My mother used to sing us to sleep with a wordless lullaby. We called it “ay-lee-loo-lee,” because those were the sounds she used to sing the melody. When my younger sisters were babies, I would stand near their crib, one arm reaching through the bars to rhythmically pat their backs, and sing them this same wordless lullaby.
My mother did tell us once that there are actually words to this song. She told us two lines: “a yingele vus vaxed a talmid chacham / zul liggen azoi nas vi in a teich” – a little boy who will grow up to be a great scholar / should lie so wet like in a puddle. Her explanation was that the speaker is a mother, looking at her child and wondering aloud – how could it be, that this son of mine, who will become steeped in Torah later in his life, is lying in a puddle of his own urine now (ie in his diaper)?
[Side note: was she criticizing herself for not changing her baby’s diaper soon enough? Okay, and back to serious…]
A while ago, I found this video on YouTube. The full song includes a version of those lines, but it also includes many other observations about the child as he is now and the man he will grow up to be. (Continued after the video.)
Sleep, sleep, Yankele, my handsome son.
Close your little black eyes.
My little one, now that you have all your teeth –
must you make your mother sing you to sleep?
The little boy who has all his teeth
and who, God permitting, will soon go to kheyder
And learn Torah and Talmud –
must he cry when his mama rocks him to sleep?
The little boy who will learn Talmud –
and how glad and proud in his heart your father is
The little boy who will grow into a scholar –
must he make his mother stay awake all night?
[two lines untranslated in the comments and I don’t know these words]
The little boy, a clever bridegroom,
must he lie so wet as in a puddle?
Sleep then, my little one,
my clever one who will be a bridegroom yet.
Sleep while you are still in your cradle by my side.
It will cost your mother many tears
to make a man of you.
And now, approaching this song with the perspective of the dissertation I’m in the midst of writing, my discomfort with it became clearer. The song does not allow the mother to see the child as a child. The song does not allow the child to be a child.
True, it ends with a reassurance (to the child? to the mother?) that the child can sleep now in the cradle as long as he’s a child – but the mother is still thinking of the man this child will be, and she is already crying because she will have to work so hard to change these childish behaviors into adult goals.
This is something I had begun to notice and be able to articulate about Bais Yaakov schooling as well. Teachers would tell us that each girl is at a different spiritual level and we each need to strive higher, but whatever level we’re at right now, it’s okay – but the rest of their behavior toward us told us that we ought to have gotten to the end point by now. The stages, the “child,” was not given room to simply be.
She always had to have an eye on the future, on what she will become – and she was expected to behave like the result, not like the stages. It’s what I used to call the “Jewish fake it till you make it” idea – although our teachers expressed it more as “the outside actions will influence the inner feelings and motivation” (the chitzoniyus will lead to the pnimiyus…).
In a way, then, Orthodox Jewish education has no concept of adolescence. Education means becoming the person you should be as soon as you enter the beginning of that process.
Interestingly enough, most people think the Middle Ages had no concept of childhood or adolescence. And yet my reading and research shows me that in fact they had more of a concept of the “in-between” stages, of the “becoming an adult” stage, than contemporary Orthodox Judaism does.