One Sunday morning about a decade ago, I was surfing the Internet when I landed on jewishmusic.com, a site I never had visited previously. On that site, there were numerous recordings of Yiddish songs available to listen to for free. After checking out the titles of all the songs I could listen to, I randomly chose to play “Mein Shtetele Belz”, a Yiddish composition recorded in 1928 with orchestral accompaniment by vocalist, Seymour Rechtzeit.
As the song began, I was more than pleased with my selection; it possessed a hauntingly pleasing melody and tender, poignant lyrics. In the course of the recording, the singer, as narrator, fondly recalled his happy childhood growing up in the small town of Belz, Poland. Lulled into a relaxed state by the soothing quality of the music, I leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes and listened appreciatively to the remainder of the musical performance.
As the recording ended, there was a momentary pause and then my memory transported me back in time to a period when I was about 10 years of age. I was born in 1932, so the year must have been around 1942. When the flashback began, mom and dad, both Polish immigrants, and I, Canadian born, just had finished breakfast and were still in the kitchen. Mom was standing by the sink doing the dishes. Dad and I were still seated at the kitchen table. Dad was multitasking, reading Der Yidisher Zhurnal (or The Daily Hebrew Journal), at that time the principal newspaper for the Yiddish-speaking Jews in Toronto, while listening to the Harry Harris Jewish Hour broadcast from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Sunday on the radio broadcast on Hamilton Ont.’s CHML.
I was concentrating intently on the colour comics section of the Star Weekly magazine, not paying any attention whatsoever to the program. Suddenly, dad burst out crying. The anguished look upon his face was quite distressing to me because never before had I seen my dad so distraught. Between sobs, speaking in Yiddish, he explained that, as he was listening to an old, familiar Yiddish song on the radio, he began to reminisce about the happy times he had spent with his friends and relatives back in Iwaniska (Ivansk in Yiddish), a small village in south-central Poland.
Then, he continued, his pleasant daydreams had been interrupted by the grim realization that, at that time, the fragile fate of those friends and relatives rested in the hands of the ruthless soldiers of Adolf Hitler’s military force that had invaded and occupied their homeland. Subsequently, as dad’s sobbing quieted down, over the radio I could hear the rich tenor voice of Seymour Rechtzeit tenderly vocalizing the lyrics of the final refrain followed by the last verse of his arrangement of “Mein Shtetele Belz. “As the music faded away, so did the last remaining vestige of my wartime memories. I snapped out of my daze and returned to reality.
Both my dad and I had responded in a similar manner to the same musical cue. The Yiddish song, “Mein Shtetele Belz”, had prompted my dad to recall happy times shared with friends and relatives in Ivansk before being traumatized by depressing thoughts of their possible demise and had prompted me to recall how upset I was to have witnessed his emotional breakdown. Having experienced the ability of a nostalgic Yiddish song to stir my memory to such an extent as to retrieve a relatively obscure, but emotionally charged, personal recollection, had a profound effect on me.
That incident marked the beginning of my fascination, admiration and affection for Yiddish songs. Since then, I have used the Internet to seek out and record every Yiddish song that I could find and that, in my estimation, deserved inclusion in my private collection of choice Yiddish songs.
To date, I have downloaded more than 5,000 such songs and burnt copies of those songs onto over 200 cds. Furthermore, specialized software has enabled me to restore older recordings and to optimize the sound quality of others. As a consequence of listening to and being inspired by Rechtzeit’s touching rendition of “Mein Shtetele Belz,” I have accumulated an extensive library of Yiddish songs and, to this day, I still am continuing to discover the pleasures of Yiddish songs.
For those interested in discovering the pleasures of Yiddish songs, the following is a small sampling of some classic Yiddish songs available for free play on YouTube:
1. (a) Mein Shtetele Belz (My Small Town Belz): vocal in Yiddish by Seymour Rechtzeit
(b) Mein Shtetele Belz (My Small Town Belz): vocal in English & in Yiddish by Neil Sedaka
2. My Yiddishe Momme (My Jewish Mother): vocal in English & in Yiddish by Sophie Tucker
3. Tumbalalaika: vocal in Yiddish & in English by Neil Sedaka
4. Ich Hob Dich Tzifeel Lieb (I Love You Too Much): vocal in Yiddish & in English by The Barry Sisters
5. Mazzel (Luck): vocal in English & in Yiddish by Leo Fuld
6. Mom-E-Le (Mother Dear): vocal in English & in Yiddish by Connie Francis
7. Vi Ahin Zol Ich Geyn? (Where Can I Go?): vocal in English and in Yiddish by Steve Lawrence
8. Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen (Almonds And Raisins): vocal in Yiddish & in English by Dina Claire
9. A Brivella Der Mama (A Letter To My Mother): vocal in English & In Yiddish By Leo Fuld
10. Channa From Havana (Hannah From Havana): vocal in English & in Yiddish by The Barry Sisters
Note that when these songs were initially posted to YouTube, some words in their transliterated Yiddish titles were misspelled and never corrected. Therefore, for all, including those familiar with the proper rules for transliterating Yiddish to English, please use the original Yiddish song titles provided, that is, those containing spelling errors, for quick and easy access to their recordings on YouTube.