A good friend of mine just went through one of those brutal breakups. God knows, in this fast-burning hellish landscape we call a world, bad things are literally goes all the time. But an unexpected breakup two weeks before Valentine’s Day? It seems like an appropriate time to, you know, take a moment to wallow.
This friend asked me if there were any good breakup songs in Yiddish, and I had to stop and think for a minute. If you ask me (and they did), raucous Russian party band Dobranotch hits the right note with their Yiddish-language cover of German heavy metal band Rammstein”Your host.” (Yiddish translation by column friend Asya Fruman.)
The song isn’t specifically about a breakup, but it’s not do not about a breakup, if you know what I mean.
from host mikh gefregt
kh’hob gornisht dir gezogt
Vilst mir zayn getray away eybik
bizn toyt, biz tifn keyver?
You asked me
I did not answer
Do you want me to be faithful to you forever?
Until death, until the grave?
It’s so emphatic Neyn! which really hits the post-breakup sweet spot. The meaning of the lyrics is a bit ambiguous, but the great art leaves plenty of room for personal interpretation.
But maybe “Your hostisn’t quite the mainstay Sad Songs playlist you were looking for. I agree, it’s more headbanger than tearjerker. For the latter, I turn to the erotic excess of the great Yiddish modernist, Celia Dropkin.
In her classic essay, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” film scholar Linda K. Williams considers what she calls “bodily genres,” those films whose excesses of sex, violence, and emotion are dismissed by critics as “weak”. art. Specifically, she discusses the genres of pornography, horror, and melodrama, where the audience is supposed to be so caught up in the spectacle that viewers find themselves imitating the bodies on screen (whether in ecstasy, terror or despair).
I see something of the same dynamic between Dropkin and his contemporary critics. There was no conceptual place for a woman’s erotic poetry, nor for the body from which these images flowed. As Faith Jones wrote in the Pakn Treger:
Critics stung her. They were all men. She had it all wrong. She wrote about sex and bodies – women’s bodies. A man’s passion is noble; that of a woman is embarrassing. She was not afraid and was a woman. … “She’s got talent”, but “even her illusions can’t get away from her body – her body won’t let go”, read B. Rivkin’s book review in Tsukunft– the very newspaper in which many poems had first appeared.
When I first heard”Es vilt zikh mir zen” (I Want to See) on the Klezmatics’ jews with horns album, I confess, I didn’t understand it. I was probably around 19, and I was just trying to stuff so much tempo freylekhs in my ears as possible. I found the Klezmatics’ staging of Dropkin’s poem too bizarre, too unsettling for my naïve ears. what was that?
es vilt zikh mir zen
vi du shlofst
fri from farlirst dayn makht
iber zikh, iber mir
I want to see
how do you sleep
when you lose your power
about you, about me
We are most vulnerable when we sleep, and the narrator of the poem savors the sight of her lover at rest, “helpless, weak, mute…”. For Dropkin, sleep is hardly a metaphor for representing this person, in whom love and hate are apparently linked:
es vilt zikh mir zen dikh
Is it a feminist horror film or an exquisite love song? I’m still not sure.
The pain of love is not always one-sided. The psychedelic Yiddish duo Forshpil have just reissued their second album, Forshpil:Tsveyon a brand new specialist Jewish music label, Borscht Beat. Forshpil:Tsvey presents a wonderful take on “Oy sleep, sleep», an old song about a very modern phenomenon: long-distance relationships.
oy, dortn, dortn, ibern vaserl, dortn,
dortn, ibern brik,
du bist with iber vayte yamen
un benken benk ikh shtark nokh dir tsurik.
oy, from gotenyu, from liber gotenyu,
Helf mir got, s’iz mir iz zeyer nisht git
shoyn tsvey dray yorelekh, az mir shpiln a libe,
a khasene hobn beyde kenen mir nisht.
Oh, over there, over there, over the water, over there,
on the bridge,
you have gone beyond distant seas
and I want you so much.
Oh my god, dear god,
help me because i’m not well
We’ve been in love for two or three years now
and we still can’t get married.
Sometimes you really need an over-the-top love song, “I’m a Martyr of Love,” something to sing from your heart, like Enrico Macias’ “Zingarella.” Macias sang it in French and apparently had great success in Israel and Turkey. The song went on to have a few different Yiddish translations (and even more versions). Zingarella is the kind of girl who just isn’t good for you, but you still love her (and love to sing about her and all the bad things she does in your life). But also, did you think that maybe you are the problem here, not her? Just a thought.
Zingarella tayere zise
Far dir lig ikh haynt in tfise …
Nit kayn libe, nit rakhmones
Du host mir farlengert dem goles
Zingarella my darling, my sweetness,
For you I am here in prison
Without love, without pity
You made my exile so much longer
If this is all a little too macho for you, my friend Miryem-Khaye Seigel”Libé Bahaltene(Hidden Love) brings us back to a woman’s point of view. Seigel sings about a woman for whom a hidden love burns inside.
Di bahaltene libe vos zi tut in mir brenen
Di bahaltene libe vos a mentsh kon derkenen
Ikh veys az dos iz dare
Nu, bin ikh a farbrekher
An az men is shoyn khazer
Shrayt azh fun di dekher
The hidden love she ignited in me
The hidden love that everyone can recognize
I know it’s forbidden
Naked, I’m a criminal
And if I eat khazer (pork)
So shout it from the rooftops!
We have so many love songs, and so few happy endings. (See Dropkin, above.) So I’ll leave you with an image that at least hints at happily ever after. Once upon a time there was a girl sitting on top of an oven, embroidering a white dress. Tumba tumba tum ba-ba. A boy arrives and shoots the girl’s son. Tumba tumba tum ba-ba. The girl says, for this I will make you pay, I will make you stay. Tumba tumba tum ba-ba.
(From a nice rhyming translation I found here)
I won’t let you out of here!
I won’t tie you here with a rope,
But within reach of my white hand.
I will kiss you tenderly,
And you will stay here with me.
Tumba tumba tum ba-ba.
ALSO: Shenson Rewind: A Retrospective Film Series will host film critic Kenneth Turan in a conversation about Brussels Transit (1980), “the only New Wave-inspired Yiddish art film”. February 22. Register here… Live, in person, big band klezmer is back! Frank London and the Klezmer Brass All Stars with Eleanor Reissa will heat up the stage at the Mandell JCC in Hartford, Connecticut on February 26. Tickets here… The Yiddish Philharmonic Chorus presents the Yiddish Song Workshop & Sing-Along: Purim Edition. “Learn to sing a dozen Purim songs in Yiddish in one free 90-minute session. February 27, 7 p.m. Register here… The International Association of Yiddish Clubs will hold the 17th edition of its conference, now entirely online. The conference will be convened in honor and in memory of a beloved colleague and friend Shura Vaisman z”l, an accomplished scientist and a pioneering figure in Yiddish animated films and early Yiddish websites (and mother of my beloved colleague Asya Vaisman Schulman). February 27, all day. Tickets here… Klezmer on the moors? It seems incredible, as long as the moon is not full. Join Kleznorth on Ilkley Moor, Yorkshire, UK, from March 6 and June 10-12.