My mother used to sing us to sleep with a wordless lullaby. We called it “ay-lee-loo-lee,” because those were the sounds she used to sing the melody. When my younger sisters were babies, I would stand near their crib, one arm reaching through the bars to rhythmically pat their backs, and sing them this same wordless lullaby.

My mother did tell us once that there are actually words to this song. She told us two lines: “a yingele vus vaxed a talmid chacham / zul liggen azoi nas vi in a teich” – a little boy who will grow up to be a great scholar / should lie so wet like in a puddle. Her explanation was that the speaker is a mother, looking at her child and wondering aloud – how could it be, that this son of mine, who will become steeped in Torah later  in his life, is lying in a puddle of his own urine now (ie in his diaper)?

[Side note: was she criticizing herself for not changing her baby’s diaper soon enough? Okay, and back to serious…]

A while ago, I found this video on YouTube. The full song includes a version of those lines, but it also includes many other observations about the child as he is now and the man he will grow up to be. (Continued after the video.)

Sleep, sleep, Yankele, my handsome son.
Close your little black eyes. 
My little one, now that you have all your teeth – 
must you make your mother sing you to sleep?
The little boy who has all his teeth
and who, God permitting, will soon go to kheyder
And learn Torah and Talmud –
must he cry when his mama rocks him to sleep?
The little boy who will learn Talmud –
and how glad and proud in his heart your father is
The little boy who will grow into a scholar –
must he make his mother stay awake all night?
[two lines untranslated in the comments and I don’t know these words]
The little boy, a clever bridegroom,
must he lie so wet as in a puddle?
Sleep then, my little one,
my clever one who will be a bridegroom yet.

Sleep while you are still in your cradle by my side.
It will cost your mother many tears
to make a man of you.

And now, approaching this song with the perspective of the dissertation I’m in the midst of writing, my discomfort with it became clearer. The song does not allow the mother to see the child as a child. The song does not allow the child to be a child.

True, it ends with a reassurance (to the child? to the mother?) that the child can sleep now in the cradle as long as he’s a child – but the mother is still thinking of the man this child will be, and she is already crying because she will have to work so hard to change these childish behaviors into adult goals.

This is something I had begun to notice and be able to articulate about Bais Yaakov schooling as well. Teachers would tell us that each girl is at a different spiritual level and we each need to strive higher, but whatever level we’re at right now, it’s okay – but the rest of their behavior toward us told us that we ought to have gotten to the end point by now. The stages, the “child,” was not given room to simply be.

She always had to have an eye on the future, on what she will become – and she was expected to behave like the result, not like the stages. It’s what I used to call the “Jewish fake it till you make it” idea – although our teachers expressed it more as “the outside actions will influence the inner feelings and motivation” (the chitzoniyus will lead to the pnimiyus…).

In a way, then, Orthodox Jewish education has no concept of adolescence. Education means becoming the person you should be as soon as you enter the beginning of that process.

Interestingly enough, most people think the Middle Ages had no concept of childhood or adolescence. And yet my reading and research shows me that in fact they had more of a concept of the “in-between” stages, of the “becoming an adult” stage, than contemporary Orthodox Judaism does.


7 thoughts on “Lullabies”

  1. I realized years ago that I had spent most of my life looking forward to the future. That whatever I was doing at the moment was in pursuit of future goals. I thought it was just me. Not that I was the only person like that, but that it was a quirk of personality. Maybe not.

    I have read that adolescence is a modern idea, and medieval paintings of children who have the proportions of miniature adults are often cited as evidence that medieval people didn’t think of childhood as a different sort of thing than adulthood. Children were smaller, less developed people. I’ve also read that adults were childish to an extent we’d find alarming. Works of medieval advice on manners caution adults not to do things that today we’d find unacceptable in children, and they seem to have given in to their emotions and passions, to have exerted far less self-control, than do modern people.

    Is any of that right?


    1. In a word… no. In more words:

      There’s a reason most people believe all of that, but it’s not true. None of that is true, I’m afraid. Adolescence was a firmly established concept in the Middle Ages, and there was a healthy concept of the need for children to develop and go through a process in order to become adults. They were not thought of as miniature adults – there is great evidence of play being allowed and encouraged in children, via toys and rhymes etc that survive. And in the literature that I work on, there is a distinct difference in the way children are spoken about. They are treasured for their childness, not just for the adults they will become.

      As for adults’ immaturity in the Middle Ages – I’m not sure where that comes from. There were conduct manuals (for children to read and for adults to read *to* children, as well as for adults to learn how to teach children), and there were guides for knights, etc. A lot of that developed in the later Middle Ages because of the developing middle class who wanted to behave like the aristocracy but whose families had not grown up in that environment. Those guides do not indicate that adults were more childish than we are now – look at all the self-help books we have today, for adults… They did not exert less self-control. They just operated under different societal codes that we might find alarming. That doesn’t make them childish – it means they lived in a different culture and time. Besides, you can’t take what you read in literature as evidence of reality – literature is imagination, perhaps ideal and perhaps dystopian, but definitely not real.

      Most beliefs about children and adolescents (or lack thereof) in the Middle Ages are based on a book by Philippe Aries, (Centuries of Childhood), which every scholar who works on medieval childhood has to refute…. Because he was wrong that children were miniature adults. He read the art and the literature wrong, but his book was so acclaimed at first that his arguments stick around for a while. That’s why pretty much every book on medieval childhood or medieval age or whatever begins with a discussion of which parts of Aries are useful, and which are just … not 🙂


    2. Also, thanks loads for asking and letting me get up on my soapbox 😉

      And yeah, I think it takes a lot of people some time to realize they (we) should stop focusing on what we *will* become, to just enjoy who and what we are now. That’s not charedi-specific, but it is exacerbated by the “future gadol” rhetoric we hear a lot.


  2. So many things can be lost (by the child, by the parent, by the relationship), when people don’t live in the moment. I know we must think about the future, but when we revere what’s to come /b>so much that now feels almost irrelevant, we stop being a person and become an idea we can rarely enjoy. It’s a terribly sad thing, I think.


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