What better way to celebrate Mother’s Day than to sit back and listen to “My Yiddishe Mame,” which long ago escaped the confines of the Jewish ghetto to become one of the world’s most popular songs about the love of a mother. The proof is in the wide range of singers of all backgrounds and styles who have performed and recorded the song: everyone from Sophie Tucker to Billie Holiday to Ray Charles to Charles Aznavour to Tom Jones.
The song clearly speaks to audiences around the world. There’s a Hungarian version recorded by Vámosi János.Carlos Argentino sings it in Spanish, replete with mariachi horns, and Ivan Rebroff recorded a German version called “Mutters Hände.” In 1932, Pjofr Leschennko recorded a Russian tango version, but my favorite foreign-language version of the tune is probably Annikki Tähti’s 1955 rendition, “On Katseessa Äidin,” in Finnish. The song’s universal appeal is obvious. As Neil Sedaka once said, “Everybody has a mother. And it’s touching, whatever religion you might be.”
The original song, published as “My Yiddishe Momme” (the spelling has widely varied over time), was written by Jack Yellen and Lew Pollack in the early 1920s. Willie Howard (born Wilhelm Levkowitz in Silesia), one half of the vaudeville duo the Howard Brothers, is said to have recorded the first version in 1925. Belle Baker recorded the tune soon after, apparently on the recommendation of her fellow vaudeville singer, Sophie Tucker. It was Tucker, born Sofya Kalish, who made the song a mainstream success – by singing it entirely in English.
There are, however, dozens of other versions of “My Yiddishe Mame” deserving of a listen, either for their virtuosity or for their sheer novelty value. Here are nine of them:
The Ukrainian-born Yossele Rosenblatt, who immigrated to New York City in 1912, is widely regarded as the greatest cantorial soloist of his time. He also recorded some non-religious tunes. This must explain why “My Yiddishe Mame” was the only secular song in the repertoire of my immigrant grandfather, a cantor who, like many, worshipped Rosenblatt.
At some point in the 1950s, the great jazz vocalist Billie Holiday added the song to her live repertoire. When she sings the phrase, “I need her more than ever now,” you really believe her.
The Barry Sisters
After Sophie Tucker, the Barry Sisters version remains one of the best-known. Theirs is a savvy production, arranged to squeeze out the maximum sentimentality with syrupy strings and choral sections taken at a snail’s pace. But it also features some of Merna and Claire Barry’s best singing – a little before the halfway mark, they engage in some cantorial-inspired improvisation. Plus their Yiddish is impeccable.
As I wrote in these pages last December, the Italian-American popular singer Connie Francis recorded an entire album of Jewish material, including “My Yiddishe Mame,” in 1960. The success of her version, sung in both English and Yiddish, has even led one music writer to misidentify the Italian-American Francis as “a Jewish singer from New Jersey.”
Connie Francis’s career is inextricably linked to that of Neil Sedaka, who wrote her second big hit, 1958’s “Stupid Cupid.” (Her first hit was her rendition of “Who’s Sorry Now.”) The one-time pop idol and incredibly successful songwriter has recorded several versions of “My Yiddishe Mame,” including on his 2003 album, “Brighton Beach Memories — Neil Sedaka Sings Yiddish.”
He sings it, well … Tom Jones-style. My favorite part comes right at the end when the band plays a spaghetti-Western-like outro.
Ray Charles could sing anything. He started out as a Nat King Cole-style small-band jazz singer before embracing gospel-tinged R&B. He was present at the birth of rock and roll with “What’d I Say?” He practically invented soul music, and then he turned around and recorded “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.” So it comes as no surprise to learn that he also sang Yiddish. When he made a guest appearance as Grandma Yetta’s fiancé on the Fran Drescher TV sitcom, “The Nanny,” he sat at the piano and sang “My Yiddishe Mame.” He punched up the song with a bit of … sass.
Is this why my Yiddishe mama loved to listen to this French crooner all the time?
The enduring appeal of “My Yiddishe Mame” is clear in this rendition by one of the world’s preeminent contemporary Yiddish vocalists. Eleanor Reissa’s version seems to channel the best of them all – a hint of Sophie Tucker’s nostalgia, Billie Holiday’s jazz, the Barry Sisters’ devotion to Yiddish, Ray Charles’s sass, all tied together and given the unique Eleanor Reissa treatment.
Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor at the Forward. He is the author of “The Essential Klezmer: A Music Lover’s Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music (Algonquin Books, 2000).