Yiddish As A Balm For ‘This Land’


Some songs creep into your head and just don’t leave.

Recently, when challenged to produce a new musical program in Yiddish for the nightclub Feinstein’s/54 Below, and deeply affected by the political atmosphere in America today, I found myself thinking a lot about Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I decided I wanted to sing it at Feinstein’s — but in Yiddish.

Why this song, why now and why in Yiddish, one may ask. Since Yiddish reads from right to left, I’ll begin with the latter.

Yiddish is often referred to as the mother tongue. One of the reasons for that is that it has a warmth, a love, a heart that seem to be part of its linguistic DNA.

For example, there are these diminutive suffixes for most nouns — “l” and “aleh” — as in fis (foot), fisl (little foot), fisaleh (smallest foot), which immediately identify how beloved this object is. Everyone has a foot (a fis) – normal sized and undistinguished. Perhaps a spring lamb has a small, tasty foot (a fisl) — if you’re a carnivore. But your grandchild has a foot that you kiss and adore (a fisaleh). These Yiddish suffixes can be attached to nearly every noun, including chairs, lips, hearts, beds, noses, and then these objects take on an especially beloved feeling.

Yiddish was my first language. My parents, Holocaust survivors, spoke it at home as did their few friends and remaining relatives. For me, Yiddish is literally a language of home and hearth (even though our hearth was the kitchen stove); of love and humor, tears and safety.

Last year’s election seemed to provide fodder for dangerous sentiments and actions I never thought I’d witness in my lifetime in my own country. Many frightening, racist, un-American signals, including virulent anti-immigration language and legislation as well as destructive human rights resolutions were gathering momentum. Anti-Semitism, homophobia, rights that some of us had taken for granted were now on the chopping block.

Together with my musical partner, Frank London, we looked for tunes that addressed these issues. The Yiddish world has lived through these times before. So we found gems like: “Altz Far Gelt” (“Everything For Money”), written in 1923, which describes how the power of the dollar leads to corruption, cruelty and injustice; “Arbeter Froyen” (“Working Women”), from 1891, encouraging women to join together to make a better world for all people; and “Lozt Arayn” (“Let Them In”), a song from 1929 imploring Americans to open their hearts and their shores to those who needed to escape the horrors of Europe.

Then I thought about Woody Guthrie and “This Land Is Your Land,” written in 1940, as a counterbalance to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” And I remembered that Guthrie’s mother-in-law was a Yiddish poet from Brooklyn, no less — like me.

I didn’t want my version to be a literal translation. I wanted the song to have a Yiddishe tam, a Yiddish flavor — one that even non-Yiddish speakers would catch the gist of. I decided not to end the rhyming word with “land” as Woody did. Instead it became “Dos land iz dayner, dos land iz mayner.” And instead of California, I threw in the Pacific, and with a Yiddish lilt “Carolina” fit in as a tasty rhyme with mayner or dayner. And then I wondered what might be closer to the Jewish immigration experience than “Redwood forest”? And so I came up with “Ketzkill Bergn” (Catskill Mountains); and then instead of “Gulf Stream waters,” I thought Toyte Velley (Death Valley) would be fun, and by then I was on my way.

Below, Eleanor Reissa performs with Frank London’s Klezmer Brass Allstars at NYC’s Joe’s Pub to celebrate the release of their album “Vilde Mekhaye” (Wild Ecstasy).

In the next verse I was moved by what America is and what it is not. So that’s where “we are not Russia” came into it — as well as Russia’s omnipresence in our daily news reports. And it became clear that we are not “Russland, Deutschland, Schweden or Schweizland,” which all rhymed with raykh land (rich land), which is what the United States is.

Verse after verse poured out of my head. “We are not red states or blue states or yellow states. We are from here and there states.”

There were so many things I wanted to say that lent themselves to the earthiness, love and poetical nature of the Yiddish language. The wit of the Yiddish made me laugh with its flexibility and contemporary flavor, but then its heart and soul made me weep — for the dreams we have for our children for a fair, peaceful, educated and open land.

Woody Guthrie in Yiddish? Maybe he would have if he could have.

Eleanor Reissa is a Tony-nominated director, award-winning playwright and actress, most recently seen in Paula Vogel’s play “Indecent.” She is also a concert and recording artist, and next month will be touring Europe with Frank London and his Klezmer Brass Allstars. 


Dos Land Iz Dayner (This Land is Your Land)
Lyrics By Eleanor Reissa
(Based on the Woody Guthrie song “This Land Is Your Land”)

Dos land iz dayner
Dos land iz mayner
Fun di Pacific
Tzu di Carolina
Fin di Ketskill Bergn
Tzu di Toyte Velley
Dos land iz dayn in dos iz mayn.

(This land is yours
This land is mine
From the Pacific
To the Carolina
From the Catskill Mountains
To the Death Valley
This land is yours and mine.)

Dos iz nisht Russland
Dos iz nisht Deutschland
Dus iz nisht Schweden
Dos iz nisht Schweizland
Dos iz a raykh land
Mit platz far alle
Dos land is dayn in dos iz mayn.

(This is not Russia
This is not Germany
This is not Sweden
This is not Switzerland
This is a rich land
With room for all
This land is yours and this is mine.)

Mir zenen royte
Mir zenen blue
Mir zenen geyle
Fin du in du-er
Mir zenen kinder
Mir zenen khayes
Dos land iz genig far mir in dir

(We are red
We are blue
We are yellow
From here and from here
We are children
We are animals
This land is enough for me and you)

Az ikh ver elter
Dos iz mayn kholem
Ikh vintsh far kinder
A velt mit sholem
A land fin lernen
A land fin mentchlekheyt
Dos land is dayne dos iz mayn

(As I grow older
This is my dream:
I wish for children
A world of peace
A land for learning
A land of humanity
This land is yours and this is mine.)

*Copyright 2017