Yiddish alphabet songs in the kheder (elementary school)

Jewish schooling in Poland and Lithuania during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a firmly established institution and one of top priority. The tender age at which little boys were brought to the kheder to begin their religious education and the pleasurable associations which surrounded the occasion is vividly described by a Polish novelist in his late 19th-century memoir:[*]

One morning, when I had turned three, my father wrapped me up in his prayer shawl...took me into his arms and carried me off to Rebe Meyer, the teacher in the kheder. The teacher... immediately started to teach me the Torah, pointing to the ABC's and chanting: "See now, little fellow, the first letter is an aleph...the second, which looks like a little hut with three walls, is a beys... After that is the giml.... The fourth letter, which looks like a little ax to chop wood, is a daled.... Repeat now: daled, little fellow, daled!" When we reached the tenth letter, yod, he told me to close my eyes. When O opened them.... raisins and almonds were strewn over the ABCs/ "The angel from Heaven has thrown these down to you for studying the torah," Rebbe Meyer said. "Eat."

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When the little boys had mastered the alphabet, the rebbe began to teach the little boys the Bible by rote, translating word for word from the Hebrew or Aramaic text into Yiddish, and the Yiddish translation, together with the Hebrew and Aramaic, would be studied all together, with a traditional tune. The children were taught the traditional chanting of the cantillations as well as Sabbath and other prayers, all of which had their traditional tunes.

Although the main creators of the secular songs of the children's world were the girls, many of these carried over into the boys' world as well... Imitating the rebbe in his instruction of the ABC's, the kheder boys composed many Yiddish alphabet songs, which they used as counting-out rhymes and in their own games. Some of this are very picturesque, given here in part (The Yiddish word is in parentheses):

Aleph an eagle [odler] flying under the sky,
Beys a pear tree [barnboym], blooming every summer,
Giml a priest [galech], kneeling to the idols,
Daled a doctor [dokter] prescribing something to make you perspire,
Hey a sky [himl], thundering and lightening every summer,
Vov a wine merchant [vayner], sitting on barrels of wine,
Zayin a soldier [zelner], shooting in war,
Khes a cantor [chazn] who weeps bitterly during his prayers,
Tes a river [taych] which rush and flows,
Yod a meat block [yatkeklots], where the meat is chopped up,
Kof a bride [kallah] we honor by baking her cakes,
Lamed liver [leber] that one roasts and bakes,
Mem a young girl [maidele] who primps and pretties herself,
Nun a nose [noz] that freezes in the winter,
Samekh an orchard [sod] in which you stroll all summer long,
Ayin a scorpion [ekdish] that bites your feet,
Peh a farmer [powher] whom the landowner beats,
Tsadik a tooth [tsohn] that the doctor pulls out,
Kof a mixing spoon [kochleyfel] that mixes everything in the pot,
Reysh a rabbi [rov] who knows all the laws,
Shin A young gentile boy [sheygeytz] who doesn't know about aleph,
Tov Father [tate] in heaven who is our God, when we will our exile be over?

Songs of poverty and struggle

The beginning of the nineteenth century in the Pale of Settlement was marked by famine in the countryside, mass expulsions from the villages, heavy taxation, and endless decrees prohibiting Jews from owning land and excluding them from basic industries and craft guilts. The absorption of the Polish provinces into the Russian Empire at the end of the eighteenth century found the Jewish people in the Czarist pale of Settlement in an almost medieval condition.

Poverty was rampant. The never-ending struggle with hunger, the constant search for a livelihood, together with the natural yearning for a better, more humane life in this world brought a number of poverty songs into circulation. These dealt with economic problems on the simplest level, often on the most personal terms. Some were grim and despondent, others were tinged with satire. Still others questioned the justice in this world which doomed so many righteous, God-fearing people to a life of constant hardship and suffering.

While all strata of the population felt the weight of the widespread economic degration, a very thin layer of wealthy merchants and top clerical leaders was exempt. The sharp tilt between the few rich and the many poor resulted in songs which pointed up the contrast between them. A number of these used the traditional acrostic form and the alphabet sequence to satirize the life of the rich as it compared with the miserable existence of the numberless poor. The following employs comparisons of food, clothing and other pleasures, and was sung to the traditional chant of akdomes:

Ayngemachts est der nogid (The rich man eats fruit preserves)

Aleph: The rich man eats fruit preserves [ayngemachts];
Beys: the poor man gnaws bones [beyndelekh].
Giml: The rich man eats geese [gendzelekh];
Daled: the poor man has poverty [dales].
Heh: Small chickens [hindelekh] eats the rich man;
Vov: the poor man has pain [veytikn].
Zayin: The rich man eats buttered rolls [zemelekh];
Khes: the poor man has sicknesses [kholasn].
Tes: The rich man eats roasted pigeons [taybelekh];
Yod: sorrows [yesurim] suffers the poor man.
Kof: The rich man wears rubbers [kaloshn];
Lamed: the poor man wears straw sandals [laptyes].
Mem: The rich man drinks whiskey [mashke];
Nun: the poor man is sober [nikhter].
Samekh: The rich man wears satin clothing [sametene];
Ayin: the poor man is in tatters [opgerisn].
Pey: The rich man eats fried chicken stomachs [pupkes];
Tsadik: sorrows [tsores] has the poor man.
Kof: The rich man eats veal chops [kotletn];
Reysh: radishes [retekh] eats the poor man.
Shin: The rich man smokes Shereshevski's [superior] cigars;
Tov: The poor man puffs at inferior [tutin] tobacco.

[*] Singer, I.J. Fun a velt vos iz nishto mer.
New York: Farlag New York, 1946. [back]
From Voices of a People: The Story of Yiddish Folksong, by Ruth Rubin. Jewish Publication Society, 1979.

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