sackSongs of the E. European Jewish Underground

Part 2

Obviously, the above singer became a crook out of choice, and he even "crows about it." The following example carries the process of selection still further, with the thief indicating his own preferences as against those of his brothers. song 4

The following example pictures a humorous scene in which an older criminal "breaks in" a new "recruit" "shows him the ropes" of the "profession," and defines certain terms of their vernacular in the trade: song 5

sackDeftness, speed, a skill bordering on slight of hand was demanded of a professional criminal, who was exposed to sudden detection and apprehension. "To be a thief, you have to be quick as a wink, and then everything goes off all right," one song says bluntly and adds: "If the cop stops you and tries to blow his whistle, just show him some money and buy him off." The following illustrates the work of a thief who broke into a jewelry establishment and was caught in the act: song 6

The songs that describe the hard life of the criminal applied only to the common thieves whose gains were small and whose risks were constant. The following is a sad commentary on the dangerous, miserable existence of the "small operator:" song 7

sackThe life of a criminal was hard, dangerous, insecure. The whole world seemed to be against him: the police, the community, at times his own cronies and his sweetheart. Occasionally, an anonymous singer expressed his regret that he had not chosen a more respectable trade or craft: "I envy the working man, even though he barely earns enough for his daily bread, / At least he lives as well as he can and is not tormented in jail." Some songs express sadness and helplessness of young people who left a poverty-stricken home and hard-working parents, only to be exposed to even more difficult conditions of insecurity and the persecution of the police. It is the rare song that speaks of theft and criminality as an uncontrollable vice: song 8

More often than not, however, the criminal assumed a gay, dashing, debonair, arrogant, daring and cruel manner during his moments of freedom, and a depressed, somber, pensive, helpless and desperate mood when confined in prison. When he was on "the loose," plying his trade recklessly and arrogantly in the very thick of the congested Jewish streets of Warsaw, one singer lilted: song 9

The following conversation song bellowed out in an Odessa hangout by members of a gang, over a bottle of whiskey, describes the night life of a "member of the profession:" song 10

The gay and reckless life, strong drink and women, fancy clothes and the swaggering strut appealed to newcomers: "With the gang, in restaurants… where we eat the best food; and whenever there's a little job to do, I know of it and do the best of business." A humorous song, which was current in many variants throughout the Pale, is the following song of thief boasting about his "profession," which he "inherited" from his "respectable" family: song 11

When the gang got together in their hangout, restaurant or dance hall, they might have roared out the following: song 12

But the day of reckoning was bound to come sooner or later and, for some, more than once. To be caught and jailed was a miserable experience for the culprit, who, one the one hand, lost face before his pals and, on the other, was pushed around, mistreated, fed slops in a dark cell, and forced into the rigors of hard labor and confinement behind high stone walls, barred windows. In prison, a criminal who often "fingered the other guy," soberly about his fate. song 13

Another recalls the good old times with the gang when he was free but realizes, now that he is in jail, that perhaps the life of a thief was not meant for him. song 14

Part 1

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

excerpted 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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