Bon Voyage for Jews

Famed Yiddish Song Marked Send-Off to Czarist Army

By Philologos

Published July 22, 2012, issue of July 27, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Victoria Cantor writes:

“Whenever someone embarks on a journey, my cousins all sing a Yiddish song that goes, ‘Lumen zikh ke zegena yush ke forte a veck! Hey! Hey! Hey!’ Have you any thoughts or ideas as to its origins?”

Dashing: Singer Aaron Lebedeff was called ‘the Jewish Maurice Chevalier.’
Wikimedia commons/Collectors Guild
Dashing: Singer Aaron Lebedeff was called ‘the Jewish Maurice Chevalier.’

The song Ms. Cantor is thinking of is “Yoshke Fort Avek,” and the line she remembers in a garbled form is, “Lomir zikh gezegenen, Yoshke fort avek” — that is, “We had better say goodbye, Yoshke’s on his way.” Written to a rollicking tune by singer, actor and vaudeville performer Aaron Lebedeff during the 1904–05 Russo-Japanese War, “Yoshke Fort Avek” depicts a scene at a railroad station where Yoshke, who has been drafted into the czarist army, is about to board a train for boot camp. The lyrics consist of alternating stanzas: one spoken by a pregnant young wife or girlfriend, the next by Yoshke. “Don’t buy me any trinkets, don’t try making me look nice, / Buy yourself a pair of boots, you’re going off to fight,” says the wife or girlfriend, to which Yoshke replies: “Don’t you fret and don’t you weep, it’s all foolery, / The Czar won’t have a better man than me in his army.” Each stanza is followed by the refrain: Oy, oy, oy, Yoshke fort avek, / Nokh a kush un nokh a kush, der poyezd geyt avek — “Oy, oy, oy, Yoshke’s on his way, / One more kiss, and one more kiss, the train is on its way.”

The song’s composer was a celebrated character. Born in Belarus in 1873, he sang as a child in a synagogue choir; ran away from home; joined various traveling theater groups, first as stagehand and then as an actor; opened a dancing school in Minsk, and acquired the sobriquet der litvisher komiker, “The Litvak comedian.” (Culturally and linguistically, Belarus or White Russia was always considered by Jews to be part of Lithuania.) In World War I he ended up in the Russian army in the Far East, just like Yoshke, though as an entertainer, not a combat soldier. From there he came to New York and became a star on Second Avenue and in the Borscht Belt. Sometimes referred to as “the Jewish Maurice Chevalier,” he kept appearing publicly until his death, in 1960.

“Yoshke” is an affectionate Yiddish form of the Hebrew name Yosef, Joseph, and curiously, the Russo-Japanese War had its real-life “Yoshke” in the person of military hero Yosef Trumpeldor. As a 24-year-old draftee, Trumpeldor lost an arm in Manchuria, in the battle of Port Author, for his role in which he was decorated four times and promoted to captain, making him the highest-ranking Jew in the Russian army. After his demobilization, he went to Palestine and worked as a pioneer in farming settlements in the Galilee, and when World War I broke out, he helped form the Zion Mule Corps and served with distinction as its deputy commander at Gallipoli. He was a company commander in the Jewish Legion, which fought with the British army in Palestine, and he was killed defending the outpost of Tel-Hai in the Upper Galilee against Arab attackers in 1920. He was truly, in Yoshke’s words, der shenster in der rote, the finest soldier in whatever unit he was in.

M. Cerasik sends me an article from the July 5 Internet edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, titled “Have Pop Stars Hijacked ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’?” Discussing discontent with the high-flown way the national anthem is now sung at sporting events, as if it were an operatic aria or a song from a Broadway musical, the article quotes a certain Tony Giorno, a member of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Philadelphia, arguing that the singing of the anthem should be led by someone from the armed forces. Such people, Giorno says, “are in a position of military responsibility for the country. They are not pop stars. [Singing the anthem] is just tchotchke for them.”

Mr. Cerasik, of course, was soliciting my opinion on this use of the word “tchotchke,” not on “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s certainly not a Jewish use, and it would appear to represent one of those cases, commented on by me more than once in the past, in which a Yiddish word (in this case deriving from Polish cacko, “toy”), in escaping the limited orbit of American Jewish speech, has also changed meaning.

“Tchotchke” — without an indefinite article, so that it’s functioning more as an adjective than as a noun — would seem to have the meaning here of a routine or everyday occasion as opposed to a grand or special one. It doesn’t at all have the sense of a gewgaw, piece of bric-a-brac or tasteless bit of decoration, as it does in Yiddish.

How has this change of meaning taken place? I suppose the trajectory has been from “gewgaw” to “worthless object,” from “worthless object” to “everyday object,” and from “everyday object” to just plain “everyday.” The Jewish ear may object, but a word that is part of the vocabulary of a Tony Giorno is no longer a Jewish word. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the price of success.

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


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!
  • "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.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • 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.