One of the events we attended for Exploring Yiddishland was “Refreshing the Yiddish Folksong: A Re-launch with Professor Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, Hankus Netsky and Janet Leuchter.” The program, which focused, of course, on Yiddish folk song, had virtual audience members from across the country, several of whom were myself and my Exploring Yiddishland classmates. The talk explored projects to record and archive Yiddish folk songs, both recent and farther in the past. One idea I found particularly interesting was their conception of what makes something a Yiddish folk song. Folk music is a somewhat nebulous genre, hard to define in all its multiplicity, but that was not the question that the talk sought to answer. Rather, what made folk songs “Yiddish?”
It would be easy to answer this question simply by saying Yiddish folk songs are folk songs in the language of Yiddish. Alas, that is not the interpretation with which I would align myself. Rather, the interpretation I agree with is one proposed by one of the panelists: Yiddish folk songs are any folk songs sung by a Yiddish speaker. By this definition, they can be in English, or any other language, and they can be about anything under the sun. As a Yiddish student who happens to love Christmas carols (blame my years in a children’s chorus) for example, I would say a recording of me singing “Once in Royal David’s City” would fit in such an archive (although I suppose I’m not sure it can be necessarily categorized as a folk song in the first place, you get the point). Yiddish is more than a language, it’s a culture, it’s a history, it’s a people. Yidd-ish, of Jews. The language is for the people, not the other way around. Anything a Yiddish speaker does is part of Yiddish history. To record it all would be impossible, but to know that helps to understand the language.