A Tree Grows in Zion

On Language

By Philologos

Published January 20, 2010, issue of January 29, 2010.
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Forward reader Marvin Polonsky writes:

“I sing in a Jewish chorus that is rehearsing some early Yiddish and Hebrew songs of the halutzim, the first Zionist pioneers. In one of the Yiddish songs are the lines, Got, got, groyser got,/Lomir davenen minkhe./Az yidn veln forn keyn eretz-yisroyl,/Vet zayn sosn vesimkhe. Lomir davenen minkhe seems to me a non-sequitur unless (and here’s my query) it represents some colloquialism, idiom, or Yiddish localism that I’m not familiar with. Or is it there merely because minkhe, the afternoon prayer, rhymes with simkhe, ‘happiness’? What’s your take on this?”

Visit: the first Hachshara group from bnei Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement, visits West Jerusalem.
WORLD BNEI AkIvA
Visit: the first Hachshara group from bnei Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement, visits West Jerusalem.

The Yiddish lines that Mr. Polonsky quotes might be translated, “God, God, O great God,/ Let’s say the afternoon prayer./ When Jews go to the Land of Israel,/There will be happiness and joy.” There’s more to the song than that, though, because there’s at least one other stanza that Mr. Polonsky doesn’t quote — an opening one that goes in Yiddish, Oyfn veg shteyt a boym,/Shteyt er ayngeboygn./Fort a yid keyn eretz-yisroyl/Mit tsvey farveynte oygn. In English this is, “On the road stands a tree,/With drooping branches./A Jew sets out for the Land of Israel/ With two weeping eyes.”

And now Mr. Polonsky is going to have to be put on hold, because I can hear a whole chorus of you out there shouting, ““But we know that song — and those aren’t the words!”

Of course you know it. Who doesn’t? It’s one of the most beloved of all Yiddish songs, poet Itzik Manger’s “Oyfn Veg Shteyt a Boym,” set to a sad, longing melody by — or at least he is sometimes given credit for it — composer Philip Laskowsky. Its first two stanzas go:

Oyfn veg shteyt a boym, Shteyt er ayngeboygn. Ale feygl funem boym Zaynen zikh tsefloygn. Dray keyn mayrev, dray keyn mizrekh, Un der resht keyn dorem, Un dem boym gelozt aleyn, Hefker far dem shturem. Or in English: On the road stands a tree With its branches drooping. All the birds have from that tree Flown far away. Three to the west and three to the east, And the rest to the south, Leaving the tree all alone, To the storm’s mercy. Manger’s poem is spoken to his mother by a boy who tells her that he wants to become a bird himself, so as to fly to the abandoned tree and comfort it during the cold winter ahead. His mother cautions him to dress warmly, with his boots, fur hat and long underwear — but alas, when he does, he is too weighted down by so many clothes to fly. On reading Mr. Polonsky’s letter, my first, obvious thought was that Zionist pioneers on their way to Palestine had taken Manger’s poem with its melody and written new words to it — a common enough occurrence in the history of social and political movements, which often appropriate old songs for their purposes. Yet, on second thought, my first thought didn’t make sense. Mr. Polonsky’s version of the song goes back to the late 19th century, whereas Itzik Manger was born in 1901 and wrote his poem in the 1920s or ’30s. What must have happened was the exact opposite: It was Mr. Manger who took the words of an old Zionist song and rewrote them for his purposes. (Which also means, of course, that Philip Laskowsky, who was born in 1899, couldn’t possibly have composed the song’s melody.) And now I’ll try to answer the query. Although I don’t know of any Yiddish “colloquialism, idiom, or localism” that would explain the reference to Mincha, the afternoon prayer, I do think that something deeper is going on here than a mere rhyme. Mr. Polonsky’s song describes the mixed emotions of religious Zionist halutzim departing for Palestine, anxious about what awaits them there and tearfully sad to be parting from family and friends and the familiar world they hold dear. One of their anxieties has to be — this is, after all, what the largely anti-Zionist rabbinic establishment of Eastern Europe has kept telling them — that as pioneers in Palestine, they will gradually fall away from a life of religious observance until they abandon it completely. Mincha is the shortest of the three daily services that observant Jews are obliged to recite, and the one that most frequently gets skipped by them, since the time for saying it falls during the working day, when they are busy with other things. Therefore, by stopping to recite it beneath a tree by the road as they set out on their way, the Zionists of our song are making a self-reassuring statement. We, this statement goes, will remain true to our religion and continue to observe every jot and tittle of it — and the proof is that even now, in the excitement of setting out, we have not forgotten to say Mincha, nor will we ever forget to say it once in Palestine. That’s my take. Am I reading too much into a simple ditty? I think not — and in any case, if I were to tell you how I read Itzik Manger’s “Oyfn Veg,” you would think that my reading of Mr. Polonsky’s “Oyfn Veg” is simple, too. Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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