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When the Anthem Was in Yiddish

The release last Friday of a Spanish version of the “The Star-Spangled Banner” sparked heated debate on radio talk shows and in the blogosphere. Some pundits took to calling the song “The Illegal Alien Anthem.” Even the president has weighed in on the matter. (He’s opposed.)

But as one might expect in a country built by immigrants, this was hardly the first time the national anthem has been translated into another tongue. The song has given rise to German, French, Chinese, Native American and even Yiddish versions.

In fact, there have been at least two Yiddish renditions. One, “Di Shtern-Batsirte Fon” by Yiddish poet Avrom Aisen, was published in 1943 by the Educational Alliance on New York City’s Lower East Side to mark the 100th “yahrzeit” of anthem scribe Francis Scott Key. The left-wing Jewish People’s Fraternal Order published the second, by Ber Grin, in 1947.

In terms of accuracy, rhythm and rhyme, Aisen’s translation is certainly the better. Aisen, who was born in Brisk, Poland (which today is Brest, Belarus), in 1886, immigrated to New York in 1903. His first poem appeared in the anarchist Yiddish newspaper Freier Arbeter Shtimme in 1907, and he continued to publish Yiddish poetry in almost a dozen newspapers, including the Forverts, even after attaining a degree in dentistry in 1912. After 1920 he devoted himself to translating the works of American and British poets — Byron, Tennyson, Longfellow, Whitman and all of Shakespeare’s sonnets — into Yiddish, presumably to give Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe a taste of the literature that awaited them once they mastered the English language.

And the Jews didn’t stop with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Mandy Patinkin’s album “Mameloshen” (1998) presents a Yiddish version of “God Bless America,” and to this day the 84-year old Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus includes in its repertoire Berl Latin’s stirring Yiddish translation of “America the Beautiful.” Far from being a refusal to learn a new language, such translations are instead an expression of gratitude toward an open and hospitable land.

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