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YouTube’d memories: Tum-Balalaika

In the last couple of years before my emigration from the USSR, I used to frequent the sole Rostov synagogue. Not out of any sort of religious interest, mind you, but purely for social reasons. Perestroika brought some measure of respite to formerly suppressed ethnic identities within the empire, and seemingly every Jew in the city (I am exaggerating, of course; even though Jews were a tiny minority where I grew up, there were still probably around ten thousand or so in the million-strong metropolis) came to Shabbat services every Friday. Youngsters my age were numerous and keen – after all, we were all expected to find a “good Jewish girl” to marry.

It was not the first time that I was introduced to Jewish music, but it was definitely the period of time when I was most exposed to it. Yiddish folk songs played regularly in the background during the receptions at the synagogue, and Jewish folk performing groups suddenly started openly touring the country and giving concerts at major venues…

Funny how I came to America and ceased being a Jew, on account of not being observant. I became a Russian, something that eluded me in the country of my birth.

I did keep the affinity for Yiddish songs, though.

Here is one of the most well-known ones.



  1. kisintin

    Here’s an interesting observation. I don’t think he ever spoke Yiddish, besides singing. My memories of Dad and Uncle Petya speaking the words with a much softer pronunciation.

    I love the Barry Sister’ version.

  2. Brian Greenberg

    When my maternal grandparents were alive, my Mom and my Aunt spoke Yiddush to them, as it was their first language (Ilya – did I ever tell you that my mother was born in Tajikistan? May have never come up – she came to the U.S. when she was a baby). Anyway, when my parents went to visit my paternal grandfather in Israel one year, he discovered cousins he never knew he had, and my mother was the only one who could speak to them, because she spoke Yiddush. Now that all my grandparents are gone, my mother and my aunt have no occasion to speak Yiddush (and certainly no reason to teach it to us kids), and so it is slipping away. Truly a dying language. Eventually, all that will be left are the euphemisms that made their way into English (schmuck, meshugina, Oy vey!, and the like) and the folk music. Shame really…

    To your other point about Jewish vs. Russian: when I was Bar Mitzvah in New Jersey (1982), everyone in our temple was given a Soviet “proxy,” which was a 13-year old boy who lived in Russia and wasn’t permitted to celebrate their Bar Mitzvah. There was always an empty seat on the bimah (altar) with a talis draped over it to symbolize the proxy. Years later, I remember reading that when the Iron Curtain fell and many of those boys migrated to either Israel or the United States, that most of them were ambivalent about this gesture, since Bar Mitzvah didn’t have too much meaning for someone who hadn’t been observant most of their young lives.

    It just occurred to me while reading this post, that there’s a one-in-a-zillion chance that you were my proxy. Next time I’m at my parents’ house, I’ll have to see if they still have the certificate…

  3. Ilya

    Brian, I could not have been your proxy because I was 11 in 1982. But there is a one-in-a-zillion chance that it was someone I knew 🙂

    Lots of parallels, by the way, starting with the fact that my grandmother took refuge in Central Asia during WWII (although I think it was in Uzbekistan).

    My Dad and Uncle both speak Yiddish comparatively fluently, but with the passing of their parents’ generation, they have much fewer opportunities to practice. My generation in the family barely knows any of the language, although I can understand bits and pieces… I suppose my cousins in Israel know Hebrew better than they do Yiddish… Yes, the language will be gone after a while.

    Kostyan, you may be right about Kobzon, although his age suggests that his parents should certainly have been Yiddish-speaking.

  4. Sasha

    Hey Brian,

    Speaking of coincidents, my mom was born in Dushanbe (the capital of Tadjikistan) in 1944, as many Jewish families fled to Central Asian republics from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus during WWII.
    Also, you and I were born in the same year, so if Ilya is stooping so low as to reduce his age just to avoid being your potential proxy, can I be it? Pretty please?

  5. Brian Greenberg


    My mom was born in ’45, so who knows: maybe they were neighbors.

    As for being my proxy, that’s certainly fine with me. Especially if being Bar Mitzvah means something to you, since it meant so little in retrospect to so many of the proxies.

    For the record, it was December 18, 1982 and the last night of Hannukah (someone more skilled in the Hebrew calendar than I can translate that into a date and, if you’re really into it, a Torah portion). In any case, a belated Mazel Tov to you…(26+ years later!)

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