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.