Oy: The Music of a Sigh

Tonight is the 11th anniversary of the death of my father, Yehuda Elberg.  He was a renowned author and essayist in the Yiddish-speaking world.  This is one of his English essays, a discussion of the importance of the word “oy” to the Jewish soul.


Oy: The Music of a Sigh- by Yehuda Elberg, © 1993

All the instruments in a brass band are made of the same material, but each of the various horns gives forth a different sound, because it is moulded in a different shape. Music written for a trumpet will not sound right on a tuba, and certainly not on a trombone.

The music of the Yiddish soul can be played best on the instrument that is called “Yiddish language.” Jewish parents who Yehuda Elberg bookwant their child to grow up in spiritual equanimity and with the maximum potential for creativity must give that child the proper instrument — the language that grew out of a thousand years of Jewish culture, the language that is soaked through with Jewish tears and which vibrates with Jewish song, the language of Jewish hope and faith, the language in which Jewish mothers rocked their children to sleep and in which our heroes roused us to bravery and kiddush ha-shem.

Yiddish is a musical language, and the meaning of a word depends on the tune in which it is expressed.

Jewish Humour

Jewish humour tells us of a Jew in Tsarist Russia who got an entry permit to the U.S. He needed a birth certificate, passport, an exit permit, he ran from office to office and every clerk held out his hand for bribe. “Funie gannef“, “Russian thief,” the Jew cried out with disgust. He finally got all his documents and left for N.Y. A relative picked him up on Ellis Island and on the way home he took him to a cafeteria where he put in a nickel and out came a hot cup of coffee. “Americhka gannef!” the newcomer exclaimed in admiration, and the word gannef here had an entirely different meaning.

Jewish folklore tells of a Jewish beggar who lived in the poorhouse. He sustained himself from begging door to door. One day it was discovered that he has a bundle of money and they brought him to the rabbi. The rabbi told him that he has no right to go around begging when he is not poor.

“But this is my livelihood,” the beggar protested.

“Unless you give your money for charity you will not be permitted to beg,” the rabbi insisted.

The beggar asked for three days to think it over. When he came back, he gave away his money and explained: Money is a feeble thing, it can be lost or stolen, it can lose its value, but with a livelihood one feels secure.

Prayers for womenyoung Yehuda Elberg

I have a little old book of Tehinot, Yiddish prayers for women, written by women (it is about one hundred and fifty years old).  I found there a prayer before lighting the Shabbat candles, which moved me to tears.  The woman asks for affluence, she asks the Creator to bless her with gold and riches so that she would be able to feed the students of the holy Torah, and support widows and orphans.  But she asks for this with the condition that the Creator, blessed be He, should together with the hard golden coins, give her a soft golden heart, the virtue of humility, and bless her with the talent to distribute charity with loving kindness, so that the beneficiary should feel that the benefactor is only a messenger who delivers the livelihood due to him.

But if the Creator does not agree to protect her from vanity and arrogance, which might cause the recipients humiliation, then please God protect me from becoming rich and sinning against you and against people.  May the poor and the Torah students find support with someone who is more worthy of it.

The woman who composed this prayer surely knew the deeper meaning of the word Tzedaka.  Jews are known to be charitable, AND Jews and their language influenced one another.  Yiddish words are soaked with Jewish tears, and vibrate with Jewish song.  By preserving Yiddish we preserve an important part of our culture, and we fortify Jewish virtues.

Heimish- homely

The English word for one’s residence is “home,” from which come the word “homely,” which can mean plain, common, ugly. The good times were spent in the street, in the pub, in the club. The home was humble, banal. But you can feel the warmth, the festiveness, of the love-guarded Jewish home in the expressions that grew out of the Yiddish word “heym.” Heymlich (cheerful, jolly), and heymish (intimate, snug, cosy). A heymisher mentch is a warm, affable person who doesn’t brag and whom you can count on in time of trouble.

And what of the ethical and aesthetic values of a Jewish home, the Shabbos and the holiday tables? The table in a Jewish home is like an altar of God, say our holy books. When God is in the home it is a holy place. Afflictions would have smothered the Jewish home under a heavy mountain of sorrow if that home had not hatched a mood in which such lovely Yiddish words as heymish and heymlich were born, bringing warmth and cosiness, heymishkeit and heymlichkeit into Jewish life.

A deathly fear of “sin”

The Talmud moderated many apparent harsh concepts in the Torah. Yiddish achieved the same in the way-of-life of our people. Heschel wrote: “Just as Rashi democratised Jewish education, Rabbi Judah the-Hasid and his circle, in the 12th and 13th centuries, democratised the ideals of mystical piety… The main thing is faith, heart, and inwardness. Righteousness is more important than wisdom; innocence is higher than analytical study; he who fears heaven is more distinguished than the scholar. Through their apotheosis of simplicity, of heartfelt faith, of humanity and all sorts of good habits they prepared the way for a simple mortal to reach God.”

We also know, however, that Rabbi Judah the-Hasid and the Hasidim of Ashkenaz of his time could not remove themselves from the times in which they lived. The medieval Christian ascetics influenced the Jews who lived among them. The Jewish mussar (ethics)-books of that time did disseminate ethics and they educated Jews to practice good habits, but they also filled them with a deathly fear of “sin” and its punishment, a fear that robbed people of their rest by day and ruined their sleep at night. A great deal that was earthy and human was regarded as “sin.” Even if one managed to keep oneself from doing sinful things he could not always drive out sinful thoughts — which lead straight to hell. The graphic horror stories of the pain and punishment meted out in gehennim induced nightmares and threw people into despondency.

This is alien to Jewish thought; it is against the Jewish spirit of enjoying life. It is written that when God created the world he saw that “it was good.” Our sages asked: “What is so good about it?” And they replied that God was pleased that the human being was born with a yetser hora — a capacity to sin. Without desire and passion the human being would lack initiative; he would not plow, he would not sow, he would not even bring children into the world.

So, in the Ukraine and Poland, a new Hasidism was born. Yiddish language and Yiddish fervor influenced the way of the Hasidim. To the specific laws that say that tormenting one’s own body is a sin, the Hasidim added that despondency and sadness is also a sin. Gloom is a trap set by Satan.

In Ethics of the Fathers there is an adage: “Know whence you come, where you are going, and before whom you will have to give an accounting.” Man comes from a malodorous drop, he returns to the dust of the earth, where the worms eat him — and that’s not the end of it. He will also have to account to the King of Kings for his deeds.

The Maggidim, itinerant preachers who used to travel from town to town in Eastern Europe, used to scare the life out of their listeners with that verse from the Mishna: “How can such a nothing, such a vile drop as the human being is, dare to disobey God’s commandments? Nothing is forgiven or forgotten, the gates of hell are always open, the fearsome angels of gehennim are waiting for their victims with red-hot pitchforks!” These threats of the Maggidim cast a pall of terror over the Jews who heard them.

Well, along came the Hasidic Rebbe of Ger and interpreted that Mishna in precisely the opposite way: The yetser hora, the evil inclination wants to lead you off the straight and narrow path, so he comes and says to you, with a sanctimonious look on his face, “Do you know where you come from and where you’re destined to go?” He wants to make you sad. You should answer him: “But do you know to whom I will have to account? To the King of Kings himself! Have a little respect for someone in whom the King of Kings takes such an interest!”

It is said that on Purim, Simchas Torah and other festive occasions when whiskey is imbibed in the shtible, the Hasidic prayer house, and the Jews dance there, Reb Lazer the Nose used to sing the verse, odom yesoydoy m’ofer, man comes from the dust. Someone asked him why he was singing and what’s so great about man coming from the dust and returning to the dust. Reb Lazer smiled and replied: “If Man came from gold and ended up as dust, then the loss would be great indeed. But he comes from the earth, returns to the earth, and in between he can have a couple of drinks besides — what’s so bad about that?”

Oy, Jews have survived even worse

In English, nebech has nebish, and means almost the same as shlemazl. The word nebech comes from the Polish nieboga or Czech nieboha — “God’s mercy has been removed from him.” In English it has become a word of ridicule. According to the psychoanalysts the nebish is a masochist who prepares his own downfall. And really, why should people feel sorry for him when he himself is to blame for his own failures? When a Jew, however, says “Oy, iz er nebech af tsores,” he says it with an undertone of pain. The listener feels that the other person’s trouble is also his trouble — he is unhappy over someone else’s unhappiness.

Oy and nebech grew out of the feeling that all Jews share a common destiny and that Jews are mutually responsible for each other’s fate. If that is so, then the words are cultural values and have a therapeutic effect on our spirit.  According to Abraham Sutzkever, “Oy” is a primeval sound.

A 2000-year-old OY has become an integral part of our being. Is it a “golus krechtz, the mournful sigh of a homeless people?” Yes, but our troubles purified us. After the words “Oy, things are very bad!” came the “Oy, Jews have survived even worse times.” The OY of that particular moment called to all the other OY’s in Jewish history and it became something else altogether. The expression of pain sublimated in a magical incantation to help us endure.

Our OY helped us to preserve the Tselem Elokim, the image of God, in times of humiliation, our restraint in time of trial, our courage in time of need. OY is perhaps the only word in our rich mamme-loshn that characterizes the entire language. The cry of pain has become the watchword of endurance. The Yiddish language has the warmth and the strength of spiritual therapy, perhaps because it contains the music of the Jewish sigh, the simplicity of Jewish faith and the psalm-like melody that sings straight from the heart.

To sum up: Yiddish drew from tradition and Yiddish enriched tradition. A people can produce great artists only when those artists know to recognize and stand at the spring from which the thirst of their souls was slaked.  Poets build on folksongs, epics are based on folk legends, great musical works are inspired by and include folk motifs. An artist is in tune with the soul of his people when the people’s language sings out of him. The ecstasy of the Eastern European Jews found its expression in Yiddish. Yiddish words are the keys to our soul, the keyboard on which one can best play the melody of the last thousand years of Jewish life and creativity. The language of innocence and of wisdom, of the synagogue bench and the cobbler’s bench, of the Yiddish bible and of the revolutionary who fought for a better world.

2 thoughts on “Oy: The Music of a Sigh

  1. I remember your father well. His generous heart and kind manner will be in my heart forever. He was a unique person. He would be so proud of you. Oy…

  2. Thank you for a wonderful essay. In these days of civilizational breakdowns, it is a reminder that cultural achievements run long and run deep, and that they are worth preserving.

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