All about the gonifs CD: Rabeynu Tam

This song came from the collection compiled by Khane & Yosl Mlotek, Mir Trogn a Gezang. This is the first Yiddish songbook I ever saw.  It’s part of a three-book set based on
the Mloteks’ column in a New York Yiddish newspaper, the Forverts. They invited readers to send in Yiddish songs & over the years they collected hundreds of songs, including “Rabeynu Tam.”

Rabeynu Tam mix 1

When the gonifs first started playing together, around 1995, we stood in a row in front of our only copy of the Mlotek book, which we propped up on a table, & honked & squeaked & argued our way through the songs.

Most of the gonifs were involved in SF Food Not Bombs & Radio Libre, a pirate radio station in the Mission District. They lived together in the Radio Libre house, with buckets of Food Not Bombs compost rotting on the back porch, a giant tree in glowing oil pastels drawn on the bedroom wall, red-white-and-blue stripes painted on the toilet seat, & no heat to speak of. At dusk we all cuddled in one bed, tangled together like kittens to keep warm; or we went to parties at other group houses like Urban Stonehenge, where there was usually a bonfire in the backyard with musicians playing around it.

Bonfire music was freeform as smoke: billows of sound unbound by any fuss about right or wrong notes, key signatures, or chord changes. Musicians tootled, hummed, strummed or banged on their instruments: clarinets, saxophones, banjos, sometimes a musical saw; a washtub bass with a broomhandle neck & a clothesline string; accordion, hand drums, a battered old trumpet that only played two notes; plastic 5-gallon buckets beaten with wooden spoons.

So the notion of playing, from a book, certain definite notes, with the Mloteks’ prescribed chords, & sharps and flats as written, took some time to get across to the band that would become the gonifs. We met once a week in the storefront where I was living: two clarinets, saxophone, tambourine, & accordion. (We had a banjo player, but he dropped out.)

“Rabeynu Tam” was the hardest tune we learned. It had five chords, one right after the other, & one was F-sharp major (or minor, nobody could seem to remember which). It had five verses, & a chorus, & an extra little bit that we stuck in to give everybody time to get back to the top of the page. The extra bit meant that instead of the standard length of eight measures, or sixteen, or thirty-two, one verse plus one chorus lasted seventeen measures. On top of that, the verses told a story, & had to be sung in the right order, with the right nonsense syllables in the right places to make the verses rhyme.

The whole song is an elaborate fantasy concocted by the poet Itzik Manger about Rabbi Tam, the 12th-century scholar of Jewish law.


Itzik Manger, born in 1901 in Czernowitz (then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire), was one of the great 20th-century Yiddish Modernist poets. He was a prankster-poet, kicked out of his university literature studies for joking around, who settled in Warsaw until 1938, then wandered the world & finally died in Israel in 1969.

Manger believed that Yiddish poetry had to be deeply rooted in Jewish folklore, & the folk returned the compliment by embracing many of his poems as folksongs. “Yidl mitn Fidl,” “Afn Veg Shteyt a Boym,” “Rabeynu Tam” are all, on the surface, light-hearted ditties with catchy choruses & silly characters. But if you listen closely you’ll hear Manger joking around about Jewish exile, smothering families, self-righteous piety, & illicit sex.

In Manger’s song  “Rabeynu Tam,” the Queen of Turkey writes a passionate love letter to Rabbi Tam, the 12th-century Jewish scholar & mystic, which gets him in all kinds of trouble with his wife. Rabeynu Tam (“Rabeynu” is a Slavish-yiddish way of saying “Our Rabbi,” & “Tam” was a Hebrew name bestowed on him to mean flawless, but can also mean “simple” or “naïve”) is famous for his religious poetry in Hebrew, & also for his understanding of Jewish law. Some of his decisions—about the correct time to perform sunset rituals (when is sunset really over?), the right way to hang ritual objects (should the mezuzah hang vertically, or horizontally? Or shall we compromise & hang it diagonally?) & the right way for men to wear ritual prayer costume (I can’t even start to explain this one)—still stand, one thousand years later.

The song contains a series of questions, like the question-and-answer system used to study Jewish law. In the song, the answers get sillier & sillier, but the rhyme pattern is still strictly adhered to, by means of inserting nonsense syllables that have to be sung in the right order by an increasingly harried singer. Could this be Itzik Manger’s modernist take on Jewish law?

The funny thing is that on the CD, I get the words wrong.  At the end of the song, which gets wilder & wilder as Rabeynu Tam gets more & more entangled in his Turkish-Yiddish love triangle, Manger uses the old “It was all a dream” ploy. In this case, it was all a joke: a taylor’s apprentice wrote the song to honor Rabeynu Tam, but on Shabes, in between day & night (that is, in the grey area adjudicated by the real Rabeynu Tam) a prankster snuck in his own words, in perfect rhyme.

A tailor’s apprentice, in Yiddish, is “a shnayder yung.” But by the time I’d gotten through the whole song (which we recorded in one take, including the Turkish-style clarinet interlude by Peter Jaques) I mixed up the words, & a “hefker-yung” (a wild child, like a juvenile delinquent, or what we now call “at-risk” youth) snuck in from another song.

So in the end, I guess, the joke’s on me.

I should mention that almost twenty years ago, Peter Jaques was in that original gonifs lineup in front of the Mlotek book. I like to think that he got inspired by our regular klezmer sessions to become the phenomenal clarinetist that he is today.

His specialty? Turkish music.