Rubin, leading authority on Jewish folksong recorded, collected
and edited Yiddish songs of the 19th century, which were brought
to the United States from Eastern Europe during this century. Many
of these songs were secular songs, sung by men and women who emigrated
from the villages, towns and cities in Russia, Poland, White Russia,
Galicia, Ukraine and Bessarabia. These songs
included children's rhymes and songs, lullabies, love songs and
ballads, work and struggle songs, Hasidic tunes, topical songs,
streets songs and dances, songs of marriage
reflected the impoverished, oppressive yet sometimes joyous life
of the Jews in the "old country."
essay discusses the songs of the underworld, written by thieves
in various states of penitence.
two large cities of Warsaw and Odessa "boasted" of a strong
Jewish underworld which lived by its own laws, and the songs in this category
are varied and vivid, revealing the sentiments of the criminal world in
the Pale (area of Czarist Russia where Jews were permitted to live). In
many ways, these songs are similar to those of the non-Jewish world on
themes that dealt with the life and pursuits of housebreakers, pickpockets,
hijackers, counterfeiters, extortionists, gangsters, pimps and even murders.
These are genuine folk songs, products of anonymous singers, actual persons
who daily evaded the police, faced the hostility of the respectable community,
quarreled and brawled among themselves, experienced the dangers and pleasures
of their "chosen profession." Children born into this environment
became hardened criminals. Others who slipped into it, at times cherished
fond memories of a once secure home, loving parents, and a life regulated
by the spiritual atmosphere of the Jewish Sabbath, the festivals anholidays,
the year-round customs and traditional Jewish way of life. The singer
regrets the day on which economic reverses started him on his life of
a convicted counterfeiter, recalls his childhood and resorts to a bit
of philosophical contemplation:song
Jewish underworld in the large cities boasted its own leaders and henchmen,
made its own laws, and enforced them mercilessly. On the one hand, there
was fanatic devotion to each other as they faced the hostile, respectable
world about, whose laws they were flagrantly defying. On the other hand,
they were victims of their own cruelties by which one "fingered"
another, "squealed" to the police, "sold out" the
confidences of a mate, stole another's sweetheart, brutalized the "loose"
women in their employ, brawled violently to the death. Their world included
the raucous atmosphere of the beer hall, the wild lascivious dancing of
their own dance hall, the "pleasure" of gluttony when they had
the money to spend, the recklessness, humor, "needling" of one
another, sadness of unfilled love, and the moments of deep despair and
hopelessness when they were caught and jailed.
"professions" were varied, with some of them socialized: there
were those that "covered" travelers' luggage in transit on trains;
other who hijacked boxes and crates of merchandise from moving vehicles;
those who broke into unlocked houses, which called for the speediest kind
of operation; and those who entered second-story homes and were adept
at jumping from upper-story windows if necessary. There were pickpockets
who worked as a team, with one distracting the selected the selected victim
while the other "did the job." There were safecrackers and "diamond"
window-cutters, who covered jewelry establishments. The following song
describes, with tongue in cheek, some of the above trades. song
soon..... RealAudio recording of the tune: "I
lie behind bars."
Ruth Rubin, Voices of a People: The Story of Yiddish Folksong (Philadelphia,
PA: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979), Copyright © 1979
by the author, pp. 319-328. Used by permission of publisher.