‘Yip’ Harburg’s All-American Lyrics Came With a Heaping Helping of Yiddishkeit

Ira Gershwin's Classmate Created Tragic and Idealistic Tunes

Lyrically Reclined: Harburg penned ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow,’ made famous by Judy Garland.
Courtesy of Wesleyan University Press
Lyrically Reclined: Harburg penned ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow,’ made famous by Judy Garland.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published February 26, 2013, issue of March 01, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Yip Harburg: Legendary Lyricist and Human Rights Activist
By Harriet Hyman Alonso
Wesleyan Univeristy Press, 332 pages, $28.95

The tragic “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” the idealistic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the raucous “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” were all co-written by the same American Jewish lyricist, E. Y. Harburg (1896–1981), and all owe a debt to Harburg’s Yiddishkeit.

In “Yip Harburg: Legendary Lyricist and Human Rights Activist,” historian Harriet Hyman Alonso relates the story of Isidore Hochberg, who was born in New York, of Russian-Jewish origin, and acquired the nickname “Yip” in his youth. The origins of the nickname remain mysterious despite the fact that Harburg once claimed to interviewer Studs Terkel that he was called “Yip” because he was as hyper-energetic as a squirrel and “yipsl was the [Yiddish] term for a squirrel” (it isn’t).

Throughout his life, Harburg maintained a steadfast allegiance to social concerns: “I had a predisposition to feeling for the underdog. I grew up in the slums,” he once said. “I know what it is to have your father come home from the sweatshop after working 12 hours a day.” He also knew Yiddish theater, especially the chest-beating and “Jovian outrage of guilt,” as Harburg later recalled it, of tragedian Boris Thomashefsky. Harburg also relished great Jewish vaudevillians of his boyhood, including Fanny Brice, Willie Howard and Ed Wynn. Isidore Gershvin, a classmate in high school and in City College, later to become famous as Ira Gershwin, introduced him to Gilbert & Sullivan recordings. W. S. Gilbert’s lyrics made a lasting impression.

Fired from a boring office job after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Harburg started penning lyrics and was introduced by Gershwin to a Russian-born Jewish composer named Jay Gorney. Harburg and Gorney produced the 1932 hit “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” for a Broadway revue, “Americana.” Gorney would later describe the melody, as Alonso notes, as inspired from a “Jewish lullaby that his mother had sung to him.” The song’s direct plea from a schnorrer for rakhmones (pity) and Job-like plaints (“Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?”) seem to echo Yiddish theater style. The Yiddish song “Papirosn” (“Cigarettes”), a setting of a Bulgarian folk tune to words by Herman Yablokoff, features a grieving young beggar boy recounting his tale of woe to passersby.

Papirosn” is an amped-up, more intensely visceral precedent for “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” which is more restrained in order to appeal to a non-Jewish public. Even so, the grandiose self-imagery in “Brother” (“Once I built a railroad, / Made it run…”) is not far from Thomashefsky’s breast-beating declarations. “Brother” was immediately embraced by such singers as Bing Crosby and the Ivy League crooner Rudy Vallee, and is performed even today, by multimillionaire popstars who lack a sense of irony, such as George Michael. Harburg parodied his own lyrics for political purposes in 1974, when he published a Watergate commentary in The New York Times:

“Once we had a Roosevelt,/ Praise the Lord, / Life had meaning and hope./ Now we’re stuck with Nixon, / Agnew – Ford, / Brother, can you spare a rope?”


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!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks? http://jd.fo/d4kkV
  • 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.