Thanks again to a KBCS-FM DJ who played Ich Shtay unter a Bokserboym (“I Stand under a Carob Tree”) from Chava Alberstein‘s remarkable, The Well (1998), recorded with The Klezmatics. I wouldn’t have even known about the record unless I’d heard it first there.
And what a wonder it is! It has all of Alberstein’s impeccable and evocative vocals and The Klezmatics edgy, contemporary sound, making it an engaging and compelling musical accomplishment. It has very little of that strident, avant-garde musical style that The Klezmatics insert into many of their recordings. The songs here were written by some of the 20th century’s finest Yiddish poets like Itik Manger, H. Leivick, Itzik Feffer, and Avraham Reisen. Alberstein wrote all the music and The Klezmatics wrote the arrangements. Unless you’re an afficianado of Yiddish songs, you may not have heard many, if any, of these. While many are extraordinary, they simply aren’t the standards that everyone’s heard like Shtil Di Nacht or Rozinkes mit Mandeln.
For this post, I’ve chosen an eeriely beautiful song, Mayn Shvester Chaye (hear it). The song’s melody is playful and lovely. On first listen, the simply-picked guitar introduction and accordion accompaniment make it might appear it is a sweet, sentimental tribute to sister Chaye, who raised the song’s narrator from childhood as a surrogate mother:
Sister Chaye, her eyes were green,
My sister Chaye, her braids were black–
Sister Chaye, it was she who raised me
In the house on Smotshe Street
With tumble-down steps.
But with these chilling words everything turns to ice:
My sister Chaye with her eyes of green
Was burnt by a German in Treblinka.
And I am in the Jewish State.
The very last one who knew her.
It is for her that I write my poems in Yiddish
In these terrible days of our times.
To God Himself she’s an only daughter,
She sits in heaven at His right hand.
–Binem Heller, composer
And at once, the facade of child’s play turns to icy horror as we realize that the narrator’s life too has turned into a horror as she lost her sister Chaye in Treblinka and is left a sole survivor to contemplate the irreplacable that she has lost.
Listen to Alberstein’s excellent 2002 interview with NPR’s Madeline Brand.