‘Tramvay Lider’ album takes listeners backward in time to lonely Depression-era winter’s journey

Toronto's College Street streetcar. (Screenshot from 'Der Konduktor' by Jeffrey P. Nesker)
Toronto’s College Street streetcar. (Screenshot from ‘Der Konduktor’ by Jeffrey P. Nesker)


Not much is known about Shimen Nepom, a Ukrainian-born Jew who wrote poetry and worked as a Toronto streetcar conductor until his death in 1939 at age 49.

He was a member of the a far-left Yiddishist group known as the Proletarian Poets, and, having produced several volumes of poetry, he was relatively famous among North American Yiddish speakers during his lifetime. The Toronto Labor League published “Tramvay Lider” (Streetcar Songs), a set of poems he wrote about life on the College Street streetcar, the year following his death. After that, Nepom was largely forgotten.

Like many, musical composer Charles Heller — although he had been immersed in Yiddish music and culture for years — had never heard of Nepom until he read about him in a Yiddish column in the Canadian Jewish News in 2010. Gerry Kane, the column’s author, wrote of riding the downtown College Street streetcar as a young boy in 1938. He was with his father, who was eager to introduce him to the conductor, the Yiddish poet Shimen Nepom.

Kane included with his column a poem from the “Tramvay Lider” titled “Der Konduktor.” The minute Heller read it, he knew it would make a great song. In fact, Heller ended up composing music for almost all the poems in the collection, putting out a CD of nine of them this past spring.

“I could see immediately this was a perfect lyric. It has rhyme, meter and simple-to-understand words,” said Heller, who assumed there were more related poems, but was not sure.

Music composer Charles Heller. (Courtesy)
Music composer Charles Heller. (Courtesy)

“I got in touch with Kane and pestered him for months to find out if he knew if there were more poems by Nepom about the streetcar. Eventually he invited me over to his home, where he pulled from the bottom of a pile of books the little posthumously published volume of poems by Nepom titled “Fun Mayne Teg” (My Days), which included the Streetcar Songs,” Heller recalled.

Heller started composing and arranging music for voice and piano for Nepom’s poems in 2011, and thanks to a grant from the federal government promoting site-specific works, he was able to premiere them at the Free Times Café, which is located along the streetcar line on which Nepom worked and has served for years as a hangout for a local Yiddish club.

Heller had another chance to perform some of the songs at the 2014 KlezKanada music festival, which is where he got the idea to produce the CD. Following a successful crowdfunding campaign, he recorded the tracks this past March, with Brahm Goldhamer accompanying him on piano. The arrangement for “Der Konduktor” differed, with Heller on the accordion and Rachel Pomeldi playing the cello.

Nepom’s “Streetcar Songs” reminded Heller of “Winterreise” (Winter Journey), a song cycle for voice and piano by Franz Schubert, one of Heller’s favorite classical composers.

Shimon Nepom, poet, Toronto (1937 or 1938). Ontario Jewish Archives, item 1728.
Shimon Nepom, poet, Toronto (1937 or 1938). Ontario Jewish Archives, item 1728.

“Both are about a winter journey, and you don’t know where you are going. Nepom takes us into the darkness, the snow, the cold, the unknown on the streetcar,” he said.

Indeed, Nepom’s Depression-era poems are dark and heavy, full of loneliness, loss and frustration. He speaks of the preoccupied and burdened passengers, the unemployed and red flag-waving workers, and his own despair at how his life has turned out. (From what Heller has gathered, Nepom lived alone and did not have a family. In one poem, he wonders what his far-away mother would think about his “narrow, grey room” and “poor home.”)

“Der Konduktor,” the poem that initially captured Heller’s imagination, turns out to be the most concise and poignant of the nine he set to music (and translated into English for the CD’s liner notes).

I sit in the streetcar from dawn
I sit so late in the night.
My hidden sorrow is with me,
My shadow, it keeps watch.

The blizzard bites into the rails;
Life is bitter and hard.
Passengers vanish and arrive;
Who knows their earthly life?

The winds blow and wail,
The way is entangled in snow,
Who knows – perhaps we journey together
To the end of this life of suffering.

As reported by The Times of Israel