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The Coen Brothers Meet a Yiddish Sweatshop Poet

Hershl Hartman
February 20, 2016

by Hershl Hartman

edelstadt02 copyHAIL, CAESAR!, the Coen Brothers’ sardonic spoof of big studio Hollywood in the 1950s — featuring a double-handful of big-name stars — may cause some hoo-ha over its depiction of a very upscale Malibu Beach “communist cell,” but there’s one aspect that will probably go unnoticed... until now.

Jewish Currents can now reveal that part of the film relates to the almost-forgotten Yiddish labor heritage of Jewish Americans!

We needn’t go into the twisting plot. Even a summary might make readers’ heads swim. Besides, it’s not the plot that’s the point: it’s the soundtrack! In a single scene, the audience hears excerpts from not one but three renditions by the famed Red Army choir, melded together in a sort of revolutionary oratorio.

As the first soundclip filled the theater in West Los Angeles, this viewer/listener immediately began to sing along, mercifully in silence and... in Yiddish. He was singing a Yiddish anthem of the Jewish workers’ movement, written around 1882 by one of the classic “sweatshop poets,” Dovid Edelshtat (David Edelstadt), titled "In kamf" ("Battle Song"). Apparently, either the author or his vast following both here and in the tsarist empire had set the flaming words to a Russian melody. Perhaps some musicological graduate student may someday trace the words/music history.

Whatever, as the current saying goes, the song was learned as a child by this writer who, as an aging adult, translated Edelshtat’s poem as part of an essay, “The (Un)forgotten Singers of Struggle,” co-authored with his sister, Miriam Hartman Flacks. The essay appears in Paul Buhle’s three-volume anthology, Jews and American Popular Culture. (Another translation is heard in the Klezmatics’ CD, Jews With Horns.)

So here, for the elucidation of the brothers Coen and the enriched cultural knowledge of their contemporaries, is Edelshtat’s poem. The music is taken from Eleanor Mlotek’s anthology, published by the Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle, Mir Trogn a Gezang: Favorite Yiddish Songs of Our Generation.

IN KAMF (Battle Song)

Hershl copyIn Kamf music

Hershl Hartman is education director of the Sholem Community and School and a Secular Jewish vegvayzer (leader) in Los Angeles.