alphabet songs in the kheder
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."
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
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):
an eagle [odler] flying under the
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?
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.
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
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:
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]
Voices of a People: The Story of Yiddish Folksong,
by Ruth Rubin. Jewish Publication Society, 1979.