Children (most times adolescents, although sometimes younger) left their families to seek their fortune in America. America became famous (and notorious to the pious) as the 'goldeneh medinah' 5 where it was literally believed that the streets were paved with gold (and where one lost one's religion). Russian emigration created the first massive influx of Jews to America. Once there, Jewish life as implicated in the lyrics took on a different turn, and became almost obsolete.
The Shtetl Way of life; Cheder; and Jewish scholarship.
Restricted from turning outward, the Jews turned inwards and focus sharpened on Jewish scholarliness exclusively for the males. It was the elite who became a Talmid Chocham 6, and the Jewish housewife, often, supported her spouse so that he could continue to learn 7. Jewish scholarship defined the yichus (i.e., pedigree) (or lack of it) of the family, and Jewish orthodoxy was heavily bent on yichus. Not indicated in the poems was the conflict between Haskala 8 and Jewish tradition. We receive a glimpse of that in Cahan (1969) where his parents were angered by his acquisition of a Russian primer, and where the melamed 9 beat students randomly on the slightest suspecting of their acquiring 'external' knowledge. Shtetl life brusquely squelched anything that was secular, and the more oppressed the Jew the more he squelched external influence. Shtetl life was inwards and forbidding of questions. Teachers, to a great extent compelled by their poverty, were rigid and often uneducated. Stories of rabbis sleeping whilst teaching and unaware of their students were common. More common still were the beatings.
Daily life in the shtetl was conducted in Yiddish; Yiddish was the chattering tongue of the tribe. Johnson 10 describes it as "the language of street wisdom, of the clever underdog; of the pathos, resignation, suffering, which it palliated by humor, intense irony and superstition."
Whilst the German maskils equated it with backwardness and superstition, the rabbis saw it as the language of the women, who were illiterate in Hebrew (the language of scholarship). Yiddish was the local language of everyday life, and the language, too, used for cheder education 10. It was not, as we see in Cahan 12 the language of prayer.
It was the boy, with enough funds, who could proceed to higher Jewish education -- the yeshiva, and sometimes the yeshiva in other parts of the Pale or in neighboring Orthodox countries, and, if he was an accomplished enough student was often able to marry into the wealthy Jewish families. The Talmid Chocham was the elite of the crop, and wealthy Jews vied for his hand in marriage. The girl, on the other hand, was brought up at her 'mother's knee' receiving her education from the mother and this education, in turn, consisted of domestic wisdom. Girls were, for the most part, illiterate.
Jewish society was geared to support the intellectual (as long as this intellectual was steeped and studied exclusively the Torah wisdom). The community rabbi was the local model of the ideal Jew. He was supported by the wealth of the local oligarchs. Scholarly Jews spent their lives absorbing abstruse materials, and then regurgitating it in continued study, teaching, and/or writing. Promising scholars (iluyi) were supported, often times, throughout their lives by wealthy co-religionists so as to enable their studies.
It is to this end, that the poem speaks about the Talmid Chocham, and that a "wise scholar with fine virtues" is mentioned as the ultimate reward for the Sorehle who prays and writes and reads Yiddish and sews and embroiders headbands. Yankele, on the other hand, "will study the Torah…he will write learned volumes, and a good and pious man he will always be."
The wrenching poverty, consequent emigration to America, and different gender expectations with the focus on Torah scholarship were daily absorptions and events of life that can be glimpsed in these lyrics. The authors used the poems as subjects to express their deepest wishes, concerns, and preoccupations.
Cahan, a. The Education of Abraham Cahan. Phil: JPA, 1969.
Howe, I. World of our Fathers. NY: Harcourt Bruce, 1976.
Johnson, P.A History of the Jews. UK: Harper Perennial, 1987.
1 Johnson, 358
3 Johnson, 359
4 i.e. ghettos. According to Howe, 10, these were usually ugly small towns (rather than the villages as they later erroneously became known