“Fuck the police,” begins the resounding chorus of the Yiddish song In ale gasn/Hey, hey, daloy politsey. But despite its resonance with N.W.A.’s 1988 release “Fuck Tha Police”, this song actually dates back to the early 1900s.
Yiddish culture, in fact, is no stranger to such authority-defying sentiment. The main speakers of the language, Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews, have historically existed in resistance to state oppression, persecution, and exile. This was often coupled with living in poverty, in part due to antisemitic laws that prevented them from full access to socio-economic life.
In ale gasn/Hey, hey, daloy politsey is just one of many anti-state, anti-police anthems that have circulated in the leftist Yiddish-speaking communities who traditionally adopted more of a socialist bent. It’s part of a radical repertoire that tackles many of the same social justice issues we are still fighting for today: labor rights, prison abolition, capitalist terror, state violence, and structural racism. The solutions proposed in these songs are also the same ones we recognize today in mutual aid, community care, unionization, and rebellion.
Take the song Undzer shtetl brent, “Our Town Burns”, which was written in response to the 1936 pogrom of Przytyk, a small town in east-central Poland. Its lyrics share a visceral tale of a Jewish town on fire as the non-Jewish authorities stand by idly, watching the crisis unfold. In this moment of dire apathy, the song calls to the community to put out the flames and protect each other:
“Brothers, it’s burning! Help depends only on you: If the town is dear to you, take the buckets, put out the fire. Put it out with your own blood — show that you can do it! Don’t stand there, brothers, with folded arms! Don’t stand there, brothers, put out the fire.”
During the pandemic, a similar plea reverberated throughout communities as they were struck by multiple and overlapping crises. On top of COVID itself, people experienced job loss, food shortages, difficulties getting medicine, and increased rates of domestic violence and mental illness. But amidst this, mutual aid groups developed organically to support each other. When it came to day-to-day survival, it was the community, not the authorities, that took the lead. Many of these mutual aid groups still exist two years later.
Another Yiddish song, Dem Nayntn Yanuar, “Ninth of January”, references what’s known as the Bloody Sunday March in Russia. Towards the end of the 19th century, industrial workers had started to unionize. On the song’s titular date in 1905, union workers were in the midst of planning labor strikes when they attended a mass demonstration outside Tsar Nicholas II’s Winter Palace. The police began firing at protesters, killing over 100 people and injuring hundreds more. The events of that day triggered peasant uprisings, student strikes, and even unrest within the military itself.
While those killed were not just Jewish, the Ashkenazi Jews had long been accustomed to poor working conditions and the heavy-handed domination of the Russian ruling class. Now, non-Jewish Russians were beginning to respond to the same class struggle. Dem Nayntn Yanuar calls to build a buoyant coalition against the capitalist reign of terror:
“When someone yelled: Jews, Muslims, and Christians, we responded with: Down with capitalism! Then we, the workers, will raise our heads. The world will be renewed, when we, the workers, are free.”
This same sentiment of workers’ rights, of rising up against the oppressive employer, has come to the fore in the form of unions that were previously never thought possible. The first ever Amazon Labor Union formed after a historic victory in April, while workers in 171 Starbucks branches across 30 states have unionized as of June 2022. Just last month, Apple workers in Maryland voted to join a union, too. The essence of this resistance — the determination to overcome capitalist subjugation — is right in line with the strong history of anti-capitalist, leftist leanings in many Eastern European Jewish communities.
Although the language was nearly wiped out in the Holocaust, a small but growing number of musicians have more recently begun reviving Yiddish music. These artists are often rearranging or reproducing songs that relate to current events but hit on the same themes many European Jews were speaking about pre-WWII.
“These songs come out of the amazing ferment of Yiddish revolutionary activity,” explains Rosza Danial Lang/Levitsky, singer of the NYC-based queer, trans, anti-Zionist, Yiddish punk band Koyt Far Dayn Fardakht, whose name roughly translates to the Filth of Your Suspicion. (Lang/Levitsky’s last name is divided by a forward slash to include both its original and anglicized versions.) “These are songs that were sung in street demonstrations, sung as people did laundry in the river next to their village, as young women took walks in the woods together, on picket lines, in organizing meetings, and so on.”
“It’s a subject matter that has not stopped being timely since it was first sung 100 years ago.”
Drawing on these revolutionary roots, Koyt Filth, as the band is also known, exclusively plays Yiddish music, often adding its own twist to the traditional tracks. One of their songs, Mya z’fun it arbet gegangen (khaverim in kamf), “Mya left work (comrades in struggle)”, was arranged from a song found in a collection by Soviet ethnomusicologist Moisei Beregovsky. The original track tells the story of a woman killed by police on her way home from work. “It’s a subject matter that has not stopped being timely since it was first sung 100 years ago,” Lang/Levitsky tells Mic. The band rejiggered the title and some of the lyrics to honor Mya Hall, a Black trans woman who was killed by police in 2015 outside of NSA headquarters after making a wrong turn on her way home.
Another song, Qibya, originated from a poem written about the Israeli army massacre of a Palestinian village of the same name in the 1950s. The band wrote the song after bass player Rose Kaplan-Bomberg found a translated version of it in a Yiddish journal. Lang/Levitsky then decided to look for a melody to set the words to, recalling a tune she’d heard from a friend and really liked. When she tracked the song down, she discovered it had been adopted by the Zionist right as a nationalist anthem — politics the band fiercely rejects. “We decided that the depth of the level of irony in doing this juxtaposition was actually pretty perfect,” Lang/Levitsky says.
Anti-Zionism is intrinsic to Koyt Filth. “If we’re serious about our anti-nationalist, anti-colonial and anti-white supremacist politics, we don't have a choice but to be anti-Zionist,” Lang/Levitsky explains. What’s more, “Zionism is and has been for its entire history, a project aimed at the destruction of diaspora Jewish cultures.”
Most modern iterations of historical Jewish music don’t express these beliefs so overtly, if at all. But even in the more commonly known and popular klezmer music scene, these politics are impossible to dismiss.
“A Yiddish ‘fuck the police’? Hell yeah!”
Klezmer is the name given to a centuries-old style of Ashkenazi folk music that is mainly instrumental and comprised of clarinets, fiddles, horns, and accordions. It is, perhaps, an acquired taste. As writer Jael Goldfine explained earlier this year, “It is simply too weird, old-timey, and Jewish even for most Jews.” Although the group The Klezmatics won a Grammy in 2006 for their album Wonder Wheel, klezmer music has not yet burst firmly into the American mainstream.
Now, however, it seems things might be shifting. Daniel Kahn, an American-born, Germany-based klezmer and Yiddish musician, is well-known in the scene. In his song “The Jew in You”, he speaks about the Jewish diaspora. “Learn to take a rootless, cosmopolitan worldview,” he says, drawing on the same understanding of Zionism that Koyt Filth is inspired by.
In a 2019 interview, Kahn explained why he suspects many younger generations are being drawn back to their Ashkenazi roots now. “In terms of the Jewish education that I received, it was all about either a liberal religious education, or it was about Israel, or about the Holocaust,” he told The Cedar. “Investing in and engaging with my Yiddish cultural heritage ... that I had to find on my own.”
The anti-Zionist themes in modern klezmer and Yiddish music combine with other social justice issues that many diasporic Jews are already involved in fighting for — workers’ rights, anti-capitalism, prison and police abolition. It’s given the music a platform to reach an entirely new generation of audience. “It’s exciting to see newer klezmer scenes that are popping up,” says Zoë Aqua, a klezmer musician and violinist for the temporarily-disbanded group Tsibele – onion in English. Her new solo album is set to be released on the new klezmer and Jewish music label Borscht Beat. “I just did a concert in Vienna and there was a jam session after,” Aqua tells Mic. “I expected maybe two people to play, but there were actually about 12 people jamming, and the concert itself was really well attended.”
Meanwhile, it’s thanks to Daloy politsey that the punk-klezmer, Yiddishist band Brivele (“little letter”) exists. Singer Maia Brown tells Mic she heard the song and thought, “A Yiddish ‘fuck the police’? Hell yeah!” She summoned musical friends Hannah Hamavid and Stefanie Brendler to her living room in 2017, and the trio, all of whom are multi-instrumentalists, started Brivele. They’ve since released three records and performed around North America.
Incidentally, a queer, anarchist, Yiddish, pay-as-you-can café in Glasgow, Scotland, sells pink tote bags with this line printed on Yiddish on one side and English (“fuck the police”) on the other. Brown, who lives many, many miles from Scotland, owns one, and many non-Jewish anarchist and abolition organizers are known to don the candyfloss-colored accessory from time to time. It’s a small sign of how the subversive quality of some of these modern Yiddish anthems resonate beyond the Jewish diaspora.
While some might refer to the growing scene of klezmer and Yiddish music as a revival moment, Brown points out that in many ways it is simply a continuation — an ongoing “Jewish conversation” that has brought in new voices, some of which had historically been excluded, marginalized, or ignored. Music is often framed as conversational — between musicians, between musician and audience, between instrument and instrumentalist. “Right now in this moment, these conversations are seeking out more egalitarian and radical understandings,” Brown says. The leftist klezmer scene and its spikier, punkier siblings not only offer a space for these discussions to develop — they are a sign that these conversations are far from over.