October 12, 2021

Di Goldene Land: Yiddish Songs of the American Dream and a Bitter Reality

Smithsonian Folklife Magazine, 10/21/2021

In 1892, Sholem Aleichem—the Yiddish writer whose stories became the basis of Fiddler on the Roof—published a lullaby in Odessa. The mother in “Shlof mayn kind” (Sleep, My Child) sings to her son about his father who has gone off to the United States of America. She reassures her little one that the nation is “far yidn a gan-eydn”—a Garden of Eden for Jews. “There, they know no persecution… no troubles… Not to tempt the evil eye, but they say that there, Jews are rich.” The mother even suggests that in the United States, Jews no longer know goles, the two-thousand-year exile that has characterized the Jewish experience. In other words, the United States isn’t just a golden land; it’s a new promised land, a place where Jews will truly be at home.

Black-and-white portrait of a man with a mustache and glasses, holding the end of pen to his lip.

In the 1880s, immigration to the United States exploded. From 1880 to 1924, over two million Jews made the grueling journey from Eastern Europe to the golden land. Searching for economic opportunity and freedom from persecution, these new Americans created an epochal shift in Jewish history. As talk of the United States spread throughout the Jewish world, ideas about “the land of the free” found their way into Yiddish songs. These songs helped Yiddish speakers make sense of the historic changes they were experiencing, and taken collectively they are a powerful real-time source of documentation of the Jewish immigrant experience.

Sholem Aleichem’s lullaby became so popular that it was known and transmitted orally as a folksong and published in a variety of versions. The hopeful enthusiasm it depicted quickly found expression in patriotic songs written by new American Jews. As they settled in the United States, many Jews found the country to be an unparalleled haven, where it was possible to achieve unprecedented prosperity, and they sang about it.

Take for example, Der griner milyoner (The New Millionaire), a Yiddish musical produced in New York in 1915 by actor-impresario Boris Thomashefsky. The show features a song which celebrates the United States as a land free of war, bloodshed, and tyrants. With words by Thomashefsky and music by composer duo Arnold Perlmutter and Herman Wohl, the song’s refrain is a toast to America: “Lebn zol kolombus, trinkt briderlekh, lekhayim, lebn zol kolumbus, far dem land dem nayem!”—Long live Columbus, drink brothers, l’chaim (to life), long live Columbus, for the new land! This bright-eyed enthusiasm could very well represent Thomashefsky’s own experience. From humble beginnings as a young immigrant from a Ukrainian village, Thomashefsky went on to become a megastar of the Yiddish stage. Setting theatrical trends, he even owned a number of theaters.

Songbook cover art with the title in Yiddish: Leben Sol Columbus.
Songbook cover art with the title in Yiddish: Leben Zol Amerika.
Songbook cover art with the title in Yiddish and English: My America.
Songbook lyrics in English and Yiddish.

This optimistic sentiment wasn’t limited to the stage. In 1917, Yiddish poet Morris Rosenfeld and composer and arranger Henry Russotto penned a Yiddish prayer for the United States. Written for the Yiddish newspaper the Morgn zhurnal, their song “Mayn amerike” (My America) prays for the nation, opening, “Be thou, new world, by heaven blessed!” The song’s refrain declares:

Dayn vuntsh iz heylik, dayn gebot
Iz glaykh mir vi der vuntsh fun got.
Mit dir in fridn un in krig,
Du hoykhgebentshte frayhayt-vig!
Your wish is holy, your command
Is to me the same as God’s own desire.
With you in peace, and in strife,
You most blessed cradle of freedom!

Rosenfeld and Russotto’s hymn is one of many Yiddish songs that celebrate the golden land and the freedom and opportunity it afforded Jewish immigrants. The same patriotic fervor found voice in English-language music by Jewish immigrants. A year after Rosenfeld and Russotto published their Yiddish prayer for the United States, Irving Berlin wrote his own prayer-song: “God Bless America,” one of the most beloved patriotic American songs in history.

Berlin was born Israel Beilin and emigrated from a shtetl in the Russian Empire as a child in 1893. Achieving enormous success in his new homeland, Berlin expressed his gratitude in a variety of patriotic songs including “Let’s All Be Americans Now” and “For Your Country and My Country,” and in all-soldier revues: “Yip! Yip! Yaphank!” during World War I and “This Is The Army” during World War II. While he rose to be one of the most famous songwriters of Broadway, not all of his output was aimed at the mainstream stage. Berlin also wrote novelty songs including Yiddish-inflected tunes such as “Cohen Owes Me Ninety-Seven Dollars” and “Sadie Salome (Go Home).”

Black-and-white portrait of a man seated at a small table, looking concerned. Below the image is a printed label: R. Bucons, Photo-Art Gallery, 399 Grant Street, N.Y.

Not everyone experienced such success and unmitigated enthusiasm for the New World. In fact, immigrant life was often crushingly difficult. For many, the fast-paced, work-filled reality fell short of expectations. Many Jewish immigrants worked in the garment industry where seventy- to eighty-hour work weeks were not uncommon. In Morris Rosenfeld’s “Mayn yingele” (My Little Boy), a father laments having to work so hard that he is away from his young son during all his waking hours. The father in the song could very well be Rosenfeld himself, who experienced the punishing schedule of work in a sweatshop firsthand. His lyrical reflections were so popular that they became beloved folksongs, sung in sweatshops and at labor meetings.

“Di nyu-yorker trern” (The New Yorker Tears) by H. Altman describes a New York full of misfortune and woe in which families are thrown on the street because they can’t pay their rent. Others are struck dead by cars, while some are victims of murder. “Such are the New Yorker tears that never cease,” laments the refrain. Far from the gan-eydn (Garden of Eden) in Sholem Aleichem’s lullaby, this song describes gehenem (hell). While representing turn-of-the-century New York City as hell might be a bit of an exaggeration, it wasn’t too far off. In 1900, two thirds of New Yorkers lived in cramped tenement houses that are often blamed for widespread disease and high levels of crime.

The same inversion can be heard in songs that use the notion of “Columbus’s land” as a paradise ironically. “Di grine kuzine” (The Greenhorn Cousin) by Hyman Prizant and Abe Schwartz sings of a naive, red-cheeked cousin who comes to the New World joyous and full of energy. Thanks to the difficulties of immigrant life, she acquires dark black lines under her eyes, and her spirit breaks. The song ends:

Itst az ikh begeygen mayn kuzine
Freyg ikh vos makhstu epes grine?
Entfert zi mir mit a troyerike mine
Aza mazl af kolumbuses medine
Now when I meet my cousin
I ask, what’s doing, greenhorn?
She answers me with sadness,
Such luck in Columbus’s land.

These harsh realities and the same rhetorical reversal are reflected poignantly in Eliakum Zunser’s “Dos goldene land.” Zunser was a singer, poet, and badkhen—a traditional Jewish wedding entertainer—from Vilna. He is best known for his Zionist ballads that long for a Jewish return to the Holy Land as well as his songs that criticize social injustice, poverty, and persecution. After suffering terribly in Europe—he lost his wife and children to a cholera epidemic, was bankrupted after a failed business venture, and came under scrutiny of the authorities for his songs about pogroms—Zunser immigrated to New York.

His song “Dos goldene land” opens with the singer describing how, as a child, he would hear people talking about “vi gliklekh men lebt af kolumbuses erd, zi iz a goldene land”—how happy people are in Columbus’s land, she is a golden land. After coming and looking through the “book” of American life, he finds “trern, troyer, iz af yedes blat gedrukt”—tears, sadness are printed on every page. The song goes on to describe a populace of unhappy faces: exhausted, broke, hungry, and sick. In many ways, the song reflects Zunser’s own experience in the United States. Initially hopeful for the possibilities the land might offer, he never quite found his footing and was unable to make a living from his songs in New York.

Songbook cover art with the title in English: This Is the Army.
Songbook cover art with the title in Yiddish: Die New Yorker Trehren.
Songbook cover art with the title in Yiddish: A Brivele der Mame.
Songbook cover art with the title in Yiddish and English: I Long for the East Side of Long Ago.

A slew of epistolary songs dramatized the ongoing dialogue between the Old and New Worlds. Most famously, “A brivele der mamen” (A Little Letter to Mother) by Solomon Smulewitz features a mother wishing her son a safe journey “over distant seas.” She implores her son, “Farges nisht dayn mamen”—don’t forget your mother—“ze yede vokh a brivl shik. Dayn mames harts, mayn kind, derkvik”—Every week send a little letter. Refresh your mother’s heart, my child. Though in the United States the son becomes the head of a radiant, well-to-do family, he never gets around to sending his mother a letter. At the end of the song, he receives a final correspondence letting him know that his mother has died. Her last wish is that he will comfort her soul beyond the grave by saying Kaddish for her.

“A brivele der mamen” was tremendously popular, giving rise to a heap of similar songs by Smulewitz and others. Originally written without any connection to a show, subsequent theatrical productions and a movie scored by composer Abraham Ellstein were built around “A brievele der mamen,” capitalizing on its fame. The song really struck a chord for immigrant audiences because it articulated the real, profound sacrifice necessary to live the American dream: giving up a part of oneself. As much as immigration to the United States provided unparalleled opportunity and freedom for Jews, it also divided families and posed great hardships and challenges.

Despite all the difficulties of immigrant life, most Jews adapted and flourished in America. Soon enough, the days of greenhorn hardship became the stuff of nostalgia. Alexander Olshanetsky and Jacob Jacobs’sIkh benk nokh der ist sayd (fun amol)” (I Long for the East Side of Long Ago) speaks of greenhorns naively running up against the “bitter salt” of reality. And yet, a generation later, they long for the time that “yidn flegn kumen fun der gantser velt in der ist sayd… a yeder hot geredt yidish dort, zikh gekvikt mit yedn vort”—Jews used to come from the whole world to the East Side… everyone spoke Yiddish there and enjoyed every word.

Just as Sholem Aleichem captured the essence of Old World Jewish life for Yiddish readers—and Fiddler on the Roof later recast this for American audiences—Yiddish composers, songwriters, lyricists, and poets in the United States chronicled the Jewish immigrant experience in song. These songs brought Yiddish-speaking crowds together, reflecting their experiences back to them in their own language. They transformed the immigrant experience into moving verses and helped immigrants to confront the challenges they faced as they became Americans.

The songs record hopeful optimism and idealism for the New World, and the fast-paced, sometimes bitter reality of life for new Americans. Most of all, they document how these experiences became inscribed in the collective imagination as a new chapter in the history of the Jewish people, an indelible part of American culture, and a broader case study of the immigrant story.

Songbook cover art with illustration of a woman rocking a baby cradle, with Yiddish text.