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THE RELUCTANT NOVICE

A Course in Culture : Learning Yiddish songs helps this student gain insight into the history and character of his people.

March 26, 1993|MICHAEL ARKUSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You grew up with grandparents from Eastern Europe who spoke more Yiddish than English. Except for a few words you could recognize, such as schlep and chutzpah , home life sounded a lot like the Tower of Babel.

Fast forward to adulthood and you hear about a class at the University of Judaism dealing with Yiddish. Yiddish singing, no less. Great, two things you know absolutely nothing about. But you're encouraged to try it anyway.

The first lesson confirms that suspicion. Archie Barkan, a gentle man who reminds you of your grandfather, explains the origin of each song. That history is what truly makes a study of Yiddish music more than a study of a collection of melodies. They are part of a culture--Eastern European Jewry.

The lyrics trace the years in Russia under the czar and Stalin, the struggle for survival in Nazi Germany and the ongoing pilgrimage to Palestine.

They are personal too. Barkan describes a song about one farmer who must survive on bulbes --or potatoes.

"Sunday--potatoes, Monday -- potatoes, Tuesday and Wednesday -- potatoes. Thursday and Friday -- potatoes. But on Saturday for a change--a potato pudding."

Nonetheless, the farmer is content. The song is performed in a happy, up-tempo style, reminiscent of many Yiddish renditions.

"The people rarely lost their faith in God," Barkan said. "They were very fatalistic and suffered with a smile, like Tevye in 'Fiddler on the Roof.' "

You hear this story and recall your childhood when you saw that play on Broadway. Suddenly, it hits you that this is the story of your people, not just another assignment.

Another song explained the challenge faced by Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto who were trying to resist Nazi oppression.

"The point of the song is to never say you are walking down your last road, no matter how bad the situation looks, because your hour will come."

But it is not easy to learn how to sing Yiddish songs.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the language. Many words contain a rough, guttural kh sound. For years, in Hebrew school, you tried to make the sound, and it doesn't come any easier a quarter-century later.

"There are very unusual features in the Yiddish alphabet," Barkan said. "If you ever have congestion, this will help you get past it. Three or four of those, and you're guaranteed to clear your throat."

Another problem is the melody, which often flows without a precise rhythm. You start to go in one direction, thinking that you've got this thing together and, suddenly, the song takes an unexpected turn. You hang on for the ride--barely.

"That's because many of these songs were done by people who were not professional composers," Barkan said.

That's a good thing, too, because the lyrics are the raw, unpolished thoughts and emotions of a people surviving under dire economic and political limitations. Imperfection is what you would expect.

Once you understand the language better and make allowances for the variations in melodies, you feel like you've made it. You start to sing along with the rest of the class, and it feels like your family is watching with pride.

Barkan constantly reassures you, often mixing in tidbits of Yiddish humor to keep the class rolling.

In one joke, he tells the story of a visit by then-President George Bush to a gathering of Hasidim in Israel. It turns out that Bush's advisers believe that the Hasidim, tied so closely to God, receive intelligence information even before the CIA. So Bush masquerades as a Hasid and arrives in Israel. He asks a question, and another Hasid tells him to be quiet.

"Shhh, President Bush is due here in five minutes."

That's the kind of joke your grandfather would tell.

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