He Beat Me Black and Blue: Yiddish Songs of Family Violence, Part Four

This is the last part of a four-part article originally appearing in the Spring 2011 issue of Lilith Magazine. Read the first three parts here, here and here.

ALLUSIONS TO RAPE

Margaritkelekh / Daisies

In the woods, by a stream
The daisies grow like little suns
With white rays.
Khavele goes there, quiet and dreamy,
Her braids unfastened,
Her blouse open at the neck, she sings.
When a boy approaches
Hair black like coal, eyes aflame,
He answers her song.
“What are you looking for out here,
Did you lose something?
What do you want to find in the grass?”
“I’m just looking for daisies”, she blushes.
“Still looking? He asks. “And me,
I just found the prettiest one in the forest.
With braids and sapphire eyes, what eyes.”
“No, let me go, I can’t do this.
My mother says it’s wrong.
She’ll be so angry.”
“What Mother, where is she.
There are just trees here.”
“Do you like me?” “I like you.”
“Are you ashamed?” “I am ashamed .”
Then love me, and be ashamed, and be silent.
And see how my black curls mix with your golden.”
The sun in gone now, the boy — gone,
And Khavele still sits in the woods.
Looks off into the distance, murmuring the song….

This popular folksong is traditionally sung as a sweet romantic encounter. I had thought of it somewhat more darkly, as a sinister love song. Last year, I conducted a vocal master class and a young woman presented “Margaritkelekh” as a song about date rape. The song reflected her own experience being raped by someone she knew. The confusion, shame and loneliness of the victim in the song was clear to her and it has changed the song for me forever.

A USABLE PAST

Yiddish folk culture is often seen as a relic of a quaint world gone by. But as these songs show us, this culture connects us to a real and usable past. When we strip away our sentimental notions and look at the content of the songs, the complicated world that our families come from is revealed. In these songs we hear the clarion voices of our mothers’ grandmothers. Their experiences and stories empower us to face our own lives as Jewish women.

We are all Brayne. We hear our neighbor’s pain. We see the horrific consequences of systemic poverty on women around the world, how laws are used to limit women’s autonomy. Against the historical odds, Yiddish culture equips us to act in the present.

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He Beat Me Black and Blue: Yiddish Songs of Family Violence, Part Four

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