Vays Nitl

Mandy Patinkin’s rendition of “White Christmas” is about as far from the Shopping-mall Muzak or Bing Crosby as you can imagine.

וײַס ניטל

איך חולם פֿון אַ וײַסן ניטל  

נאָר אַזאַ ניטל איך פאַרשטיי  

וווּ די ביימער גלאַנצן 

ב׳עת קינדער טאַנצן 

און הערן גליקלעך אין דעם שניי 

Vays Nitl 

Ikh khulem fun a vaysn Nitl, 

Nor aza Nitl Ikh farshtey.

Vu di beymer glantsn, 

B’eys kinder tantsn, 

Un hern gliklekh in dem shney. 


איך חולם פֿון אַ וײַסן ניטל 

איך בענק נאָך יענער וינטער טעג  

זײַט געבענטשט און גליקלעך און פֿײַן

זאָלן אײַערע ניטל-טעג ווײַס זײַן.

Ikh khulem fun a vaysn Nitl,

Ikh benk nokh yene vinter teg,

Zayt gebensht un gliklekh un fayn,

zoln ayere Nitl-teg vays zayn.

He sang it in Mamaloshen, inserted into his rendition of Der Alter Tzigayner “The Old Gypsy” (Music: Abe Ellstein and Lyrics: Jacob Jacobs). The song says “Listen to the strains of the old gypsy’s fiddle, its haunting melody will touch your soul,” and comes from a musical called “Bublitchki” featuring Molly Picon.

You can hear Patinkin’s rendition:

Words for Der Alter Tzigayner, as heard on the recording, are given with translation at

The song refers to the gypsy melody that “fills you with lust and joyousness,” played by the old gypsy as only a gypsy can, “with his soul on fire.” In this rendition, the “gypsy melody” is (surprise!) an American standard with words and music by the Russian-Jewish immigrant to the United States originally known as Izzy Baline. Of course the Gypsy sings in Yiddish (Or at least Patinkin did—the song talks only about the gypsy fiddling).


The real treat in the recording is the violin, by Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg—truly amazing. Whatever you think of Patinkin’s rendition, Salerno-Sonnenberg lives up to Jacobs’ lyric about the gypsy’s fiddling:


The sounds from his fiddle
awaken the yearnings of your soul.
Your blood cooks and boils.
He draws his fiddle’s bow,
and the skies begin to move.
Your passion is to live.
Life becomes so good.


The Yiddish lyrics written especially for Mamloshen are credited to Moishe Rosenfeld.


The Yiddish word Nitl reflect the Latin Dies Natalis “birthday” and is similar to, e.g., the Portuguese Natal as in the region of South Africa, so named because Vasco Da Gama sailed past it on Christmas. (Irving Berlin’s verse describes being in Beverly Hills on December the 24th, where he was “dreaming of being up North.” Was Da Gama also dreaming of being “Up North”?).


Other explanations are unconvincing. Some have speculated that Nitl also reflects nit “no” or “little night” or the Hebrew nitleh “hanged” (although this seems farfetched, as the pronunciation in Yiddish  would be nisleh, although perhaps Nitl-nacht is a variation on Taluy-nacht “night of the hanged one” –from the same root. Hanging here refers to the mode of execution. Nevertheless, I do not think there is a Hebrew source for this term).


In any case, some Hasidic communities had the tradition of playing cards on Nitlnacht (so as not to honor the birthday-boy by studying Torah and performing commandments). Most curious, there are discussions as to whether the proper practice is to observe Nitlnacht on the Gregorian or Julian calendar, in other words, Jews would observe the “ritually correct” evening; the practice of their Christian neighbors being irrelevant.


Listen to the recording for a rendition that is not at all like any other version you’ve ever heard.


זײַט געבענשט און גליקלעך און פֿײַן

May you be blessed and happy and fine!

Seth Ward

Religious Studies Program, University of Wyoming 

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One Response to Vays Nitl

  1. Pingback: Nitl Nacht | Coffeecups

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