Rock-a-bye, My Baby, With A Yiddish Melody


Somewhere in the world a restless child is waiting for sleep to come. A doting mother leans over her offspring, murmuring a song to speed the little one to slumber. The odds are pretty good that the lullaby with which she soothes the child is in not in Yiddish.

Lorin Sklamberg and the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeiter Ring probably won’t shift that probability much, but they’re going to try this winter, with the Klezmatics founder and lead singer teaching a series of workshops on the Yiddish lullaby beginning on Feb. 7.

Now in its second century of existence, the Workmen’s Circle transformed itself from a fraternal organization to a one promoting “Jewish Community, Yiddish Culture and Social Justice Activism.” With its original core membership of Yiddish speakers reduced severely by the passage of time and the linguistic assimilation of the Jewish population in America, it became imperative for the Circle to begin reaching a younger potential membership pool.

Anne Toback, the WC/AR’s executive director, wrote in an e-mail last week, “We are working on new models around family-centered cultural Jewish education rooted in our progressive values.”

The lullabies class is an exceedingly clever way to do just that. As Toback noted, “It has always been traditional to sing lullabies to children that both lull them to sleep, and the language is designed to tell them the story of who they are and what is happening to them. Lullabies are songs of love as well as expressions of values and heritage.”

Ironically, neither Sklamberg nor Toback was sent to sleep with Yiddish lullabies.

“I was sung to sleep with American murder ballads,” Sklamberg recalls, laughing. “My mom was a folkie. She used to play guitar and sing Woody Guthrie songs and things like ‘John Henry.’”

Well, he got the progressive social justice message. The ballads also influenced Sklamberg to teach himself to play guitar. Yiddish came much later when he enrolled in a summer program at YIVO and helped start the ’Matics.

Moshe Rosenfeld, head of Golden Land Productions, a prominent booking agency for Jewish musicians and other performing artists, did grow up with Yiddish lullabies; his mother was a prominent Yiddishist in Montreal. He has had a connection to the WC/AR “since the 1970s when I was an assistant to Joseph Mlotek.” So when the organization asked him to help develop a programming package to expand their base, the lullaby program was one of the first ones he came up with.

Sklamberg jumped at the opportunity.

“I had worked with Paula Teitelbaum on ‘Di Grine Katshke’ [‘The Green Duck,’ a CD of Yiddish children’s songs about animals], and these were as much songs about home as anything else. So I have some background in the material,” he says. “All great song traditions have a large number of songs about the home and the relationship between parents and children, their hopes for what happens when the children grow up.”

Perhaps that focus is inherent in Yiddish song. As Sklamberg points out, Yiddish is called the mame-loshen, the mother tongue.

“It’s the language that was spoken in the home,” he says. “Outside you spoke whatever the local vernacular was, you prayed in Hebrew. What happens in the home? You’re raising kids.”

When interviewed, Sklamberg was still assembling materials for the class. As the sound archivist at YIVO and a prolific performer and recording artist, he has access to more Yiddish song than probably all but a few human beings on earth. In short, he’s spoiled for choice.

“I’m not attracted to old chestnuts,” he says. “I’ve been working with materials from the Ruth Rubin archives, some things we did on ‘Di Grine Katshke,’ some things I’ve accumulated over the years. I’ve been teaching Yiddish song repertoire for a while, but I haven’t done anything specifically geared toward this [theme]. But some of the songs in my teaching book that I might not have found a place for before are going to fit in here.”

Sklamberg’s aim is even simpler than that of the WC/AR.

“I just want to get people singing the songs,” he says. “The most gratifying thing to hear is that these songs have traveled all over and are being used. That used to happen as a matter of course, but that’s been lost.”

“Lullabies and Legacy,” a program of workshops given by Lorin Sklamberg for the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeiter Ring, begins on Tuesday, Feb. 7 at noon at the Workmen’s Circle (247 W. 37th St.). For information, call (212) 889-6800, or go to