By Julia Soto Lebentritt

I was listening to my first New York City lullaby recordings on headphones in 1982, struck by the microcosm of child and mother sounds in contrast to the hard tons of machines on highways and the vast view of skyscrapers out my 25th story apartment window on Lower Manhattan. I wondered, “How many madres are singing songs they learned in their childhood to their children now in order to relax in the music box of this 26 story tower?”

The heart of my life long research project in world lullabies landed in my arms when the attacked Trade Towers collapsed to the ground. My view of the city’s buildings as music boxes filled with lullabies from the peoples and cultures that comprise New York City shattered. Many innocent victims fell to their deaths that day and since September 11; what can a parent say to comfort a child? During these frightening times, how do we put our children to sleep?

We adult caregivers are bigger, taller, versions of the children; we are the towers in their eyes. We can create dramatic playful games, and perhaps obliquely teach our children about life, nature, struggles, through songs and stories. Always in frightening times, storms, wars, separations, as well as when it is time to close eyes to sleep nightly nights, human beings soothe and relax their children and themselves by talking, listening, singing and telling stories together.

Now more than ever we must notice what Anais Nin named “the understanding on which people lay themselves to sleep” and directly recreate this security for ourselves, and our children.

In Bay Ridge, a Danish-American grandmother is singing “Sov, mit barn, sov laenge” a very old lullaby by poet Christian Richardt that everybody in Denmark knows. She points out that the mother is trying to make her child comfortable by telling her not to worry. She tells the child not to forget her mother. Mother has taken those thorns. She wants her child to sleep the whole night and wake up every morning with a smile on her lips.

Before this Danish grandmother moved to this country in 1956, she lived in Copenhagen. She remembers typical evenings in her home during the war. The children were looking toward the clock, listening for the end of the talk when they knew the songs would be sung, the lights put on, and the adults would have evening coffee and cakes, children have milk, and then go to bed. She points out that these cozy hours with family singing together around the piano occurred because of the war. In Brooklyn, we can eavesdrop on a renowned Yemenite musician singing together with her adult daughter who was born in Israel in 1969 after the war. Their strong voices blend together remembering her daughter’s favorite song by composer Naomi Shemer about how beautiful mother and the house they built on the hill were. Then there was no peace. The truth of war acknowledged, allows communication of feelings.

In Soho, a father shares care giving with his wife. His lullaby singing approach is to sing one song after the other. There is a tender intense faith in his song and emotion. He says he puts emotion of the song into the singing, he feels the song. Sometimes singing, “Go tell Aunt Rhody the old gray goose is dead…” he realizes he has a sad expression on his face and wonders if that bothers his baby. This father’s lullabies are often love songs and laments, soothing in the melody but not the words. A single New York City mother remembers being in Freudian analysis. One day instead of just talking, she started singing a song.

Lullabies have a couple of purposes. The obvious one is that soporific one, putting somebody to sleep by droning and making soothing sounds. The other one is the content of the song and the ambience that the song creates. This mother does not believe parents should impose their problems on their children. Singing provides a way of not burdening your child, while expressing true feelings. Your children think oh, there is a sad song but not necessarily, my mother is feeling sad.

Anais Nin wrote: “Does anyone notice the owl in the tree at night, the bat which strikes the window pane while others are talking, the eyes which reflect like water and drink like blotting paper, the pity which flickers quietly like candlelight, the understanding on which people lay themselves to sleep?”