Aaron Lebedeff (born 1873 in Belarus, died 1960 in New York City) is probably the single greatest Yiddish performer of all time. He was born for the stage, singing with the local cantor Khazzan Borukh Dovid in his shtetl and running away from home multiple times to join theatre troupes. After being drafted into the Russian Army in the war, he was sent to Manchuria, and went from there to Shanghai to San Francisco to New York City (the exact opposite direction almost every other Jewish immigrant came to what was affectionately called the American Jerusalem). Unlike many of the performers of his time, he composed, wrote the lyrics to, and sang and performed all of his material.
Lebedeff’s most famous work is the classic comedic monologue Rumenye, Rumenye, an old recording of which I’ve linked here. The Jewish community of Romania was often joked about by other Jewish communities, who characterized them as drunken thieving lowlifes who only want a good time. This song plays into those stereotypes, but in a humorous and poignant way. And we see this in the song’s structure.
We begin with a slow clarinet introduction, full of the sobbing krekhts and quivering dreydlekh that characterize eastern European folk music. Then, at 14 seconds, our narrator comes in. “Ekh!” he shouts. “Rumania, Rumania, Rumania, Rumania, RUMANIA, Rumania, Rumania!” We hear the loss in his voice as he reminisces… “Once there was a land, sweet and lovely.” Is this song going to be yet another dirge about lost history and home, as was his Slutsk mein Shtetele? But at 50 seconds, we reach a turn!
|“Oy, to live there would be such a delight!”
“What your heart desires you can get!”
And just as it seems to be calming down with “a little glass of wiiiine,” we break into a fast-paced freylekh dance. This is the core of the song, and as the music livens up, so to do the words:
|In Rumania, life is good!
No one worries, no one should.
Everywhere they’re drinking wine –
And a bit of cheese is fine
|In Rumania, iz dokh gut
Fun keyn dayges veyst men nit.
Vayn trinkt men iberal –
M’farbayst mit kashtaval.
At 1:38, we suddenly find ourselves major! And at 1:58, we come across the chorus:
|Ah, it’s such a joy!
You can’t find better
Ah, it’s such a delight
Drinking Rumanian wine!
|Ay, s’iz a mekhaye,
beser ken nit zayn!
Ay, a fargenign
iz nor Rumeynish vayn.
At 2:09, we start hearing some new “vocables” or nonsense sounds. These grow more prominent throughout the verses and verses and verses as the speed increases to a climax at 3:07.
Suddenly, a full stop. We’re back at the beginning, with some pseudo-chazzanus from the former cantorial soloist. As Aaron semiaudibly reminisces about Bucharesti, we begin to let our guard down. This is a bad idea. At 3:19, a huge “HEYYYYY!” starts the second half of the song – twice as fast. We find ourselves in almost a full minute of nonsense sounds, from rhythmic panting to a clarinet impression to lip flapping, smacking, and gargling.
When meaningful words come back at 4:00, we’re not sure what to expect. But what do we find? Did you guess a reference to the ancient Sabbath liturgy, followed by a bunch of crude and rape-y jokes about sexual harassment? Well, that’s what we get.
“May redemption come from the heavens!”
Stop and kiss the cook, Khayeh
Dressed in old scraps of cloth
She’s making a kugel to honor the Sabbath
Moishe Khayim comes over
And takes the best part for himself
Moyshe Khayim, Borukh Shmil
Grabs her kitzl* in secret.
And the girl pouts, annoyed
And she doesn’t want it, but allows it.
|“Yokum purkon min shamayo!”
Shteyt un kusht di kekhene, Khaye,
Ongeton in alte shkrabes,
Makht a kugal likoved Shabbos!
Iz Moyshe Kahyim ongekumen
Dos beste kheylik tzugenumen;
Moyshe Khayim, Borukh Shmil –
Khapt a kitzl in der shtil!
Un dos meydl nebekh blozt zikh
Un zi vil nit nor zi lozt zikh.
*I’m not translating kitzl, but I’ll let you know katz means “cat” and –l is the diminutive ending, like –y in English. Figure it out yourselves, creeps.
After the patter song gets more and more convoluted, we’re solidly back in party mode, which goes on as another chorus (5:00) goes on to a vast shout (5:10), then more vocables, another few verses of patter, and finally one ending chorus (5:52) and three last great big shouts (6:01).
People say the Jewish story is one of loss and tragedy, and that may be true. But we have some great parties as well. And Lebedeff, the great one of Yiddish theater, shows that more than anyone else. This recording was made after the Nazis destroyed Jewish Europe, and the Soviets disappeared what was left. But Lebedeff knew as we all should remember that you can’t have sorrow without joy. You can’t have mournful reminiscence without drunken parties. And as Purim, the Jewish celebration of drunken nonsense, comes up, we should keep that in mind. Enjoy your Rumanian wine!