taraf degrief

The songs of Taraf Degrief (aka Szmuel Szenderowicz, my great uncle) had been heard by only a handful of people while he was alive. He was a defiantly unconventional man whose mystical zeal was expressed most purely through his music. The only surviving recordings of his music were made during his final days in the basement of the old Spanish Synagogue in Prague.

In the winter of 1963, Szmuel and his 12-year-old nephew Mendy traveled to the Spanish Synagogue, where Mendy was preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. An intense blizzard swept through the city, and they became trapped inside the Synagogue with a few others. They hunkered down in the basement because it was the warmest part of the building. To entertain each other they had an old upright piano, a dreydel, and several barrels of blackberry wine. Szmuel enlivened the spirits of those trapped with his Yiddish tunes and Russian folk tales. 

Furniture was burned for heat, and toward the end of the three-day ordeal someone attempted to set the large Torah scrolls aflame. Szmuel vehemently prevented this from happening and proclaimed he would sooner die than burn the holy words. Szmuel died of hypothermia before they were rescued.

Eleven hours of tape recordings made throughout this ordeal were passed down to me from my uncle Mendy. 

These were Szmuel’s last words, scrawled on a singed scrap of paper:

The Rebbe is happy and the Hassidim also! I obeyed my clever father and followed his words as my mother let the lovely melody gently rock us till the stars fell asleep. When my father danced, all the Hassidim danced. When my father sang, all the Hassidim sang. I obeyed my father and followed his words. He told me when I was a child that it’s good to rise at dawn, for whoever has a heart and an ear can surely find a melody.

The music I have left you is inspired when the ancient book lies open before me. I read it, I read it a thousand times! The Jew always has a word of comfort for his plight. To ease his pain and strengthen his heart he comforts himself by singing. Songs, simple songs. Songs are all I have – let the songs remain.

Gai shlog zich mit Got!


the spider
the foolish german
oy, what a schiksa 
the sick tailor 
the beggar’s plan 
what is the meaning (revisited)
the arrant fool
oh beloved, we have sworn
du, du
the goat comes back
i am a boarder at my wife's
shh, hush, and don't make any noise! 
dreaming dreams