shvartze oigen

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We went to a klezmer festival the other day — the last event in some sort of festival I knew nothing about — where about forty litvaks (curious: does this term even make sense to them?) gathered under the portico on the side of a pinkish church. The crowd was mostly older, plus  a handful of twentysomethings, and some toddlers toddling around. The venue could have held a much bigger crowd — the organizer, Arkadius Gotesmanus (Gotesman! — he’s some sort of Ukrainian-Jewish-Lithuanian-sometimeAmerican jazz drummer whiz; more on him later) expected full-out dancing — but the weather was damp and decidedly un-autumn-like cold.

That’s all by way of introduction. The first performer, Karsten Troyke, was a German, not Jewish, who sang old Yiddish melodies. (Unlike many Yiddish singers, he actually speaks the language.) So far, so good.

Then came a song, shvartze oigen, bloye hor (black eyes, blond hair). It’s about a Lithuanian Jewish mother giving up her daughter to a gentile family so as to preserve her life rather than identity. And though Karsten provided an intro in English (which this crowd doesn’t speak) that was translated into Lithuanian, it was nonetheless an eery, creepy scene. A very blond Lithuanian crowd listened plainly to a German (though I believe the nationality in this case to be incidental) sing in a decimated — now pretty much folkloric — and indecipherable language about the Holocaust horrors on this very land. It was like a perverted, stolen nostalgia. It was moving to me, very much so; entertainment in a haunting tune to pretty much everyone else. Know this: I don’t begrudge the lack of proper appreciation, nor do I believe that the song shouldn’t be performed as was. It should: it’s important and worthwhile and deserves to be maintained as a memory masquerading as art. I’m not getting all prescriptive here; just commenting on the creepy subtext.

End: Some blond children dancing, oblivious, while Karsten sings about another blond daughter whose black eyes are filling with tears, long ago.

Written by menachemkaiser

4 September at 13:24

Posted in rants

One Response

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  1. Love this post.

    I came across it when conducting research on the song for the Marc Lavry Heritage Foundation. Marc Lavry, who was originally from Latvia but lived most of his life in Israel, created a fantastic arrangement for the Shvartze Oigen song in Yiddish. Even though the recording there is very old (we have not yet found when it was made) it’s beautiful to listen to:


    30 May at 20:46

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