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Culture

Today’s Google Doodle has a Yiddish soundtrack

Today’s Google Doodle offers an interactive ode to swing dance — and a bisl Yiddish. Please let me explain.

If you visit the search engine today, you’ll find an image of dancers in Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, and, if you click, you’ll hear a jazzy instrumental version of the classic “Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn.”

The tune, originally written by composer Sholom Secunda and lyricist Jacob Jacobs for the 1932 musical comedy “Me Ken Lebn Nor Men Lozt Nisht” (“You Could Live, But They Don’t Let You”) became a mainstream hit in 1937 after the songwriters sold the tune for $30. The Andrews Sisters sang it, with Germanized spelling, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” and new English lyrics by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin. They kept the chorus, famously explaining what the non-English words mean — or at least trying to. (Thankfully, they also made the song way less racist than the Yiddish original, but I digress.)

There’s one legend surrounding the song that tracks its journey from the Parkway Theater in Brooklyn on uptown to Harlem. H. Arlo Nimlo’s biography of the Andrews Sisters, recounts how Cahn adapted the song for swing music after hearing it performed at the Apollo by Black musicians Johnnie and George. (Johnnie and George are said to have learned it at Grossinger’s.) Another version credits bandleader Vic Schoen for discovering it in the more typical Yiddish environment of Second Avenue.

In any case, the swing sound — and the Andrews Sisters vocals — made the song a huge hit. Not just in venues like the Savoy.

Here’s something wild: The song was a smash in Nazi Germany under the Germanized title. That changed when its true origins were discovered and Goebbels banned it. Though an exception was made during the war. when Nazi propaganda band, Charlie and his Orchestra, recorded an antisemitic and anti-Bolshevik version

But at the same time the Nazis twisted the song, Americans at USO dances — the same folks fighting back the Germans — were dancing to it, internalizing a Jewish language, and dancing in a style created by Black people. Goebbels would have plotzed.

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