This evening I watched my daughter in Fiddler on the Roof. I thought I knew the play pretty well, but I learned something tonight.
Before the play started, someone told me that the phrase “bidi-bidi-bum” in “If I Were a Rich Man” is a Yiddish term for prayer. I thought “All day long I’d bidi-bidi-bum” was a way of saying “All day long I’d piddle around.” That completely changes the meaning of that part of the song.
When I got home I did a quick search to see whether what I’d heard was correct. According to Wikipedia,
A repeated phrase throughout the song, “all day long I’d bidi-bidi-bum,” is often misunderstood to refer to Tevye’s desire not to have to work. However, the phrase “bidi-bidi-bum” is a reference to the practice of Jewish prayer, in particular davening.
Unfortunately, Wikipedia adds a footnote saying “citation needed,” so I still have some doubt whether this explanation is correct. I searched a little more, but haven’t found anything more authoritative.
Now I wonder whether there’s any significance to other parts of the song that I thought were just a form of Klezmer scat singing, e.g. “yubba dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum.” I assumed those were nonsense syllables, but is there some significance to them?
Update: At Jason Fruit’s suggestion in the comments, I asked about this on judaism.stackexchange.com. Isaac Moses replied that the answer is somewhere in between. The specific syllables are not meaningful, but they are intended to be reminiscent of the kind of improvisation a cantor might do in singing a prayer.