“Williamsburg!” The iconic song by Yomtov Ehrlich

“Williamsburg!” The iconic song by Yomtov Ehrlich

Yom Tov Ehrlich was probably one of the most important Yiddish songwriters/artists in the post-Holocaust American Hasidic community. I grew up with Yom Tov Ehrlich and can sing many of his songs (and I do; and not only to my son!) and I associate many of them with very warm memories of my mother. But there is one song in particular that I think is as good a sociological investigation of the community of the time Yomtov Ehrlich wrote. I translated the song as best as possible because I think the lyrics are the best tour ever offered by an insider.

The song is called “Williamsburg!” In the lyrics, you can hear a sense of bewilderment and amazement that this Hasidic post-Holocaust community arose in the treifene medina; that the Jews are so proud, “stand tall” and openly wear their religious garb, and share in religious tradition. It has a freshness and appreciation for the community that I think only the first generation had; but from it rose a kind of commitment and loyalty to preserve it and not to allow it to dissolve into the American society.

In the Williamsburg streets,
When you go outside at dawn,
And you begin to look at her from afar,
You will see Jews walk with shtreimels,
Tsitsit, beard, and white socks,
And the side curls hang from the sides.

Women walk carrying fabrics,
Fish and milk and bread and fruit,
All of them in their wigs and scarves,
They run through the streets modestly,
They don’t want to talk to anyone,
And they don’t want to look at anyone.

In every street a boy’s cheydar [boy’s school],
Filled with children who learn Torah
And there are many yeshivas as well.
From someone we hear “hamnich
From someone else “hashaliach
And the third one yells “hakol shochtin” [all of these words from the Talmud]

And the fathers from dawn,
People run to earn money,
All of them go to work after praying, what a pleasure.
One sells meat, one fixes tables,
And from time to time in between,
They take a look into a Mishnayos [religious text.]

There is in Williamsburg a doctor,
Who wears a tallis katon (fringes),

And a female lawyer,
A good Jewish woman.

A taxi goes by with relatives,
Head of yeshivas and rebbes,
And the driver discusses with them Torah studies.

To any Jew you will go,
You will get something to eat,
And he will toast you a l’chaim.

If you want to have a part of the afterlife,
Listen to that Jew and stay for Shabbes,
And you will think that you’re in Jerusalem.

Oh, Williamsburg!
What a pleasure there!
Populated by good Jews,
May that be my luck.

Oh, Williamsburg!
It is a whole new world,
We learn the Torah, we thank God,
In every home.

Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh vey!
From the Rebbe’s house,
A ruckus can be heard,
The Hasidim are dancing, a La’yehudim [a dance]
And lift themselves up throughout.

Oh, oh, oh, vey, vey, vey!
Around the long table,
They lift their feet,
Erect, unbent,
Lively and full of energy!

Oy, Williamsburg!
She has no equal!
It is the water of life, Jerusalem,
For the diaspora Jew.

A mezuza scroll on the door,
It is full of songs,
Full of fear [of God,]
May health be with her.

Friday in the afternoon,
All the shops in Williamsburg close up,
Quickly, everyone runs home at once.
They dress up, they wash up,
They are filled with new energy,
The table is set with wine and challah.
The husband goes to the synagogue,
The woman takes her Korben Mincha [women’s prayer book]
She says first the Yiddish prayer.

The husband comes home from the synagogue,
The wife welcomes him with happiness,
On their heads rests the divine spirit.

In the ritual bath from dawn,
One can already find Jews,
It almost looks like they always sit there.
One of them constantly washes up,
The other one constantly dries his hands,
And someone else is always looking for his clothing.
And they begin to rush from the ritual bath,
Through the streets, through the yards,
The coats are bulging with the prayer shawls.
And everyone runs to the Rebbe,
And everyone looks after him,
And everyone behaves according to the Rebbe’s instructions.

Oy, every Rebbe is a wonder,
Everyone one with his separate style,
Of how to serve the Father in heaven.

And when [Shabbes at the meal] someone is finally blessing the wine,
Someone else is already sharing a new Torah thought,
And a third is singing a new song.

At the Klausenburger Rebbe tears fall,
And deep sighs at the Skvere Rebbe,
And the Stoliner Hasidim, they shout.
At the Satmar Rebbe’s they hadn’t even begun yet,
They just went to the ritual bath,
And at the Viznitzer Rebbe they are already drinking a l’chaim.

Oy, Williamsburg!
In the yeshiva Torah V’daath,
On the upper floor, little children learn,
While downstairs partners in Talmud.

Oh, Williamsburg!
Vienna group’s young men,
Go calmly to pray mincha,
They go perfectly in time.

Oy, vey, vey, vey, vey!
By me, and Belz and Ger, Pupah, Tzelimer,
And the students from Bais Yaakov,
Wherever you take a look.
Oy, oy, oy, vey, vey,

Busses go slowly,
Filled with soldiers [of Torah,]
Children to the yeshivas,
Taking them back and forth.

Oh, Williamsburg!
She is not alone,
There are among us Jews more corners like these,
That are as beautiful.

The main thing is this:
We should have a lot of Jewish pride,
From our little ones.

There are some things in the song worth noting:
* You can see the emphasis on the many different sects that were in Williamsburg, not merely Satmar as seems to be the impression of many outsiders. Vien is also not listed as a Hasidic group, and their “yekkish” punctuality is made note of to set them apart from the other sects [Yekkes = Oberlander Jews, who were known to be punctual while Hasidim always prayed late.]

* Yomtov Ehrlich seems very proud that Williamsburg had its own religious doctor and a female lawyer, a pious Jewish woman, a phenomenon that would I don’t think would be a source of pride today; or at least it is hard to find such career-oriented religious Jews.

* It is also interesting that the Williamsburg of this time is singularly welcoming, so much so that if you would come by you would be asked to stay for Shabbes.

*Williamsburg, not Israel, is described here as the Zion, the Jerusalem. This reflects the continued feeling that Jews were in diaspora and had to build their communities amid non-Jewish nations.

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