Poem of the Week

First Day of School in a Lost World

Mark Warshawski’s Yiddish classic describes a world more beautiful in memory than it was in the impoverished reality of eastern Europe.

Alter Kacyzne (1885-1941)

The Alphabet (Auf’n Pripetchik)

Mark Markovich Warshawski

In the big woodstove a little fire burns –
The room’s hot from the blaze
And the rebbe’s teaching tiny tots
Their alef-beys.

Refrain:

Say it boys, remember dears
What you’re learning now
Say it once again then say it yet again
Komets-alef ow.

Study, study, boys, with all your heart.
Do it, I advise
The one who learns his Hebrew letters best
Gets a flag as prize.

Refrain

Study, children, have no fear.
Every start is tough.
Lucky is the Jew who learns Toyra,
Isn’t that enough?

Refrain

And when you children are all grown
You’ll understand alone
How many tears these letters hold
And how many groans.

Refrain

When you’re big and schlepping Exile’s weight
And are all worn out
Use the Hebrew letters as a source of strength
So look at them right now!

Refrain

From Yidishe folkslider mit notn (“Yiddish Folk Songs with Music Notes,” 1900 or 1901). Translated by Vivian Eden, with help for the music and fine points of Yiddish from Dov Faust

Library of Congress

Little children starting school today will soon start learning the alphabet. In Yiddish and Ashkenazi Hebrew, that’s the alef-beys.

Jews of Eastern European provenance melt upon hearing this Yiddish song, also known as Auf’n Pripetchik. It has become a sentimental talisman of a lost world more beautiful in memory than it was in the impoverished reality of that region, from which many Jewish people emigrated to Palestine, or to the west, well before the Nazis came.

The woodstove is the pripetchik – a Slavic word for a large, effective closed masonry or brick oven for both heating and cooking. Featherbeds could be spread on top for sleeping. The room is a shtub (from the German Stube), still heard in  Israel and American Jewish circles in the diminutive form shtibl, a plain place for prayer and study.

The word kinderlekh – diminutive for “children” – is translated here as “tiny tots,” since they began learning at about age 3, and as “boys” since the sexes were segregated for schooling.

Komets-alef is a piece of Hebrew that is lost to the language, as spoken in modern Israel (though the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox still use it in prayer and Torah study), where the consonant-vowel combination pronounced not as ow but rather as ah, in the dominant Mizrahi fashion. 

The prize in stanza 2 is an elaborate paper flag children parade around with on the fall holiday of Simchat Torah; Toyre in the next stanza is Torah – both Scripture and Oral Law.

Born in Odessa in 1848, Mark Warshawski left rabbinical studies to practice law in Kiev. As a hobby, he wrote, composed and performed at Zionist and other gatherings songs in Yiddish, which spread by word of mouth throughout Eastern Europe.  He was taken up by Sholem Aleichem, who urged him to publish his songs, which he did in 1899/1900. He and the writer traveled together for appearances in the Eastern European Jewish world and planned a joint trip to the New World, which was forestalled by Warshawski’s death in 1907.

*Musings: An observer narrates the first stanza. The refrain and subsequent stanzas are in the rebbe’s voice. In the final two stanzas he gives the children a bleak picture of what it means to be an adult. Does he speak this aloud or just think it? What would you do if your children’s teacher told them something similar?

*Bonus: An unusually upbeat version of the song performed by Yankel, Paris Klezmer

Transliteration:

Der alef-beys (Auf’n pripetchek)

Auf’n pripetchik brent a fayerl,
Un in shtub iz heys,
Un der rebe lernt kleyne kinderlekh,
Dem alef-beys.

Refrain:
Zet zhe kinderlekh, gedenkt zhe, tayere,
Vos ir lernt do;
Zogt zhe nokh a mol un take nokh a mol:
Komets-alef o!

Lernt, kinder, mit groys kheyshek,
Azoy zog ikh aykh on;
Ver s'vet gikher fun aykh kenen ivre -
Der bakumt a  fohn.

Lernt, kinder, hot nit moyre,
Yeder onheyb iz shver;
Gliklekh der vos hot gelernt toyre,
Tsi darf der mentsh nokh mer?

Ir vet, kinder, elter vern,
Vet ir aleyn farshteyn,
Vifl in di oysyes lign trern,
Un vi fil geveyn.

Az ir vet, kinder, dem goles shlepn,
Oysgemutshet zayn,
Zolt ir fun di oysyes koyekh shepn,
Kukt in zey arayn!!!