Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A bit of history

So, this all started after I found a YouTube video on Ben Atlas' blog. He is right - it is a pretty amazing song. In his post, he doesn't really explain or translate, but I think I will do so here...

The band is starts out singing a 19th century "Kantonist Song". Many of you probably don't know who the "kantonists" were.

When peasants were drafted into the army in early 19th century Russia, their children would be sometimes be sent to "kantonist schools" if they did not have someone to look after them. There they were fed, taught some basic crafts, some religious education. Typically at 18 they would then go into the army themselves. Jews, however, were not drafted into the army and so they were spared this particular tribulation.

Then Nicholas I had a great idea. Why not draft the Jews into the army. And while we're at it, why not convert them as well. And since according to their own religion they become adults at 13, we can start drafting them at 13. And we can send them to these "kantonist schools" until they become adults.

The each community had local Jews appointed as responsible for finding these recruits. If the quota was not met, they would take from their own household. So to make sure that didn't happen, these guys would grab whoever they found and pass them off as 12 year olds. It's not like they had passports or birth certificates.

The poor kids would be put on a cart and taken to the closest highway where they would then be marched on foot, under armed guard to somewhere far away to make sure they did not try to sneak back home. Sometimes they would walk for months.

Once they made it to the "school" they were actively proselytized, tormented, beaten. Many were broken. Many did not give up their faith.

One fascinating thing about this is that in these schools they had their own subculture in the form of songs. Little remnants of Biblical stories and names, bits of Yiddish and Hebrew mixed in with Russian, Ukrainian, or whatever language was spoken in the area.

The songs in these videos are these songs. Here is one in translation:

In the Jewish faith, oh, you must arise so very early.
Arise so very early, and say Moydeh Ani.
Say Moydeh Ani and pour the Neygl Vasser.
Pour the Neygl Vasser, and run to the Beis haMidrash.
Run to the Beis haMidrash and put on the Tallis un' Tfillin

What is so fascinating to me about this song is that while the theme is Jewish, the style is so traditionally, authentically Russian. The polyphony, the repetitions, the "Ekh, lyuli lyuli" refrain. Also, the repetitive nature of the song. This is clearly a marching song, or a working song. You can tell by the rhythm.

Another song (I think) became a Chabad niggun - "Ne zhuritse khloptsi". This is what evanstonjew posted in the previous post's comments. Chabad has a very elaborate drash on the meaning, but in the pshat it translates:

"Let's not worry lads,
What will happen to us,
We'll soon make it to the inn,
There'll be vodka there"

These are boys being marched to an unknown destination. Their old life is gone and it is not clear what's ahead.


Blogger Miri said...

rachamana dianay is the chabbad niggun. it's amazing that these songs survived. what happened to these boys when they grew up? did any of them ever make it back home.

November 12, 2009 5:44 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Almost none made it home. They were usually taken from age 8-12, sent to the schools until 18, and then conscripted for 25 years in the army. When done with their service, they could choose a parcel of land anywhere in Russia, even beyond the Pale of Settlement.

November 12, 2009 6:40 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

I think i had a great grandfather who was conscripted and he ran away. they caught him and sent him back and said if he ran away again they'd kill him. So the next opportunity he got, he ran away, and this time he made it. But I think he was something like fifteen or sixteen at the time.

November 14, 2009 8:15 AM  

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