Yiddish in Jazz

Sarah sez, "BBC radio is doing a piece about the influence of Yiddish on American culture - they have a great clip describing the ways in which Yiddish songs made their way into jazz (see blurb below). My grandma - the last surviving member of my family who remembers hearing Yiddish spoken in the home - got a real kick out of it."

Hell, I get a kick out of it! My father's first language was Yiddish, and I grew up taking Sunday Yiddish classes at the secular Workman's Circle school in Toronto. It's still the language I use to communicate with my family in Russia (they don't speak English and I don't speak Russian). It's a fantastically expressive, ironic language made for joking and tummeling and kibbitzing. It's a kind of weak Sapir-Worf: it's nearly impossible to speak it without turning ironic and funny.

And of course, Yiddish jazz like Mickey Katz (brilliantly covered by Don Byron) and the Yiddishisms in Slim Gaillard's music (Matzoh Balls, anyone?) just plain kicks ass.

Yiddish - a language once spoken by more than 10 million Jews - had a profound effect on American culture in the first half of the 20th Century.

It originated in central and eastern Europe - and spread to the United States when thousand of immigrants arrived in New York.

Zalmen Mlotek is the Artistic Director of the city's last surviving professional Yiddish theatre - the Folksbiene.

With the help of his piano, he has been telling Radio 3's Dennis Marks how the language influenced jazz music - and the likes of George and Ira Gershwin.

Audio slideshow: Inspired by Yiddish (Thanks, Sarah!)


  1. This is awesome! Anything to revive Yiddish as a secular language because it’s still alive… But mainly in Orthodox and religious communities where there is zero way you can learn/appreciate it with swallowing a heaping pile of dogma with it.

  2. Among the many jazz musicians I knew in the 50s and 60s, there was a disproportianate number of Jews. Naturally, the majority of those cats were black, but the Jewish presence was certainly pronounced. I learned a lot of Yiddish from them, for which I’ve always been grateful. And the jokes! The funniest things I’ve ever heard. Oy!

  3. not to get picky…but if your dad’s first language was yiddish, and you speak yiddish, then your grandma wasn’t the last one to hear it in the home.

    that would be you.

    I’m just sayin’…

  4. I wonder how much of an influence klezmer/eastern-European Jewish folk music (and, indeed, gypsy/balkan folk) had on jazz musically.

  5. I’m hinky-dink, a solid sender
    A very close friend to Mrs. Bender
    Bender, schmender, a bee gezindt
    I’m the cat that’s in the know.

    – Cab Calloway “A Bee Gezint”

  6. @9: If you look at pictures of Louis Armstrong, you may notice that he is always wearing a Magen David around his neck. This was in gratitude to the Karnofskys family who took him in as a youngster and bought him his first coronet. It seems to be a little-known fact that there was a sizable population of Jewish merchants in New Orleans since the early 19th century living and working with the African-American population.

    I have long felt klezmer (itself having African influence) has been overlooked or grouped in with the European influence on jazz. Modally and certainly rhythmically one cannot deny the similarities between klezmer and early jazz. That klezmer in its present form predates jazz and that Jews and Blacks lived in close proximity in the Cradle of Jazz makes klezmer’s influence on jazz obvious to me, but I’ve never heard klezmer get its due. There seems to be this attitude that the Jews wrote almost every tune in the jazz songbook and they got Al Jolson, isn’t that enough?

  7. Thanks so much for posting this!
    Yiddish folk tunes and Klezmer are definitely in the fabric of the History of Jazz. What’s so beautiful about it is that they are being carried into the present as well.
    I was busy this year writing melodies for incidental music for a play – mixing Yiddish folk melodies with circus tunes and Acadian folk tunes – when I stumbled on the group Odessa/Havana.

    David Buchbinder’s group is self described as “An explosive Jewish/Cuban musical mash-up.”
    I was instantly in love!

    Oh, and if you’re an ethno-musicology geek like me, this Jewish Musical Heritage link is nice to have on hand…

    the “It sounds so Jewish” section traces things back to shtaygers and maqams – enlightening stuff.

  8. Anyone else immediately think of the “Yiddish Charleston” scene from Forbidden Zone when they read this? Unfortunately I can’t find a clip of it posted anywhere (just of every OTHER song from it!) and I’m too lazy to rip the scene from my DVD and throw it up on The YouTubes so big help I am! Anyway here’s the lyrics as best as my Yiddish-less self can interpret them:

    Oi Vey, the Yiddish Charleston/
    They is me(?), the Yiddish Charleston/
    watch those heebie-jeebies/
    at the Yiddish cabaret/
    Lo do dee-do/
    The Yiddish Charleston/
    Do da dee-do/
    A Yiddish Charleston/
    Little yiddles on their fiddles/
    play it on East Broadway/
    Alley-oop, you must wear a derby hat/
    when you do that dance/
    alley-oop you twist like an acrobat/
    then you clap your hands/
    Oi Vey, the Yiddish Charleston/
    They is me(?), the Yiddish Charleston…

    [cue Richard Elfman being shot by Susan Tyrell’s raygun and turning into a skeleton (complete with fish bones in his stomach!) and then disintegrating]

    Seriously Cory (and anyone else reading this) if you haven’t seen this flick before you really should, it’s like the demon live-action offspring of the Fleischer brothers and German Expressionism–not to mention pants-wettingly hysterical!

  9. Where I live in .il well over half of the little kids speak only yiddish, I can understand it but am too slow to speak. Even if you can’t understand it you can download .mp3 shiurim to get a bit of the experience. Another idea is to take a visit to a Jewish nursing home for practice.

  10. Great post thanks! I have recently starting learning Hebrew, I never had my Bar Mitzvah, although I did go to Sunday School growing up. I’m really enjoying it. My next mission is to learn Yiddish.

    I’ve also really been in to Klezmer having picked up the clarinet again. I’ve been trying to practice every day.

  11. I was digging the great Stan Getz at a club one night, and a couple of intricate motifs in his solos blew me away. I asked my friend Shelly, “Where does he get this stuff?” And he said, “A thousand years of Jewish music.”

  12. Geesus, Cory, I finally understand your use of English. There was something about the way English is a malleable plastic commodity to you instead of a fixed point that I couldn’t put my finger on. I’d contrast that with Bill Gibson who seems to work within the known language and presents it in a new and surprising fashion.

    (This reminds me a bit of the xkcd cartoon recently about the number of invented words versus chance a book sucks comic: that applies to Lord of the Rings as well as to Anathem.)

  13. What percentage of comments will be about the upskirt photo attached to this post, saying nothing about jazz or Yiddish? Whose giving odds?

  14. Smonkey, the comment about his father speaking Yiddish is from Cory, but the comment about the grandmother is a quote from the BBC article.

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