Tuesday 21 June 2016

Avek di yunge yorn

If ever there was a Yiddish song that proved the Jewish people were influenced by Ukranian folk songs, this must be it. The theme is characteristic of folk songs: "My youth has fled. Oy vey. And I didn't even carpe diem!" The melody is so typical of Eastern European folk songs, that it's almost strange to hear it sung in Yiddish. You'd expect it to be sung by three lovely young Ukranian peasant girls, dressed in beautiful white dresses embroidered with red, blue and yellow patterns, smiling brightly, and singing in perfect harmony with nasal voices (apparently, singing through the nose helped project the sound farther out to the wedding guests in the days preceding amplifiers and microphones). Anyway, here it is, with my best attempt at a nasal folksinger's voice.

Over the hill, across the hillAfn barg, ibern bargאױפֿן באַרג, איבערן באַרג
Doves are flying in pairsFlien toybn pornפֿליען טױבן פּאָרן
I haven't yet known any pleasureKh'hob nokh keyn nakhes nit gehatכ'האָב נאָך קײן נחת ניט געהאַט
And already my youth is goneAvek mayne yunge yornאַװעק מײנע יונגע יאָרן

Harness the black horses my brothersShpant zhe brider di shvartse ferdשפּאַנט זשע ברידער די שװאַרצע פֿערד
And let us run and travelUn lomir loyfn, fornאון לאָמיר לױפֿן, פֿאָרן
Maybe I'll manage yet to overtakeEfsher vel ikh nokh deryognאפֿשר װעל איך נאָך דעריאָגן
My young yearsMayne yunge yornמײַנע יונגע יאָרן

I met the young yearsKh'hob bagegnt di yunge yornכ'האָב באַגעגענט די יונגע יאָרן
On the wide bridgeAf dem breytn brikאױף דעם ברײטן בריק
Years, years, come back againYorn, yorn, kert zikh umיאָרן, יאָרן, קערט זיך אום
Even if only as guestsKhotsh in gest tsurikכאָטש אין געסט צוריק

No, no, we won't goNeyn, neyn, mir veln nit geynנײן, נײן, מיר װעלן ניט גײן
Who would we go back for?S'iz nito tsu vemenס'איז ניטאָ צו װעמען
You shouldn't haveHost undz nit gezoltהאָסט אונדז ניט געזאָלט
Humiliated us in your youth!Yungerhayt farshemnיונגערהײט פֿאַרשעמן

This Jewish theatre photo, with a woman who looks remarkably like Molly Picon, appears whenever I open "Avek di yunge yorn" in my VLC media player. I've no idea how VLC selects the photos to show, but it's obviously not at random!

There's one Yiddish word in this song that's a bit difficult to translate: nakhes (נחת). The singer complains that he hasn't yet known any nakhes and already his youth is gone. Beinfeld and Bochner's bilingual dictionary translates it as "pleasure, satisfaction, delight". But there's something more in the word nakhes - it shares a root with the Hebrew words nakh, ("resting") and menukha ("rest"). It gives off an aura of peace and tranquility, as well as pleasure. It is also used to express pleasure and pride in somebody, especially a child or grandchild, when he is well behaved, polite and learns well, as in Sholem Aleykhem's famous ironic monologue, "nakhes fun kinder" (pleasure from children). My grandfather Lova often used to exclaim, "Oy shtik nakhes!" while we were gardening together. Even though I spoke no Yiddish at the time, I remembered the expression many years later. According to my mother, he used this as a term of endearment to myself, as the person giving him nakhes, just as an American grandfather might call his grandson "honey". I chose to translate nakhes below as "pleasure", but this leaves out some of the nuances.

Maria Primachenko - Ukrainian Wedding - 1966


Many thanks to:
  • Eleanor Chana Mlotek, for publishing the lyrics and music to this song in her anthology, "Mir Trogn a Gezang"
  • foxen10 for the horse's whinny
  • tgfcoder for the doves cooing outside his window
  • Audacity for making it possible for me to mix all of the tracks together!
  • Sholem Jozef, for reviewing and correcting my translation


  1. This is wonderful! I've listened several times and have enjoyed it immensely.

    1. Thanks Elly. I'm delighted you've enjoyed it! I'll try to find the time to record a few more of my Yiddish favorites :)