In Poland and Russia, the tune had become so widely known that even non-Jews learned of it — tragically. According to Birnbaum and other writers, wealthy Polish landowners adopted the practice of forcing Jews to sing or dance to Jewish liturgical tunes in a humiliating way and, because "Mah Yofith" was known as a stereotypical Jewish song, it was singled out by name. The drunken landowner would demand of a Jew who worked for him, or who did business with him, "Sing for me Mahyufes!" A refusal could be met with being struck on the back with rods prepared for the occasion.Which makes me wonder -- why do we have so few songs for the Shabbat table? You would have thought that over the years many more would have been written, and if more were written (the Forward does mention a compilation of 127 appearing in the early 20th century,though I assume that includes many Seudah Shlishit one-liners), that more would have survived / stayed popular.
This treatment became so common that the song's title formed the core of pejorative expressions in Yiddish — a "mahyofis-yid" or "mahyofis-nik" — to describe a cowardly Jew who would submit or bend to non-Jews in a servile, degrading manner, or who would make fun of Jewish culture or Judaism before non-Jews (akin to an "Uncle Tom" among American blacks).
The degrading experiences associated with the tune left such a bad taste in the mouths of Polish and Russian Jewry that the song lost its place at the Sabbath table and nearly was forgotten.
Friday, January 07, 2005
The Forward features a 900-year old Shabbat Zemer, 'Mah Yofit' (How beautiful), which used to be popular in Eastern Europe but which is today virtually unknown:
Posted by Miriam at 3:34 PM