Your smile

25 January until 2 February 2021. My own translation of my Interlingua original

Table of contents

Zol Zayn

Chava Alberstein. I am a fan. She has been singing for so long, but I didn't know it, unfortunately. I make notes of my musical discoveries, so I know when was my first encounter with her music: 14 April 2010.

Zol Zayn, זאָל זײַן. A beautiful song, despite the bad sound quality of this recording. Lyrics and music written by Josef Papiernikov. If you know German of course you immediately recognise ‘Soll sein’, or in Dutch ‘Zal zijn’. But the indented sense in the context is rather, I think "Stell dir mal vor’, in English: ‘Imagine’.

From my knowledge of Dutch and German I understand quite lot of a text in Yiddish, without ever having learnt the language. It isn’t easy when just hearing it, because the pronunciation is different, and at first sometimes unexpected. But as soon as the etymological connection with German becomes clear, almost everything is understandable.

What remains are the words of Hebrew, Aramaic or Slavic origin, languages that I don’t know. But nowadays we have Wiktionary and other online sources. An example is the word that seems to sound like ‘kholem’. It wasn’t easy to find the text written out somewhere, but look here: Vatteville. The site provides, from left to right, an English translation, a transliteration that indicates the pronunciation in Yiddish, optionally the same in Polish variants of Yiddish, and the orthographic representation in Hebrew script.

The word in question is written חלום.

The sheer presence of the letter ח already betrays that this has to be a word of Semitic origin, i.e. Hebrew or Aramaic, because in Germanic and Slavic words of Yiddish, this letter is never used, which is also true of כּ,‎ שׂ and ת. Wiktionary confirms the existence and origin of the word חלום, and also the Yiddish Dictionary Online gives its meaning as ‘dream’.

It’s interesting to see that the same idea is present in an earlier line of the song, as troym, cognate with the German word Traum. Yiddish having multiple lexical sources enriches its vocabulary.

In Modern Hebrew, which founds its pronunciation in parts on Sephardic traditions, but also Ashkenazi ones, they say ẖalóm, which for most speakers sounds the same as would khalóm, [χaˈlom]. In Yiddish on the other hand, according to Wiktionary they say [ˈχɔləm], but in all versions of Zol Zayn that I’ve heard, I hear [ˈχɔlɛm], or, because the language has only five vowel phonemes, perhaps /ˈxolem/.

In the orthographic system of Yiddish, this might be written as חאָלעם or כאָלעם. But nobody does that. Regardless of the pronunciation in Yiddish, they respect and maintain the original spelling in Hebrew, which certainly for religious Jews, but probably also for others, feels like a sacred language.

A similar pattern exists in this well known word ‘Shalom’, שלום, shalóm in Israeli Hebrew, but shólem in Yiddish.


Yet another part of the text that interests me is בלױער פֿון בלאָ. In English: in a dream the sky is bluer than blue, in Dutch: blauwer dan blauw (or also: blauwer als blauw), in German: blauer als blau.

In Yiddish they say bloyer fun blo (blo (בלאָ) and bloy (בלױ) are variants of the same word), with the word fun (פֿון), cognate with German von which normally means ‘of’ or ‘from’.

That word פֿון is also seen in other songs, e.g. Tumbalalaika, quote:

וואָס איז העכער פֿון אַ הויז?‏
וואָס איז פֿלינקער פֿון אַ מויז?‏
וואָס איז טיפֿער פֿון אַ קוואַל?‏
וואָס איז ביטער, ביטערער ווי גאַל?‏
Vos iz hekher fun a hoyz?
Vos iz flinker fun a moyz?
Vos iz tifer fun a kval?
Vos iz biter, biterer vi gal?

Apparently there is also a variant with vi (ווי), a cognate of German wie, ‘as, like’. In German this is used for equivalences: so groß wie ein Haus, as big as a house.

Also in the well-known song בײַ מיר ביסט דו שיין (Bay mir bist du sheyn) there is an example of this use of ‘fun’: “Bay mir bistu tayerer fun gelt” (בײַ מיר ביסטו טײַערער פֿון געלט), ‘to me you are dearer / more valuable than money’.

Related, but different

Another song by Chava Alberstein that I heard already in 2010: Reizele. The lyrics are included under the video, in transcription, and also in the original Hebrew script.

A linguistic observation: אײנס, צווײ, דרײַ!‏‎, 1, 2, 3, clearly cognate with German eins, zwei, drei. German has the same diphthong three times, but Yiddish has not: eyns, tsvey, dray.

The vowel or diphthongs of my own language, Dutch, are different, but they are distributed the same way as in Yiddish: twice the same, once different, een, twee, drie.


Also in Yiddish

Chava Alberstein has also sung other Yiddish songs, e.g. Rivkele. Rivkele is obviously, or not so obviously for those who did not know it, a diminutive of the name Rivka, which in other languages is known as Rebbeca. The song is about a young girl, who lives in a dark ghetto, and has to work in a factory. Also on the Sabbath? Or that’s what I think I understand, without looking up the lyrics.

17 July 2018 I discovered the site Songs of my People, set up by young American Josephine Yalovitser (1996). Found from there: Karsten Troyke & Trio Scho, Shpil mir noch amul mayn fidel (Play for me, once more, my violin).

Via this page back to Chava Alberstein. Friling, פֿרילינג, the related German word is of course Frühling, from ‘früh’, early, and the meaning is ‘spring’. But the story is bittersweet. Lyrics in transcription with an English translation. Author: Shmerke Kaczerginski. Music by Abraham Brudno. Lyrics in Yiddish.

20 August 2018 I found on Youtube Di goldene pave, The golden peacock (די גאָלדעןע פּאַווע), performed by Chava Alberstein and the group The Klezmatics. This is a poem by אַננאַ מאַרגאָלין‎ (Anna Margolin, her real name was Rosa Harning Lebensboym).

I think this was the first time I tried to read Yiddish, not in transcription, but the real thing, so in Hebrew script, which in my opinion is the best way to represent the language. But in the beginning of the video this is difficult, because you have turn the computer left to be able to read the text properly. From 2m01s the text is better visible, but at that moment nothing is being sung. Not optimal.

At the time I also heard Mayn shvester Khaye (מײַן שװעסטער חיה), a poem de Binem Heller (בינם העלער), with music by Chava Alberstein. A merry melody, but a moving story, nostalgic and at the end very tragic, about an older sister who raised the narrator and his brothers, as the mother had to go work in a shop. Older, but she herself was also only ten years old. A German burnt her in Treblinka. The narrator thinks of her, while himself being safe in Israel.

Native language?

Chava Alberstein was born in Szczecin, Poland, on 8 December 1946 or 1947 (sources vary). At a young age, in 1950 or 1951 she emigrated to Israel with her parents, who had survived the Holocaust by escaping to Siberia.

So almost all of her life, Chava has lived in Israel, and Modern Hebrew, or Ivrit, is clearly her language. To my ears her Yiddish sound pretty authentic, although I wouldn’t know how I can judge that. Did she still speak Yiddish when in Israel, and apart from singing in Yiddish, does she also still speak the language in daily life? I don’t know.

Before my first Youtube encounter with Chava Alberstein in 2010, in yet another discovery journey, in March 2018 I found Olga Mieleszczuk (also known as Olga Avigail): Yiddish Tango fun Varsha Singer Festival 2016, Rivkele - Rebeka Yiddish Tango, Oyfn weg shteyt a boym, Mayn shtetele Belz, etc., and via her, Youtube again led me to Chava Alberstein, but this time in Hebrew!

I like the sounds, the acoustic and rhythmic impression of Yiddish. Those of Hebrew somewhat less. The exception is when Chava Alberstein sings it! She has a way of using Hebrew and make it sound soft, smooth, mellow, gentle and poetic. Some examples:
חופים הם לפעמים (ẖufim hem lif'amim, Shores sometimes ...);
ימי בנימינה (yemei binyamina, Days of Binyamina);
אך החיטה צומחת שוב (akh haẖita tsomaẖat shuv, But the wheat grows again);
אדבר איתך (adaber itkha, I will talk with you);
זה שנולד ליד הים (ze shenolad leyad hayam, The one born by the sea). This video contains the Hebrew lyrics, including all the vowels.


Three versions

One song, for being so beautiful, I highlight here. Here it is in a rather recent version, recorded live: פרח הלילך. In this studio version the words are audible more clearly. And in this one Chava Alberstein was notably somewhat younger, when her voice sounded just as well, although the tempo in this interpretation is too high to my liking. I prefer the more recent version, which is quiet, contemplative and reflective, with a warm and pleasant atmosphere. It is this version that I will now mostly discuss, with, for details of pronunciation, also an ear to the one mentioned second.


At the beginning of the live video, it seems at least one of the guitar players plays a wrong chord, different from the others. I’m not sure. The piece begins with a Dm chord. In fact this is Fm, because at least Chava uses a capodastro (the other don’t, I believe) behind the third fret. I will name the chords as the fingers play them, not with their really sounding base note.

In the introduction, Dm goes to A via E, or in fact E and Em (at 7 seconds into the video), or Em Em (at 13 and 18 seconds). All variants are valid, the chord should be E, but Em nicely prepares for the transi­tion to the chord A, which might also briefly be A7 with an extra note G, which is the minor seventh to A and the minor third to E. The problem is the inconsistency between guitarists.

But it doesn’t bother me. It reminds me of Custódio Castelo, who in O engeitado on the CD Cristina Branco canta Slauerhoff made an error (0m31s) on the Portuguese guitar, that perhaps isn’t an error, or it is, but which as in the case of Chava Alberstein and her musicians, adds to the performance some sort of authenticity and spontaneity, of human and fallible players, who nevertheless do a great job.

In the video they added an echo to Chava’s voice. Normally this would give a fairlike and pinchbecky effect. But here the result is quite good, the echo contributes to the warm atmosphere that the music and words already create. Very well done.

Orthographic intermezzo

There is a difference between the three videos I linked to, with regard to the way the name Ewa is written in Hebrew: under the first and third it’s חוה, under the second it’s חווה. Why is this?

Recently I learned that there aren’t two ways to write Hebrew – with vowels and without – but three.

  1. It is possible to indicate all the vowels, and the variants of consonants, using various combinations of small dots, the so-called niqqud. Such text is ktiv menuqad, and is is used for dictionaries, children’s books, and books for learners of Hebrew. It is also used in a tiqqun, a book with an added display of a religious text with all the niqqud, next to the usual way, which is without them.

    The Masoretic system that is used for the extra indications, was developed by the Masoretes of Tiberias in the second half of the first millennium CE (common era). Two other systems have existed, the Babylonian, and the Palestinian of Jerusalem, but those have fallen into disuse.

    The name that is Eve in English, Eva in other languages, and Ewa in the Polish of Chava Alberstein’s fist years, came to us via Koine Greek, which eliminated the initial consonant. In reality, the name was /ħawwa:h/ in Ancient Hebrew, or /χaˈva/ in the Modern incarnation. In ktiv menuqad this is written as חַוָּה.

  2. When writing all the consonants as described previously, while omitting the dots, what is left is ktiv ẖaser (כתיב חסר‎), a defective spelling. To read it, you need to have additional knowledge of the language, because the spelling contains very little information about the vowels.

    This type of writing occurs in Torah scroll used in synagogues.

    Ewa is written חוה in ktiv ẖaser.

  3. For Modern Hebrew, the Academy of the Hebrew Language (established in 1953) and its predecessor ועד הלשון העברית (va'ad ha-lashon ha-'ivrit – Hebrew Language Committee, established in 1890) has formulated and revised rules to make the ktiv ẖaser easier to read, which resulted in ktiv male (כתיב מלא, full orthography). The main difference between ktiv ẖaser and ktiv male is the use of more letters vav (ו) to indicate the vowels /o/ and /u/, and more letters yod (י) to indicate the vowel /i/.

    Ktiv ẖaser already contained some such letters, but ktiv male has many more. Ktiv male is less ambiguous than ktiv ẖaser, because more vowels are indicated, but still one has to know the language in order to know the exact pronunciation, because the difference between /o/ and /u/, and the difference between /a/ and /e/ are not visible in writing.

    Through the increased use of the letters vav (ו) and yod (י) to indicate vowels, those letters, when used for the consonants /v/ and /j/, can be ambiguous and unclear. Therefore they decided to double them in their consonantal role, if in the middle of a word. See the examples in Wikipedia.

    This use of two letters vav (וו) seems similar to what is done in Yiddish. But there are differences:

    • In Yiddish the double vav (in Yiddish: tsvey vovn) not only occurs in medial position, but everywhere, that is, also initially.
    • The double yod of Yiddish (tsvey yudn) isn’t a consonant, but denotes two diphthongs: ay, ײַ /aj/, and ey, ײ /ej/.
    • In computerised texts in Yiddish people commonly do not use a sequence of two vavs (וו), but instead a special Unicode code which contains the two letters in a single symbol (װ). Similarly there is ײ, a single symbol for both yods together, which is used in place of two yod in succession (יי).

    Ewa in ktiv male is חווה? No, that is a different word, which means farm. So I now believe that writing Chava as חווה, as was done underneath this video, is a spelling error. Names of biblical origin remain what they are traditionally, they don’t change. Only חוה is correct.

    Although I can’t read Hebrew, with the help of Google Translate (which messes up all the linguistic terms, yet produces recognisable English, if you are already familiar with the subject), I found confirmation for not altering names, in the Hebrew Wikipedia (as downloaded 19 January 2021), which contains this sentence:

    הכללים לעיל חלים על כתיב של מילים עבריות, ואינם חלים על שמות פרטיים, הנכתבים לעיתים קרובות חסר במקום שהכללים מחייבים מלא, כגון: שלמה, יעקב, כהן, ירושלים.

    which I venture to translate as:
    The above rules apply to Hebrew words, but not to first names, which are often written in the defective spelling where the rules would require the full spelling, for example: Shlomo (שלמה), Ya'akov (יעקב), Cohen (כהן), Yerushalayim (ירושלים).”

    In the rules themselves too, there is confirmation, in this Hebrew sentence:

    הכללים שלהלן אינם חלים בהכרח על שמות פרטיים, הנכתבים לעיתים קרובות חסר במקום שהכללים מחייבים מלא, ובמיוחד על שמות פרטיים בעלי מסורת כתיב המשתלשלת לאורך הדורות, כגון יעקב, משה, אהרן, כהן, יהושע, נעמי, שלמה, ירושלים.

    which again I translate to English, from a language that I can hardly read, and understand even less, now also consulting Bing Translator:

    The following rules do not necessarily apply to first names, which are often written in ktiv ẖaser although the rules would require ktiv male. This is especially the case where names have a traditional spelling which was passed from generation to generation, such as Jacob (יעקב), Moses (משה), Aaron (אהרן), Cohen (כהן), Joshua (יהושע), Naomi (נעמי), Salomon (שלמה), and Jerusalem (ירושלים).

    So חוה remains חוה. Chava, Eva.

Resources for Hebrew

In the Internet there are some tools to make deciphering Hebrew easier, for those who don’t know the language well:

Another musical intermezzo


Now back to the song I highlighted: פרח הלילך. The piece was written by אורי אסף (Uri Assaf – lyrics) and ורית הירש (Nurit Hirsch – music). (The latter also wrote and directed Israel’s contribution for the 1973 Eurovision Song Contest, Ey Sham, sung by Ilanit.)

What I particularly like is the chord transition near the moments 1m23s, 2m16s, and 3m09s. What causes this special effect? The chord schedule is:

Dm E(m) A
Dm Gm Dm E A
Dm Gm C F C A/F7 (2)
Dm Gm Dm E A
Dm Gm C F C F F7
Bes Am D Gm Dm (1)
Em Am Bes C
F A Dm (and back to the start)

(Here too I take into account the capotasto on the third fret, so what I call Dm is in fact Fm.)

I marked the point in time under consideration with (1). In fact there is nothing special in the chords, the transition from Dm to Em (or Dm to E) also occurs at the start, without the effect. So now I think the specialty is in the melody. The melody is largely in the normal scale of d minor, in the Aeolian mode d-e-f-g-a-bes-c-d. But when the special effect happens, there is suddenly a note b, like in the major scale, but after that follows, like before, a note c. This means here the Dorian scale is used, d-e-f-g-a-b-c-d.

I now believe that this transition of Aeolian to Dorian causes the effect, which is special and pleasant to my taste. The composer has done this very well.


Where I put the mark (2), at 0m49s, there is something remarkable: I see Chava clearly play an A chord (fingering, in the order E-A-d-g-b-e': 0-0-2-2-2-0), but that is not what I hear: I hear an F7, es-a-es, x-x-1-2-4-x. In other similar moments, and in the other recordings of the same song, there is indeed the chord A major.

The conclusion can only be that in the sound mix of this recording, Chava’s guitar is hardly audible, or not at all, and we only hear the two other guitar players. And those accompanists this one time deviated from the usual scheme in a creative way.

Not a problem, she sings, and she sings well.

Words and sounds


היום אולי, hayom ulay, today maybe, or perhaps better sounding, perhaps today. Every stanza of the poem starts with this. Voiced sounds only, that is, vowels, semivowels, a nasal, a lateral, and to keep it simple I share the /h/ into that category as well. I like the idea and the acoustic impression.

Beautiful languages have a good balance between types of sound. E.g. my long time favourite, Portuguese Portuguese, by almost entirely suppressing certain vowels creates long sequences of consonants, often voiceless. And there are lots of sibilants. All of this together gives the language a certain roughness, coarseness, harshness. But not every­thing is like that. There are also a lot of vowels, nasals, and liquids, sometimes in very long sequences.

Modern Hebrew can be rather rasping, among others by the conspicuous presence of a /χ/ from almost three historic sources. But the language also has a certain softness and tenderness to compensate for this and create a balance, for example in hayom ulay, היום אולי.

Voiced even when final

In Hebrew, voiced consonants remain that in final position: כוכב, kokhav, star: 0m36s. The /v/ (ב) at the end of the word remains [v]. The Yiddish language also has this characteristic, although many neighbouring languages, I mention Dutch, German, Polish and Russian, have Auslautverhärtung: voiced plosives and fricatives becomes voiceless when they are final. A coincidence, or could there be a causal connection?

No assimilation

In Hebrew, a voiced consonant retains its voiced nature, also if it is followed by a voiceless consonant. In the song we can hear many examples of that. The hyperlinks now go to the studio version, in which the pronunciation of the Ivrit is more clearly audible.

(A remark from the author: Translations in the tables below are intended merely to obtain a rough idea of the meaning. I have used Google Translate, Bing Translator, the resources mentioned above, and this translation.
I have worked as a professional translator for many years, and I know that to translate well, you need to have a very good knowledge of the source language, and of the target language. And even with such knowledge, translating often isn’t easy. And I know virtually no Hebrew.)


(Academy of the Hebrew Language, 2006)
English translationObservation
היום אולי נדחה את בוא הלילה hayom ulay nidẖe et bo halayla
Today we can defer the falling of the night. The /d/ (ד) before /χ/ (ח) remains voiced, doesn’t become [t].
היום אולי נדחה את העצבת hayom ulay nidẖe et ha-atsevet
Today we can defer the sadness. The /d/ (ד) before /χ/ (ח) remains voiced, doesn’t become [t].
ולא נזכור כי סוף לכל velo nizkor ki sof lakol
And we will forget that everything has its end. The /z/ (ז) before /k/ (כ) remains voiced, doesn’t become [s].
שותקים נאהב כי לי ולך shotkim nohav ki li velakh
Silently we will love, because to you and me … The /v/ (ב) before /k/ (כ) remains voiced, doesn’t become [f].
אשר אינם יודעים לומר אחרת asher eynam yod'im lomar aẖeret
That they don’t know what else to say. The /d/ (ד) before /ʔ/ (ע) remains voiced, doesn’t become [t].


In the 1970s I read a bit about Classical Arabic and MSA (Modern Standard Arabic), and learnt it a little (well, very little in fact), and I noticed that that language has phonotactic rules that forbid the occurrence of more than two adjacent consonants, and that such a pair can only be in the middle or end of a word, never at the start. Modern spoken dialects however can deviate from those rules.

I find that Hebrew too does not adhere to such rules: there can be two conso­nants at the start of a word, and in combination with the final consonant of the preceding word, sequences of three consonants can occur.


(Academy of the Hebrew Language, 2006)
English translationObservation
בשני קצותיו הדשא לא יבול bishney ktsotav hadeshe lo yebul
On both sides the grass does not grow. We see kts, /kʦ/, two phonemes, but because of the presence of the affricate, you could also say: three consonants at the beginning of the word.
כי רוח כפור בחשכה נושבת ki ruaẖ kfor baẖashekha noshevet
Because an icy wind blows in the dark. Three consonantal phonemes in succession: ẖkf, /χkf/.
רק במקום בו לא שמעו את שמך rak bemakom bo lo sham'u et shmekh
Only where they did not hear your name. This has tshm, /tʃm/, three consonantal phonemes in succession.


מבלי מילים, mibli milim, without words. This sounds so beautiful, with the same or similar sounds that appear several times in different combi­nations: the /b/ and /m/, the /l/, the /i/.

It seems that mibli is a variant, now less often used, of the more usual bli. Here used with good reasons, I’m sure, reasons of metre and sound.

Elsewhere in the text there is day bli milim, די בלי מילים.

Glottal sounds

(Academy of the Hebrew Language, 2006)
English translationObservation
אם יד ביד באור נלך im yad beyad be'or nelekh
Hand in hand we’ll walk in the light. The repetition in the expression, and the glottal stop in be'or, I like them.
די בלי מילים שהן לאלה day bli milim shehen le'ele
… without words … (too difficult to translate well) The h in shehen, and the glottal stop in le'ele, I like them. Looks almost like Hawai'ian!

Title of the song

The title of the song is: פרח הלילך, peraẖ ha-lilakh, with peraẖ, flower, and ha-lilakh, the lilac.

The same root פ-ר-ח, p-r-ẖ, occurs in the lyrics too, in a different form, a verbal form, פורח הלילך, poreaẖ ha-lilakh. כמה יפה פורח הלילך, kama yafe poreaẖ ha-lilakh, how beautiful the lilac blooms.

This root פ-ר-ח, with its etymological and phonological aspect, I already mentioned here.

Title of my article

חיוכך, your smile, from חיוכ, smile, in the last line of the song, with its conspicuous sequence of three sounds [χ], [χijuχeχ], a sound that contributes strongly to the typical acoustic character of Modern Hebrew, was part of my inspiration for writing this article here, and also this one.

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