This Mother’s Day, get out the Kleenex for the most epic paean to Jewish motherhood of them all: a sentimental tearjerker of a song which became an international hit, and has since been covered by everyone from violinist Itzhak Perlman to disco-era sex symbol Tom Jones. Of what ballad do we speak? “My Yiddishe Momma.”
It was recorded in 1925 by brassy vaudevillian Sophie Tucker, one of the early 20th century’s most popular entertainers, universally known as “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas.” But Tucker, a Ukranian-born Jew who started life as Sonya Kalish, revealed a softer side upon the death of her mother. Musician Lew Pollack and lyricist Jack Yellen — the latter of whom would pen classics like “Happy Days are Here Again” and “Ain’t that a Shame” — provided the song that would help Tucker express her grief.
My yiddishe momme, I need her more than 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…
Drenched in nostalgia and with equal helpings of longing and guilt, “My Yiddishe Momma” (“My Jewish Mother”) left audiences weeping. Released as a gramophone single with an English version as the A-side and Yiddish on the B-side, the song vaulted to the top 5 on the U.S. charts and became a global success.
“My Yiddishe Momma” went on to be recorded by the likes of sweet-voiced ‘50s pop star Connie Francis (“Who’s Sorry Now”); the London Festival Orchestra; and Neil Sedaka (“Breaking Up Is Hard to Do”). It’s been recorded in Hungarian, Spanish, Finnish and German, among other languages. There’s a klezmer version, a bossa nova version and Itzhak Perlman’s classical rendition. Ray Charles covered the song as a gag on the TV show The Nanny. Billie Holiday laid down a recording for the ages. Even Tom Jones (“It’s Not Unusual”) got emotional while recording the song live onstage. So have a listen. Dry your eyes. And then would it kill you to call your mother?