The camp’s directors were thrilled,
of course, that Mr. Robeson
would perform for the children.
They had reservations only about
the program the great baritone intended.
To mix Hebrew folk songs
with Negro spirituals was one thing;
to sing to the young people
in Yiddish was quite another.
Yiddish was the language of exile,
of the ghetto, galut—
not what this generation
of young Jews should be hearing.
But Robeson was Robeson,
a figure of such moral authority
that no one on the staff
could raise the objection they all shared.
And by the time Robeson made the transition
from “Mary, Don’t You Weep.”
(Pharoah’s army got drownded)
to Warshawsky’s classic Oyfn Pripetshik,
even the skeptics were choked up.
Little Mike Stoller, age 8,
had no Yiddish,
did not know he was in exile,
did not know Warshawsky’s alef-beis
were letters full of tears.
But in the play of campfire light,
beneath hemlock boughs,
with no words to tell what was happening to him,
Mike had his first taste of the Blues.
Author’s Note: “Mike Stoller Hears Paul Robeson Sing at Zionist Sumer Camp, July 1941” is, like much of what I write, an embellishment of biographical facts. The facts come from the great songwriting duo’s jointly-authored memoir, Hound Dog (2010); the embellishment comes from my imagination. Stoller recalls in Hound Dog that as a child at summer camp he heard Paul Robeson perform. He gives no further details of the event, and I imagine the rest. Perhaps this was a Zionist summer camp; most forms of Zionism reject Yiddish as the language of diaspora, exile, and galut. Maybe Robeson chose to ignore this and sang for the campers Oyfn Pripetshik by M. M. Warshawsky (1848 – 1907). Roughly translated “On the Hearth,” the song describes children in a schoolroom learning an alphabet, alef-beis, whose letters are filled with the tears of exile. For many American Jews of the last century, Oyfn Pripetshik induced powerful nostalgia.