I recall a lullaby my grandmother sang to me. Whenever my eyes conceded to the tiredness of a young child’s day, I lay my head in her cushioned lap, allowing her wrinkled fingers to graze through my hair and warmly stroke my hand. In a rasped voice, weary from age, she soothed me:
IN DEM BEYS-HAMIKDESH IN A VINKLE KHEYDER,
In the corner of the Temple
ZITST DI ALMONE, BAS-TSIYOYN ALEYN
The widowed daughter of Zion sits,
IR BEN-YOKHIDL YIDELEN VIGT ZI KESEYDER
Rocking her only son Yidele to sleep
UN ZINGT IM TSUM SHLOFN A LIDELE SHEYN:
She sings a tender lullaby:
“UNTER YIDELES VIGELE
“Under Yidele’s cradle
SHTEYT A KLOR -VAYS TSIGELE,
Stands a snow-white kid,
DOS TSIGELE IZ GEFORM HANDLEN
This kid has been to market.
DOS VET ZAYN DAYN BARUF:
That will be calling:
ROZHINKES MIT MANDLEN;
Trading raisings with almonds;
SHLOF ZHE, YIDELE, SHLOF.
So sleep now, Yidele, sleep.
ES VET KUMEN A TASYT FUN AYZNBANEN,
There will come a time when trains
ZEY VELN FARFLEYTSN DI BANTSE VELT;
Will cover the earth;
AYZERNE VEGN VESTU OYSSHPANEN
You’ll travel on iron roads
UN VEST IN DEM OYKH FARDINEN FIL GELT.
And earn great wealth.
UN AZ DU VEST RAYKH, YIDELE
But even when you become rich, Yidele,
ZOLSTUZIKH DERMONEN IN DEM LIDELE:
Remember this lullaby:
ROZHINKES MIT MANDLEN;
Raisins with almonds;
DOS VET ZAYN DAYN BARUF!
This will be your calling!
YIDELE VET ALTS HANDLEN,
You will trade everything,
SHLOF ZHE, YIDELE, SHLOF.”
So sleep now, Yidele, sleep.”
When I was six years old, I remember sitting beside my Grandfather on the front porch of my house. It was a sunny day, dusk in late spring, that time of day when the sun seems to blind you. A police officer walked up the driveway to tell us that my Grandmother had been hit by a car in the parking lot of a supermarket at the end of our block. We ran as fast as we could to the corner. My Grandfather was immediately guided to the ambulance while an officer sat with me in the back of a police car. I knelt on the seat and leaned against the window, watching as they lifted the stretcher into the ambulance. Softly, I soothed my self: “Unter Yideles VigeleΣ” as my Grandmother would.
On the night that my sister returned from the hospital with her new son, she placed a sack of Rozhinkes mit mandlen beneath the baby’s bassinet. We had no idea where the custom had come from or whether it was superstition. The sack was placed there lovingly and remained there, regardless. And on the tape of bedtime songs that my sister often plays for him is Rozhinkes mit mandlen.
These symbols marked my fiancé’s Aufruf as well (literally, going up, in Yiddish, or the calling to the Torah of the groom before the wedding.). After he read from the Torah, our friends and family showered us with tiny sacks of raisins and almonds, blessing us with a life built upon Jewish values and happiness. At our wedding, I could not think of a more appropriate song with which to escort my Grandmother down the aisle. As the doors to the sanctuary opened and she paused for a photograph, the violins began to play “In Dem bes-hamikdesh in a vinkl kheyderΣ” Her lullaby has touched so many moments in my life.
This traditional Yiddish song has always been meaningful to me, neither for the words, its inherent message, nor the lulling melody, but simply because my Grandmother sang it with tenderness. Nonetheless, as I grow into an adult and envision the life ahead and children of my own, I reflect on the essence of the lullaby. Each milestone, like my wedding or the birth of my nephew, illuminates its meaning further. It speaks of bittersweet history, a vastly transforming future, and tradition at risk. Almost with dejection, it appeals for the mere remembrance of heritage amidst a rapidly changing world. The mother who sings to her Yidele, her little boy, reveals little faith in cultural continuity. Sadly certain that he will abandon the legacy of tradition for the riches of technological advancement, she warns him of his assimilated fate with the hope that he will at least remember this lullaby as a relic of a time and culture gone by. The intended message of course is very much dependent on the time and dynamics in which the song was written. Likewise, the personal theme rests on cumulative history and experience.
For me, it is a reminder of how delicate and yet how powerful culture is. Even when tradition seems like stagnant embers of a burnt-out fire, it may suddenly reemerge and invigorate the spark between us and our ancestry. Through my observance of tradition, I unknowingly sustain a cultural legacy greater than the mere memory a lullaby.