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"Raisins and almonds" - Goldfaden's glory.

In 1979 a moving tribute was paid to Molly Picon, one of the great Jewish-American entertainers, on her eightieth birthday. An emotional highpoint was the audience's singing along with the song, "Rozhinkes mit Mandlen," a folk-based theatre song that ... is one of the most widely known songs among Eastern European Jews.

Mark Slobin, Tenement Songs (U. of Illinois Press, 1982), p. 10

A TOUCHING SCENE. YET IT IS HARD TO imagine a song whose words are more likely to offend contemporary Jewish sensibilities than that beloved and quintessential Yiddish lullaby, "Rozhinkes mit Mandlen (Raisins and Almonds)."

Do the people who clamor for it at bar mizvahs and weddings and other Jewish social functions know of what they are singing as they join in on its melting, lovely chorus? Are they aware of what comes after the chorus? Most likely not. Do the artists who sing the song at these affairs know all the words? Perhaps they do. And, if they do, you may be sure that they generally have the good sense not to sing more than the first verse. Even the first and best known verse may sound a little strange to Jewish ears today. In literal translation it goes like this:

In the Holy Temple, in a chamber-nook, The widowed Daughter of Zion sits alone, Steadily rocking her only son, Yidele, She sings him to sleep with a pretty little song: alulululu ...


Under Yidele's little cradle, Stands a pure white kid. The little kid has gone off trading. That will be your calling, too. Raisins and Almonds. Sleep, then, Yidele, sleep.

Most singers stop right there. But in Abraham Goldfaden's Biblical operetta, Shulamith, in which it was first sung some hundred and ten years ago, the lullaby continues:


In this little song, my child, much is prophesied of when you go abroad in the wide world. You will become a great grain merchant And earn a lot of money, alulululu ...


And when you become rich, Yidele, Remember this little song. Raisins and Almonds. That will be your calling. Yidele will handle all kinds of merchandise. Sleep, then, Yidele, sleep.


A time will come of stocks and bonds, Of offices throughout the world. You will be the greatest banker of them all, And you will earn lots of money, alulululu ...


And when you become rich, Yidele, etc.


There will be a time of railroads. They will cover half the world. You will unleash their iron wagons, And you will earn lots of money, alulululu


And when you become rich, Yidele, etc.

The very setting in which the song appears is curious. It is not sung, as you might suppose, by a mother putting her babe to sleep; it is sung by the warrior-hero, Avsholem or Absalom, in the desert, in daylight as he stands in full military dress and recalls a song that he once heard his mother sing. Since Shulamith takes place in ancient Judea, in 70 C.E. at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, the song is wildly anachronistic. Anachronistic -- or, what is closer to Goldfaden's intention, perhaps: visionary.

Goldfaden, lacking any musical training but, by his own assertion, possessing a wide knowledge of Jewish and classical music, borrowed heavily from cantorial and folk sources and from European opera for the songs that he included in his operettas. ("In art," he once observed, "there is no eighth commandment.") It is no surprise, therefore, to find that "Rozhinkes mit Mandlen" is drawn from an old Yiddish lullaby, "Ay-Lye, Lyu -- Lye, Lyu-Lye," whose words are:

Under the Baby's cradle here There's an all-white nanny, dear. Nanny's come to bring the baby Almond nuts and raisin candy. Raisins and nuts are a special treat. Baby will grow up healthy and sweet.

Healthy's better far than wealthy. Baby will grow up a scholar. A scholar of the Torah will he be, A writer too, of holy writs. A good man and a pious, God willing, that's what he will be.(1)

Although the folk song has a different tune and there are variations in the words of the versions that are available to us, it contains essential elements of Goldfaden's chorus: a little kid, snow white or golden, stands guard under the baby's cradle and goes off trading in raisins and almonds. If there is a suggestion here of what Goldfaden makes explicit, that trading will be baby's profession, too, the old lullaby goes on to say that the child will grow up to learn Torah and write books -- in short, as the old Yiddish aphorism has it, "Toyre iz di beste skhoyre" -- Torah is the best merchandise.

Goldfaden chose to rework the lullaby into a prediction of great material success for his "Yidele (little Jew);" so much so, that his song comes uncomfortably close to suggesting the classic anti-Semitic notion of a world in the grip of powerful Jewish financiers. It has more than a passing resemblance to a lullaby that "Heritage of Music"(2) ascribes to a young suburban father, who croons to his son, "Buy low, sell high!"

In Goldfaden's version, the song is suffused with allegory. It is surely appropriate, in a Biblical drama, to attribute the lullaby to the Daughter of Zion, alone and widowed. We are reminded of Isaiah's "Bas-Zion," the personification of Jerusalem, who sits abandoned like "a sukkah in a vineyard," "a lodge in a cucumber field, "a besieged city." The white kid is surely kin to the kid of the final seder song, Had Gadya. That kid is the embodiment of Israel, whom God the Father buys for two zuzim -- which stand for the two tablets of the covenant, or, in other interpretations, for Moses and Aaron. But Goldfaden goes beyond allegory into prophecy. What was his motive for changing the folk song as he did?


A speculative answer to that question might begin with Goldfaden's conception of himself as not just a dramatist but as a teacher of his people. In a career full of ironies, he discovered his life's work among people who, he felt, were too backward to appreciate his best efforts.

In 1876, at the age of thirty-six, he found himself in Jassy, Romania, a cultivated Russian, as he considered himself, among ignorant workmen. He had already made a reputation as a writer of popular songs -- a reputation, but not a livelihood, and he was eking out a living as a journalist. In Jassy, however, where he had gone to establish a new paper, he changed decisively. The Jewish public, he recalled, was used to hearing his songs performed by singer-jesters in the saloons that they frequented. At the Green Tree Winegarden, in Jassy, while listening to these singers, he tells us, "the idea flashed in my mind to combine these songs of mine by the connecting links of prose into a tale that would make a theatrical piece." Although there may be doubt about the accuracy of his account of how it all began, there is no question but that, at that time and place, the Yiddish theatre was born. Goldfaden, the self-styled "Father of the Yiddish Theatre," who had no offspring of his own, was quick to claim this child. He saw his first audiences as his children, too. An apostle of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, an ardent Zionist, a cosmopolitan spirit, he looked about him in Jassy and "my heart was filled with pain to see my people in such a low state of spiritual development and in such vulgarity."

As he took up his self-imposed task of educating his fellow Jews, it may have occurred to Goldfaden that, save for a lucky accident, he might have shared the bleak lot of the illiterate artisans who frequented the Green Tree. Many of these men were refugees from Russia. Their generation, Goldfaden tells us in his autobiography, was born in "Tsar Nicholas' times," when, under a "bitter decree," Jewish boys, as young as six, were being recruited into the Army to wage the Tsar's ill-starred Crimean War (1853-56). To save them from so harsh a fate, large numbers of parents thrust their sons over the Russian border into Romania. Many of these children had no trade, and simply perished. Those whose parents had been able to teach them a craft were better able to survive. They were doomed, however, to joyless lives. Without yeshivahs or schools, Goldfaden says, there was no way for them to improve themselves. They grew up "raw, unlettered artisans and their whole spiritual nourishment was a 'lidl' (a little song) in the jargon (Yiddish) that they recalled from Russia."

Goldfaden, who provided these workmen with songs, was born in the Russian shtetl of Altkonstantin in 1840, and might have been one of this proletariat. When he was a child, his family feared that he would be drafted. To save him, his father, a master watchmaker, taught his older son his craft while Goldfaden was being readied to take the border route. Reprieve came in another Tsarist decree. This one opened special state-sponsored "Crown" schools for Jewish children, and offered draft exemptions to them. Goldfaden's father, a maskil, a disciple of the Haskalah, who had already had his son tutored at home in Russian and German, gladly turned the boy over to an institution whose secular nature deterred many other Jewish parents. At Jassy, then, Goldfaden was poised to use his training and talent for the enjoyment and enlightenment of his fellow countrymen.

The theatre which he created for them had to begin, he felt, at their own level. The Jewish intellectuals of his day dismissed his operettas as shund, trash, but, then, he himself made no great claims for their artistic merit. His first plays, he tells us frankly, "were three kinds of nonsense." However, he asks, would a sculptor give his one-year-old a marble bust of Napoleon or Victor Hugo to play with when the child could better amuse itself with a crudely whittled and crudely painted wooden doll?

Of his first efforts, he says:

I had to wrap my newborn child in swaddling clothes. I could not even put a shirt on it or little shoes ... that is, I had to stitch together such few rags to play in (that) my pen was ashamed to write....

Whatever he thought of them, however, his first crude productions were hugely successful. His success was imitated; his troupe spawned other troupes in Eastern Europe, Russia, and finally, in America, but his own theatre somehow never did achieve the maturity that he hoped for.

As the child came out of swaddling clothes, I sewed him a pair of pants. You understand, my wise reader, that I did not then dare to clothe my child in a dress coat or in pants and suspenders ... I had to put him in breeches, with the seams buttoned in the back....

But if he had a low opinion of his own work, he still saw his mission as a didactic one. His people, he realized,

was utterly ignorant of the holy spark of its nationality, which I had thus far tried to infuse in its hearts by my songs.... They needed to understand their own life.... Historic pieces should be given that they learn their history.(3)

Shulamith, the first of his Biblical operettas, and the most successful of them, sought to teach its audiences their own history.


Like all of his works, it was a sugar-coated lesson. From the very start, Goldfaden found a palatable mix of high drama, low comedy and music. The music was, perhaps, the most important ingredient in the Goldfaden formula and, considering his background, his most impressive accomplishment. Like a number of his contemporaries among the ballad writers and some of his successors in the musical theatre -- Irving Berlin comes irresistably to mind -- Goldfaden had no musical training and could neither read nor write a note.

"I sing or pick out on the piano the melody I've hit upon," he recalls in his autobiography, "and a musically trained co-worker copies it into notes." Goldfaden was not done with the tune, however. He suggested instrumentation -- whether the song should be accompanied by strings or flute and if it was to be loud or soft. The melodies came from everywhere; some from his own head, perhaps, but others, as he was frank to admit, from hazanim, from Yiddish folk songs, from the classical repertoire. He "smuggled" into his operettas, he tells us, "melodies from Offenbach, Verdi, Meyerbeer, even from Wagner." These borrowings he justified as part of his effort to uplift the musical taste of his people. "We can say," he observed candidly, "(that) I am more a compiler than a composer," and added, "compilation, too, is an art."

A member of his troupe recalled that once, when he and Goldfaden were attending an opera in Warsaw, Goldfaden, upon hearing a particular melody, jumped up and exclaimed, "I have it! That tune will be good!"

Not doubt it was. His ear for music, so far as his audiences were concerned, was unerring. For them, he could do no wrong. And while he deplored their low taste, even though that included his own work, he was still devoted to his people. He knew full well how contrived and carpentered his operettas were. Commenting on the arbitrary way that "Raisins and Almonds" is dragged onstage in Shulamith, he observed, "This isn't the proper place for the song -- but I put it in here because the public knows it and loves it very much."

Yet, his attitude toward Shulamith and his other Biblical dramas was not so haphazard as that sounds. Even though they contained some of the coarsely comic elements of his first plays, their general tone is, indeed, elevated, particularly in their musical numbers, whose sources are usually Jewish and, most times, reflect their historical period in word as well as tune.

If Goldfaden chose, in "Raisins and Almonds," to move beyond the play's historical time and to insert his prediction of great economic power for the Jews, it was his intention, perhaps, to connect Israel with the promise of the Haskalah. In 1879-80, when Shulamith was written, the forecast of a future for Jews in such citadels of finance as railroads and stock exchanges may not have sounded so far-fetched. Russian Jews, then, were living under Alexander II, the "Liberator Tsar," a relatively benign monarch who emancipated the serfs and "substantially liberated the Jews of Russia from their previous shackles," Michael Stanislawski tells us in his absorbing account of the Haskalah in Russia.(4)

Tsar Alexander, Stanislawski says, opened to Jews "the richness of the Russian interior, the Russian school system and Russian culture."(5) In the late 1850s and the early 1860s, wealthy Jews were invited to live in the capital, St. Petersburg, and they were, he says, "active participants in the creation of the modern Russian banking system, the railroads and the industrial plant."(6)

Against such a background, "Raisins and Almonds" appears to offer a prospect of wealth and power to which Yidele might very well aspire.


Such success was precarious, however, in Tsarist Russia. On March 1, 1881, Alexander II was assassinated. His son, Alexander III, concluded that the murder was the consequence of his father's liberal policies and instituted a repressive rule.

In 1883, evidently apprehensive of the unrest that might be stirred by the visions of nationhood in such Goldfaden plays as Shulamith and Bar Kokhba, the Russian government shut down the Yiddish theatre. Goldfaden had to move and re-establish his troupe elsewhere. He chose to relocate in Bucharest.

As his career and life progressed, there were, for him, personally, and for Russian Jews, generally, fewer and fewer occasions for the optimism expressed in the song. Faced with declining fortunes in Europe, Goldfaden sought to establish himself in America, where the Yiddish theatre flourished under many of his proteges.

His two trips to this country, however, were personal and artistic misfortunes, In 1887, when he arrived in New York for the first time, his arrogance and his presumption, as the Father of the Yiddish Theatre, triggered an actors' strike when he sought to take over an existing company.

Routed, he went back to Europe. In 1903, when a series of disappointments abroad prompted his return to America, he fared no better. A benefit brought in enough money to give him a brief period of security, but after that he was reduced to poverty.

When he finished his last play, Ben-Ami (The Son of My People), a drama influenced by George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, he had trouble finding a producer. It was his first play without music, and it is typical of the ironies that beset Goldfaden that, when Boris Thomashefsky finally produced Ben-Ami, he insisted upon adding songs to it. (It is not unusual, in the Yiddish theatre, after all, to find a father ignored and rejected by his children, who feel that they have outgrown him.)

Cast off, without any regular outlet for his talents, Goldfaden languished; he died in loneliness and need on January 9, 1908, in New York City. If the actors whom he had launched neglected him, his immigrant audience did not. In America, as in Jassy, his plays had helped brighten poor people's lives. His "lidelekh," his little songs, were what they sang in sweatshop lofts and coldwater flats, to themselves and their children. His loyal fans flocked to watch and weep as he was carried to Washington Cemetery.

The New York World for January 11, 1908 observed:

A funeral that draws 75,000 mourners, brings traffic to a standstill and so fills the streets that 250 policemen are needed to keep order, is remarkable even for this city of masses. Who was the cause of this outpouring of people. A big financier? A Tammany boss? A railroad magnate with an international reputation? Or a "trust"-president, who took his life? |The paper answers its own questions~: The deceased was no more than an unassuming poet and dramatist. "The Yiddish Shakespeare." There is a strong doubt that his name was known in a single Fifth Avenue mansion. But he was known in all the tenements ...

Even on his deathbed, Goldfaden's optimism and his sense of commitment to his people seem not to have deserted him. His final word, according to the actress, Bessie Thomashefsky, was "Hatikvah!" Hope. The Israeli national anthem.

Goldfaden's plays, crude but full of a vigorous theatricality, are still revived from time to time. But his most memorable achievement, perhaps, however derivative from folk song it may be, is "Rozhinkes mit Mandlen."

For most of us, the song remains intact in itself, impervious to any literary analysis that challenges its sense or logic. The friends who serenaded Molly Picon on her 80th birthday were not, after all, singing a lullaby. They were singing of their youth, of their common heritage, of their origins in the shtetlakh of Russia and Eastern Europe. And they were singing here, in America, the Goldene Medine, the Golden Land, where, if anywhere, the song's predictions could come true.

Had Abraham Goldfaden been present on that occasion, one feels that he would have considered it a crowning achievement of his career.

MARVIN CAPLAN is a writer who lives in Washington, D.C., and has an interest in Yiddish culture.


1. Ruth Rubin (ed.), A Treasury of Jewish Folksong (Schocken, 1967).

2. Judith Eisenstein, "Heritage of Music," in A History of Jewish Music (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1972), p. 223.

3. All of the quotations from Goldfaden are from my translations of Yiddish sources. Goldfaden wrote several autobiographical pieces which appear in Leksikon fun Yiddishen Teyater (Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre) compiled and edited by Zalmen Zylbercweig (New York: Hebrew Actors Union of America, 1931), Vol. I, pp. 336-356, and Goldfaden Buch (Goldfaden Book) (New York: N.Y. Jewish Theatre Museum, 1926), pp. 40-68.

4. Michael Stanislawski, For Whom Do I Toil? Judah Leib Gordon and the Crisis of Russian Jewry (Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 150.

5. Ibid., p. 108.

6. Ibid.
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Title Annotation:Yiddish lullaby; Abraham Goldfaden
Author:Caplan, Marvin
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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