Last week, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Yiddish musical duo The Shvesters, comprised of Polina Fradkin and Chava Levi, shared a heartrending version of one of the most well-loved Yiddish songs, “Oyfn Pripetshik,” or in English, “On the Hearth,” which is both timeless and incredibly timely right now.
Most people probably recognize the song from “Schindler’s List,” where it plays, sung by a chorus of children, in one of the Holocaust movie’s most devastating scenes. Steven Spielberg chose the song because it was one his own Jewish grandmother sang to him, and the tune is definitely one that many Ashkenazi Jews have had sung to them as children, or even sang at Jewish day schools and yeshivas.
The song was written by Odessa-born Mark Warshawsky and first published in 1901. Warshawsky was a lawyer by trade, but a lover of music and a congenial man, according to historian David Assaf; he loved music, but didn’t dream to make it his vocation. It was the writer Sholom Aleichem who made him known today, after he forced Warshawsky to write down his songs. “We were all impressed. we heard a kind of new song, we felt a fresh flavor, a special sweetness, in words and melody, and we hounded him to write them on paper.”
Warshawsky’s tune captured an old, nostalgic intimacy, the familiar feeling of the Jewish shtetls. “Oyfn Pripetshik,” or as it was first known, “Dehr Alef-Bet,” invokes the images of a small, toasty room, with fire on the hearth, where a rabbi teaches children how to recognize and read the Hebrew letter aleph and the vowel kometz, or kamatz in Hebrew, which makes the sound of “o.”
While “preypechik” is often translated as “on the hearth,” the pripetshik was, according to Assaf, a kind of oven found in Eastern European homes of yore, used for both cooking and heating. It evokes an image full of specificity, from that toasty fire to the teacher, who is trying to get young kids to learn with “great enthusiasm” by offering a reward – “a flag.”
“What other secret lies in his songs?” Sholom Aleichem wrote about this particular tune. “That they are simple in real Yiddish, not an artificial one — and in that, there’s real poetry. Who of us doesn’t know the image of the Jewish cheder,” he says of the Hebrew word for “room” which referes to the room in which Jews still learn Torah to this day, and in which, back then, little children who spoke Yiddish learned Hebrew.
Beyond its comforting familiarity, the way it captures the beauty of teaching the Torah and those first learning pains, there’s a message about the price we have paid as a people to continue teaching those letters, to pass down traditions from generation to generation. As one of its final verses says:
“When you grow older, children,
You will understand by yourselves,
How many tears lie in these letters,
And how much lament.”
Over more than a century since it was first written, the lyrics of “Oyfn Pripetshik” have been rewritten over and over — as a Tu Bishvat tune about planting trees in pre-state Israel, as a clandestinely Jewish socialist anthem in communist Russia, and most devastatingly, perhaps, a dark song titled “At the Ghetto Gate” by Avrom Akselrod, who was killed by the Nazis in 1944, about the reality of working in the Jewish “brigades” in the Warsaw Ghetto and the sights and terror of working outside the Ghetto and returning to it, trying to smuggle in food. That version of the song describes walking back drenched in sweat and fear: “Should I keep walking or stand/ I do not know what to do/ The commander in the green coat/ No matter what I do/ Will take everything.”
The song was also translated into Hebrew by Pesach Kaplan, who was killed in Ghetto Bialistok in 1943.
Over the years, many have sung this song, from Israel’s most beloved singers, Esther Ofarim and Chava Alberstein, to Mandy Patinkin in his Yiddish language album, to the Yiddish metal band Gevolt. Every cover reminds us, as the song itself does, of the survival and the beauty of Jewish words, of simple traditions, of Jewish song. How despite many tears, so much death and strife, there is joy, or at least, great comfort, in passing down the Torah — and passing down a song like “Oyfn Pripetshik.”