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Monday, November 10, 2014

How to write your own Yiddish song? Here you go, Yiddish doggerel DIY tools of the trade

Now, I am no expert in Yiddish but I am an expert in doggerel. I learned how to write sonnets in seventh grade from my beloved English teacher Naomi Weissman, and when I couldn't decide what to do with my life after graduating from college I started Peppler's Sonnet Service.

Picture at right was from a Christian Science Monitor photo shoot for a story on my business. Not to boast, but I wrote literally hundreds of awful sonnets. For pay. I supported myself for a couple years that way until I quit (because I was dreaming about rhymes for things like "mashed potatoes"...)

I even got hired by a Harvard poetry teacher to come in and write a sonnet during class for his students, who were all so creative and high brow they did not know how to make a poem rhyme. He made them cough up my fee.

I've never had anything I actually wanted to "express" so I am not and never will be a poet. However, it's handy to be able to write stuff that rhymes and scans if you want to write song lyrics. Here are some reasons you might want to write your own verses to Yiddish songs:
  1. Maybe you (unlike me) have something you want to express;
  2. You love the tune but you can't make out the words on the 78;
  3. The song was written from a male chauvinist pig point of view and you are a woman;
  4. The song is too short;
  5. The song was topical in its day and you want to bring it into the present (Michael Alpert did this brilliantly with his Chernobyl version of the old song Hu-Tsa-Tsa)
  6. The song does not rhyme in your dialect (I was taught standard Yiddish, which did not really exist when most Yiddish theater songs were written, therefore things that rhyme in the songs don't rhyme in YIVO Yiddish).
Here are the tools you need:

  • Nahum Stuchkoff's Rhyming dictionary. It's available for free download from the Yiddish Book Center but I've also made it available as a paperback at the Yiddish Emporium.
  • Good Yiddish-to-English dictionary. (Everybody loves the new Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary by Solon Beinfeld and Harry Bochner).
  • English-to-Yiddish dictionary. The only one I have is Uriel Weinreich.
  • Nahum Stutchkoff Thesaurus of the Yiddish Language (Der oytser fun der yidisher shprakh). You can often find Der oytser on eBay, that's how I got it. It is a gigantic book, 933 pages. It's probably available for free download from the Yiddish Book Center archive. It's a fabulous book just to open and drool over. What a mind he had!
So here's what I do: you have to start somewhere so I just free associate a line in the meter of the existing melody. Then I look for a few rhymes in the rhyming dictionary, words I think I may be able to wrestle into the end of the next line. If something good occurs to you, move on. If not, try some synonyms from the thesaurus (you may find yourself wandering for pages through Stutchkoff's amazing lists, I can't believe he thought this all up himself). Sometimes you will have to work backwards from a good rhyme, finding ideas which will end you up at the correct word. There's another problem: you have to be grammatically correct. Not that the original lyricists didn't take liberties, but they got away with it because they were the real deal. You will soon find yourself trying to write things of dubious admissibility simply to fit your rhyme scheme and scanning problems. I'm not a native Yiddish speaker so I need somebody to tell me what I can get away with: luckily, my patient teacher Sheva Zucker is willing to help me fix the grammar in the verses I write.

I have a final tip: if you have a rhyme and one line is better than the other, put the better line second so the lame line is not as noticeable. And save your best joke for last.

In dr'erd dos shnayderay



Here's one I worked on last night. It's a great singalong song and I want to share it with the International Association of Yiddish Clubs this weekend in Boca Raton) but it's too short! The original that we recorded (Randy Kloko sings lead):

kh'bin a shnayder ikh makh kleyder far mentshn groys un kleyn
Nor hakhnose di parnose iz nit vi es iz geveyn
Gevorn elter shvakh un kelter ikh hob shoyn bald keyn hent
Fun mayn neyen nishto tsu kayen ikh hob nisht af keyn rent.

In dr'erd dos shnayderay di arbet iz nisht keday
kh'tu vos ikh ken ikh ney un tren un makh gor nit derbay
Ikh hob shoyn bald keyn koyekh keyn hent keyn fis keyn moyekh
Nishto keyn glik khotsh nem a shtrik in dr'rerd dos shnayderay

Sore Brayne hot a tayne shtendik tsu ir man
"Host farshprakhn tsu akht vokhn vel ikh a mame zayn!
Zeks yor vart ikh, gornisht art dikh, ikh hob nokh nisht keyn kind"
Der man mit seykhl tut a shmeykhl un entfert ir geshvind

In dr'erd dos shnayderay di arbet iz nisht keday
Vos vilstu mer, ikh arbet shver, ikh makh gornisht derbay
Ikh hob shoyn bald keyn koyekh keyn hent keyn fis keyn moyekh
Nishto keyn glik khotsh nem a shtrik in dr'rerd dos shnayderay

I'm a tailor, I make clothes for people big and small. My revenue isn't what it used to be, I'm older now, weak and cold, my hands are giving out, I can't make enough by sewing to buy food or pay rent.

To the devil with tailoring, this work is lousy, I do what I can, I sew and rip seams and make nothing. I don't have strength any more, no hands, no belly, no happiness. Might as well take a rope and hang myself. To hell with the tailoring business.

Sore Brayne always complained to her husband: "You promised I'd be pregnant 8 weeks after our wedding. I waited six years, you don't care at all that I don't have any kids." Her husband smiled wisely and quickly answered:

To the devil with tailoring, the work is lousy, what more do you want from me? I work hard and make nothing. I have no strength, no hands no feet, no mind, no happiness. Might as well take a rope and hang myself. To hell with the tailoring business.


Well everybody has complaints about their work! There could be hundreds of verses. Here are the two I wrote last night:

Tsu zayn a kelner iz oykh shlekht ikh zog aykh af gevis
Er loyft un shvitst, er iz tsehitst, es tuen im vey di fis
Di koynim shrayen, viln nokh tsu kayen, un tsvishn undz geredt,
Mayne libe fraynt, er hot zey faynt un vil zey zoln geyn het het!

In dr'erd di kelneray di arbet iz nisht keday
Vos vilstu mer, er arbet shver un makht gornit derbay
Er hot shoyn bald keyn koyekh, keyn hent keyn fis keyn moyekh
Nishto keyn glik khotsh nem a shtrik in dr'rerd dos kelneray

Dem kelners arbet iz dokh shver dos veyst men zeyer gut
Nor zet! Mayn arbet, zingeray, es kost mir oykh dos blut
s'iz nishto keyn gvires fun di skhires vos m'krigt fun der muzik
Di koynim hobn mer batsolt mit draysik yor tsurik!

In dr'erd dos zingen. Ay! Di arbet iz nisht keday
Me zingt mit harts un krigt nor shmarts un makht gornit derbay
Ikh hob shoyn bald keyn koyekh keyn hent keyn fis keyn moyekh
Nishto keyn glik khotsh nem a shtrik in dr'rerd dos zingeray

It's bad to be a waiter, I can tell you that for sure He runs and sweats, he's so heated up, his feet hurt His customers shout for food, and between us, my dear friend: he hates them and wishes they'd go far away

To hell with the waitering business the work is lousy, what more do you want from him? He works hard and makes nothing. He has no strength, no hands no feet, no mind, no happiness. Might as well take a rope and hang himself. To hell with the waitering business.

The waiter's work is hard, obviously everybody knows that But look - MY work, singing, costs me blood too! There's no wealth in the wages one gets from music My customers paid more thirty years ago!

To hell with singing, the work is lousy. You sing with heart and get just heartache and make no money from it I don't have strength any more, no hands, no belly, no happiness. Might as well take a rope and hang myself. To hell with the singing business.

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