Friday, March 16, 2007

In Kroke shteyt a hayzele

One of my mother's earliest memories is sitting in her grandmother's lap while her bubba removes lice from little Dveyra's hair. (Doris is the anglicized version of my mother's name and the middle name Helene was self-inflicted at a later date) .Not only does my mother remember this event (these events) clearly, but she also remembers the song that goes with the delousing. So while I was sitting with my mom in her living room the other day, taking notes about her earliest memories for her commissioned biography (she couldn't get Kitty Kelly so I'll have to do in a pinch..), she proceeded to sing a few lines of the "lousy" ditty.
This is what she remembered: " In kroke shteyt a, la,la..." I replied, " I've got the 'stands a little house' part, but what's a 'kroke'?" Mom said with great confidence that a "kroke" must also mean a house and that was that. She sang the song fragment a few more times, her voice trailing off nostalgically and confessed that she felt bad that she couldn't remember any more of it. I reassured her that since the event she was recalling occurred say, almost 90 years ago, she could be forgiven for a slight lapse of memory.
Then, with a flash of inspiration, I decided to bring the whole conversation skidding into the 21st Century. I told my mother I would research the song on the Internet and see if I could find it. "Ooh, Wenj," she cooed." Couldja really look it up on THE INTERNET?" My mother tends to regard the Internet as a cross between a latter day Oracle at Delphi and The Wizard of Oz. Truth be told, so do I. She hasn't much of a clue about computers or what really transpires on the WWW, but she is certainly intrigued by the idea of it. For a while, after she first moved into Sterling Glen, they were offering free email service and computer classes for the inmates (which is what she calls the residents). With great excitement we set up an email account for her and I alerted Gail and the grandchildren and encouraged everyone to send her messages. My mother's foray into email lasted not quite as long as her trial of her hearing aids. The exquisitely -fitted hearing aids went back to Hear Me Now the very next day; my mother's adventure in cyberspace was over as soon as it began. Everyone assumed that she abandoned the project because she was too blind to see the screen, but I secretly believe that the whole thing struck her as a tad meshugge. This has not stopped her, however, from attempting to delegate to me all sorts of tasks involving email ."Wenj, couldja just send The Email to Reba to tell her I hope she's feeling better ?" Or "Wenj, when you have a minute couldja just send The Email to Jen and Mark for their anniversary?" My mother has always been a stickler for greeting cards and the concept of acknowledging her loved one's life events without having to find a stamp made her almost giddy.
So, I took gathered up my teeny notebook which I am using to record the notes for my mother's biography and I ran home to look up the song on THE INTERNET. I Googled "Yiddish Folk Songs" and took a stab at one of the addresses and emailed the salient information about the song my mother sang to me. Almost immediately I received the following reply from an ethnomusicologist from the University of London.
Dear Wendy, Thanks for your message. Kroke is Krakow (the town). The line reads "In Kroke shteyt a hayzele"(actually this is the second line of the song). Ruth Rubin discusses this song in her article 'Nineteenth-Century Yiddish Folksongs of Children in Eastern Europe.' ...I have copied the page with the full song text on and attached it to this email. As you said, Rubin notes that it is a delousing song. I don't know about the tune. It's not in any of my books and the source Rubin cites (Dobrushin and Yuditsky, 1940) only has texts, no melodies. I hope this helps. Keep going with your research! I am sure that YIVO in New York would be delighted to have a copy of the materials you collect. All best, Abigail Wood.

I flew to the phone and called my mom to sing-song the whole verse to her. Translated, it starts: "Bubi,bubi,little louse/In Cracow stands a little house". For some reason, I got a tad varklempt as I was reading the lyrics to my mother. I'm even crying a little right now. It's bittersweet these days, thinking of my mother as a little girl. More often than not, she tends to regress a bit and there's a case to be made for the interpretation that in her 90 + years she has never completely lost the little girl within. David has been known to refer to her on occasion as the world's oldest living child star.
And the world's oldest living child star has been in a great mood lately. She bursts into song quite often lately, apropos of nothing. Old-timey stuff, doggerel she makes up,and a few Yiddish ditties... I tend to join right in, blending my alto with her falsetto. I doubt that YIVO will be hearing from me anytime soon but as far as my personal filial research is going, it appears that once again THINGS ARE LOOKING UP!