Covid-19 is the only pandemic most of us have lived through first-hand. But a time traveler from just about exactly a century ago, who lived through the Spanish flu, would find wearing masks and staying away from the family terribly familiar.
So, we can glean from the not-so-subtle hints dropped by a certain piece of music, are noncompliance, economic shenanigans, and the use of the pandemic for political ends.
Co-written by Harry Boens and Nathan Hollandar, the song, discovered online by Michael Bennett of Baltimore and brought to life by Cantor Sam Weiss of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, is “funny and sad and very expressive,” Cantor Weiss said. “It’s very direct.” (Cantor Weiss, who lives in Oradell, has been at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus/Congregation Beth Tikvah for 23 years.)
Let it be stipulated that the lyricist, Harry Boens (later Bennett), was not a particularly nice guy. For starters, he deserted his wife and kids, put his kids in an orphanage, and later lured them out to his new home with false promises. Michael Bennett, his grandson, never met him. Growing up, “No one spoke about him; questions about him were avoided and the subject was changed,” he said. “It was something you didn’t talk about.”
But Bennett the younger violated that rule when an internet search revealed a piece of Yiddish sheet music with an image closely resembling one he had seen of his father and grandfather. He bought the music, and when his father was in the hospital, “I brought it to him and asked, ‘Is this your father?’ He said it was, and angrily handed it back.”
The song in question, “Di Shpanishe Kholere,” was never recorded, and Mr. Bennett had no idea how it should sound. So he sent it to Cantor Weiss, an old family friend from Baltimore. (Before he went to Paramus, Cantor Weiss was at Baltimore’s Ner Tamid Congregation.)
Cantor Weiss is both a singer and a scholar. He seemed the perfect choice — and he took to the project immediately.
He tells the story this way:
“Around 15 years ago, my friend Michael Bennett discovered his grandfather’s name … listed as lyricist on a piece of Yiddish sheet music about the 1918 Spanish flu. As there were no extant recordings or performances of the song, in 2010 he emailed me to see if I could arrange to get it recorded. I glanced at the lyrics and was quickly captivated by their colloquial directness and interesting vocabulary. In short order I printed out the file, placed the sheets on my electronic keyboard, ran through the song, and emailed the mp3 to Michael.”
And that, apparently, was that. Until now.
“The song remained our private little adventure until covid-19 reared its head,” Cantor Weiss said. “Michael reached out to me again: ‘Maybe it’s an appropriate time to release to the public your rendition of my grandfather’s lament.’ I hesitated, not really thinking of that quick take as a ‘performance,’ and his idea remained dormant.
“Right before the High Holidays, however, it occurred to me that the Yiddish Song of the Week website would be an appropriate vehicle for sharing this gem.” Itzik Gottesman, the associate editor of the Yiddish Forward and keeper of that website, “agreed to host it along with Michael’s back story on his grandfather. (You can find the site at bit.ly/kholere.)
After being handed the sheet music, Cantor Weiss searched for more of Boens’ songs and found a parody of a famous Yiddish song called “Koilen” (Coals). “You can find the manuscript of it at the Library of Congress website,” he said, adding that the song caused some confusion because people mistook it for the original, attributing that work, in error, to Boens.
“He was a rascal,” Cantor Weiss said. “He may have written others. He was a jack of all trades.”
Although the song the cantor recorded does not make explicit accusations, it hints at people using the pandemic for their own ends, whether for profit or for power. It also seems to refer to acts of noncompliance, such as piling into packed subway cars.
“I saw it as having parallels,” Cantor Weiss said. Not to mention the verse about husbands and wives living apart, with husbands claiming to look for work while they actually abandoned their families back home. As Boens himself did.
Then there is the lively verse about the local barbers (translated by Cantor Weiss):
“Barbers scurry about as if they were nurses,
From house to house, with cupping glass treatments;
They themselves are carriers of the plague,
Thanking God that the contagion perseveres!”
Cantor Weiss described it, and chose to play it, as a Yiddish theater song. “I read music, so I figured out the song,” he said. “The style is straightforward. Because of its humorous tone, I used a theatrical singing style.” He doesn’t believe it was ever “really” published; instead, he said, it was a self-published piece.
“Look at the sheet music,” he said. “It was published by Nucsky,” which happens to be the nickname of the song’s composer, Nathan Hollandar. “Harry was a waiter in the restaurant where Nathan played the accordion. I don’t think it was published because only the manuscript exists in the Library of Congress.” Michael Bennett found the sheet music on eBay, but neither he nor Cantor Weiss could find anyone else who recorded it. “It’s a historical curiosity,” Cantor Weiss said.
Cantor Weiss is a native speaker of Yiddish, has taught the language and its music, and has read a great deal of “Yiddish language-related stuff like this website,” he said. “It’s remarkable. People are still interested. There’s been a renaissance of Yiddish creativity by members of chasidic groups where it’s their native language.”
And some former chasidim who leave the community are entering the world of Yiddish theater, he said, citing the New Yiddish Rep, a multilingual theater and acting school. “Their active members come from a Yiddish background. They’re injecting a new sense of Yiddish life.”
Cantor Weiss found the song’s choice of words particularly interesting. For example, as he wrote for the website, “The title word kholere is especially noteworthy. Unlike the English word ‘cholera,’ it has a much broader connotation than any specific type of illness. Indeed, the technical name of the disease appears only on the Yiddish lyrics back cover page as the title —but nowhere in the song — as ‘Di Shpanishe Influentsiye.’
“Kholere is found in a great number of Yiddish curses where the speaker is not particularly concerned with which disease befalls the victim, as long as it is grueling and punishing.”
All of which led Cantor Weiss to think “not of a literal cholera as a description of the disease, but that we’re in deep trouble.”
Mr. Bennett, who greatly admired his own father, Irving, and wrote a book about him, confronts with painful honesty his grandfather Harry’s many questionable activities. Harry left his family several times, even after his wife, Dora, reported him to the National Desertion Bureau. Indeed, abandonment was so common that Jewish charities created the bureau to deal with the issue of men deserting their families.
Dora and the children “were left to languish” after Harry’s final desertion, Mr. Bennett said. Irving and his sister Clara ended up in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York and in various foster homes. Harry, meanwhile, had moved to California and changed his name.
Promising to send his son to college if he came to California after he left the orphanage at 18, Harry, predictably, reneged. Stunningly, Irving filed a lawsuit against him for college tuition and past child support. “It’s still on the books,” Mr. Bennett said. “They won the suit, though the appeal upheld some things and turned down some others, saying you couldn’t force a parent to provide a liberal arts education beyond the statutory age of 18.” Nevertheless, Irving was granted support by a judge who clearly frowned on parental negligence.
Recording the song has been something of an adventure for Cantor Weiss. “Besides the initial adventure of discovering the music, I’ve renewed my friendship with Michael Bennett as a result,” he said. “And now, because the website is public, I’ve received emails from some people who enjoyed it. Another plus!”