The Tradition of the Yiddish Yodel

“The ‘Yiddish Yodel’ was held in Deer Isle, Maine in the summer, usually in august at my parents house or their friends’ house. And there would be twenty to thirty guests, all Jews from New York who spend their summers up in Maine, most of them artists of one kind or another. I think it started because one evening a smaller group just started singing Yiddish songs, and then they had the idea that they should make it a yearly event, and then it just grew and grew and grew with more and more guests, unit finally they started printing out lyric sheets and, um, what else? At one point, they really did buy an organ to keep up there—one of those little electric organs—and they bought it specifically for Renee to play at the Yiddish Yodel. And they often looked to Renee for knowledge and inspiration. I’m not exactly sure why she remembered more Yiddish songs than anyone else, but she did. And she was also a preschool teacher so she was very keen on teaching everyone how to sing the songs.

“I don’t think it started out as a reenactment of a tradition in a conscious way, although Renee recently told me that when she was a child, in the summers, she and many other Jewish families who lived in New York would go up to the Catskills  to these bungalow colonies, and the moms and the kids would be up there all week, and the dad would come up on the weekends. And she said that on Saturday nights, they would all gather in the—there was some gathering hall, entertainment room or something—and they would recite Yiddish poetry and sing Yiddish songs. So I think now that she’s making that connection in a conscious way, but i don’t ever remember anyone saying anything about that when this started, But clearly, as soon as it started, people were very keen on turning it into its own tradition, even if they weren’t consciously linking it to an older experience in a direct way. They didn’t start recording these until later, when I wasn’t there for them anymore, so I don’t know how they decided—how or why they decided to start recording.

“It was just, like, bring as many chairs as you possibly could from everywhere into the house, into the living room, in, like, a rough circle. But really there was no order to it, and the living room wasn’t really big enough—either living room it ever happened in—wasn’t really big enough for them to really forma circle, so some people were sitting behind each other. When it started out it was much less formal, like, people would just—someone would start singing a song—and they’d finish that one and just be like, ‘oh, who remembers another song?’ And they would just sing the songs that they remembered. As it went on and it got bigger and bigger, it got more organized with Renee really leading songs and Bernie becoming like a master of ceremonies. You can hear that on the tapes. But when it started it was much less formal, it was just people getting together and trying to remember the songs. So it guess in that way it was trying to revive, not a specific tradition, but I guess a more general aspect of their culture.

“I bet they hadn’t really sung these songs in any sort of consistent way for… forty years. You know, some of them might have sung some of them… but it was probably forty years… they learned them in their childhood… and then, they didn’t all know exactly the same songs, so then they would start teaching them to each other and maybe someone would remember that ‘oh yeah, I did know that song.’”

Going through my family attic, I came across a box of tapes hand-labelled “Yiddish Yodel 1992-95.” They were recordings of a large gathering of people singing in Yiddish and Hebrew. I asked around to find out more, and although it seems only a couple of the original participants are still alive, one of their daughters gave me this detailed account.

Although the specific tradition of the “Yiddish Yodel” was a new one—created by this small community of Jewish artists in the 1980s. It was clearly a way to preserve much older traditions of folk music and language they feared were dying out, and was not the first attempt at this. In 1948, Ben Stonehill collected over one thousand songs from holocaust survivors in New York.

In the instance of the “Yiddish Yodel,” we see folk, communal, spontaneous origins. However as it progressed, we can see formalization and the development of a separation between active bearers (Renee and Bernie) and passive bearers (their friends).