Jewish Children’s Music Grows Up

From Uncle Moishy to OyBaby.

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In Jewish life, music is incorporated into prayer and reflection, moments of sadness and comfort, and times of joy and togetherness. Jewish music for children does all this and then some. In the United States, this genre tends to follow the trends of the secular kiddie music market, while addressing uniquely Jewish topics like holidays and customs, and offering a Jewish spin on sheer childhood goofiness. 

Go to Sleep, Jewish Baby

Lullabies may be the oldest Jewish children’s music.  Lullabies, classically sung live by parents to their children, are usually sung in whatever language the parents speak at home.  But they do not always cover the most soothing bedtime topics.

mama doni i love herring

Mama Doni’s I Love Herring album cover

In the late 1800s Sholem Aleichem and other well-known Yiddish writers produced lullabies addressing themes like living a life of regret, struggling to provide for a family, and even dying of consumption. One particularly dark example by an unnamed author ends with the lines, “Therefore, my child, always remember/To avenge my untimely death.”

Many other classic Jewish lullabies speak with quiet resilience, even a touch of sadness, about learning Torah. In a Yiddish folk tune, “Oyfn Pripetshok” (“On the Hearth”), famously used on the Schindler’s List soundtrack, a rabbi teaches young boys the Hebrew alphabet. “Though there are tears in every letter,” the rabbi explains, the children will gain strength from them while in exile.

A Ladino lullaby, “Durme Durme” (“Sleep, Sleep”), eases children to sleep with the reassurance that in the morning they will study Torah, and that learning is filled with beauty.

There is no denying the power of lullabies as oral tradition, but today there are some compelling recordings of lullabies on the market. Tanja Solnik’s From Generation to Generation: A Legacy of Lullabies (1993) includes soothing, masterful versions of both “Oyfn Pripetshok” and “Durme Durme.” JDub Records’ 2009 release, Songs from the Garden of Eden (featured previously on MJL), is also an excellent collection, including beautiful versions of lullabies as well as more upbeat tunes from all over the world.

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Miriam Brosseau is a musician and Jewish educator based in Chicago, IL. She and her husband, producer Alan Jay Sufrin, make up the "biblegum pop" duo Stereo Sinai.

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