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!
  • Kosovo's centuries-old Jewish community is down to a few dozen. In a nation where the population is 90% Muslim, they are proud their past — and wonder why Israel won't recognize their state. http://jd.fo/h4wK0
  • Israelis are taking up the #IceBucketChallenge — with hummus.
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • 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.