Researching Yiddish penny songs (tenement song broadsides of theater and variety show songs, 1895-1925)
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Sunday, February 7, 2016

Dos Bintel Brief - Yiddish song about the Forverts advice column

This is a great picture of Abraham Cahan, long-time editor of the Yiddish Forverts, inventor of the fabulously successful advice column A bintel brief (A bundle of letters). He was the "Worthy Editor" addressed by many desperate Jewish New Yorkers; for decades he dispensed a lot of advice. Read more about A bintl briv here and here.

The troubled readers and Cahan's advice to them: that's what this song is about. I was happy to find it on eBay sung by Morris Goldstein, a popular Yiddish recording artist at the beginning of the twentieth century (no bio or pictures available online).

Goldstein omits the second verse but otherwise sticks pretty closely to the lyric printed on the broadside included in the American Yiddish Penny Songs collection. So I've put his rendition on Youtube, click here to listen:

In the first verse I mistranslated this couplet:
Khotsh mayn vayb iz shoyn a gele un ir shvester iz nokh grin
Dokh hob ikh lib ir shvester un ikh veyst nit vos tsu tun.
Grin of course is "green", meaning the sister has come newly to America. But gele, which these days means "red-headed", evidently meant, back then, somebody who'd been in America for a while already. Interesting! Thanks to Rukhl Schaechter and Boris Sandler for pointing it out. They published an article about the song here: ליד וועגן „דאָס בינטעל בריעף‟ — אויף דער אינטערנעץ.

In the third verse (second in Goldstein's recording) there's a word I didn't know, it looks like odomne. I asked a lot of folks about it.
Sheva Zucker wrote:
Maybe it should be dame דאַמע or maybe he is forming a word based on אדם adam/man and feminizing it because he seems to be speaking about the roles for male and female.
Larry Feinberg wrote:
I take that word to be oremne, which would be a non-standard feminine counterpart to oreman 'poor man'. (The Comprehensive Yiddish-English dictionary gives only neuter (!) orem-mentsh in that meaning.) I don't know the fuller context, but I suppose di purim oremne refers to the custom of giving gifts to the poor on Purim.
Rukhl Schaechter wrote:
Boris [Sandler, editor of the Forverts) and I both believe the word is simply דאַמע, pronounced in a Yiddishized fashion. Yiddish speakers often "inserted" the sound of "nun" when Yiddishizing a word; like Yakov which became Yankef and Maase which became maynse.
The other thing that had perplexed me: the connection between Shulamis and the washtub. I was reminded by Shalom Goldman that one of Abraham Goldfaden's early operettas was about Shulamith, daughter of a tribal leader, and that she fell into a well while picturesquely wandering.
He plays Shulamis with me, he calls me darling dear,
When he drags me out of the washtub I'm as wet as a cat.
Michael Ari Yashinsky wrote:
The Shulamis connection struck me instantly and gave me a chuckle. It's as if they're rehearsing Shulamis by splashing around in the bathtub pretending it is the climactic well--the vow by the well scene is a central moment in the opera. And the other thing by which the two protagonists swear their love? A cat! (Thus the song from Shulamis, "Der brunem un der kats.") So the image in "Dos Bintel Brief" is quite complete--also really shows us how well-loved Yiddish theatre was, that these specific allusions to a scene in an operetta would be recognized and appreciated by listeners!

Here are the verses and my translation:

Ver es lezt dem Forverts, der ken hobn a bagrif
Vifil gutes er hot ufgethon, zayt er drikt dos bintl brif.
Ir darft nit keyn teater, es iz emes vos ikh zog,
Komedies un tragedies treft ir nayes yedn tog
Ven ir efent uf dem Forverts, lezt ir dort:

"Mayn verter herr redaktor, ikh shrayb aykh yetst dem brif
Mit trern in di oygn, mit a vund in hertsn tif
Khotsh mayn vayb iz shoyn a gele un ir shvester iz nokh grin
Dokh hob ikh lib ir shvester un ikh veyst nit vos tsu tun.
Ikh shlof nit gantse nekht, ikh krikh af ale fir,
Nekhtn shpet bay nakht hob ikh erklert mayn libe ir,
Entfert mir, redaktor, pliz, zofort!"

In bintl brif, in bintl brif, shtel gor dos arayn:
"Es iz nisht keyn blof, shraybt dos uf, ikh vel aykh dankbar zayn."

"Verter herr redaktor," shraybt a froy a brif arayn,
"Ikh bin 14 yor farheyrat un mayn man iz tsu mir fayn,
Mir hobn tsvey kinder mit a border oykh in shtub,
Ikh hob mayn man nit faynt, nor dem border hob ikh lib,
Ikh bin nit aher un nit ahin
Mayn man iz a galitsianer, mayn border iz a rus
Un ven zey beyde krign zikh, hob ikh fil fardrus.
Der border hot lib 'tey', mayn man er hot lib 'tay'
Der border vil eyn 'hey', der man vil nor eyn 'hay'
Ikh gey um vi tsetumlt, es iz a klog tsu mayne yor,
Onshtot mayn man tsu gebn, gib ikh mayn border gor
Dos 'hay' vi oykh di 'tay' - vos zol ikh ton?

"Verter herr redactor, ikh bin a moyd fun fertsik yor.
Ikh hob shoyn fertsik mol opgeblitsht di hor.
Ikh hob geketsht a khosn vi es hot zikh mir geglust
Mit lange hor an ektor a regele tragedist
Ikh denk az ikh vel mit im gliklekh zayn.
Mikh makhn far eyn ekterke zogt er iz zayn farlang
Di skheynim muzn ufshteyn ven zey hern mayn gezang
Kh'vel zayn di purim adomne un er der intrigant
Er zogt az er iz shur ikh bin geshtopt fil mit talant
Er shpilt mit mir Shulamis, er ruft mikh daling shats
Ven er shlept mikh aroys fun vash top bin ikh nas azoy vi a kats
Nu, shtelt di mayse in bintel brif arayn

Whoever reads the Forverts has a notion of
how many good things it's done since it started printing the Bintel Brief
You don't need any theater, what I say is true,
You find new comedies and tragedies every day
When you open up the Forverts, you read there:

"My dear Mr. Editor, I write you this letter now
With tears in my eyes, with a deep wound in my heart.
Though my wife's been here a while and her sister's newly arrived in America,
Well, clearly I love her sister and I don't know what to do.
I'm sleepless every night, I crawl on all fours,
Late last night I declared my love to her,
Answer me soon, please, editor!"

In the Bintel Brief, in the Bintel Brief, that's where this is printed:
"This isn't a bluff! Print it, I'll be thankful to you."

Worthy Mr. Editor," a woman writes in her letter,
"I've been married 14 years and my husband pleases me.
We have two children at home - and also a boarder,
I don't hate my husband, but I love the boarder.
I'm distraught.
My husband's a Galitsianer, my boarder is a Russian
When they fight I'm very aggravated
The boarder loves "tea," my husband loves "tie,"
The border wants an "eyg," my husband wants an "Ayg."
I go around confused, it's driving me nuts,
Instead of giving an "ayg" and "tay" to my husband,
I give them to the boarder. What should I do?

"Worthy Mr. Editor, I'm a 40-year-old spinster,
I've already bleached my hair 40 times.
I've caught a bridegroom, the kind I wanted,
With long hair, an actor, a regular tragedian.
I think I'll be happy with him.
He says he wants to make me an actress
The neighbors stop dead when they hear me sing.
I'll be a Purim lady and he'll be the schemer
He says he's sure I'm stuffed full of talent
He plays Shulamis with me, he calls me darling dear,
When he drags me out of the washtub I'm as wet as a cat
So, put my story in the Bintel Brief.

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