Singing Yiddish Songs in Belarus

By Dmitri Slepovitch

On the Yiddish Song of the Week blog, Dmitri Slepovitch writes about "Ikh vel nit ganvenen" ("I Will Not Steal"), a song he recorded in his native Belarus:

I recorded "Ikh vel nit ganvenen" ("I Will Not Steal") in Mogilev, Belarus, from Sterna Gorodetskaya, born in 1946 into the only Jewish family that got reunited after the war in the village of Komintern, a Mogilev suburb.

Sterna is also the aunt of Yuri Gorodetsky, a young opera singer who was for while involved performing Yiddish songs and cantorial pieces in Minsk, taking part in Jewish cultural revivalist movement there.

It was amazing to hear this song from a person of Sterna's generation. She sang the song to me in memory of her mother, and that was the first time she performed it since she was a child.

To realize why it is so unique in that context, it is important to mention that unlike Moldova or Ukraine where the Jewish tradition was preserved to a considerable extent throughout Soviet times, Belarus saw a much more powerful wave of assimilation, including the loss of the Yiddish language, in the post-war era. Most of the songs sung to us in the course of our fieldwork had been hidden in people's memory for decades.

The song itself adds to a number of other "thief's songs." Chaim Kotylanski included two similar songs in his book, "Folks-Gezangen as Interpreted by Chaim Kotylanski," Los Angeles, 1944. The lyrics of one, "Nisht ganvenen nor nemen," resemble Sterna Gorodetskaya's version in the chorus (compare: "Kholile nisht ganvenen, nor nemen, nor nemen"), though it employs a dance-like or march-like melody set in a major key. The other song, "Kh'vel shoyn mer nisht ganvenen," is closer melodically to Sterna's, as both are set in the natural minor. In "Pearls of Yiddish Song" published by Chana and Yosl Mlotek there is yet another variant of "Kh'vel shoyn mer nit ganvenen."

My trip to Mogilev in January 2008 was the first one to follow the untimely death of Nina Stepanskaya (1954-2007), my professor and colleague with whom I collaborated over a decade on the Litvak music culture research in Belarus. Like Sterna Gorodetskaya who sang this song in memory of her mother, I would like this posting to be a tribute to and a small sign of appreciation of Nina's invaluable input into Jewish music studies.


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