A Chair, A Baby Grand Piano and Yiddish Songs

2 Aug

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As the oldest granddaughter, my grandmother made it clear that I would inherit my grandparents’ cherry mahogany bedroom set. The most important pieces of furniture that came with it were my grandmother’s vanity and the small chair that goes with it.

The swivel chair is covered in a gold silk fabric. It is now a bit tattered, but I will not change it. In this chair my grandmother held me at night and sang Yiddish songs to me before I went to sleep.

She usually sang “Oif’n Pripetshik,” a song about children learning in their alef beiss, the alphabet. Even now, over 50 years later, listening to this song calms me. I feel my grandma’s arms around me; I smelled her scent; I feel the softness of her hair and her breath in my ear as she sings and slowly spins in the chair.

If one song did not get me ready to sleep, she would start singing, “Rozhinke Mit Mandlen.” I tried to stay awake so she would have to sing me both songs before I got into bed. When I was very young I slept with my grandmother.   I loved being with her in the winter under the big feather bed! I still have the one pillow left that was made from that giant duvet over 50 years ago. (See link to blog below.)

My grandparents kept the traditions they grew up with in Europe: Two twin beds, always. Grandpa would get up very early in the morning to go to their bakery and make the fresh bread and pastries.  Their apartment was on the top floor of the building that housed their bakery in West New York, New Jersey, right on Palisades Avenue.

Grandma would stay in bed with me a bit longer. Before she left she always whispered, “Remember, when you get up, get dressed and come down to the bakery.” Then a soft “Geh shluffen.” And she would be gone as well.

My grandfather also sang to us in Yiddish. He had a beautiful voice. Among his favorites to sing were “Tumbalalaika,” “Eli, Eli,” “Die Greene Koseene,” “Belz, Mine Shetele,” and “Wus Geven is Geven Un Nitu.”

Sometimes we would sit with him and sing together. Other times we would just listen. Occasionally, at a synagogue dinner in the Catskills, he would sing his Yiddish songs for the congregation. I remember once for my parent’s anniversary he sang several songs. But my Mom got very upset when he say, “Wus Geven is Geven un Nitu.”  I honestly do not think he meant to hurt her feelings.  He just loved to sing that song.

My grandparents had a beautiful carved walnut baby grand piano. The keys made of ebony and ivory. It was my Mom’s piano. She studied as a special student at Julliard when she was in high school. And even though she loved to play the piano, she went to college to learn to be a teacher instead of continuing at Julliard.   My grandparents felt teaching was a much better professional for a young woman in 1947.

I also learned music on this piano: years of lessons. I was never as good as my mother. But I did learn to love it. My teacher was kind. He let me chose the songs I wanted to learn. It was obvious that I would never be a concert pianist.

When I married, the piano and the bedroom set moved to my home. When I was pregnant with my daughter I would play the piano every day. I often played from a book of Yiddish music: “Jewish Nostalgia For Piano/Guitar/Organ/Accordian” published by the J & J Kammen Music Co. Sometimes I could feel my daughter kick within me as I played her favorite songs.

I know that she heard the music! After she was born, when she was fussy, I would bring her into the music room and play “Oif’n Pripetshik” for her. Within minutes she would be calm listening to the music.

My grandfather, Papa, lived until she was 3 ½.   He would sing to her in Yiddish as well. She does not remember much about him. But he would hold her close to his face while he sang.   What she remembers is that “Papa had a scratchy face.” He did not shave as often when he was in his late 80s.

When she was old enough, my daughter also took her first piano lessons on our family’s baby grand piano. Like me, she was not meant to be a concert pianist. But we both learned to love and read music while learning to play piano. I would often play music for my children when they were little. I often would play the Yiddish music of my childhood.

Over the years, many people have come to visit and would play the piano.   One childhood friend came to visit several years ago.   She asked what happened to my Mom’s piano.   I took her into my living room to see it.  She cried as she stood in front of it.  There was so much love invested in my piano.

I am so fortunate.  I have a chair to sit in to remember when my grandmother sang to me; a piano to play the music that my grandparents taught me.  I have the  Yiddish songs that I continue to hear in my mind and sometimes still play on my piano. Amazing memories and sounds of Yiddish songs from just looking at a chair and a piano.

 

https://zicharonot.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/why-i-love-my-pillow/

 

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5 Responses to “A Chair, A Baby Grand Piano and Yiddish Songs”

  1. Sherry August 2, 2016 at 9:34 am #

    Wonderful!! Piano and flute–Linda Chesis and Amy Rothberg Pettigrew–music!! Thank you.

  2. Amy August 2, 2016 at 3:15 pm #

    Although my parents do not know Yiddish, and even my grandmothers were American born and didn’t speak it to me (though one of them understood it), this post is very timely for me. Our dearly loved cantor died last week (at 87), and he often would sing Yiddish songs to the congregation such as Oifen Pripitchik. As a boy he sang on the Yiddish Hour on the radio. At his funeral his children played recordings including two of him singing Yiddish songs. It was incredibly moving.

    • zicharon August 2, 2016 at 4:27 pm #

      Even though my father’s parents were American born, my great grandmother lived with them, so my Dad grew up with Yiddish as his first language. Although I am far from fluent, I love the sound of Yiddish. Probably because of hearing it so much when I was a child. In my opinion, your Cantor shared history with you when he sang in Yiddish.

      • Amy August 2, 2016 at 8:56 pm #

        I also love the sound of Yiddish. I actually took Yiddish for two years in a Sholem Aleichem school when I was 11 and 12 (I never went to regular Hebrew School.) But I never heard the songs until our cantor sang them. And that was after I was married and had children.

      • zicharon August 2, 2016 at 9:55 pm #

        You should go on u tube and find Jan Pierce songs!

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