The Arty Semite

Yiddish Song of the Week: ‘Afn beys-oylem’

By Ezra Glinter

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Over at the An-sky Jewish Folkore Research Project, Forverts managing editor Itzik Gottesman, along with a few other contributors, has been poking through the nooks and crannies of Yiddish music and poetry on the Yiddish Song of the Week blog.

As quickly becomes clear from reading the blog, these aren’t your regular Yiddish standards. Rather, the featured melodies are generally lesser-known pieces, usually in the form of rare field recordings.

This week, Gottesman writes about “Afn beys-oylem,” (“On the Cemetery”) as sung by his grandmother, Lifshe Schaechter-Widman. The song is a version of Mikhl Gordon‘s “Di shtifmuter” (“The Stepmother”), but is an unusual example of his work. As Gottesman writes:

Mikhl Gordon, (Vilna, 1823 – Kiev, 1890) had a wonderful sense of humor (he was author of “Di bord‟ [a Maskilic song that tells of a wife who awakens to find her husband shaved his beard]). However, here he composed a moving, even shocking, portrait of the life of an orphan. Women folksingers had no problem singing this kind of song since it truly reflected the difficult times and hopelessly depressing family situations. Singing it today from a stage is another matter…

I consider this song the epitome of LSW‘s slow, mournful vocal style brimming with ornamentation. You can also hear the reach and power of her voice, which seems to float, if you will.

So a bit of a downer, maybe, but a beautiful, moving experience.

Listen to the song and read Gottesman’s whole analysis here.


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