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?
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.
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.