The Arty Semite

Singing for Your Bread and Butter

By Ezra Glinter

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Over on the Yiddish Song of the Week blog, Forverts associate editor Itzik Gottesman discusses the ballad “Az es shtarbt nor up dus ershte vaybele” (“As Soon as the First Wife Dies”), as sung by Lifshe Schaechter Widman.

Formally, “Az es shtarbt nor up dus ershte vaybele” (“As Soon as the First Wife Dies”) could be considered a classic ballad. The first three verses set the stage for the dialogue between the children and their father. As a narrative though, the last verse, which is sung by the father, leaves no resolution to the hopeless situation at all.

The melody in ballads almost always stays the same for all the verses. However, in this song the melody changes for the dialogue verses, becoming more dramatic, as does Lifshe’s moving, mournful singing.

Ethnographically, the song depicts the poverty of the families at this time; even a piece of bread and butter was considered a delicacy. In her memoirs “Durkhgelebt a velt,” LSW writes of her own cruel stepfather who would not allow her to eat bread with butter. Her mother, Taube, turned the buttered side of the bread over when the stepfather entered so he would not see it.

Back in the blog’s very first post, Gottesman described Schaechter Widman’s life:

Lifshe Schaechter Widman was born in Zvinyetchke, Bukovina in 1893. The town is on the Dneister river. Across the river was Galicia. When she was born, Zvinyetchke was part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. Today the town is in the Ukraine. By an early age she had established her reputation as singer and was often asked by the women, both younger, unmarried and older married women to sing for them. Most of the songs in her repertoire are from the first 14 years of her life. In 1907 she left on her own for America, lived in New York, and returned to Bukovina just in time for the First World War in 1914. She married Benyumin Schaechter in Vienna and settled in Chernovitz, the capital of Bukovina. She had two children Beyle (born in 1920 in Vienna ) and Mordkhe (born in 1927 in Chernovitz). Beyle became a Yiddish poet and songwriter and settled in the Bronx (Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman – my mother). Mordkhe Schaechter became a noted Yiddish linguist in NY. Lifshe survived the war in Chernovitz and arrived in the US in 1951. She died in 1973.

Read the whole post and listen to the song here.


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