Eyn kuk af dir
Just One Look at You
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Eyn kuk af dir (Just One Look at You), with lyrics by Jacob Jacobs, is one of the principal songs from Olshanetsky’s operetta Di eyntsike nakht (The One and Only Night), with a book by Abraham Bloom. It was first produced in 1929 at the Downtown National Theater in New York. Although it ends happily, the play addresses one of the most brutal and tragic long-running episodes in European Jewish history: the era of rigorous enforcement of the Cantonist laws in the Czarist Empire from about 1827 (when, under the reign of Nicholas I, military service was made compulsory for Jews) until 1856, when they were abolished under Alexander II.
Under the Cantonist decrees, Jewish boys of age twelve or older were subject to seizure by military agents—known by the Jews as khapers (grabbers, or kidnappers)—according to a quota system. However, even those rules were often ignored and abused, and sometimes very young boys were taken—as in this play. The children were placed in military-type institutions, or Cantonist units, where they were given Christian religious instruction and induced to accept Christianity and baptism. At the age of eighteen they were conscripted into the army or navy for a period of twenty-five years. Estimates of the number of Jewish youth thus seized and impressed during that time frame range from 30,000 to 40,000.
The Cantonist laws were part of an overall imperial scheme to address the “Jewish problem” in the empire by forcing complete assimilation into Russian society—which included the shedding of all Jewish heritage and associations and the adoption of Christianity. The goal with respect to the Cantonist children was to separate them as far as possible from Jewish life, and the Cantonist units were located far from the Jewish populations in the Pale of Settlement, from which the children were taken. The laws also served as a secondary vehicle for encouraging Jews to conform on their own to Russian norms. Jewish boys who attended state-sponsored rather than Jewish schools, for example, were protected from seizure and exempt from conscription.
The action in the play occurs between 1830 and 1850. Ḥayyim, the young son of Reb Mendele, a Hassidic rebbe, is seized by khapers, but he is befriended by a Russian general, Rudinsky, who rears him as his own son—with a new Russian name, Vitalin. As he grows up, Vitalin recalls nothing of his Jewish origins or family, but he has a naturally friendly attitude toward Jews and an inexplicable attraction to Jewish songs. Eventually he goes on to a brilliant military career and becomes a famous general. Meanwhile, his real parents, together with Esther, an orphan they had adopted as a young girl, and a group of other Jews, are arrested by Cossacks and falsely accused of spying. General Vitalin’s intercession saves them. In the process he hears some of the detained Jews singing another of the operetta’s most successful songs, Az got iz mit mir (When God Is with Me), which ignites a mysterious internal echo within him. He thinks he has heard the song, but cannot recall where or when. He then meets Esther, now a young woman, and falls instantly in love with her, neither one realizing that they were childhood playmates. He begs her to sing Az got iz mit mir again as he tries unsuccessfully to jog his memory, and he is strangely affected and agitated by it. The typed prompt script indicates an unidentified duet here, and it is likely therefore that Eyn kuk af dir was sung at this point.
After his departure, Vitalin remains preoccupied with the song (Az got iz mit mir) and with Esther, and he travels to her (and his own childhood) town—arriving just as she is about to wed someone else. He proclaims his love again, recalling that the night he met her was “the one and only night” he ever felt “true love”—hence the title of the operetta. The known lyrics of Eyn kuk af dir seem to apply more directly to this moment than to the initial meeting in the first act, especially given his words: “Everyone knows that because of you, I’m a changed man.” Or it may have been repeated here with these lyrics. In any case, they now sing that they know they must be separated, without stating the obvious reason: the adopted daughter of a Hassidic rebbe cannot possibly marry a non-Jew. To save the day, Vitalin’s father arrives and reveals to Vitalin his true identity, which allows them to marry. “The story is more fitting for an opera,” wrote a favorable reviewer for the Yiddish press, “than for an operetta.”