All week I’ve been haunted –possessed, really– by an eighty-year-old song I can’t put out of my mind. Since our youngest child, eighteen-year-old Danny, left home for his first year of post-high school study in Israel, I’ve been going back constantly, and tenderly, to “Three Daughters” (Dray Tekhterlakh in the original Yiddish)—a yearning, delicately mournful musical narrative about a father giving away each of his girls in marriage. The lyrics and music start on a sweet, celebratory note:
When with luck, good health and life
We marry off the eldest daughter
How I’ll dance, Hop! Hop! Hop!
It will be a weight off my head,
Oh, will I dance!
Play, musicians! Play it lively!
The first daughter today we’ve given away
And two girls still remain…
Let the whole world rejoice with us
Our joy can be known only by God
And those who have daughters!
After a nostalgic instrumental interlude, the father-singer describes the next wedding:
When I get to see my second daughter
Wearing her white wedding dress
How I’ll drink and rejoice….
Play musicians! Saw away!...
We still have the little one left
And what’s going to happen with her?
The final verse is usually performed in a hush, at a slightly slower tempo:
When I hear the music playing for the last one
I will stand aside, a little sadly, thinking
My last daughter has also gone!
What is there left for me now?
Play musicians! Honor the bride!
All our children have now been taken.
How hard it was to have three girls!
But how much harder without them!
Play musicians! Draw our tears!
Tonight the last little bed is empty
The whole house was full of her clothes,
Bur now, oh no, so empty and sad!
No translation, of course, can convey the impact of the gorgeously evocative Yiddish, with language that is simple, heart-felt, earthy, unforgettable. The music and lyrics were both written by Mordechai Gebirtig (1877-1942), a carpenter who lived his whole life in Cracow, Poland, and who wrote his hundreds of poems and songs for his own three cherished daughters. His music won appreciative audiences in Jewish communities around the world, especially in the last decade before his brutal death in the mass slaughter of the Holocaust.