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.
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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.
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You might object: “Just a minute! If the Jew of ‘Di Ban’ is being ridiculed for his piety by Lithuanian Jews, why is he speaking Yiddish with a Lithuanian accent? Wouldn’t it make more sense for him to be speaking it with a Polish or Ukrainian accent, since Poland and Ukraine were areas in which Hasidism was strongly entrenched? Isn’t that what you would have him do if you were a Litvak making fun of him?”

But this is, I think, carrying things a bit too far. The good-natured humor of “Di Ban” is not specifically poking fun at Hasidim. (There are other Yiddish songs that do that.) It is poking it at simple Jews who instead of being thrilled by the wonders of modern technology can think only of how Jewish observance is threatened by them — and there also was no lack of such Jews in Lithuania. The apikoyres, after all, was not your average Litvak. Although his type may have been found most commonly in Lithuania, most 19th-century Lithuanian Jews, while not Hasidim, were not apikorsim, either, and were devout in their own way. The Jew of our song, it seems to me, is not a Hasid but a simple Lithuanian Jew being laughed at by apikorsim, and his Lithuanian accent is therefore perfectly in place.

As for the word apikoyres itself, it comes, via Hebrew, from the name of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. While Epicurus was a rationalist who would no doubt have found Judaism a foolish religion had he written about it (which he didn’t), the same can be said of Plato, or of Aristotle, or of any other well-known ancient philosopher; why, then, did he of all people become the eponym of the freethinker? It’s an interesting question — and one that will have to wait for another column for its answer.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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