Interview

“Nothing’s of use to me, except this little song”: Norbert Hirschhorn Reimagines Yiddish Song

Saul Noam Zaritt

Norbert Hirschhorn is a writer, poet, physician, scientist, inventor, and now Yiddish translator who recently published a unique volume of poetry, entitled To Sing Away the Darkest Days: Poems Re-imagined from Yiddish Folk Songs. The book is split into two parts: the first is a series of poems by Hirschhorn that adapt and rework Yiddish folksongs, turning them alternately into personal confessions, political statements, and playful soundscapes; the second part of the book presents the folk songs in the original transliterated Yiddish accompanied by a literal translation. In geveb editor Saul Zaritt sat down with Hirschhorn for a conversation about the process of discovery behind the book. We include below two samples of both Hirschhorn’s poetry and the original source material.

SNZ: You just spent five years researching the history of thousands of Yiddish songs, adapting, and translating them. What drew you to Yiddish folksongs? What were some of the unexpected discoveries and unexpected challenges of the project?

NH: My parents grew up in Vienna, and while Yiddish was spoken at home, their primary language became German. Then as refugees in England, they had to give up German as well. Thus, growing up, I had only smatterings of both. I had classical Hebrew from attending Yeshiva, but mainly to read, less to understand. One day, some dozen years ago, a melody began to play ceaselessly in my ear—“Oyfn pripetshik,” by Mark Warshawsky. What did that mean? It must have been ingrained somewhere in childhood. When I looked up a standard English translation of the song, the poet in me said, “I can do this better.” One song led to another! I accumulated all the standard and hard-to-find text collections; listened to songs on the Internet; taught myself to read Yiddish; and with Weinreich as my guide, came up to a grade-school understanding. More important, however, was that I absorbed the melodies, helped along by my sister Linda Hirschhorn, singer-songwriter and cantor. In particular I was drawn to the way the lilt of the melody matched the sounds of the words—something very fine, and difficult, to achieve in poetry.

SNZ: The first half of the book includes these reimaginings of various folk songs: a wedding dance turns into a personal reflection on love, workers’ songs become contemporary political statements, a family scene is opened up to your own memories, and most often the Yiddish idiom gives way to contemporary English. What guided you through these transformations?

NH: From the start, I wasn’t doing translations, but tuning my ear and imagination into good poems in English. After reading, scanning, and listening to some one thousand songs (it seems so), about three dozen found their way into my writing. Most came along quickly, some I had to work on over the years. It was the poet in me, not the Yiddishist (which I’m not).

SNZ: Why do you feel that Yiddish song is so relevant today? What can these songs do on a personal and collective level?

NH: The return to Yiddish as a musical and literary culture isn’t merely sentimental. First, it is about Jewish history, specifically Ashkenazi Jewish history. It is about the survival of remnants of a language many thought had died. Frankly speaking, it is also a push against the hegemony of Israeli Hebrew when so many other diasporic languages—Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Bukharan, among others—each imprint in their expression the collective three thousand year history of a people who refuse annihilation. I make a political statement for the collective. For me personally, it is rescuing my own family history.

SNZ: How did you balance the collective voice of the folk song with the search for a personal poetic confession?

NH: All good poetry is about the poet, and reflects what humans most care about. As the rallying cry of the 1960s had it, the personal is the political—how we live within our social and family structures, how we try to heal ourselves and others. Today, it isn’t Yiddish under threat, but the whole concept of tikkun olam.

SNZ: The second half of the book includes the sources for your reimaginings: a selection of original Yiddish folk songs in transliteration accompanied by literal translations. Why did you feel it necessary to include the originals? What can be gained from seeing the various versions of the text at the same time?

NH: The scientist and scholar in me had to provide the originals (as transliterated) to show how my poems came close to, diverted from, or subverted the original. Documenting the sources and history of the songs’ compositions was also a way to encourage their continued presence in contemporary culture.

SNZ: Your reimaginings of Yiddish folk songs can be seen as part of a larger trend in which Yiddish song is finding new contexts and new venues. I’m thinking of the work of Daniel Kahn, Litvakus, and others; the Yiddish New York festival and the importance of klezmer in Germany and Poland. How do you see this book fitting in with these new homes for Yiddish?

NH: “New homes for Yiddish,” what a wonderful idea! My wife and I spent a year in Finland and we listened to klezmer as interpreted by a Finnish rock group. The spread of Yiddish song and its themes guarantees that Yiddish will not remain a hermetic language spoken only by elderly survivors or in Haredi communities, but a vibrant culture identified as universally Jewish, as Jews have always been universal. I’m happy if my book contributes even an omer.

Ten Brothers

By Norbert Hirschhorn

Ten brothers jobbing kosher wine, one kicked the bucket,
then there were nine.
Nine brothers hauling iron freight, one of us run over,
that made eight.
Eight brothers running a tavern, one dead drunk,
and so there were seven.
Seven brothers into politics, one shot dead,
bang! suddenly but six.

Lenin mitn fiddle, Trotsky mitn bass,
sing a little ditty for the working class.

Six brothers, Yiddish-y jive, one shoved off to Belsen,
the remnant was five.
Five brothers peddling shmattas door to door, one got mugged,
leaving only four.
Four brothers stepped out to pee, one struck by lightning,
now we were three.
Three brothers, déjà vu, one bought the farm,
down to just two.

Lenin mitn fiddle, Trotsky mitn bass,
sing a little ditty for the working class.

Two brothers—engraving names in headstones—
and when you died, there was me, alone.

Lenin mitn fiddle, Trotsky mitn bass,
sing a little ditty for the working class.

Andre Heller, “Tsen Brider” (Ten Brothers)

צען ברידער

צען ברידער זענען מיר געוועזן
האָבן מיר געהאַנדלט מיט ווײַן.
איינער פֿון אונדז איז געשטאָרבן,
זענען מיר געבליבן נײַן.
נײַן ברידער זענען מיר געוועזן,
האָבן מיר געהאַנדלט מיט פֿראַכט.
איינער איז געשטאָרבן
זענען מיר געבליבן אַכט.

ייִדל מיטן פֿידל, גדליה מיטן באַס,
שפּילט־זשע מיר אַ לידל אויפֿן מיטן גאַס. 1 1 An alternate for this line is “Lenin mitn fidl, Trotsky mitn bas / zingen zey a lidl / za rabokhi klas”—Lenin with his fiddle, Trotsky with his bass / they sing a song / for the working class.

אַכט ברידער זענען מיר געוועזן
האָבן מיר געהאַנדלט מיט ריבן,
איינער פֿון אונדז איז געשטאָרבן,
זענען מיר געבליבן זיבן.
זיבן ברידער זענען מיר געוועזן
האָבן מיר געהאַנדלט מיט געבעקס,
איינער איז געשטאָרבן
זענען מיר געבליבן זעקס.

ייִדל מיטן פֿידל . . .

זעקס ברידער זענען מיר געוועזן
האָבן מיר געהאַנדלט מיט שטרימפּ,
איינער פֿון אונדז איז געשטאָרבן,
זענען מיר געבליבן פֿינף.
פֿינף ברידער זענען מיר געוועזן
האָבן מיר געהאַנדלט מיט ביר,
איינער איז געשטאָרבן
זענען מיר געבליבן פֿיר.

ייִדל מיטן פֿידל . . .

פֿיר ברידער זענען מיר געוועזן
האָבן מיר געהאַנדלט מיט בלײַ,
איינער פֿון אונדז איז געשטאָרבן,
זענען מיר געבליבן דרײַ.
דרײַ ברידער זענען מיר געוועזן
האָבן מיר געהאַנדלט מיט טיי,
איינער פֿון אונדז איז געשטאָרבן,
זענען מיר געבליבן צוויי.

ייִדל מיטן פֿידל . . .

צוויי ברידער זענען מיר געוועזן
האָבן מיר געהאַנדלט מיט ביינער,
איינער פֿון אונדז איז געשטאָרבן,
זענען מיר געבליבן איינער.
איין ברודער בין איך מיר געבליבן
האַנדל איך מיט ליכט.
שטאַרבן טו איך יעדן טאָג
ווײַל צו עסן האָב איך נישט.

ייִדל מיטן פֿידל . . .

Ten Brothers

We were ten brothers,
We dealt in wine.
One of us died,
Nine of us remained.
We were nine brothers,
We dealt in freight.
One of us died,
Eight of us remained.

Yidl with your fiddle, Gedalye with your bass,
Play a little tune in the middle of the street. 1 1 An alternate for this line is “Lenin mitn fidl, Trotsky mitn bas / zingen zey a lidl / za rabokhi klas”—Lenin with his fiddle, Trotsky with his bass / they sing a song / for the working class.

We were eight brothers,
We dealt in turnips.
One of us died,
Seven of us remained.
We were seven brothers,
We dealt in baked goods.
One of us died,
Six of us remained.

Yidl with your fiddle …

We were six brothers,
We dealt in hose.
One of us died,
Five of us remained.
We were five brothers,
We dealt in beer.
One of us died,
Four of us remained.

Yidl with your fiddle …

We were four brothers,
We dealt in lead.
One of us died,
Three of us remained.
We were three brothers,
We dealt in tea.
One of us died,
Two of us remained.

Yidl with your fiddle …

We were two brothers,
We dealt in bones.
One of us died,
I am left alone.
I remain the only brother
I deal in candles.
I die every day
Because I have nothing to eat.

Yidl with your fiddle …

A Tailor’s Song

By Norbert Hirschhorn

I had a woolen coat, a hand-me-down from papa.
Already worn, torn and patched, it let in winter air,

so what was the use? I made it into a jacket but soon
the threads unraveled—worn, torn, so what was the use?

I tried it as a vest—but without buttons, all wrong.
The vest became a bag but my keys kept falling through,

so what was the use? I tore it into rags to polish silver,
and when they got too black, it was time to give up the coat.

Now nothing’s of use to me, except this little song.

Leah Koenig, “Hob ikh mir a mantl” (I Have a Coat)

האָב איך מיר אַ מאַנטל

האָב איך מיר אַ מאַנטל פֿון פֿאַרצײַטיקן טוך
טראַ־לאַ־לאַ־לאַ, לאַ־לאַ־לאַ־לאַ, לאַ, לאַ, לאַ
איז אין אים נישטאָ קיין גאַנצענער דוך
טראַ־לאַ־לאַ־לאַ . . .
דאַרום האָב איך זיך באַטראַכט
און פֿון דעם מאַנטל אַ רעקל געמאַכט.
טראַ־לאַ־לאַ־לאַ . . .
און פֿון דעם מאַנטל אַ רעקן געמאַכט.

האָב איך מיר אַ רעקל פֿון פֿאַרצײַטיקן טוך,
טראַ־לאַ־לאַ־לאַ . . .
איז אין אים נישטאָ קיין גאַנצער דוך
טראַ־לאַ־לאַ־לאַ . . .
דאַרום האָב איך זיך באַטראַכט
טראַ־לאַ־לאַ־לאַ . . .
און פֿון דעם רעקל אַ וועסטל געמאַכט
טראַ־לאַ־לאַ־לאַ . . .
און פֿון דעם רעקל אַ וועסטל געמאַכט.

[און אזוי ווײַטער מיט: היטל, קעשענע, הענגער,שניפּסל, לידל . . .]

I Have a Coat

I have a coat made of ancient cloth
Tra-la-la-la, la-la-la-la, la, la, la
Without a whole piece of material.
Tra-la-la-la …
So I reflected what to do
Tra-la-la-la …
And made the coat into a jacket.
Tra-la-la-la …
And made the coat into a jacket.

I have a jacket made of ancient cloth
Tra-la-la-la …
Without a whole piece of material.
Tra-la-la-la …
So I reflected what to do
Tra-la-la-la …
And made the jacket into a vest
Tra-la-la-la …
And made the jacket into a vest

[and so on with hat, pocket, bowtie, a little song …]

Poems and translations reprinted with permission of the author. Visit the publisher’s website to inquire how to obtain a copy of the book, which includes many more poems and translations.

MLA STYLE
Zaritt, Saul Noam. ““Nothing’s of use to me, except this little song”: Norbert Hirschhorn Reimagines Yiddish Song.” In geveb, April 2016: https://ingeveb.org/blog/nothings-of-use-to-me-except-this-little-song-norbert-hirschhorn-reimagines-yiddish-song.
CHICAGO STYLE
Zaritt, Saul Noam. ““Nothing’s of use to me, except this little song”: Norbert Hirschhorn Reimagines Yiddish Song.” In geveb (April 2016): Accessed Mar 26, 2017.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Saul Noam Zaritt

Saul Noam Zaritt is an assistant professor of Yiddish Literature at Harvard University. He is currently a senior editor at In geveb and one of the site's founding editors.