I've Been Thinking 'Bout the Railroad

In Yiddish Ditty 'Di Ban,' Clues to Divisions Among Jews

Singin’ on the Rails: The coming of the railroad was a huge change in Eastern Europe. Some feared it would make Jews, especially more-worldly Lithuanians, turn further away from Jewish law.
getty images
Singin’ on the Rails: The coming of the railroad was a huge change in Eastern Europe. Some feared it would make Jews, especially more-worldly Lithuanians, turn further away from Jewish law.

By Philologos

Published February 20, 2012, issue of February 24, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Maurice Wolfthal writes from Houston:

“I recently enjoyed Theodore Bikel’s rendition of the Yiddish song ‘Di Ban’ [‘The Train’] after not having heard it for more than 30 years. Part of the humor stems from his choice of dialect. Where most Yiddish speakers use the vowel ‘oy,’ he uses the ‘ey’ of English ‘grey,’ as in keyekh [strength] instead of koyekh, reyekh [smoke] instead of royekh, ribeyney shel eylem [Master of the Universe] instead of riboynoy shel oylem, etc. Have you any idea where this dialect was used?”

The dialect Mr. Wolfthal asks about is that of Lithuania and Belarus, known to linguists as Northeast Yiddish. “Di Ban” is a delightful little song, and you can hear Bikel sing it in a zippily comic manner (the version I’m familiar with is slower) on the Internet, but I’m not sure it was he who chose Northeast Yiddish for it. Although I could be wrong, the song strikes me, for reasons I’ll explain, as being Litvak in origin.

Di Ban” was apparently composed in the mid- or late 19th century, as railroads began to spread through the more rural regions of the czarist empire, because its words are put in the mouth of a pious Jew who, astonished by his first sighting of a locomotive pulling a train, asks (the shift to “ey” from “oy” is indicated by bold type, while the “ay” is pronounced like the “y” in “sky”): “Tsi hot men azeyns gezen, tsi hot men azeyns gehert, / Az fayer un vaser zoln shlepn vi a ferd? — that is, “Has anyone seen or heard the likes of it, / Fire and water pulling like a horse?” This is followed by a refrain that goes “Oy, hot er a fayfer, mit ayn ayzenem keyekh, untn gist zikh vaser, eyvn geyt a reyekh” — “Ah, what a whistle it has, with the strength of iron, / Below water pours into it, above smoke comes out of it.”

The last stanza is, “Ribeyney shel eylem, farkurtst im zayne yorn / Az yidn apikorsim zoln nit kenen shabes forn” — that is, “Master of the Universe, shorten its life, / So that freethinking Jews won’t be able to travel on the Sabbath” — and this is, I suspect, a clue to the song’s provenance, since the word for “freethinkers” is apikorsim, and no region of Eastern Europe had a greater reputation for harboring apikorsim than did Lithuania.

The apikoyres (apikeyres in Northeast Yiddish), a stock figure in 19th-century Jewish folklore, was not necessarily an irreligious Jew in the sense of ignoring the Jewish ritual commandments, which on the whole were rarely violated (and certainly not in public) in the early days of railroads; rather, he was a Jew with a rationalistic, intellectual approach to religion who mocked superstition and popular piety. Inasmuch as these were attributes most associated in Jewish life with Hasidism, the stereotype of him was also of a misnaged, or anti-Hasid — and inasmuch as misnagdim were most commonly found in Lithuania, the one region of Eastern Europe to which Hasidism never spread, the stereotypical apikoyres was also a Litvak.

Thus, since the Jew of our song is being made fun of for his simple piety — imagine reacting to your first railroad train by fearing that it will cause freethinking Jews to travel on the Sabbath! — those making fun of him are most likely to be Litvaks, too.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.