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Shabbos Frivolity: Dzhankoye

So, and this is probably the last Shabbos Frivolity note. By next week, we’ll be around again on the guitar, and I’ll need something new to mark the day. I will probably go back and finish the Avot, unless I think of some other study (suggestions more than welcomed!) to be a regular part of my weekly observance. I don’t know that this series has been a success at all—I have enjoyed doing it, certainly, but the thing about frivolity is that it is, essentially, frivolous, and I can’t pretend to myself that it isn’t. So if I don’t feel like doing the research and writing up a note on any particular week, I don’t. Which, you know, doesn’t make a very successful series. Plus, of course, even if I do the research and write a note, it’s still frivolous. On the other hand, I was kinda dragging toward the end of 5771, there.

And it’s not like am forbidding myself the klezmer; I’ll write about songs when I feel like it, only (like books) if I haven’t committed myself, I probably won’t. It’s not that everything not specifically forbidden is permitted, it’s that everything not specifically promised is forgotten. So there’s that.

For this week, though, there’s Shabbos Frivolity, and of course I started from the new Klezmatics Live at Town Hall album, because I have been listening to it as often as feasible since getting my hands on it at last. As I was listening, I wondered about one song they performed, off their Shvaygn = Tot album, called “Dzhankoye”. It’s a happy tune sung at tremendous speed (particularly live, when they like to rip right through the uptempo numbers) and there was no hope whatsoever of me understanding the Yiddish words. Whatever Dzhankoye was, they were clearly pretty happy about it, enough to repeat dzhan, dzhan, dzhan, but was Dzhankoye a person, a casserole or an activity? Actually, my guess was that it was a place, either a village or a region, and it turns out to be a Ukranean city in the upper Crimea.

Raskardaš Orkestar

So what makes this area worth singing about? Well, there were some Jewish collective farms in the area, evidently, and the train station in Dzhankoye was where they came to load their produce onto the trains. So they sing: if you want to see something glorious, take a look at our train station, in Dzhankoye, dzhan, dzhan, dzhan! The lyrics celebrate the work on the farm: Abrasha, the singer’s brother, is on the tractor again, and Leye, his aunt, is working the butter churn, and Beyle is at the thresher, in Dzhankoye, dzhan, dzhan, dzhan. So if people tell you that all Jews are lazy and rich, that they are just bankers and capitalists and never produce anything, bring those anti-Semites to Dzhankoye, dzhan, dzhan, dzhan, and I’ll spit right in his face!

What a great song, huh? Here are the Nayekhovichi taking some liberties with it, as well they should:

If you heard the strangely attractive lead singer break into English and talk about love and peace, that’s probably Pete Seeger’s fault. Pete Seeger used to sing the song a lot, in English words he more or less invented, and then there was another verse attributed to Edith Allaire (in The People’s Song Book) about finding brotherhood in work, “Jew and Gentile, White and Negro”. It’s evidently in Rise Up Singing, and the Limelighters recorded it:

ZHANKOYE by Limeliters

Folk music.

The history of that region is a little more complex. Well, not complex, horrible.

So. Crimean war. Tartars. All that. Formerly arable land what is actually tilled by Tartars, until ruined by war. Uncle Joe Stalin wants to cleanse the area of the troublesome Tartars and encourages Jews to settle there (particularly because international Jewry can be counted on to help out if the collective farms aren’t profitable). This song is Soviet propaganda, simple and (when put in context) obvious, both telling the Jews to get out of the cities to the farms, and doing that whole Stalinist extol-the-worker-and-his-noble-work stuff. Which, to be fair, the workers and their noble work. But still, this is right in there with the stuff I grew up mocking, operas about tractors and posters of Russian Youth and all that horrible totalitarian stuff.

So. Forty thousand Jews are shunted into this area between 1928 and 1934, including immigrants from Palestine, from Europe, from America, along with the nearly-volunteer resettlements from inside the USSR. It’s practically Sabra, it is, until Stalin starts with the purges in 1936. And then the Nazis, who burnt down the train station the song is on about, and then after the Nazis, Stalin’s boys scattered or killed anyone left. In point of fact, Dzhankoye is one of those stories about a possible or potential utopia, cynically (if it even rises to cynicism) manipulated by Great Powers outside its control, ending in desolation and death. Twenty-five years after the song was written (Pete Seeger makes the claim for 1926, based on a 2006 interview talking about his visit to the modern city) the remnant of the Jewish community was under repression as bad as under the Czars.

None of which makes it a bad song, but I can’t help thinking of it as luring thousands of people to hideous death and deprivation, dzhan, dzhan, dzhan. But if you’re going to go, go down singing, right?

Here’s The Kasbek Ensemble, and here’s the Italian group Oy Veh, and here’s Burning Bush and here’s some guy with an accordion. Oh, and here’s some little kid jumping on the bed.

How’d you like to live on a farm, kid?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,