Songs of the E. European Jewish Undergroundsack

Ruth 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 — which 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."

This essay discusses the songs of the underworld, written by thieves in various states of penitence.


The Underworld

sackThe 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 crime. song 1
Another criminal, a convicted counterfeiter, recalls his childhood and resorts to a bit of philosophical contemplation:sacksong 2
The 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.

Their "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 3

Part 2

      Coming soon..... RealAudio recording of the tune: "I lie behind bars."

From: 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.



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