The Human Microphone

Avram Mlotek
November 12, 2012
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While the human microphone roared its messages in the Occupy movement, Yiddish poetry and song once served the same goal.  From the late 1900s into the 1920s,Yiddish song was the voice of the Jewish workplace, decrying injustice, calling the masses to action, singing amid marches, crying out for freedom and change.

Today as the Sh’ma community looks into the ethics and working conditions of the current Jewish workplace, this blog will explore the not so distant past -some 100 years ago- and revisit the words and charges of our people’s fervent  prophets in their calls for social justice.

1)  “My Little Boy” by Morris Rosenfeld

Upton Sinclair called Morris Rosenfeld, “the genuine voice of the sweatshop workers.” (See “The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest – 1915).  Rosenfeld was a prolific poet whose writings give a raw intensity to what it was like to be a Jewish worker at the turn of the century.  Here in this song we meet a physically and emotionally exhausted father reflecting on what gives his life meaning: his little boy.  Translation from Yiddish by Barney Zumoff:

“I have a darling little boy,
a lovely son so fine,
and when I see him, seems to me,
the whole wide world is mine.

But seldom, seldom do I see
my lovely boy awake;
I see him only when he sleeps-
it makes my poor heart break.

My work drives me away by dawn-
I get home late at night.
A stranger to me is my boy-
a stranger to my sight.

I come depressed and sad back home-
the darkness there abounds.
My wife so pale then tells me how
he plays, with joyous sounds.

How sweet he speaks, how wisely asks,
‘O, Mama, dearest Ma,
When will he bring a penny home,
for me, my darling Pa?’

I hear his words and rush to heed-
yes, yes, it has to be!
My father’s love burns bright in me-
my child just has to see!

I stand right near his little bed
and listen quietly.
His lops move now – he’s dreaming sweet:
‘Dear Pa, you’ve come to me.’

I kiss his dear blue eyes just once-
they open and see me.
They see me standing next to him,
but sleeping soon is he.

‘Your daddy’s here, my darling son-
A penny here for you.’
Again, he’s dreaming, o so sweet:
‘Dear pa,’ he says anew.

I stand there feeling sad and blue-
I’m bitter to the core.
‘When you awake, my dearest son,
you’ll find me here no more.'”

For more information on Morris Rosenfeld and other Yiddish poets, visit:http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/pearls-of-yiddish-poetry-joseph-mlotek/11003751972

2) “Working Women” by David Edelshtat

One of the first labor songs directed at women, imploring all to become involved in the fight for labor justice.
Words are by David Edelshtat, a Russian born poet, who later wrote in Yiddish and died at the young age of 26.
This fiery music was given new life in 1999 when the YIVO commissioned a recording of “In Love and In Struggle: The Musical Legacy of the Jewish Labor Bund.”  Translation by Barney Zumoff:

“Working women, suffering women,
Women who languish at home and in the factory,
why are you standing to the side?  Why don’t you help build
the temple of freedom, of human happiness?

Help us carry the red banner
forward, through storms, through dark nights!
Help us spread truth and light
among ignorant, lonely slaves.

Help us to raise the world out of its filth,
to sacrifice everything dear to us,
to fight together like mighty lions
for freedom, for equality, for our principles.”

For more information on the Bund CD and to hear an excerpt from Arbeter Froyen, visit: http://www.yivoinstitute.org/archive/products/inlove_fr.htm

3) “How Can I Make A Living?” by David Meyerowitz

The journey of immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe to New York City comes to life this Fall from October 28th till December 2nd in the revival of the off-Broadway musical, The Golden Land.  Created by Zalmen Mlotek and Moishe Rosenfeld, this piece toured Europe in the 1980s under the sponsorship of Leonard Bernstein.  It uses music and material from the period.  In The Golden Land, this Yiddish song meets its English counterpart, “Brother, Can You Spare A Time?”

Vu nemt men parnose?                        How can I make a living?
Vu nemt men parnose?                        Where can I make a living?
S’iz shver tsu zukhn un gefinen,         Hard to go on looking, hard to find work.
Keyner git nit tsu fardinen.                 No earning opportunities.
Vu nemt men parnose?                        Where can I get a job?
Nit nor ikh, kemat vi ale                      It’s not just me.  It’s everyone.
Fregn yetst di zelbe shayle:                 We’re all asking the same question.
Vu, vu nemt men, oy,                           How on earth, how,
Vu nemt men parnose?                        will I get by?

For more information on The Golden Land. playing at the Baruch Performing ArtsCenter in New York City from October 28th till December 2nd, visit: http://www.nationalyiddishtheatre.org/goldenland.html

This Thanksgiving, as many of us will express gratitude for the bountiful and fully-free life we experience, let’s find a moment to recall the plight and struggle of our ancestors.  May that reflection inspire us to give back and support those who nowfight for social and economic justice.

For more information on immigrant advocacy, visit: http://advocacy.hias.org/

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Avram Mlotek is a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and performs regularly with the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene Center for Performing Arts. His writings have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Forward and The Jewish Week. Avram was recently named in The Jewish Week's "36 Under 36" as a leading innovator in Jewish life today. He lives on the Upper West Side with his wife and daughter.

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