Obviously, I’m drawn to this old song because of our current situation at home: with the departure of our youngest, our suddenly roomy home also feels “empty and sad” (pust un bang) as Gebirtig writes. After 25 years of marriage, my wife and I are experiencing the typical Baby-Boomer transition from sheltering parents to empty nesters at loose ends. This common situation plays a powerful role in today’s pop culture, and helped make the marvelous film TOY STORY 3 a global smash, with Andy going away to college and leaving his suddenly irrelevant toys (and parents) behind him. Later this year, the critically acclaimed The Kids Are Alright featured Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a lesbian couple also struggling with a cherished child’s departure.
In our case, there’s another, less universal lament connected to “Three Daughters” as I sing and hum its insinuating melody, day and night: I could be the last member of my family with love for, or even access to, the glorious world of Yiddish music the song represents.
I spent the first six years of my life in Philadelphia, surrounded by Yiddish-speaking relatives (my father’s parents, immigrants from Ukraine, spoke very limited English) and with old-country songs (mostly on 78 RPM records that were out-of-date even then) serving as a soundtrack to my childhood. My grandmother in particular used to tear up at sentimental Yiddish melodies (there’s no other kind, really) that evoked the lost world of her village home. She was already 46 when she came to America in 1924, having buried five daughters during the bloody chaos of Revolution and civil war. My limited Yiddish came from conversations with her, and from the beautiful, family favorite songs –especially after I cultivated a college-age passion for LP’s of the great folksinger Theodore Bikel, who interpreted those beloved tunes on two classic albums.
My three younger brothers never developed a taste for this material, in part because they never grew up around relatives with accents: my parents moved to California before their younger children were born. I also failed utterly in sporadic attempts to pass on my affection for musical gems by Gebirtig, Ellstein, Goldfaden and the other Yiddish masters to my own three kids. They never connected with the nostalgic lyrics (which they didn’t understand) or the hyper-emotional music—just as they largely shrugged off Mozart and Brahms (but that’s another sad story).
During the last night I ever spent with my father (he died in March, 2009) we were driving back to his apartment in Jerusalem from a Sabbath at the Dead Sea and we listened to an Israeli, late night radio program that played a selection of old Yiddish songs. My brothers found the music quaint and fascinating but to me it was familiar and enchanting, and to my delighted dad it murmured of his own parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, living his entire childhood and pre-Navy youth in the Yiddish-empire of South Philly.
In “Three Daughters,” Gebirtig mourns the departure of the “letste” – the last one, the final daughter to leave the house to establish a home of her own. In a way, the song speaks to me so powerfully now not only because of our own “letste” going away and crossing the globe for his studies, but due to my own status as a “letste” – the last one in our little clan with a personal connection to the yearning, ancestral melodies once cherished by so many of the dear and departed.