There is an old Jewish joke which goes something like this:
a young boy wanders into the kitchen to ask his grandmother
a question. “Grandma, why do Jewish people always answer
a question with another question?” The grandmother looks
at him and says, “Why? Who wants to know?”
Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish is a lighthearted
lexicon of Yiddish words that have made their way into English
usage and are most well known to Americans. He tells a variation
of the same story:
Mr. O’Neill and Mr. Pinsky were chatting. O’Neill
said, “Did you hear about the fight between Cooley and
“How could I miss it?” said Pinsky. “Wasn’t
it in front of my eyes?”
“I didn’t know you were there.”
“What then? I was maybe in the White House?”
“Whose fault was it: Cooley’s?”
O’Neill sighed, “Pinsky, why do Jews answer every
question with another question?”
Pinsky pondered. “Why not?”
Rosten’s anecdote confirms how common question-asking
is in the Jewish-American dialect; after the introduction
of Yiddish into American English, people came to recognize
this syntactical pattern as a distinctly Jewish trait. Even
more interesting is Rosten’s placing the joke in the
section of his book which attempts to define the difference
between a “goy” and a “Jew.” Rosten
clearly sees question-asking as a conspicuous way of distinguishing
between Jews and Gentiles.
But besides noting that the pattern of question-asking is
typical to Jewish speech, not much more has been made of this
phenomenon. Never has this linguistic pattern been linked
to or placed in a discussion of American musical theater,
a field dominated by Jews. In the first half of the twentieth
century, Broadway was pioneered largely by Jewish composers
and lyricists, and it was Jewish writers, most specifically,
who created this definition of America on the American stage
for musical theater audiences.
The theater attracted Jewish writers. It may seem paradoxical,
but it took a Russian-born cantor’s son, Irving Berlin,
to write “God Bless America” and the musical of
quintessential Americana, Annie Get Your Gun. It
was Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, both Jews, who wrote
the American masterpiece Show Boat. George and Ira
Gershwin composed Porgy and Bess, often considered
America’s first and best opera. Richard Rodgers and
Oscar Hammerstein II created and defined aspects of the American
landscape in Oklahoma! and explored American values
in South Pacific. And, in the latter half of the
twentieth century, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick wrote the
prototypical “Jewish” musical, Fiddler on
The composers and lyricists I focus on here were either born
in Eastern Europe, came from immigrant families newly arrived
in America, or were native to a society where Jews were outcasts.
It is not a coincidence, then, that these “non-Americans”
were the ones who clearly saw the American landscape and who
considered America a worthwhile topic to sing about on stage.
To study these writers as a group, it is necessary to illuminate
some of the commonalities shared by the Jewish composers and
lyricists. This paper will discuss a specific trait that all
these Jewish lyricists had in common: their linguistic heritage
of Yiddish and how that legacy formed the lyrics that pioneered
the American musical stage.
Irving Berlin, Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Sheldon
Harnick all spoke and wrote in English throughout their careers.
But what is more important is that they came from Jewish backgrounds
in which Yiddish had an enormous influence. There is a very
distinctive element in their collective work, one that has
unquestionable ties to their Jewish culture and which is all
but absent in the work of their Gentile counterparts. It is
the simple syntactical form of asking a question, instead
of making a direct statement. Especially in the new world
of America, audiences began to understand this syntax as a
specifically “Jewish” way of using language.
In the beginning of the twentieth century on the Lower East
Side, Yiddish became a primary marker of the Jews’ newfound
freedom. According to Sol Gittleman in From Shtetl to
Suburbia: The Family in Jewish Literary Imagination,
“After centuries of restriction and censorship, the
Jew could walk…with his eyes off the ground. He could
also read, write and speak freely, and the Jews took full
advantage of this opportunity to create one of the great immigrant
cultures of America, in an immigrant language, Yiddish.”
Newly-arrived American Jews infused Yiddish into every aspect
of their community; indeed, it was one of the forces that
bound the community together. Uriel Weinreich states, “For
almost a thousand years it has been the language of the largest
and most creative branch of the Jewish people.” Yiddish
was not only the language of conversation, but of all of life’s
intricacies. Weinrich says, “While serving as the vernacular
of millions of Jews, it came to express their fears and hopes.
In folk songs and informal prayer, it has been enriched by
high emotional overtones; as the language of instruction in
the Law, it has become capable of great intellectual subtlety.”
Among the Jewish immigrants living on the Lower East Side,
Yiddish literacy was extremely high, and texts written in
Yiddish were readily available. As Sol Steinmetz reminds us
in Yiddish and English: The Story of Yiddish in America,
“In New York City, the center of the Yiddish-speaking
population, over 150 different Yiddish newspapers, magazines,
and other periodicals made their appearance between 1885 and
1914.” Further, these publications were not intended
merely for the educated or upper classes. Gittleman states,
“Literally every adult Jew read a Yiddish newspaper.
In the peak years of the 1920s, the circulation of the Yiddish
daily press in New York City alone was nearly seven hundred
thousand, and conservative estimates suggested that each paper
was read by three adults, accounting for a readership of over
two million people.”
It is important to understand that the Yiddish texts did not
preach exclusion. The publications were not intended as a
tool for the Jewish community to isolate itself but as an
in-road to assimilation. Numerous publications “became
famous for the beauty of their work and the particularly modern
American view of life they held out. The Yiddish newspapers
and magazines were, as a rule, openly in favor of assimilation
to the American way of life and had no scruples about freely
admitting into Yiddish all types of Anglicisms,” Steinmetz
This linguistic exchange was mutual; Yiddish became affected
by American English, and the reciprocal occurred. We know
that numerous Yiddish words became part of the English vernacular,
but it is not only Yiddish vocabulary that changed the American
landscape. The Yiddish heritage of the Jewish lyricists affected
the songs they wrote and changed American musical theater
Beyond that, Yiddish folk music influenced the American Jews.
Of course, the immigrants brought with them the songs of their
childhoods, and they continued to sing them in the new world.
One example is the prototype of the Yiddish cradle song: “It
may be that the chapter of anonymous Yiddish lullabies ended
with the close of the nineteenth century.” According
to Ruth Rubin in Voices of a People: The Story of Yiddish
Folksong, Yiddish cradle songs, however, continued to
be written by Jewish poets and composers during the twentieth
century, both in Eastern Europe and America and wherever Yiddish-speaking
Jews settled.” The following lyrics of a Yiddish lullaby
are representative of an entire musical genre which began
in Eastern Europe and flourished in America. Its form is especially
significant; nearly the whole song is a series of questions:
My child, who will comb and caress you?
My child, who will clean your cradle?
Without a mother, there is no comfort!
My child, who will clothe and adorn you?
My child, who will take you to cheder?
My child, who will make a man out of you?
My child, who will bless you under the canopy?
But the question form is not limited to the cradle song. The
following lyrics come from a protest song, also written in
Yiddish. This song, written by David Edelshtat in the late
nineteenth century, uses the question to incite a strong reaction
in his listeners:
How long, oh, how long will you slaves yet remain
And bear the shameful chain?
How long will you glorious wealth create
For him, who robs you of your bread?
How long will you stand with your backs bended low
Humbled, homeless, and wan?
One reason the question-song was so natural to Jewish lyricists
is that the rhetoric of question asking is absolutely pivotal
in Jewish theology and ideology. From the earliest centuries
of Judaism, human inquiry and analysis have reigned supreme,
even in questioning the sacred texts. The Talmud specifically
states, “As the hammer [striking a rock] causes numerous
sparks to flash forth, so a scriptural verse engenders many
interpretations.” Modern rabbis describe this essentiality
of Judaism in less archaic terms, but the central message
is the same. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes:
The questioning, searching and skeptical man is not excluded
from the circle of believers; he becomes, rather, the spokesman
of the central work of the Jewish religion, the prime source
for halakhah [traditional Jewish law] and daily conduct. This
very process creates the unique blend of profound faith and
questioning skepticism that has characterized the Jewish people
throughout the ages.
The lyricists I discuss here were quite comfortable with question-asking
as a core part of their discourse. Beyond the nuances of their
everyday conversation, they were taught in both their formal
Jewish instruction and in their casual contact with Jewish
adults that they could reach the most profound truths through
questions. By doubting all assumptions, and analyzing the
world they lived in, they could create a new set of truths
There is no question that the lyricists I discuss were familiar
with and influenced by the nuances of Yiddish. For Irving
Berlin and Ira Gershwin, Yiddish was the language of their
first neighborhoods and certainly of the home. Even for Oscar
Hammerstein II and Sheldon Harnick, who did not grow up in
the tenements of New York, Yiddish would have been deeply
ingrained in their psyches and in their ears, simply from
their families and social circles’ knowledge and usage
Each of these lyricists uses the pattern of question-asking.
But it is important first to understand the pattern in general
terms to provide a context for the specific examples. Though
all of these examples illustrate the question form, the Jewish
lyricists employ variations of the same pattern.
In some examples, Jewish lyricists write a series of questions
but provide no answer. The song’s content is communicated
via a list of questions, left in a hypothetical mode, implying
that an answer is either unknown, unnecessary or would be
redundant. Hammerstein uses this pattern in Tuptim’s
song “My Lord and Master” from The King and
He is pleased with me, my Lord and Master,
Declares he’s pleased with me; what does he mean?
What does he know of me, this Lord and Master?
When he has looked at me, what has he seen?
Hammerstein also follows this pattern later in The Sound
of Music when describing the protagonist, Maria:
How do you solve a problem like Maria?
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
How do you find a word that means “Maria?”
A flibberty-jibbit, a will-o’-the wisp, a clown!...
But how do you make her stay, and listen to all you say?
How do you keep a wave upon the sand?
Oh, how do you solve a problem like Maria?
How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?
In these examples, Hammerstein leaves his questions unanswered
either because there is no answer, or because the character
singing lacks the power to obtain it. Tuptim, the slave, will
never know what the King thinks of her or means when he speaks
about her because he leaves her in ignorance. The nuns, who
exasperatedly sing about Maria, cannot answer these questions.
They find that this rhetoric is the only way they can explain
the free-spirited nonconformity of their new novice. This
is the exact point. Hammerstein uses this very Judaic pattern
to pose questions for examination, leaving the audience to
understand that at times, questions do not have answers.
In other examples, the Jewish lyricists create a list of questions,
and then answer them with a small but definitive word, phrase
or sentence. This is a particularly effective technique; that
final “answer” packs a large punch, providing
closure to the song. Therefore, the character does find some
answer to the question, brief though it may be.
Hammerstein relies often on this pattern. One example, which
emerges from his collaboration with Jerome Kern, is the famous
question-song, “Why Was I Born?” Notice how each
stanza’s long list of questions is answered by a simple
What is the good of being by myself?
Why was I born? Why am I living?
What do I get? What am I giving?
Why do I want a thing I daren’t hope for?
What can I hope for? I wish I knew.
Why do I try to draw you near me?
Why do I cry? You never hear me.
I’m a poor fool, but what can I do?
Why was I born? To love you.
Hammerstein later creates this pattern again in his collaboration
with Richard Rodgers. In The King and I, this technique
works perfectly in the mouth of the King, whose question-song
replaces the traditional form of the soliloquy. Singing alone
on stage, the King intellectually explores his options, wondering
aloud how best to govern his ancient country in a modern age:
Shall I join with other nations in alliance?
If allies are weak, am I not best alone?
If allies are strong with power to protect me,
Might they not protect me out of all I own?
Is there danger to be trusting one another?
One would seldom wants to do what other wishes.
But unless someday somebody trust somebody,
They’ll be nothing left on earth, excepting fishes!
Is a puzzlement!
Other than to recognize that they stem from Yiddish syntax,
it is difficult to pinpoint why these language patterns exist
in the Jewish vernacular, but there is no question that they
do. The pattern of asking questions appears time and again
as a standard lyrical form for Jewish songwriters, too many
times to be ignored or disregarded as “unscientific.”
Further, it is telling to consider the differences between
Jewish and non-Jewish lyricists. Let us do a brief comparison
of the Jewish lyricists’ work to the songs of their
most prominent non-Jewish colleagues, Cole Porter and George
Cole Porter was acutely aware of being a Gentile in a theatrical
world that seemed to be dominated by Jews. He came onto the
theatrical scene later than Berlin, Kern, and Gershwin and
felt he needed the key to success. There is an often-quoted
conversation Porter had with his friend and colleague, Richard
Rodgers. Porter told Rodgers that he had found the secret
to writing successful theater music. “What is it?”
asked Rodgers. “Simplicity itself,” said Porter.
“I’ll write Jewish tunes.”
However, even though Porter successfully emulates Jewish music
by using minor chords and keys, thus creating many of his
beautiful ballads, his pattern of writing lyrics is distinctly
non-Jewish. Where Jewish lyricists use questions to communicate,
Gentile writers use direct statements to create meaning in
song. Porter’s lyrics are poetic, extremely clever and
often ironic, but are written in the exact opposite of the
Jewish writers’ patterns. Consider Porter’s witty
lyric from his 1948 musical Kiss Me, Kate:
From Milwaukee, Mr. Fritz
Often dines me at the Ritz.
Mr. Fritz invented Schlitz, and Schlitz must pay.
But I’m always true to you, darling, in my fashion;
Yes, I’m always true to you, darling, in my way.
Porter relies on the form of the statement to push forward
a song, even when it is the simple construction of a subject
followed by a being-verb. The examples “I’m always
true to you,” “I’m in love again,”
“It was just one of those things” and “You’re
the top” make clear how some of Porter’s most
popular songs use a straightforward statement, much more an
answer than a question. In sum, Porter writes, “That’s
why the lady is a tramp,” where a Jewish writer might
question, “Why is this lady called a tramp?”
George M. Cohan is another early Gentile songwriter who favors
the statement over the question, also using the subject/being-verb
construction. This directed syntax appears in his most famous
songs: “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “You’re
a Grand Old Flag.” But Cohan even extends past the statement
to communicate his message; in one of the greatest musical
tributes to Broadway (1904), Cohan’s lyrics
are not just straightforward sentences, but commands:
Give my regards to Broadway,
Remember me to Herald Square.
Tell all the folks at Forty-Second Street
That I will soon be there!
This format of command-writing also appears in Cohan’s
World War One hit, “Over There” (1917), illustrating
that Cohan still employs the command form nearly fifteen years
Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun.
Take it on the run, on the run, on the run …
So prepare, say a prayer, spread the word to beware!
If we compare Cohan’s lyrics to some written by Oscar
Hammerstein II, we see that instead of demanding that the
character follow a list of commands in the song, the Hammerstein
character uses the Judaic form of asking a list of questions
to communicate his desires:
Shall we dance?
On a bright cloud of music, shall we fly?
Shall we dance?
Shall we then say “Goodnight,” and mean “Goodbye?”
Or perchance, when the last little star has left the sky,
Shall we still be together with our arms around each other,
And shall you be my new romance?
On the clear understanding that this kind of thing can happen,
Shall we dance, shall we dance, shall we dance?
If the reader knows this scene in The King and I,
he remembers that the action, not the lyric, answers this
series of questions, since Anna and the King actually polka
around the hall as they sing this song. The scene would seem
absurd if the lyrics were written in a statement form, since
they would stupidly state the obvious. “We shall dance/On
a bright cloud of music, we shall fly” would not form
the magical scene that Hammerstein otherwise creates.
In other songs, Porter combines the two characteristics of
the “Gentile” song in his “Let’s Do
It (Let’s Fall in Love)” (1928). Notice how the
lyrics include a series of statements and then climax in a
series of commands:
Birds do it, bees do it,
Even educated fleas do it.
Let’s do it; let’s fall in love.
In Spain the best upper-sets do it,
Lithuanians, and let’s do it,
Let’s do it; let’s fall in love.
In the first few decades of the twentieth century, the distinction
between the Jewish lyricist writing question-songs and the
Gentile writing statement-songs was clear. It must be admitted,
however, that this was not a longtime trend. These innovators
knew each other and studied each other’s compositions
to learn what became successful and popular. Soon enough,
they began to imitate each other’s patterns, and the
distinction became blurred.
Evidence of this change again lies in careful study of Cole
Porter. From the time Porter began publishing music with the
song “Bridget” in 1910, and for twenty years following,
all but three songs he published were statement-songs. However,
in his later years, after watching the question-song flourish
on Broadway, Porter regularly tried the form himself. In the
second half of his career, Porter averaged at least one question-song
per show, including: “What Shall I Do?” (1938),
“Do I Love You?” and “Well, Did You Evah?”
(1939), “Who Would Have Dreamed?” (1940), “Could
It Be You?” (1941), “Should I Tell You I Love
You?” (1946), “Why Can’t You Behave?”
and “Where Is the Life that Late I Led?” (1948).
Although some of Porter’s question-songs became quite
popular, his composition of them was not entirely natural.
Porter’s lyrics in his very late song, “I Love
Paris” (1953) illuminate his discomfort in shifting
from the statement form to the question-song. Porter begins
the song in his standard form of writing direct sentences:
I love Paris in the Springtime,
I love Paris in the Fall.
I love Paris in the Winter, when it drizzles,
I love Paris in the Summer, when it sizzles.
He then moves to the question pattern; however, when Porter
writes in this form, it seems forced and does not further
the audience’s understanding of the song. In fact, his
question lyrics become repetitious and cumbersome, slowing
down too much the pace of the song:
I love Paris.
Why, oh, why do I love Paris?
Because my love is near.
To an even greater detriment, Porter’s lyric of “Why,
oh, why?” seems to be a direct appropriation of E.Y.
(Yip) Harburg’s lyric in The Wizard of Oz.
Harburg, a Jewish lyricist collaborating with Harold Arlen,
wrote this phrase in 1939, fourteen years earlier, in “Somewhere
Over the Rainbow:” “Birds fly over the rainbow/
Why, oh, why can’t I?” There is no question that
Porter’s “I Love Paris” has a hauntingly
beautiful and memorable tune. But under deeper scrutiny, Porter’s
lyrical attempt to imitate his Jewish colleagues, indeed to
write “good Jewish music,” seems just that: an
imitation. Porter wrote no more question songs after this
attempt in 1953.
It must be said that the Jewish lyricists also transitioned
into writing statement-songs. Even though Irving Berlin wrote
question-songs throughout his entire career, some of his most
famous lyrics segue to use the basic subject/verb syntax of
the statement song; consider his “This Is the Army,
Mr. Jones” (1942), and Annie Get Your Gun’s
“I Got the Sun in the Morning” and “There’s
No Business Like Show Business” (1946). Some of Ira
Gershwin’s statement songs became his biggest hits:
“I Can’t Get Started” (1935), “Let’s
Call the Whole Thing Off” (1937), and the final song
he and George wrote together, “Love Is Here to Stay”
(1938). Finally, the Rodgers and Hammerstein partnership created
a list of very famous statement songs, including: “I
Cain’t Say No” (1943), “You’ll Never
Walk Alone” (1945), “I’m Gonna Wash That
Man Right Outa My Hair” (1949), and “Climb Ev’ry
Despite this ultimate blending of forms, the pattern had been
set. Stemming directly from their Yiddish heritage, the Jewish
songwriters introduced the question-song to Broadway, and
its success turned the question-song into a standard.
Proof of this lies in an analysis of the most famous “Jewish”
musical ever written, Fiddler on the Roof. Besides
being written by a Jewish composer and lyricist, Jerry Bock
and Sheldon Harnick, Fiddler has a distinctly Jewish
plot. Based on the stories of Yiddish author Sholom Aleichem,
the story follows the residents of the Jewish shetl of Anatevka,
who live in constant fear of pogroms. Unlike the other musicals
discussed here, Fiddler is a Jewish story that purposely
“sounds” Jewish; the characters are consciously
given a Jewish dialect. Having demonstrated that Jewish lyricists
tend to use the question form, it is interesting to view this
libretto as a litmus test. The result does not come as any
surprise: from the very opening words of the show, the Jewish
question pattern we have come to know emerges. Harnick relies
on the pattern of asking questions because it is an authentically
The effect here is different than Hammerstein’s prototypical
question-song. Hammerstein uses the question to embed in his
characters feelings of subservience, self-doubt or fear, and
the actual act of questioning communicates these emotions
to the audience. But Harnick writes question-songs for his
characters because this is the way they would speak! When
I interviewed Sheldon Harnick himself about how he came to
use this linguistic pattern, he told me about his “own
memories of going to a small synagogue in Chicago” which
was “upstairs from a secretarial agency.” He thought
back on “the men who were there…how they were,
how they talked.” He concluded that the “rhythm
of their speech… worked its way into the lyrics.”
The lyrics of Fiddler on the Roof are centered on
the form of the question throughout the show. The opening
line of the prologue immediately establishes this pattern:
“A fiddler on the roof…sounds crazy, no?,”
and from there, Fiddler’s opening song, “Tradition,”
maintains the pattern of asking questions:
Who day and night must scramble for a living,
feed a wife and children, say his daily prayers?
And who has the right, as master of the house,
to have the final word at home?
As in all strong opening numbers, this song introduces the
themes, characters and attitudes of the entire show. As the
next verses continue to introduce the papas, mamas, sons and
daughters of Anatevka, significantly, they do so in series
As the musical develops, the major life-cycle events that
occur in the family are also sung about in questions. At the
eldest daughter Tzeitel’s wedding, the epic song “Sunrise,
Sunset” begins this way:
Is this the little girl I carried?
Is this the little boy at play?
I don’t remember growing older.
When did they?
When did she get to be a beauty?
When did he grow to be so tall?
Wasn’t it yesterday when
They were small?
As the song continues, the parents ask, “What words
of wisdom can I give them?/ How can I help to ease their way?,”
and the younger siblings wonder, “Is there a canopy
in store for me?”
Later, in what could be the most heart-wrenching scene in
the show, one of Tevye’s daughters decides to leave
her family to marry a rebel who is imprisoned in Siberia.
When the couple approaches her father about their plans, he
responds by falling again into his typically Jewish pattern,
So what do you want from me?
Go on, be wed.
And tear out my beard and uncover my head.
Tradition! They’re not even asking permission from the
What’s happening to the tradition?
One little time I pulled out a thread.
And where has it led? Where has it led?
When the daughter leaves Anatevka to follow her destiny in
Siberia, the farewell lyrics she sings to her father have
a distinctly Jewish sound:
How can I hope to make you understand why I do what I do?
Why I must travel to a distant land, far from the home I love?...
Who could imagine I’d be wandering so far from the home
Yet, there with my love, I’m home.
Intrinsic in the theme of question-asking is my argument that
the Jewish composers and lyricists who pioneered the American
musical stage did so from a place of marginalization. As immigrants
or sons of immigrants, they had huge obstacles to overcome
in understanding American ways. They were outsiders and were
often pushed to the sidelines. Perhaps because of their status
as unknowledgeable newcomers, or because the Jews were discriminated
against in the new land as they were in the old, they sometimes
adopted the language of weakness. Along with finding a land
of opportunity and success, the immigrant Jews found that
they entered a lion’s den of intolerance and discrimination
upon their arrival in America. They often did not have the
power or the confidence to use statements or commands. My
earlier example of Tuptim shows how question-asking can reveal
a powerlessness and a deep anxiety about being seen as wrong.
In circumstances like these, asking a question is safer than
making a definitive statement, and safety was a concern for
Therefore, the question-song brings the listener into a world
far beyond the scope of the play. It not only invites the
listener into the song, but it brings him into the experience
of the American Jew as well. Because these poignant question-songs
are written by a specific group, they insist that the audience
listen to the subtext of the lyrics. The songs seem to plead,
“Listen to what our experiences have been! Provide your
own answers for it! What are your answers for my experiences
of racism, isolation and marginalization?”
Jewish lyricist Yip Harburg once commented, “A song
is the pulse of a nation’s heart, a fever chart of its
health. Are we at peace? Are we in trouble? Do we feel beautiful?
Are we violent? Listen to our songs.” Jewish-American
composers and lyricists grew into adulthood knowing their
roots as well as feeling the sting of discrimination in their
own lives. Stemming from their shared experience, they each
grew to translate into their creative work the positive and
negative experiences they faced in the new world. Their nuanced
Yiddish mother tongue, their painful brushes with anti-Semitism,
and their rich Jewish heritage all combined to dictate the
major themes of their musicals and, ultimately, led to creating
a renaissance on the American musical theater stage.
From guest contributor Jill Gold Wright