Meet Psoy Korolenko, the self-described “wandering philologist”and song-tinkerer who rewrites famous lyrics until their familiar meanings are blown to bits.
One such tinkering, “Oyfn Pripetchik 2” (written in collaboration with Yiddishist Alexandra Hoffman), takes the famous Yiddish song about a rebbe and his cheder students (as heard in Schindler’s List), and stands it on its head. Given that many people know the song but not its Yiddish lyrics, Korolenko’s version starts by translating the first verse as “By the Russian word for ‘stove’ [pripetchik] the fire is burning / Everyone is hot.” His wordplay creates a sense of oppression and suffocation, rather than the cozy nostalgia for Eastern Europe inspired by the original.
Rather than the kind teacher imparting knowledge to his students, we see a despotic rebbe as harsh as the fire. After being threatened with a beating, the children turn on him with a full-throated protest: “We don’t need no education / We don’t need no thought control.”
And so the song that has, for generations, been a tearjerker about old-country yearning, in Korolenko’s hands becomes an anarchic celebration of mischief and linguistic fun.
Check out “Oyfn Pripetchik 2:”