Mayn Yingele (My Little Son), written for Ursula Oppens, is a set
of twenty-four variations on a traditional tune, in the version with words by
Morris Rosenfeld, the poet of the New York sweatshops, who was active around
the turn of the century. The Yiddish text is a complaint sung by a father who
goes to work early in the morning and comes home late at night, so that he is
never able to see his baby boy except when he is asleep:
1.Ikh hob a kleynem yingele,
A zunele gor fayn!
Ven ikh derze im, dakht zikh mir,
Di gantse velt iz mayn.
Nor zeltn, zeltn ze ikh im,
Mayn sheynem, ven er vakht,
Ikh tref im imer shlofndik,
Ikh ze im nor bay nakht.
2.Di arbet traybt mikh fri aroys,
Un lozt mikh shpet tsurik;
O, fremd iz mir mayn eygn layb,
O, fremd mayn kinds a blik!
Ikh kum tseklemterheyt aheym,
In finsternish gehilt-
Mayn bleykhe froy dertseylt mir bald,
Vi fayn dos kind zikh spilt.
3.Vi zis es redt, vi klug es fregt:
-O mame, gute ma,
Ven kumt un brengt a peni mir,
Mayn guter, guter pa?
Ikh shtey bay zayn gelegerl
Un ze, un her, un sha!
A troym bavegt di lipelekh:
-O, vu iz, vu iz pa?
4.Ikh kush di bloye eyegelekh;
Zey efenen zikh- o, kind!
Zey zeen mikh, zey zeen mikh
Un shlisn zikh geshvind.
Ikh blayb tseveytogt un tseklemt,
Farbitert un ikh kler:
Ven du dervakhst a mol, mayn kind,
Gefinstu mikh nit mer...
[I have a little boy, such a fine son! When I look at him, it seems to me that the whole world is mine. It's seldom though that I see my boy awake, for I always find him sleeping and see him only at night. My job drives me from home at dawn and lets me return only late, so that I hardly know my own child's looks. My pale wife tells me how nicely the child plays, how sweetly he speaks, how cleverly he asks: "Oh, Mama, when will dear Papa come and bring me a penny?" I kiss the little blue eyes. They open, look at me and quickly close again. Depressed and embittered, I think to myself: One day, when you awake, my child, you will not find me anymore.]
I began writing this piece in November, 1988, on the 50th anniversary of
the Kristallnacht, the infamous "Crystal Night" of 1938, which marked the
official beginning of the Nazi persecution of the Jewish people. My piece is
a reflection on that vanished part of Jewish tradition which so strongly
colors, by its absence, the culture of our time.
--Frederic Rzewski (January 1992)