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Sheet Music Spotlight: Jewish Immigrants in Yiddish popular music

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"A brivele dem taten. "Words & music by S. Smulewitz ; arranged by J.M. Rumshisky. New York : Hebrew Publishing Co., c1911.
“A brivele dem taten.” Words & music by S. Smulewitz; arranged by J.M. Rumshisky. New York: Hebrew Publishing Co., 1911.

The following is a guest post from retired cataloger Sharon McKinley.

May is Jewish American Heritage Month. Over three million Jews, mainly from Eastern Europe, flooded into the United States between 1880 and 1920. Like other large immigrant populations, they crowded into cities such as New York, living in often squalid conditions as they tried to create new lives in a new land. The lower East Side of New York City was full of hungry families, crammed into tiny, dark apartments, with adults and children of all ages doing piecework in the never-ending struggle to survive. This is the world the reformers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were trying to change through word and picture. The term “muckraker” was true to reality: tenements were dark and filthy, and escape from a life of hardship often seemed impossible.

I recently went to see the powerful new Library exhibit, Jacob Riis: Revealing “How the Other Half Lives.” I remember reading Riis’s groundbreaking work in high school, and being stunned by its stark, unflinching depiction of everyday life for so many immigrants in the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century. The large Jewish immigrant community was one of the many Riis documented.

In trying to create some sense of home, immigrants made music of all kinds. Yiddish theater and music flourished in New York. Plays and revues were extremely popular forms of entertainment, and performers were heroes to a wide audience of fans. Poor though so many were, there was a strong and lively Yiddish publishing scene, and music sold well. Enterprising peddlers even sold lyric sheets on the streets.

Yiddish songs ran the gamut; they could be sweet, maudlin, patriotic—or full of immigrants’ woes. Songwriters didn’t flinch from portraying life as they saw it. This was a community that was well aware of conditions, and through unions and community groups worked to alleviate them. And people wanted to hear and sing this music that spoke to them so strongly.

Die New-Yorker trehren (The New Yorker’s tears)” is a litany of the terrible things experienced by immigrants, including a family put out on the street for non-payment of rent, and a triple murder. The song was written by operetta composer Hyman Altman, and arranged by one of the greats of the Yiddish theater, Joseph Rumshinsky. It’s in waltz time, but that doesn’t stop it from conveying the drama of the day. A bit sordid and tawdry, but it surely hit home as a reflection of real life.

The Mayrent Collection of Yiddish Recordings includes over 9,000 historic recordings. Listen to a recording of “Die New-Yorker trehren” by Frances Simonoff for the Victor label and read more about the song here. Read a translation of the lyrics here.

In “A brivele dem taten,” a father sends his son to America to seek a better life. When the father attempts to join his son in America, he is turned back at Ellis Island. In a scene that rings true, the two aren’t even permitted to meet. The only thing left for the old man is the hope of receiving letters from the son he may never see again.

Jewish family working on garters in kitchen for tenement home. Lewis Hines, photographer, November 1912.
Jewish family working on garters in the kitchen of a tenement home. Lewis Hine, photographer, November 1912.

Lewis Hine was a photographer who documented sweatshop and home-based working conditions on film after the turn of the 20th century. He was well aware of the various immigrant communities in New York City, and his photographs were a powerful tool in forcing the reform of child labor laws. His photographs form part of the National Child Labor Committee Collection. Read more and search the collection here.

Further resources:


  1. I am a first generation American, and I remember clearly the apartment that my grandparents rented on 3rd Street and Avenue D. It was a third floor walk up, and yes, it was dark and dingy. Never dirty.

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