How I Was A Yiddish Singer

The mid-1970’s, when 7-year-old me was roaming the mean streets of Odessa, was a great time to live there. Odessa’s Jewish population somewhat recovered from the devastation of the World War II and the pogroms and devastations before that and, while the Soviet Government had a firm grip on the emigration spigot, prospered as much as was allowed. Jewish actors, teachers, musicians, artists, restaurant singers, underground business owners, doctors, tailors, professors – Odessa’s Jewish population was having another one of its golden ages. Maybe I should say “Odessa’s adult Jewish population” because many kids like me didn’t know we were Jewish.

Recently I ran across a website where Jews of my generation were describing how they discovered that they belonged to the Tribe. Not one of them found out from their parents. It was always a neighbor or neighbor’s kids, some lady at the store, an angry classmate, an opponent in a fistfight, someone throwing an insult or a backhanded compliment; Jewish kids were last to know about the most important thing in their lives. And then I understood why we don’t always see eye-to-eye with the American Jews, the ones carried to a Rabbi on the 7th day to have parts of them snipped, and taught how to participate in the great world Jewish conspiracy from their early days. Unlike them, we made it to adulthood intact, without ever seeing a Rabbi or even knowing the word Rabbi, or anything about being Jewish or the conspiracy we were born to participate in. While they were able to proudly announce their Jewishness in more languages than one, our nationality was conveyed in a series of winks and tongue-clicks with an understanding look and a sad face.

Around that time every resident of Odessa worth his eggplant caviar recipe had to have an underground recording of so-called Odessa songs. These were the songs usually performed in restaurants or weddings, sometimes funny, sometimes stupid, but always entertaining and good for dancing. Some of those included faux Yiddish lyrics and even when the original Yiddish had some meaning they were copied from musician to musician so many times that they lost all or most of it in the process. My household of course had a tape like this and I played it enough times to remember all the words in Russian and Yiddish. Except I didn’t know it was Yiddish, just like I had no idea I was a Jew and many other things a 7-year old not supposed to know. I also didn’t know I couldn’t sing.

I am at the center with my usual facial expression. Girl whose father was a part of the panel of celebrity judges is on the left wearing glasses. Odessa, 1976

That didn’t prevent me from volunteering to perform in a school concert. The casting committee consisted of my first grade teacher with the last name Rosenberg* and the father of my classmate with the last name Schneider*. I went on to perform a hit “Rahilya, May You Croak, I Like You”.

It went something like this:

Rahilya, may you croak, I like you.
I can’t live without you, Rahilya!
Rahilya, we’ll get married, you’ll plump up
And we will live on the beach together.

And then the Yiddish part started. I dutifully repeated every word with an exceptionally joyful intonation, perfect projection and a smile on my face. At that moment I was Pesachke Burtstein reincarnated if I only knew who he was.

Afn boydem bakt zikh knishes,
They are making knishes in the attic

Funem tukhes shit zikh mel.
And flour is pouring out of the ass

Az der tote trent di mome,
When Papa is banging Mama

Kinder makhn zikh aleyn.
Kids are playing alone.

Rahilya, you are beautiful like Venus,
But you will grow a large belly
And if not, let the cholera take me
But let it take you first!

Rahilya, we will go to Yessen-tukhes**,
Where sun comes up between the blue mountains,
And if not, kish mir in tukhes***
But my patience has run out.

Tears filled my teacher’s eyes and streamed down her face. My classmate’s father, a gentlemen in what then seemed like his 70’s but probably in his 40’s, was shaking and crying like a baby. We didn’t have Kleenex then so they wiped their faces with newspapers and rags. I finished with an especially well-done kinder makhn zikh aleyn and triumphantly looked over my teary-eyed audience of two.

This is the original song I was performing that day from the infamous tape.

My parents were friends with my teacher, so she just called them that night and asked them to try and contain my singing talents at home.

My Mom still reminds me about this every once in a while.

I never found out why I wasn’t featured in the school concert.

I still remember the words to this and other songs from that tape but nowadays my only audience is the shower curtain.

I don’t remember how I found out I was Jewish but I don’t think it was from my parents.

And that’s how I was a Yiddish singer.

*Unmistakably Jewish names
**Play on word combination Yessentuki, a famous Soviet resort, and a Yiddish word tukhes (ass).
***Kiss my ass (yeah, I know lots of ass-words in this song)

Big thanks to my friend Yelena S. for her Yiddish expertise in preparation of this post.

  • Will Notb

    Pretty sure that’s exactly how Shelley Berman got his start.

    • We might’ve started the same, but my comedy and singing career ended right there so only one of us made it.

  • Donna W

    I assume you are telling this story with tongue in cheek… right? Please tell me you knew you were Jewish!!!!

    • No I really didn’t, and if I did I didn’t know what it meant. Many things I understood and put together years later, but my parents didn’t talk to me about that until the teenage years and even then not that much.