[The immigrant] community's interests and values were
embodied in the Jewish immigrants' popular music, what Mark Slobin calls
in Tenement Songs, Urbana, 1982, "the popular music of the Jewish
immigrants." The title page illustrations of Yiddish sheet music, as
well as the contents, are an as yet sparsely used prism through which
to view the life of that community. Five of these popular songs, from
the unmatched collection in the Library's Music Division, provide us
a slice of that life.
Illustrations for Leben Zol Amerika (Long Live
America) are the American icons that the Jews held dear: George Washington,
Abraham Lincoln, and the Statue of Liberty, Washington represented the
"Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave"; Lincoln symbolized opportunity,
in going from "Log Cabin to the White House," so why not aspire to go
from tenement to mansion, from public school to university? The Statue
of Liberty symbolized the welcome to all who had come and would yet
come to America.
Featured on the title page
of the sheet music of Leben Zol Amerika (Long Live America)
are the three favored icons of the American Jewish immigrant sensibility,
George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and the Statue of Liberty.
Leo Rosenberg and M. Rubinstein, Leben Zol Amerika (Long Live
America). New York, n.d. Hebraic Section.
Zei Gebensht Du Freie Land, Long Live the Land of
the Free, is doggerel, and pointedly patriotic:
Every Jew must express his loyalty to the Land of
Freedom with all his being/Once settled he will surely appreciate
a Land which gives him full and equal rights/ Yes! Yes!/ So become
a citizen, take out the required papers/ Oy, Oy/ Become an in-law
of Uncle Sam/ Cast your vote/ It gives you great power/ Then none
can cause you hurt/ The world will esteem the Jew/ Defend the
Refrain: Praised and blessed be this Land
of Freedom/ Especially so the Jew/ It lifts its friendly hands to
Jewish bankers, doctors, engineers/ Business blossoms
where Jews are present/ ... Sculpture, music, journalism, the stage
... Oy, Oy ... / In this Land none will disturb you/what you will
you can accomplish ...
Refrain: Praised and blessed be this Land
Solomon Smulewitz's words are no better in Yiddish than in English,
but J. M. Rumshisky's music is much better, and better still is the
title-page illustration by Joseph Keller, where the American eagle glares
at Lady Liberty whose name is on her patriotic bonnet, which like the
gown is decorated with stars and bars. in her hand she holds a laurel
Patriotic songs expressing
the immigrants love for America, loyalty to the "Land of the Free,"
intermingled with songs poking critical fun at the "Land of Columbus."
Both were sung with equal fervor. This song opens with:
To experss loyalty, with every
fiber of one's being, to
this land of Freedom, is the
sacred duty of every Jew.
Solomon Smulewitz (Small) and J.M. Rumshisky, Zei Gebensht Du
Freie Land (Long Live the Land of the Free), New York, 1911,
The sinking of the "unsinkable" Titanic in 1912
was mourned in some two hundred American songs. The Yiddish song Hurban
Titanic, oder der Nasser Kever (The Wreck of the Titanic, or
the Watery Grave) bears the English title The Titanic's Disaster The words are by Solomon Small (Smulewitz), the cover drawing by
J. Keller. The ship has struck an iceberg and as it goes down people
are climbing down on ropes from the ship to the sea. Above the stricken
ship float the spirits of Isadore
and Ida Straus. Isadore was one of the three brothers who made Macy's
one of America's leading department stores. Each of the brothers carved
out a career of distinguished public service. As Secretary of Commerce
and Labor, Oscar Straus was the first Jew to serve in the Cabinet; Nathan
was one of America's most enlightened philanthropists with a lifelong
interest in public health. (The Israeli city of Netanyah is named for him, in appreciation of his having given two-thirds of
his fortune to communal projects in Jewish Palestine.) Isadore, the
great merchant, served as a congressman. The folk favorite was Ida,
and the final stanza of the song (in translation by Mark Slobin) tells
There stand, in woe/The thousands in need/And know
that death/will dash them down/Then they cry, "Save yourselves/into
the boats quickly, women/No man dare/ Take a place tbere."/But listen
to one woman-soul/who can say/,,i won't stir from the spot/I'll die
here with my husband."/Let small and great honor/the name of Ida Straus!
Translated by Mark Slobin, Tenement Songs (Urbana,
Keller has drawn an angel placing a wreath on the heads
of the loving couple who are joined in an embrace.
The sinking of the super
trans-Atlantic liner, the Titanic, was a tragedy that engulfed
all of America. The Jewish community was particularly touched by the
drowning of Ida Straus, who refused a place on a lifeboat reserved
for women and children, choosing to share the fate of her husband,
the beloved philanthropist, Nathan Straus. The drawing by J. Keller
portrays an angel placing the wreath of immortality on their heads.
Solomon Smulewitz (Small), Hurban Titanic (The Titanic's Disaster), New York, 1912. Hebraic Section.
What was more popular than a wedding, both on the stage
and in life? Hardly a musical comedy or drama lacked a wedding scene.
One of the best known songs in the immigrant repertoire was Hoson
Khalleh Mazel Tov (Good Luck to the Bride and Groom), words and
music by S. Mogulesco. Slobin offers an analysis of the title-page illustration:
The musical number dates back to the 1890s. The carefully
drawn figures remain lifeless; perspective and anatomical details
are weak. Yet there is a strong attempt to convey an ethnic scene
in all its richness. The bored children, officious men, fearful bride,
the self conscious matrons are all identifiable types, as if taken
from the Yiddish stage.
Hardly a musical on the
Yiddish stage was without a wedding scene. it made of the audience
an extended family, joined in happy celebration, shedding shared tears
of joy. Note the huppah (wedding canopy) held up by boys and girls,
and the wedding garb of the celebrants and officiants, full dress
and top hats.
S. Mogulesco, Choson Kale Mazol Tov (Good Luck to the Bride
and Groom), New York, 1909. Hebraic Section.
The cover of A Boychik Up-To-Date (An Up-To-Date
Dandy) is notable for its garish colors and its pudgy, faddishly clad,
bejeweled "hero." The humor and satire make no pretense of subtlety.
On the one hand is the knowledge by those who fashioned the song and
issued the sheet music that many in the immigrant community would envy
and take this modern American dandy as a model of someone "who
has made it." On the other hand, it is not lost on them that there is
much to decry in such tawdry Americanization, such vulgar acculturation.
The "up-to-date dandy" is more a comical bumpkin than an elegant Edwardian
The garish colors of this
sheet music's title page match the pudgy, faddish, bejeweled "hero."
The song is critical of this up-to-date dandy and, through him, the
American scene which created him.
L. Gilrod and D. Meyrowitz, A Boychik Up-To-Date (An Up-to-Date
Dandy), New York, n.d. Hebraic Section.
The more intelligent purveyors of popular culture
looked forward to a true Americanization, forecast by Henrietta Szold
in her introductory article to Charles S. Bernheimer's The Russian
Jew in the United States, New York, 1904:
The time is not distant when the Russian Jew will
have solved the elementary problems of American existence.... They
will soon reach the point at which they will turn for guidance to
the history of the Germans and their Sephardic predecessors. Eschewing
the foolish pride of both, they will emulate the dignity and selfrespect
of the latter, and the sobriety and steadiness of purpose of the former.
They will use the institutions created by them as the stock upon which
to engraft their intenser fervor, their broader Jewish scholarship,
a more enlightened conception of Jewish ideals, and a more inclusive
interest in Jewish world questions.
Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From
the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress,
(DC: Library of Congress,