The Ruth Rubin Legacy
Archive of Yiddish Folksongs


"Folksong--A Universal Language"

(excerpt from Ruth Rubin, Voices of a People, p. 462)

"In spite of the social ostracism to which Jews were subjected during the Middle Ages, they contributed significantly to the cultures of their dominant neighbors and were profoundly influenced by them in turn. Jewish translators in Moslem lands helped transmit Classical science and philosophy - as well as Oriental fables and tales - to medieval Europe. In Christian countries, there was a steady stream of translations from Hebrew into Spanish, French and German - and from those languages into Hebrew. Jews were early conspicuous, too, as authors of original works in the European vernaculars.

The interchange of popular cultures among the peoples of Europe, including the Jews, was especially marked at this time. This was in part the work of migratory poets and gleemen as well as of itinerant students and teachers. Melody gave wings to folksong. Like seeds in the wind, songs were borne along by their itinerant carriers to root and grow again, often in areas far removed from their places of origin. This process of cultural interchange did not end with the Middle Ages, when Yiddish culture - like those of other nationalities -was taking shape. It has, indeed, continued to the present day.

Yiddish folksongs, therefore, reveals not only some of the same themes as the folksongs of other peoples but some of the same patterns and devices as well. Number songs, cumulative songs, conversation songs, riddle songs, work songs, protest songs, cradle songs, children's songs, dancing songs, drinking songs, topical songs, war songs, hello and goodbye songs, love songs, marriage songs, laments, ballads and humorous songs are found in many languages. Often the same song can be traced from language to language, through many variations occasioned by time and place. It is this universality of themes, patterns and devices - only a few of which can be treated here - that makes folksong truly a universal language."

See also "Folk Songs" in the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe

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