The Meaning of Death: A Yiddish Folksong and Attitudes Toward Assimilation

I was listening to this song about “Tsen Brider,” basically a Yiddish regressive counting song in which one brother after the next dies until you’re left with just one brother.

It’s macabre, but not surprising for a Jewish folksong. Jewish history is filled with persecution and pogroms, and Ashkenazic Jews in particular did tend to dwell on these tragedies and treat those who were killed as martyrs – “kodshim,” holy ones.

I wanted to know more about the song’s origins, so I did a quick search and found an article about it: http://www.coloradohebrewchorale.org/…/Tsen-Brider_-a-Jewis…

There’s a lot of really fascinating information in this article. One point really struck me, though:

“I have collected, so far, ten variants of the “Tsen Brider” folksong… In one version, published in New York in 1924, none of the brothers dies; rather, most of them succumb to occupational hazards. For example, the wine merchant gets drunk, the baker gets singed, and the hosiery dealer gets tangled in his thread. In the final verse, the narrator of the song explains his own fate in words which reveal yet another dimension of the disappearing Jew: he leaves the community by marrying out of the faith.

Eyn bruder bin ikh mir,
Hob ikh mikh ferlibt in a meydel, a sheyner,
Hob ikh mir a shikse genumen,
Ikh gebliben keyner.

I am one brother,
I fell in love with a beautiful girl,
I married a non-Jew,
Now I’m no-one.”

In effect, marrying a non-Jewish woman is being equated with death, since the interfaith marriage replaces what is death in every other version of the folksong… In some ways, this version makes interfaith marriage worse than death: the speaker says he is “no-one” – not “as good as dead,” but living and worthless.

It’s not at all surprising that marrying out of the faith is viewed as a terrible thing. And it’s not very surprising that it’s effectively compared to death. And it’s also not very surprising that this version dates from 1924 in New York – a time and place when Jews were beginning to feel the effects of assimilation and reacted against this by closing ranks and shutting out all non-Jewish community and influence.

None of that is surprising to anyone who knows a little bit about Jewish history. But as unsurprising as it is, it struck me as significant – to have such a clear example of this happening, to have the evolution of the current chasidish and charedi mindset immortalized in the changing face of one folksong.

It wasn’t just after the Holocaust, after all. As Chani Getter says in the One of Us documentary, the chasidish communities in New York came here after the Holocaust, and a lot of their insular, terrified-of-anything-secular mindset is influenced by this feeling of having been persecuted, forced to flee, hated because of their Jewishness, etc.

But the closing-off and insularity began in the era of disdaining the “goldene medinah” too. Growing up, I of course heard all about the “path of tefillin” littering the Atlantic, as Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe’s shtetls to America in search of financial security discarded their Jewish identities on the way over, throwing their tefillin overboard.

The “dangers” of outside society are not attributed only to physical death in a charedi mindset – in fact, listen to any Agudah speech or any “asifa,” and you’ll find this very mentality, railing most against the “insidious” effects of the maliciously creeping influence of the “outside.” As Tales Out of Bais Yaakov documents, people do actually say today that someone who leaves religious Judaism would be better off dead.


I’ll dedicate this post to my favorite shiksa-married-to-a-Jew: love you, friend ❤ Your marriage is one of the most inspiring I know.

8 thoughts on “The Meaning of Death: A Yiddish Folksong and Attitudes Toward Assimilation

  1. love the version of occupational hazards – and the comedy of Yiddish theatre but marrying out is akin to a death if only because family and its traditions are the ties that bind. Dissolution is the main fear of the diaspora – not least since 1945 with all that pre-war assimilation!
    p.s. My husband married out but we keep J-C faiths in a semi-conservative tradition and our phrases are often laced with Yiddish – a most onomatopoeic language

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    1. Yes, I of course agree with you, that it’s not like death! Or anything like it. But my family thinks it is… In an earlier post, “Think Kindly of Her,” I wrote about my mother’s comment about sitting shiva for me – and I didn’t “marry out,” I just left religion. This song, with its version of marrying a “shiksa” being akin to death, is a sad encapsulation of a mindset which contributed to the current insular, fearful mindset of Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Judaism that I have rejected.

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      1. thank you for elaborating. Intransigent faith of orthodoxies brooks no arguments – like the commandments made in stone – no room for manoeuvre. Rather harsh!
        My husband was always ‘out’ as a mere Conservative even though chief boy chorister in his synagogue – and most certainly now having married a shiksa
        p.s. have you seen the film ‘Hester Street’?

        Liked by 1 person

    2. (PS: I’ve edited the post to more accurately represent this. I had been writing for an audience I assumed was mostly OTD or Orthodox – I added some explanation for a wider audience. Thank you for making me aware I need to do that from now on 😉)

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  2. > a lot of their insular, terrified-of-anything-secular mindset is influenced by this feeling of having been persecuted, forced to flee, hated because of their Jewishness, etc.

    That’s the narrative, but I don’t think it’s accurate. The average Jew in pre-war Europe was not as separate as the frum world likes to believe. It was the RW Orthodox, particularly the followers of the Chasam Sofer, that saw anything secular as threatening. The Chassidish and Yeshivish communities of toady are his heirs.

    > Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe’s shtetls to America in search of financial security discarded their Jewish identities on the way over

    That’s also an inaccurate part of the narrative. Those who emigrated were a self-selected group, and tended to be those who were already secular or on the fringes of the religious community. Nor did they come here fleeing persecution per se. They were part of the massive wave of Eastern-European immigration to the US in the early 20th century after Russia rapidly industrialized and millions of farmers and craftsmen were put out of business by tractors, combines, and factories.

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    1. Ah, and this is what happens when I post too quickly, without enough time to edit properly. I know this is an inaccurate portrayal – I was trying to say that this is the narrative, regardless of truth. Because the narrative contributes to the mentality, and the repetition of these themes contributes to the mentality – and the truth ceases to matter to people who but into the narrative without questioning it.

      Thanks for the clarification 😊

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