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.
9 thoughts on “All day long I’d bidi-bidi-bum”
You could ask on judaism.stackexchange.com. There are a number of observant Jews there who are fluent in Yiddish and could give you a quick affirmative if one is available.
Thanks, Jason. I followed your advice. Here’s a link to my question.
I’m pretty sure that your initial thought was correct. bidy bidy bum has no connotation of prayer as far as i know and in context your first inclination makes much more sense.
and the scat you refer to is also nonsense. many yiddish tunes incorporate sounds that have no meaning.
the yiddish word for prayer is daven
I am an orthodox Jew If that counts for anything.
I always thought of that stanza as “All day long I’d work on what I love”, meaning studying with the learned men. If I were I rich man, I’d bidi-bidi-bum in my math books. :-)
What happens if you cite StackExchange in Wikipedia? Could that lead to some sort of circular logic vortex in the hive mind?
My girlfriend’s school just put that play on….. do you live in South Portland?
No, I’m in Houston.
Also according to Wikipedia, the inspiration for the song was a song from Sholem Aleichem‘s Tevye the Dairyman stories (originally in Yiddish), which imagined being a Rothschild instead of a “rich man”. Perhaps the original song would shed some light.
Regarding the “bidi-bidi-bum”, it reminds me of some phrases I’ve read associated with nigunim.
An unserious possibility is that the phrase refers to borrowing tendu leaf wrapped cigarettes.
He wants the daughter to marry a learned man. An intellectual snob? Or devout?