One of the most popular Yiddish songs, regarded by many as a "true folk song" is Der alef-beyz (The Aleph Bet, or The ABC), or, as it is commonly known Oyfn pripetshok (On the Hearth). Here is the story behind this wonderful song. But first the words:


On the hearth a little fire is burning,
And it is hot in the house,
And the rebbe is teaching the little children.
The Aleph Bet.

Study, children, with great interest,
That is what I tell you;
He who'll know his lessons first,
Will get a banner for a prize. (Refrain)

When you get older, children,
You will understand that this alphabet
Contains the tears and the weeping
of our people.

When you grow weary, children
And burdened with exile,
You will find comfort and strength
within this Jewish alphabet. (Refrain)

See now children, remember dear ones,
What you've learned here;
repeat it again and again
Aleph with kametz is "o"!



Oyfen Pripetshok   [RealAudio]

An historical recording of Raasche (U.S., early 20th cent.) singing Oyfen Pripetshok. The recording is courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways. From "Jewish Folk Songs of Europe­­Raasche" (FW8712); Oyfen Pripetshok, track 5; originally issued in 1960.

Mark Warshawsky (1840-1907) was not a professional poet, composer or performer. His songs, however, came to be sung along with the oldest Yiddish folk songs in Eastern Europe and wherever Yiddish-speaking Jews resided. He authored some fifty texts and tunes. Even before they were published, more than twenty of these songs became household songs in many Jewish homes in the Pale of Settlement (the territory within the borders of czarist Russia where the residence of Jews was legally authorized), and it became officially known that Warshawsky was their creator.

Mark Warshawsky's songs mirror his unbounding love for his oppressed, poverty-stricken people under Czarism of the 1880s and 1890s. Simple, direct, musically familiar to the folk ear, retaining the folk idiom, his songs deal with the period of disillusionment and suffering wrought by the pogroms, the migrations to America, the yearning for Zion, the daily concerns of the average Jew in the Pale. (See also alphabet songs about poverty in the Pale.)

The success of Warshawky's songs were immediate, especially after they were published in 1899 with an introduction of Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem; both men became associated as traveling performers, with Sholem Aleichem reading his stories and Warshawsky singing his songs before Jewish audiences. The most popular of all of Warshawsky's songs, regarded by most people as a "true" folk-song, is Der alef-beyz (The ABC) or, as it is commonly known Oyfen Pripetshok (On the hearth). Warshawsky was the last folk bard of the nineteenth century, bridging the gap between the songs in folk style and the Yiddish art songs of the twentieth century.

The melody from Warshawky's song was later used as a theme in the film based on the life of George Gershwin. During the Nazi Holocaust it was used as a ghetto song: "At the ghetto wall a fire burns, the surveillance is keen." And in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, it became a theme song sung clandestinely by Jewish activists; the closing words were reworded thus: "Even should they beat you or throw you on the pyre, repeat kometz-aleph-o."

From: Voices of a People: The Story of Yiddish Folksong, by Ruth Rubin. Jewish Publication Society, 1979.

Folkways Records was found in 1948 by Moses Asch who sought to document the entire world of sound. The 2,168 titles Asch released on Folkways include tradition and contemporary music from around the world, spoken word recordings and documentary recordings of individuals, communities and events. Folkways was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1987. The entire Folkways catalogue, which includes more than 50 recordings related to the Jewish Heritage, is still available. All recordings include extensive liner notes. For more information: [back]


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