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How a Sentimental Yiddish Song Became a Worldwide Hit—and a Nazi Target

May 17, 2019 in History

By Erin Blakemore

Sophie Tucker was best known for her sexy songs—crowd-pleasers that showed off her curves, her sass, and her frank love of men and money. But when the singer took to the stage in 1925, something else was on her mind: her mother.

That night, Tucker debuted a new song. Instead of singing about dating or success, it was about a successful person mourning her departed Jewish mother—an angelic “yiddishe momme” who had suffered in life, but was now dead. Performed in both English and Yiddish, the song was a hit. When Tucker finished, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. And though she felt a deep personal connection to the song, she had no idea she had just performed an anthem.

“My Yiddishe Momme” would become one of Tucker’s signature songs. Performed in both Yiddish and English, the song took the world by storm during the 1920s and 1930s, giving voice to many immigrants’ complicated feelings about assimilation and the sorrow of losing a mother. But the song was more than a tearjerker, or an American phenomenon. “My Yiddishe Momme” would go on to play an unexpected role in Nazi Germany and even the Holocaust.

The song hit a nerve with Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike, writes biographer Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff. “The singer was steadfast in her explanation that the song was meant for all listeners,” she notes. But it expressed a bittersweet emotion that would have rung true to audiences of immigrant and second-generation Jews who were far from home and whose mothers had sacrificed to make their lives better.

My yiddishe momme I need her more then ever now
My yiddishe momme I’d like to kiss that wrinkled brow
I long to hold her hands once more as in days gone by
And ask her to forgive me for things I did that made her cry

A large group of Jewish immigrants sitting down to dinner in a converted hangar at Atlantic Park, Southampton serving as a hostel for immigrants en route to the U.S. from eastern Europe.

The song was written by lyricist Jack Yellen and composer Lew Pollack. Yellen is best known for writing upbeat hits like “Ain’t She Sweet” and “Happy Days Are Here Again.” He had something in common with Sophie Tucker: Both were Jews who emigrated to the United States as children in the late 19th century, and both …read more


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