Sophie Tucker was best known for her sexy songs—crowd-pleasers that showed off her curves, her sass, and her frank love of men and money. But when the singer took to the stage in 1925, something else was on her mind: her mother.
That night, Tucker debuted a new song. Instead of singing about dating or success, it was about a successful person mourning her departed Jewish mother—an angelic “yiddishe momme” who had suffered in life, but was now dead. Performed in both English and Yiddish, the song was a hit. When Tucker finished, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. And though she felt a deep personal connection to the song, she had no idea she had just performed an anthem.
The 1928 record for Columbia sold over a million copies. Performed in both Yiddish and English, "My Yiddishe Momme" took the world by storm during the 1920s and 1930s, giving voice to many immigrants' complicated feelings about assimilation and the sorrow of losing a mother. But the song was more than a tearjerker, or an American phenomenon. “My Yiddishe Momme” would go on to play an unexpected role in Nazi Germany and even the Holocaust.
The song hit a nerve with Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike, writes biographer Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff. “The singer was steadfast in her explanation that the song was meant for all listeners,” she notes. But it expressed a bittersweet emotion that would have rung true to audiences of immigrant and second-generation Jews who were far from home and whose mothers had sacrificed to make their lives better.
My yiddishe momme I need her more then ever now
My yiddishe momme I'd like to kiss that wrinkled brow
I long to hold her hands once more as in days gone by
And ask her to forgive me for things I did that made her cry
The song was written by lyricist Jack Yellen and composer Lew Pollack. Yellen is best known for writing upbeat hits like “Ain’t She Sweet” and “Happy Days Are Here Again.” He had something in common with Sophie Tucker: Both were Jews who emigrated to the United States as children in the late 19th century, and both were drawn to New York’s burgeoning Yiddish theater scene.
At the time, Jewish immigrants were flooding to the United States, driven from their homes by pogroms, institutional discrimination, and anti-Semitism that made life in Eastern Europe intolerable. Between 1881 and 1924, about 2.5 million Jewish people came to the United States from Eastern Europe in search of opportunity and religious freedom. They brought the Yiddish language with them, and soon Yiddish papers, books and theatrical productions boomed in New York.
The city was “the undisputed world capital of the Yiddish stage,” writes Yiddish scholar Edna Nahshon, and it attracted star talent like Tucker. She had begun her career wearing blackface and performing in minstrel shows, but eventually made her name by defying her producers, revealing her Jewish identity and refusing to perform her act in blackface. By the time she met Yellen, Tucker was a bona fide star, renowned for an act that included references to her plus-sized figure and a comic, partially spoken singing style.
“My Yiddishe Momme” was a departure—a sorrowful song that acknowledged Tucker’s Jewish roots. When she debuted the song, her own mother was ailing. Her mother died soon after it became a bestseller. In 1930, the song inspired a film, Mayne Yiddishe Mame, the first Yiddish musical on film and one of the first times Yiddish was used in a talking picture.
In 1931 Tucker took her show to Europe. But not everyone loved the song. During a performance in France, she sang the song to a mixed group of Jewish and gentile theatergoers. During her performance, anti-Semitic tensions in the crowd boiled over as gentiles booed and Jews shouted at them. The shouting match “threatened to turn into a riot,” writes biographer Armond Fields, and Tucker quickly switched songs.
It was a taste of things to come. When Hitler came to power in 1933, “My Yiddishe Momme” was one of the songs banned and destroyed by the Nazis. “I was hopping mad,” wrote Tucker blithely. “I sat right down and wrote a letter to Herr Hitler which was a masterpiece. To date, I have never had an answer.”
Later, the song she popularized was sung in concentration camps by Jewish victims of the Holocaust. After the war, reports The New York Times, Yiddish song archivist Chana Mlotek heard from a former concentration camp inmate who remembered a German guard being so affected by the song that he told his guards to give the Jewish prisoners more to eat. The story was corroborated by others who witnessed the incident.
During World War II, Tucker performed for American troops. Meanwhile, her plaintive song even became part of a soldier’s tragic story at the end of World War II. After the war, reports the BBC World Service, Tucker received a letter from Robert Knowles, an Army soldier who had heard a Jewish comrade talk about his longing to hear Tucker’s song played on the streets of Berlin.
“We did reach Berlin, four days after the war was over,” he told Tucker. By then his friend, Al, was dead. So Knowles and his fellow soldiers devised a tribute: They rigged up a record player on a truck and drove around the city playing “My Yiddishe Momme” at full volume.
“Might I say that you gave a wonderful performance,” Knowles wrote. “You sang…for over three hours, and didn’t even get hoarse. I was proud of you that day, and I think that Al was too, for I am sure that he knew about it….The record was old and believe me very scratched, but you were in voice my friend, you were in voice.”
Today, “My Yiddishe Momme” is seen by scholars as an expression of the guilt and nostalgia of Jews like Tucker and Yellen who felt the pressures of assimilation and accomplishment that came with the Jewish immigrant experience. For Jewish immigrants to the United States and Holocaust survivors alike, the song spoke to the importance of family and the resilience and sacrifice of Jewish women:
How few were her pleasures, she never cared for fashion's styles
Her jewels and treasures she found them in her baby's smiles
Oh I know that I owe what I am today
To that dear little lady so old and gray
To that wonderful yiddishe momme of mine
The song’s popularity survived into Tucker’s old age, but Yiddish vaudeville and theater didn’t. Over the years, the use of Yiddish declined among American Jews, and Yiddish theater slowly gave way to Broadway. But Tucker remained proudly, openly Jewish and devoted time, energy and money to raising funds to help other Jewish performers and raise money to help Jews displaced by the Holocaust.
She would perform the mournful “mama” song for the rest of her life. It was later recorded by Billie Holiday, Tom Jones, and Ray Charles. Even today, the nostalgic lyrics of “My Yiddishe Momme” evoke sorrow and love in listeners—but its most enduring legacy may be the one it left to people who drew on the song for hope and comfort during the darkest hours of the Holocaust.