On October 27, 2018, hundreds of people gathered in New York City’s Union Square to mourn the eleven victims of the mass shooting that took place that morning at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. At sundown, leaders from the organizations Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and Bend the Arc held a Havdalah service to mark the transition from Shabbat to the new week. During the service, organizers led the crowd—which included both Jews and allies from diverse communities—in song and prayer. Community members gathered to honor the memories of those killed and to stand against hatred in all its forms.
“Tonight, we mourn,” the event organizers wrote. “Tomorrow, we resist.”
During the vigil, a handful of attendees carried a large, red banner bearing an obscure, yet deeply moving, Yiddish phrase: “Mir veln zey iberlebn.” Throughout the evening, the crowd chanted this storied sentence, which translates to “We will outlive them.” In the wake of horrific violence, this phrase served both as a collective expression of grief and as a poignant rallying cry.
Over the past few years, this phrase has become a powerful slogan of protest, resilience, and solidarity among progressive Jewish communities. Moreover, the expression has empowered many American Jews, myself among them, to reconnect with Yiddish history and culture. The story of this phrase is complex and multifaceted. It takes place across continents and historical periods, and it involves a myriad of courageous and creative individuals—from Polish Jews who resisted the Nazis to contemporary musicians who are preserving and reimagining Yiddish culture.
The story of the phrase “mir veln zey iberlebn” begins in the Polish city of Lublin. During World War II, Nazi officers rounded up members of the city’s Jewish community and brought them to a nearby field. As they gathered, a German general ordered them to sing and dance for the soldiers. Although the crowd was terrified, one individual began to sing a song entitled “Lomir Zikhberbetn, Ovinu Shabashomayim” (Let’s Make Up, Father in Heaven). This song, which the Ukrainian cantor Yossele Rosenblatt recorded in the early twentieth century, is an emotional plea for God to protect the Jewish people. “Let’s make up,” the song implores God, “and don’t permit any more violence against us.”
Despite the poignancy of these lyrics, the fearful crowd was unresponsive, and Nazi soldiers began to brutally beat Jews who would not obey their commands. After a little while, another person began to sing the same tune, except with strikingly different lyrics. Instead of singing “lomir zikh iberbetn” (let’s make up), they sang “mir veln zey iberlebn” (we will outlive them). This version energized the crowd, and they began to sing and dance enthusiastically. Eventually, Nazi officers realized that something was amiss, and they commanded the crowd to stop.
This tale has resonated deeply with Jewish communities living in the diaspora, and it exemplifies several themes that are central to our history and culture—including the vital role that music plays amid hardship. The story is noted in several historical sources, though there is some uncertainty as to whether parts of it are apocryphal. The rabbi and theologian Eliezer Berkovits recounted the story in his book With God in Hell: Judaism in the Ghettos and Deathcamps (1979). The Holocaust researcher Moshe Prager claimed that he heard the story from an eyewitness.
Although we don’t know exactly what happened to the Jews mentioned in this account, we do know that the vast majority of Jews in Lublin perished during the Holocaust.
Taking It to the Streets
Ira Temple and Jenny Romaine first came across this story in the fall of 2016, when they were helping plan a protest against the Zionist Organization of America. The ZOA is a right-wing, pro-Israel organization that has been widely criticized for its inflammatory rhetoric, opposition to Palestinian statehood, and support of xenophobic policies. In 2016, the ZOA invited Steve Bannon, a public figure with a history of racist and anti-Semitic remarks, to speak at an event. Appalled by this decision, several grassroots organizations joined together to plan a demonstration.
“It represented such a shift, in terms of official anti-Semitism in the highest echelons of power,” Temple recalled. “Looking back, it was a watershed moment for the Jewish community.”
Temple and Romaine first met while performing with the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, a radical protest marching band based in New York City. Romaine is a theater director, designer, and puppeteer who often explores Yiddish history and culture in her work, and Temple is a musician and cultural organizer who co-founded the band Tsibele. Drawing upon their experiences performing protest music, Temple and Romaine wanted to find a Jewish song that could be sung during the anti-ZOA demonstration.
While looking through the comprehensive Pearls of Yiddish Song collection, they came across the story of Lublin’s Jewish community. The story was written in the notes for the tune “Lomir Zikh Iberbetn, Ovinu Shabashomayim” (Let’s Make Up, Father in Heaven), which Temple found while searching for a better-known and secular song with a similar name. That version, simply titled “ Lomir Zikh Iberbetn” (Let’s Make Up), published by the Latvian cantor Solomon Rosowsky in 1914, is a humorous love story between two quarreling partners. “Heat up the samovar,” one says to another. “Let’s make up and don’t be foolish.”
Incorporating elements from both songs, as well as from the story, Temple developed a version to perform during the demonstration. They also hired the theatrical designer Rafael Mishler to create a large banner that read, “mir veln zey iberlebn.” Temple’s adaptation resonated deeply with the protestors.
“We took it out of the story and brought it back into the streets,” Temple claimed.
Following the demonstration, Temple’s band Tsibele began to perform its own version of the song. Their tune, “Mir veln zey iberlebn,” is a mashup of multiple sources. In addition to borrowing elements from both versions of “Lomir Zikh Iberbetn,” Tsibele incorporated the popular Yiddish song “Ot Azoy” as well as a poem by Andalusian poet Israel Ben Moses Najara. The band worked with the cartoonist Solomon JB Brager to design and sell patches with the phrase. In 2017, Tsibele posted a video on YouTube of its performance of “Mir Veln Zey Iberlebn,” and the phrase has since taken on a life of its own.
“I’ve never seen something take off like this,” Temple told me. “It really felt like a prayer. It felt like a collective cry.”
In the years since Tsibele’s performance, a variety of individuals and communities have employed the phrase. Following the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation, illustrator Micah Bazant collaborated with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice to design a poster featuring the phrase. Protestors carried the banner during the 2018 Women’s March. Polish activists created their own version of the banner for an anti-fascist demonstration. Community members chanted the phrase during a 2021 vigil following the murder of a Muslim family in Canada. The slogan has been printed on face masks and T-shirts. It even inspired a submission to the 2019 NPR Tiny Desk Contest.
“The phrase fulfilled this need that people had,” Temple reflected.
Maia Brown, a member of the anti-fascist klezmer band Brivele, echoed this sentiment. “I didn’t know that I needed this phrase until I learned it,” she told me. “I certainly need it to keep going.”
In the wake of the 2016 election, many Jews were looking for opportunities to ground their political convictions in Jewish history and culture. The story of Lublin’s Jewish community galvanized many activists and community members to continue fighting against injustice. In contrast with the more conciliatory tune, “Lomir Zikh Iberbetn,” Tsibele’s
song emphasizes the importance of calling out and confronting perpetrators of harm.
“When you organize, you have to polarize,” Temple told me. “This song is a gesture of organizing.”
Dancing Against Death
For many of the cultural workers I spoke with, “Mir Veln Zey Iberlebn” is a reminder that resistance is possible even in the face of tragedy.
“It’s a story with a lot of guts and humor and sweetness and reservoirs of self-knowledge to be able to sing in the face of danger,” Temple reflected. “It’s so inspiring. It’s a thing I aspire to, and the song is a reminder that it’s possible.”
In Temple and Romaine’s view, the story exemplifies the ways in which Jewish communities have historically wielded joy and humor in order to resist persecution. “We have always lived in diaspora,” noted Stefanie Brendler, another member of Brivele. “What we do to survive is make ourselves laugh at the expense of people in power.”
In this interpretation of the story, the Jews of Lublin mocked the Nazis by joyously singing the phrase, “we will outlive them.” With those rewritten lyrics, the community reclaimed some of its agency. Even in the face of all-but-certain death, they chose to sing and dance. As Maia Brown recalled her mother once telling her, “Jewish music is about dancing against death.”
For the artist and writer Casey Carsel, “Mir Veln Zey Iberlebn” is also a reminder that Jewish communities have historically employed storytelling as a form of survival. After encountering the story in a Yiddish-language class, Carsel embroidered the phrase onto a large textile. “I’m interested in the idea that Jewish culture is built around stories, rather than the idea of God,” Carsel told me. Although the Jews of Lublin perished during the Holocaust, their memories live on through the retelling of this story.
“It’s powerfully poetic,” they continued. “And when it’s set to music, it gets even better.”
Tsibele’s adaptation of “Mir Veln Zey Iberlebn” has resonated with Jewish communities also because it invokes Yiddish stories and cultural practices that have been largely erased through assimilation. In unearthing and adapting the song, Temple and Romaine preserved, celebrated, and shared an inspirational piece of Jewish history. Moreover, the story of how this song was popularized fits into a broader revival and reimagining of klezmer music that is taking place in the United States.
Klezmer is a musical genre that has its origins in Eastern European Jewish communities. Throughout history, klezmer was influenced by a number of other musical traditions, such as classical and Romani music. Today, bands such as Tsibele, Brivele, Mamaliga, and Burikes are working to preserve klezmer music, while simultaneously reimagining it in the context of contemporary society. In the process, these artists are creating new forms of Jewish expression, and inspiring many American Jews—particularly those of European descent—to reconnect with their ancestors, histories, and traditions.
In reimagining klezmer music, these bands are also unearthing and highlighting the long history of leftist Jewish communities. Throughout its history, klezmer music has been intricately intertwined with social and political movements. Many klezmer tunes, for example, celebrate the activism of the Jewish Labor Bund, a socialist movement that arose in Eastern Europe and spread throughout diasporic communities.
“There’s something at the core of a lot of these songs,” Brown told me. “You have to be able to sing them while you’re walking.”
Much of this history has been forgotten, and the work of individuals such as Temple has empowered many Jews to critically reexamine the ways in which assimilation has restricted diasporic Jewish identity. For example, the fiddle player Rebecca Mac—who performs with the band Mamaliga—grew up in a Jewish community that was centered around Zionism, Hebrew language, and religious rituals. Yiddish language and culture were pushed to the margins.
“It felt like a disservice to me as a kid,” Mac shared. “I always knew that there was this Jewish music out there that was in a minor key. I felt like I was trying to find it my whole life, but no one would show it to me.”
These up-and-coming klezmer bands are striving to create new, inclusive spaces for Jews who have similarly felt frustrated with, or even excluded from, mainstream Jewish communities.
Fighting for the “Big Life”
Although the origin story of “Mir Veln Zey Iberlebn” is set in Eastern Europe, the song has resonated with diverse audiences. “The phrase is big enough to pick up many people’s interpretations,” Temple suggested. For some, the song is a way of honoring all those who perished during the Holocaust. For others, the phrase is an opportunity to learn about the long history of Jewish activism in the United States and abroad. More broadly, the song is an invitation for Jews to stand together with every community under threat today. The story reminds us of our collective responsibility to build a more just world.
“My deepest hope is that the ‘we’ is very broad, and the ‘them’ is very narrow,” Temple said.
“I was thinking about the image of the redwoods here,” the artist Micah Bazant said about the song’s origin. “The way that, when the big, ancient trees are felled, they rush all their nutrients to the whole grove. What does it mean that even in our last hour, we could fight for life? To me, this phrase is about fighting for the big life—the life of the whole forest. Even if our individual bodies die, we dedicate them to the heart of all life.”
“Mir Veln Zey Iberlebn” is a song about resilience in the face of unthinkable tragedy. It is an invocation of ancestors who bravely spoke out against injustice. It is an invitation to reconnect with our roots and to stand in solidarity with our neighbors. It is a reminder that we are all interconnected, and that we have an obligation to care for one another. Finally, it is a story that is still being written.
“In the most direct way, the song is about how we exist,” Temple concluded. “It is the story of how we still exist.”
Joshua Kurtz is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, where he studies Judaism and spiritual care.