strongly and unambiguously about the Red Army victory over Nazi Germany, the scuffles that sometimes break out during Victory Day parades can take on an anti-Semitic tint. Some Ukrainian nationalists view the Hammer and Sickle as an offensive symbol, akin to the Nazi swastika. For others, the Soviet flag is precisely the symbol that liberated Europe from the swastika.

Victory Day celebration in Kovel, Ukraine, May 9, 2003.  Some 
veterans march under the Hammer and Sickle; others use a 
red flag with the Hammer and Sickle insignia torn out.

David Furman, born in Berdichev in 1919, was one of the 1.1 million Soviet soldiers who fought in the Battle of Stalingrad, the seven-month battle that turned the war on the Eastern front and left one and a quarter million German and Soviet soldiers dead. Furman left school at the age of fourteen to become a carpenter like his father, but he was drafted into the army in 1939. He was stationed in the Far East until the war broke out in 1941, when he was taken to the front. He fought at the front until 1943, when he lost his leg in battle. By the time that Stalingrad began, in August 1942, Furman had already received word that his entire family — his father, Zelig; his mother, Leyke; his sister, Kheyved and his two brothers, Moyshe and Berl--had been murdered by the Nazis in Berdichev. He knew what he was fighting for.

In this clip, Furman, whom we first met at the synagogue soup kitchen in which the interview takes place, tells about his experience in the war. Viewers should note that the question posed to him is “Tell us something about Berdichev? Were you born in Berdichev? Tell us about the old days? Tell us about your schooling?” Rather than talk about his childhood or his hometown, Furman shares with us his proudest moment--his military service. He rushes through his childhood and neglects his postwar life, but straightens his back, raises his chin, and lets out a smile as he tells us that he fought in Stalingrad! Not only that, but he pulls out of his pocket a snapshot of himself decorated with military medals, as though he expected an international camera crew to show up at the soup kitchen that day. For David Furman, every day is Victory Day.

--Jeffrey Veidlinger

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Bones of Berdichev – June 2009

This past Sunday was Yom Hashoah -- Holocaust commemoration day. Dr. Dov-Ber Kerler writes this week's post about one of AHEYM's visits to Berdichev, Ukraine.

"The Bones of Berdichev" is the title of the 1996 book by John & Carol Garrard on the life and fate of the prominent Soviet author Vasily Grossman (1905-1964) who was compelled to re-focus on his Jewishness and on the fate of his people in the wake of the massacres of Soviet Jews by occupying Germans and their local collaborators during WW II. A native of Berdichev, Grossman was deeply shaken by the mass murder of many thousands of Berdichev Jews.

Out of the approximately 20,000 Jews that remained in the city, only 15 were found alive after Berdichev was liberated by the Red Army in January 1944. Grossman's mother was among the martyrs. A short but detailed account of the Nazi atrocities and their murderous "Aktionen" in Berdichev was compiled by Grossman on the basis of testimonies collected shortly after the liberation for his and Ilya Ehrenburg's "Black Book" (cf. the Russian original of that account).

Sometime after the liberation in 1944, the graves at the mass murder sites were opened by the authorities and the victims' remains were as much as possible recounted, and reburied. In 2003, when AHEYM visited the former airfield area near Berdichev, where most of the massacres took place, it still had the old Soviet plaque stating in Russian that the number of “peaceful Soviet citizens” who “were brutally murdered” there totaled 18,640. Two years ago, re-visiting Berdichev, the members of the 2009 expedition unexpectedly came to face some of the Jewish "Bones of Berdichev" vandalized almost 70 years after the horrendous German murder “actions” of 1941. 

The 2003 Plaque

We returned to Berdichev in June 2009 to re-interview Moyshe Vaynshlboym. Born in 1927, he escaped two mass murder actions that were described by Grossman in the “Black Book”. He fled the second one after he and his father had already undressed awaiting their execution. His father, Aron (who, as a useful specialist, was initially spared), told him then: "Moyshe, run away!" And he added: "I will stay and join your mother and your siblings. But you are still young, you can run. Perhaps you will survive the war to tell the truth." That was in late 1941. And for the next long few years 14 year old Moyshe Vaynshelboym had to flee and hide. At least three times he narrowly escaped certain death at the hands of German soldiers and Ukrainian Polizei. Against all odds he survived and returned to his native Berdichev as one of the miniscule group of 15 Jewish survivors of the once famed “Jewish capital” of Ukraine.

After the interview we asked Moyshe to take us to the site of the mass murder that he escaped. We could see it from a distance since it is located across a large inaccessible field. From afar it looked like a large elongated mound with densely planted tall trees. On the other side, across the road was the beginning of the former airfield area, which was the site of the so-called “Bloody Monday” massacre of September 15, 1941 where his mother, his small brother and two older sisters were murdered.

That site was more accessible so we went there. It consists of two mass graves; one is very large, the other one, at some distance away, is smaller. We first approached the large one. Moyshe pointed to the new plaque in Ukrainian, which does not specify the number of victims (often estimated to be close to 20,000) and, although it bears the Jewish Star, the text remains faithful to the old Soviet official style by identifying the victims merely as “peaceful Soviet citizens.” “Some 20, 30 years ago,” says Moyshe, “the mass grave was cared for. Now it’s all abandoned and desolate.” He notices that even though there is overgrown grass and bushes on the mound, its surface is suspiciously uneven. He says that at times the place is raided by marauders who keep looking for gold. 

The 2009 Plaque

We walked to the end of the first mound and proceeded to the second one. “One grave wasn’t enough for them” remarks Moyshe bitterly. By the time we were coming closer to the second site, Moyshe exclaimed: “Look! They were here again!” We came closer still and saw some scattered bones. – Something that no one of us expected to find, the bones of Berdichev, the remains of her innocent martyrs.

Moyshe pointed at a child’s skull and immediately started to cover it with earth, which he kept digging with his strong hands. “Who knows?” he kept saying, “Who knows? It could be the skull of my little brother; he was just 5 years old…”

Nearly 70 years later, the bones of Berdichev can’t be left in peace…

-- Dov-Ber Kerler

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Who Knows One?

In case you still have a craving for matse, this week's post, brought to you by IU's Paul Artist-in-Residence and world-renowned Yiddish singer, pioneering figure in the Klezmer revival, and trailblazing Yiddish ethnographer Michael Alpert, offers one more look at Peysekh in Eastern Europe -- Naftule Shor in Bershad, Ukraine, chants hymns from the Passover hagode.

The markers of Ashkenazic Jewishness in the USSR and Former Soviet Union have differed greatly from those in North America or other parts of the world where religious and institutional life play a leading role. Since the late 1940s, Soviet Ashkenazic life and self-identity were almost entirely unofficial, often illicit, and manifested most vitally in family and small community contexts through grass-roots forms of expressive culture like language and verbal art, music – especially song – and  traditional foodways. 

Thus, the ability of persons of Naftule Shor’s generation to remember and especially to read portions of Jewish liturgy or paraliturgical text is usually a distinctive mark of religious or traditional upbringing transmitted and not forgotten through the Soviet Period, the Second World War, and the dissolution of community life that has often accompanied the emigratsiia: the large-scale emigration of Jews since the 1970s from the USSR and its successor states. New forms of Jewish life are again taking root in larger cities in the Former Soviet Union, but the continued dwindling and disappearance of smaller communities are not only a factor of the inexorable march of time and old age, but a consequence of an emigratsiia that continues to this day.

Many – though by no means all – Soviet Ashkenazim born before 1930 and still deeply familiar with traditional Jewish liturgy are zapadniki, (Russian: “Westerners,”), who grew up in areas of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and the Baltic countries that were not part of the USSR until the years surrounding World War II. Naftule Shor’s Hagode reading transports us to an earlier era in East European and Soviet Jewish life and reminds us that religious Jewish life and tradition did not simply vanish with the establishment of the USSR or its annexations of neighboring areas.

This is particularly true of Peysekh, with its message of freedom and its function as a participatory celebration for which many older individuals recall ritual or textual specifics. In this clip, Shor chants portions of the four concluding hymns of the Passover seyder (lit. order: religious ritual accompanied by a meal and four glasses of wine). Asked by AHEYM interviewers what he recalls in connection with Peysekh, in particular the final hymnKhad gadyo (The One Kid), Shor begins to chant the latter from memory. Interrupted and asked if he knows the rest, he picks up a Hagode and begins to read and chant its four concluding hymns in order.

Shor begins with verses 1 and 3 of Ki loy noe, ki loy yoe (It Befits Him, it is Due Him), the final hymn of Halel(Praise), the penultimate Hagode section.  He moves directly into the Hagode’s concluding section Nirtso(Acceptance) with the first two verses of the hymn Adir hu (He is Mighty), before chanting all thirteen verses of the counting hymn Ekhod mi yoydeyo (Who Knows What “One” Means?). He often punctuates his chanting of the latter by translating the Hebrew original of each number into Yiddish for the interviewers, who he’s not sure understand (they do!).

Musically, Shor’s renditions are typical of an older, pre-modern and pre-American Ashkenazic style of reading theHagode, in particular its hymns. They are chanted (gezogt, lit. “said”) rather than sung (gezungen). Though they have pulse and melody, or more accurately mode, in the traditional Yiddish worldview they are not “songs”. This approach continues to distinguish the older Orthodox Ashkenazic style of synagogue and home liturgy from more modern, often West European-influenced styles employed by Conservative, Reform and Modern Orthodox traditions throughout the world. 

Additionally, Shor’s versions of the concluding hymns (chanted after the Seyder meal) are upbeat and mainly employ “major” modalities. This is also typical of older East European Jewish practice. While we don’t have an example here of Shor chanting the first portion/s of the Hagode, particularly Magid -- the narration of the Passover story itself -- it is characteristic to chant those portions in a more somber manner, utilizing musical modes that convey the suffering, power and drama of slavery, redemption from it, and the Exodus itself.

An intriguing modal and rhythmic moment in this clip is Shor’s brief rendition of Adir hu We don’t hear much of it, but it appears to be distinctive in its use of a “minor” mode (or one cadencing on the 2nd degree of the mode) and especially in the pulse of the chant, which seems to imply an asymmetrical “7/8” rhythm in the repeated cadences. If the latter is true, we are witness to a moment of great exceptionality. Ashkenazic musical practice in general avoids or “straightens out” the asymmetrical rhythms of Ottoman or Balkan musics. Shor’s rendition raises the question as to whether Jews in southern, former Ottoman and certainly Ottoman-influenced locales like Bershad’ preserved features in liturgy or paraliturgical music that are otherwise absent from secular genres like the instrumental klezmer tradition as we know it.

The texts for Ekhod mi yoydeyo and Khad gadyo are likely of non-Jewish origin, given their parallels in many European cultures. Khad gadyo is unique among the concluding hymns of the Hagode by virtue of being in Aramaic, not Hebrew. Some see this as proof of its antiquity, but given its multitude of variants in non-Jewish European folk traditions, it is more likely a borrowed theme deliberately penned in Aramaic to give it the patina of age and Jewish specificity.

At the end of the clip, Shor refers to the custom of finishing the Seyder on the second night of Peysekh by reciting the blessing that begins the ritual period of Sfires ho-oymer (The Counting of the Omer).

-- Michael Alpert
(with concurring opinions provided by Sruli Dresdner)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Letters from Berdichev

In June 1941, Bella Reinsdorf had just completed the eighth grade with honors in Berdichev, Ukraine. She asked for her parents’ permission to celebrate by going on a trip with her cousin to visit her maternal grandparents in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkov. This cousin, Zonya, was a law student and needed to go on the trip to take his final exams in order to graduate.  They left on June 20th, two days before Germany invaded the Soviet Union.  Her cousin was able to make another trip back to Berdichev to bring his wife, child, and blind mother to Kharkov, but Bella’s immediate family was left behind. Her parents, two sisters, and paternal grandmother were murdered by the Nazis less than six months later. Zina, the youngest girl, was four years old.

In 2009, AHEYM visited Bella and her husband, Isaak, in Berdichev. During the visit, Bella showed the interviewers the many letters, telegrams and photographs from her family that her grandfather kept and passed on to her to keep the memory of loved ones alive. These letters were sent in June and July of 1941 from Bella's father, mother, and paternal grandmother in Berdichev to Bella and her family members in Kharkov. Remarkably, even in wartime conditions, the postal and telegram services were operational. This is especially significant as the Nazis set up a ghetto in Berdichev on July 15th, 1941. Through the letters, Bella's parents were able to convince her to stay in Kharkov, a decision that saved her from her family's fate in Berdichev.

To find out more, read the letters from Bella's family.

--Asya Vaisman