In a new book on the development of Israeli songs, the historian David Assaf explains the East European, and often ḥasidic, origin of many classic tunes of the kibbutz and of secular pioneers. Allan Arkush, in a glowing review, notes that the book “is mainly about Hebrew songs, but Yiddish is rarely very far away,” and it contains a history of one of the most popular Yiddish songs of all time. Titled “Oyfn pripitshek”—a pripitshek being an old-fashioned stove used for heating as well as cooking—the tune owes its existence to one of the great Yiddish writers:
Sholem Aleichem was a friend and enormous booster of the composer of “Oyfn pripetshik,” Mark Warshafsky (1848–1907). But how, Assaf wonders, could the great Yiddish author write a realistic story like “Boaz the Melamed,” in which a hard-hearted ḥeder teacher brutalizes his pupils, while being an enthusiastic promoter of a nostalgic song featuring a melamed [traditional elementary-school instructor] who lovingly teaches his kids the “alef-beys”? The apparent contradiction, Assaf explains, expresses the ambivalence of many early 20th-century secularists who had a traditional ḥeder education.
At that time, many of the writers and intellectuals who had already left the small town and religious tradition behind them and moved to big cities had a deep feeling in their hearts that the decline of the shtetl in which they had been raised was almost a fait accompli. They also felt a certain longing for some old-world institutions, which they had come to perceive as bulwarks against assimilation despite all their failings.
This is the heart of the matter, but it’s only a part of the story. Assaf tells us where “Oyfn pripitshek” comes from—not just fond memories but a mid-19th-century French song that depicts a teacher sitting on a stump in a glade, teaching his pupils the alphabet—and where it very quickly went: Tel Aviv, where a Hebrew version likewise takes the children outdoors and focuses more on planting trees than learning one’s letters.