Monday, August 27, 2012

The Story of Joseph

In an interview conducted in 2003 in Zhovkva, Ukraine, Polina Lebvol related the entire plot of the Yoysef-shpil, or Joseph Play, that she remembered from her youth. As you might recall from Izrail Gliazer's account in this post, such plays were often performed on the holiday of Purim. Polina, however, believes that in Zhovkva, where she grew up, the play was performed on Passover. Not only does she remember the plot in great detail, but she also is able to sing a few of the songs from the play, as can be seen in the clip below.

Polina was born in 1920. Her father worked as a butcher and glass-blower, and her mother raised eight children. Polina briefly attended a Beys Yankev (Bais Yaakov) religious girls' school and began working as a seamstress at age 13.

She remembers the Joseph play so well in part because she performed in it several times when she was young. Plays based on the Biblical story about the sale of Joseph by his brothers were very common throughout Europe for centuries, primarily as Purim plays (purim-shpiln). The introductory song that appears in the clip above is very typical of the introductory songs of other Purim plays, such as this one, called Golias-shpil (the story of David and Goliath), and recorded by Sh. An-ski's ethnographic expedition in Kremenets in 1913. Such plays later formed the foundation for Yiddish theater.

The informed listener might notice that the Yiddish in Polina's song is somewhat daytshmerish, or Germanized, as can be seen in words such as "layte" instead of "layt" (people), "fon" instead of "fun" (from), and "shpile" instead of "shpil" (play). This type of speech reflects the longevity of these plays in Ashkenkazic Jewish culture, as these Middle High German forms, more typical of Old Yiddish, have been retained to the present day. These variants are a marker of the plays' origins in German-speaking lands, where Yiddish-speaking Jews lived prior to their migration to Slavic lands.

-- Asya Vaisman

Monday, July 2, 2012

A Ba'al Shem Tov Tale

We return this week to Isaak Nibulskiy, who retells a story that he heard from his grandfather about the Ba'al Shem Tov (also known by the acronym, the "Besht"). In this tale, the Besht works a miracle by helping a poor barrel-maker improve his lot.  Such stories are typical of the hagiographic tradition of the Hasidic movement and are perhaps best exemplified by the wonders told in the collection known as Shivhei ha-Besht, or, as it is known in English, "In Praise of the Ba'al Shem Tov".

A keen listener might have noticed that the setting of Nibulskiy's story in early 19th century Lithuania does not correspond to the biography of the Besht, who lived c.1698-1760 and settled in Medzhibozh, present-day Ukraine.  This sort of confusion is indicative of the process of folklorization, in which a story is passed on from generation to generation, in this case from grandfather to grandson, and the details get lost in transition.  It is possible that Nibulskiy combined two or more different stories about the Besht himself and about Shneur Zalmen of Liadi (the "Alter Rebbe," 1745-1812), the founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty.  Because the stories were orally transmitted and there was no written source for Nibulskiy to refer to, it would have been easy for him mix these memories together.

--Asya Vaisman & Sebastian Schulman

Friday, June 8, 2012

Cholent: a Folk Etymology

When describing a special shabes (Sabbath) meal that his grandfather used to host, Isaak Nibulskiy (interviewed in Zhytomyr, 2008) mentions that his grandmother would serve tsholent (cholent), a meat stew slow-cooked starting on Friday. Because cooking is prohibited on the Sabbath, making cholent is a way to have hot food on Saturday, as the stew would cook overnight, kept warm in the oven. In this clip, Nibulskiy relates his understanding of the origins of the word "cholent". He believes it comes from the consonant Slavic word "chulan", meaning closet or pantry, where the oven could be located in a Jewish home. This folk etymology does not conform to the history of the word, however, which dates back to the 13th century, before the Slavic component of Yiddish was prominent. The commonly accepted etymology of the word is that it can be traced to the "present participle of the Latin verb CALERE (to be warm)," "calentem" (Max Weinreich, History of the Yiddish Language, Volume I, p. 400). An alternative etymology holds that the word comes from the French "chaud" (warm) and "lent" (slow).

Nibulskiy grew up in Poninka, in northwestern Ukraine, where a subdialect of Volhynian Yiddish was spoken. His dialect can be heard in the combination of the vowel shift from "oy" to "ey" ("tseneyfgeyn", "azeyne"), more commonly associated with the Northeastern Yiddish (or Lithuanian Yiddish), with the vowel shift from "o" to "u" ("mul") and from "u" to "i" ("fin", "kimen"), more commonly associated with Southeastern Yiddish (or Ukrainian Yiddish). (See, for example, Shaya Mitelman's post on the Mendele listserv describing some features of the dialect.)

--Asya Vaisman

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Poem for Maryam

Iosif Torchinsky was born in Skvyra, Ukraine, in 1918. He studied in a Soviet Yiddish school from 1926 until 1933 and moved to Kyiv, Ukraine, in 1934. In March, 1941, he got married, but three months later he was sent to war. The poem in this clip is dedicated to his wife, Maryam, and tells the story of their relationship. Iosif wrote it in the 1980s. 

Kyiv, 2003

At the end of the clip, the camera zooms in on the handwritten manuscript, showcasing Torchinsky's beautiful handwriting. Torchinsky's education in a Soviet Yiddish school is reflected in his Soviet Yiddish orthography, seen in such words as חודש) כױדעש, month) and מלחמה) מילכאָמע, war).


In the town of Pereyaslav-Khmel’nyts’kyy,
On the shores of the Dnieper,
Where its waves rage,
My Maryam was born.

The first month of spring,
A joyous thing befell me,
I fell in love with Maryam,
And happiness was in my life.

To me, a young military man,
A young girl got married.
In her eyes there was no unrest,
But our life did not go smoothly.

We lived together for three months,
Until with pain we had to part --
My wife went to the hinterland,
And I went to war.

I was wounded in battle,
Maryam found out about it,
She did not forget me,
I knew that well.

On this day, your birthday,
I wish you, my dear,
Health, luck, and peace,
And to be with me for many long years.

אין שטאָט פּערעיאַסלאַװ,
װוּ דער ברעג פֿון דניעפּער,
װוּ בושעװען די כװאַליעס זײַנע,
איז געבױרן מאַרים מײַנע.

דער ערשטער כױדעש פֿון פֿרילינג,
אַ גליק פֿאַר מיר איז געװען,
איך האָב זיך פֿאַרליבט אין מאַרים,
אַ פֿרײד אין מײַן לעבן געשען.

פֿאַר מיר, אַ יונגן מיליטערמאַן,
אַ יונג מײדל האָט כאַסענע געהאַט,
אין אירע אױגן קײן שום אומרו,
נאָר אונדזער לעבן איז ניט געװען גלאַט.

דרײַ כאַדאָשים געלעבט אינאײנעם,
ביז װײטיק געװען צעשײדן זיך ־־
מײַן װײַב אין הינטערלאַנד,
און אױף דער מילכאָמע איך.

אין די שלאַכטן פֿאַרװוּנדעט געװאָרן,
מאַרים האָט זיך דערװוּסט,
מיך האָט זי ניט פֿאַרגעסן,
איך האָב עס גוט געװוּסט.

אין טאָג פֿון דײַן יובילײ,
איך װינטש, טײַערע, דיר,
געזונט, מאַזל, און שאָלעם,
און לאַנגע יאָרן זײַן מיט מיר.

--Asya Vaisman

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Who Knows One?, Take Two

Many of our readers have probably heard the traditional Passover song, "Ekhod Mi Yoydeyo" (Who Knows One?). In this clip, Semyon Krotsh (born 1922 in Stefanesti, Romania) performs a beautiful rendition of the song in his dialect of Loshn Koydesh.

You may notice that for some of the numbers, Semyon lists all of the units in the set the first time they are mentioned: for example, he names the patriarchs, the matriarchs, the books of the Torah, and the twelve tribes. In addition to his impressive memory, Semyon is a marvelous and charming performer -- watch his warm and dynamic facial expressions as he sings.

Krotsh was educated in a kheyder (traditional religious boys’ school), a Romanian Modern Hebrew Jewish school, and a yeshiva, where he studied Talmud and other traditional texts. Although Krotsh was an excellent student and remembers everything he once learned in yeshiva, he also studied to be a tailor in order to make a living. 

During the war years, he escaped to the Soviet Union and was evacuated from the town of Rîbnita (Moldova) to the Caucasus region of Russia, where he worked on a kolkhoz (collective farm). From there, he was evacuated further into Azerbaijan and then drafted into the Red Army from 1942 to 1947. After the war, in 1949, Krotsh went to Kolomyya at the suggestion of a friend from the army, since it was near Romania. However, by the time he got there, the border was closed, and so he stayed in the town. AHEYM interviewed him there in 2005.

You may remember Semyon from this post, in which he sings a drinking song. You may also recognize this tune of Ekhod Mi Yoydeyo from Naftule Shor's performance of it, posted last Peysekh with this analysis by Michael Alpert.

--Asya Vaisman & Sebastian Schulman

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Passover Games

Gut-moed! (Happy intermediate days of Passover!) This week was chol hamoed of Passover, the "profane" days of the festival, when some of the usual restrictions of holy days are relaxed but not entirely lifted. In Eastern Europe, children would often play games on the holiday, such as the one described by Duvid (David) Vider, interviewed in Kolomyya in 2003.

Because Jewish children in Eastern Europe could often not afford elaborate toys, they would invent games that required only everyday items as props, such as nuts (often walnuts). This game used eight nuts, equivalent to the eight days of Passover and of Sukkoth, the other occasion when the game was played. 

Duvid Vider was born in 1922 in Sighetu Marmatiei (in present-day Romania). He received a traditional religious education in a yeshiva in Iasi, Romania. 

For more of Duvid Vider, see Professor Dov-Ber Kerler's blog post in Yiddish about Vider's rendition of this Passover song.

--Asya Vaisman

Monday, April 2, 2012

Passover Fish

With Passover coming up this week, we have another clip from Sonia Litvak in Rivne, Ukraine (interviewed 2003), talking about how the holiday was celebrated in her home. Sonia recalls that fish was an important part of the Peysekh (Passover) meal. The father, as head of the household, was served the fish head, which was considered a delicacy in Eastern Europe. The rest of the family had to share the body and tail, with the tail being the least desirable part.

Because the family was unable to acquire enough matzah to last the entire holiday, they celebrated only the first three days, marking the first day with a traditional Passover Seder. Even though they observed a shortened holiday, those first three days were observed fully and strictly -- there was no bread or grains in the house, and Sonia's younger brother asked the fir kashes (the Four Questions) at the Seder.

--Asya Vaisman