Everything Sounds Better in Yiddish

Monday, August 08, 2016 - 10:07 AM

From left to right: Rachel Zatcoff, Cameron Johnson, Lisa Fishman and Bruce Rebold in 'The Golden Bride' at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. From left to right: Rachel Zatcoff, Cameron Johnson, Lisa Fishman and Bruce Rebold in 'The Golden Bride' at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. (Justin Scholar)

I am old enough and was interested in theater and opera at a young enough age, that I was able to catch the tail end of an extraordinary era in New York City in which entertainment was not only presented in English but also languages such as Italian, German, French and Spanish that played to large immigrant populations. However, no foreign language could rival Yiddish in terms of its appeal to audiences looking for a night out.

It is estimated that by the start of World War I there were at least 1.5 million Jews in New York City, almost all of whom had migrated from Eastern Europe as well as a smaller number from Germany and Austria. More arrived after the war, and the Jewish population of the city reached almost 2 million. This influx was abruptly curtailed in 1924 when a new immigration law, which was really an anti-immigration law, was passed in Congress. 

At first, the great majority of immigrant Jews worked in the garment industry, known at the time as the needle and textile trades. Others became furriers or milliners.

They also formed labor unions and often engaged in left wing, though not necessarily communist, politics. They wrote songs expressing solidarity with workers and all oppressed peoples. I am sure Bernie Sanders knew some of this music growing up.

My grandparents arrived from Russia and Ukraine in the 1890s and were processed through immigration facilities at Ellis Island. My maternal grandfather, who was 14 at that time, came to the deck of the ship he was on, saw the Statue of Liberty and was so overcome that he fell into New York harbor and had to be rescued. From that day forward he never went swimming.

Some, though not all, of these Jews practiced their religion. Many were quite secular or even nonbelievers. But all of them were connected by a cultural Judaism that was referred to as Yiddishkeit. Yiddish, which is wonderfully malleable in ways that make it an ideal language in which to be humorous (“to make a funny”), was the common tongue of these people rather than Russian, Polish, Romanian, Hungarian, German or even English.

Many of these Jews lived in crowded tenements on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, going to shul (Jewish school), praying at synagogue, trading wares on Orchard Street and buying herring, knishes and pickles on Delancey Street.

On Second Avenue, south of 14th Street, there were many theaters where these Jews went for their entertainment, much of it in Yiddish. These performances might have been of classic works by Shakespeare or Ibsen in translation or original plays and musicals written in Yiddish. These works were often humorous, although they included a vein of nostalgia for the old country as well as an affirmation that, all things considered, we’re better off here in America. Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin all grew up in this area and knew the repertory of Yiddish Broadway. The comedy and sensibility of the Marx Brothers was a direct outgrowth of Lower East Side Yiddish shows.

From this tradition came Fiddler on the Roof  and, in terms of humor and schtick, The Producers. So too was the tradition of Borscht Belt entertainers who were part of a week in the Catskills after World War II: Woody Allen, Sid Caesar, Myron Cohen, Carl Reiner and Joan Rivers. I think the fact that New York Jews are a disproportionately large percentage of the cultural audience in New York is because it is in their DNA to go out for an evening of music, theater and laughter.

Among the leading lights were Jacob Adler (whose daughter was legendary acting teacher Stella Adler), John Garfield (originally named Jacob Garfinkle), Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson and Molly Picon, who was originally named Malka Opiekun. I knew Molly Picon because she liked to attend performances at the Metropolitan Opera. One day, sadly, she fell and broke her hip at the Met, but we took good care of her.

The biggest stars of Yiddish Broadway were Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, whose grandson is Michael Tilson Thomas, the music director of the San Francisco Symphony. He has done a lot to preserve and promote the contributions of his grandparents.

Boris and Bessie played to sold out houses in New York and on tour. In addition to traditional Yiddish repertory, they did classics translated into the language. Boris was a famous Hamlet and King Lear, while Bessie scored a huge success as Salome in the Oscar Wilde play. They also staged Yiddish productions of Hedda GablerUncle Tom’s Cabin, Goethe’s Faust and even Parsifal (before the rise of Nazism). The Thomashefskys, Picon and many other figures of the Yiddish theater are buried in the Mount Hebron cemetery in Flushing, N.Y.

The clip below from a 1923 film, East and West, starring Molly Picon, can give you a sense of the push and pull between traditions in the shtetl (the small town in the “old country”) and the more cosmopolitan attractions of dancing and looking away from religious study.  

Even after the heyday of Yiddish Broadway, its music remained influential among certain performers, including Barbra Streisand, Mandy Patinkin, Ute Lemper and Paul Robeson

Opera singers such as Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce came from this world and sang in Yiddish as well as Hebrew and Italian. Regina Resnik, a Jewish girl from the Bronx, knew this music too and appeared once on The Goldbergs, an early 1950s television show starring Gertrude Berg, that was steeped in Yiddishkeit. 

Many of the Jewish performers on Yiddish Broadway had opera-quality voices and techniques but were seldom invited to perform at the Met. To some degree this was a product of anti-Semitism but also because the management at the Met had a big supply of top performers from Italy, Austria, Germany and France. It was only with the advent of World War II, in which Germany, Austria and Italy were enemies of the United States, that European artists did not come to America. In their stead, Jewish singers such as Resnik, Peerce and Tucker had the opportunity to sing at America’s leading opera company.

One of the most formative aspects of my childhood was spending 11 summers at Camp Kinderland, then on Sylvan Lake in Hopewell Junction, N.Y. and now in Massachusetts. It was founded in 1923 by needle trade workers for their children. Though very spartan, it was a paradise of Yiddishkeit. There was an adjacent community called Lakeland, where the adults lived in bungalows on their brief vacations. By the time I got there in 1962, many of these people were elderly and, oy, were they proud of us! For the campers it was like having dozens of loving grandparents who covered us in kisses and spoke to us in Yiddish. 

Because Kinderland promoted social justice, we had young "Negroes" (as they were then called) as campers at a time when almost everyone in this nation was still de facto segregated by race. I was friends with an African-American brother and sister named Walter and Beverly and always loved that they spoke fluent Yiddish. There was a theater at camp and most of us liked to perform for the old folks from Lakeland. Our repertory was wide and bilingual. Sometimes there would be songs in Yiddish. Other times there was musical theater by secular Jewish deities such as George Gershwin, Yip Harburg and Leonard Bernstein. On special occasions, we would attend performances by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Robeson.

One hears all the time that Yiddish is a lost language, and Yiddishkeit exists only as a sensibility. Yet there is a venerable survivor of the heyday of Yiddish Broadway ("it should live and be well"). The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (“People’s Stage”), a New York treasure, was founded in 1914. It has recently taken up residence at the Museum for Jewish Heritage, not far from the ferry terminal at the southern end of Manhattan and within view of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

Through Aug. 28 it is presenting a superb production of an operetta from 1923 called Di Goldene Kale (The Golden Bride) with music by Joseph Rumshinsky, lyrics by Louis Gilrod and libretto by Frieda Freiman. It has a hugely talented cast of 20 (they sing! they dance! they act! they’re funny!) and an orchestra of 14 conducted by Zalmen Mlotek, artistic director of the Folksbiene. 

Many of the singers have notable opera credits, and Cameron Johnson, Glenn Seven Allen and Rachel Zatcoff were standouts. I was very impressed to learn that most of the singers do not speak Yiddish, yet they were well-coached, got the inflections right and the jokes landed. The costumes by Izzy Fields would do honor to a production at the Met.

The story is very freilach (joyous) with moments of tsuris (trouble), and somehow people don’t kvetch too much about their difficulties. (Of course, it is easy to kvetch, and when done by the right person, such complaining indignation can approach high art). Part of the story is set in the old country, part in New York. The romantic leads unite in the end, and as in classic vaudeville entertainment, a second couple provides comic relief from the travails of the other pair. 

The theater is comfortable. There’s good food upstairs at the Lox Cafe. You’ll make nice new friends in the audience, as I did. There are projected titles in English and Russian. So get a ticket already!


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Comments [8]

Cherubino from Deep South

Thanks for a lovely little essay, Fred. Can anyone identify the solo violin piece introducing "The Goldbergs"? I know it well but in my dotage can no longer recall its title/composer. Thanks for your help.

Aug. 14 2016 12:54 PM
Heath from NYC

Great article! Just to agree with Joanna, shul is definitely a synagogue, not a school.

Aug. 12 2016 09:58 PM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

Great post, Fred!

Do you know Arnon Goldfinger's movie The Komediant?

The Komediant is an Israeli documentary film of 2000 directed by Arnon Goldfinger and written by Oshra Schwartz which recalls the life, and careers of the Burstein family of Yiddish theatre: Pesach Burstein, his wife Lillian Lux, his son Mike Burstyn and daughter Susan Burstein-Roth. It received the prestigious Israeli Academy's Best Documentary Award, and chronicles one of the most visible families of the Yiddish theater in America. The film was made in honor of the 100th birth anniversary of Pesach Burstein in 1996. It contains rare footage of Yiddish theater from the 1930s onwards (especially of the productions of Megilla of Itzik Manger, and A Khasene in Shtetl) and has several guest narrators, including Lillian Lux, Mike Burstyn, and Fyvush Finkel.


Aug. 09 2016 08:52 AM
Howard from Miami, Florida

A bit of trivia: James Cagney...The James Cagney...spoke fluent Yiddish and did so with Sylvia Sidney, learned from some friends of his in his youth.

Aug. 09 2016 08:35 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

Thanks for this heartwarming article. Just a few extra comments: If you purchase a video of Itzhak Perlman playing with the Klezmer Conservatory Band the the Klezmatics, called "In The Fiddler's House", you'll also be treated to a conversation during lunch about New York Yiddish Theatre with Red Buttons, Fyvush Finkel and Itzhak Perlman. Danny Kaye was influenced by people like Aaron Lebedeff and "And the Angels Sing" was a big band hit. "The Jewish Daily Forward" (or "Vorwa"rts"),also published translations of Shakespeare, Ibsen and Flaubert around the turn of the 20th Century.

Aug. 09 2016 08:26 AM
Joivrefine from Delaware

Such memories. When I was a little boy my parenst would take me to 2d Avenue where we saw plays entirely in Yiddish. Did I understand all the lines? No, but it didn't matter. "What did he say?" was a phrase I would hear others whisper. Once, I even heard a Yiddish comedian incorporate that line into his act. And one time, I went backstage after the show to the dressing room to get the autograph of Jacob Fuchs! Another actor who performed in the Catskills and spoke Yiddish well was Red Buttons. I went backstage to get his autograph too and boy oh boy was he sweating bullets from performing. But I saw something else in Fuchs and in Buttons. They weren't doing it only to make a living. One could see that they were performing because they loved the language which was understood by a rapidly diminshing audience. And they loved those audiences too. Of the old 2d Avenue there is still Moshe's Bakery which still makes (in my view) the best ruggelach in the city and also may have the slowest bread slicer in the world. Thanks for the article.

Aug. 09 2016 05:27 AM
Fred Plotkin from Anatevka

Thanks Joanna, for your comment.A friend of mine also questioned the use of the word shul and it reminds me of an old joke: "What do you get when you put three Jews together?" Answer: Five Opinions! I know of a number of people who grew up in Brooklyn and Queens whose shul was a synagogue that also contained a Hebrew school. Perhaps I should have phrased my sentence a bit differently. In my own family experience, our shul had the synagogue AND the Hebrew school and I suppose I was drawing from that. What was funny is that the services were held in Hebrew but then the congregants would turn to one another and speak in Yiddish. They found it more intimate, a kind of vernacular that could cover things about being Jewish that Hebrew could not achieve in quite the same way. Hebrew was the language of religious observance. And then, as they would exit, they would say, in English, "so when do we eat?" Which prompts another question: What do you hear when you put two Jews together in a shul? Answer: Three languages!

Aug. 09 2016 12:46 AM
Joanna from NJ

Terrific article. I'm hoping to get to the show. One tiny correction...shul refers specifically to synagogue, not school. That would be a Talmud Torah (after school program).

Aug. 08 2016 09:48 PM

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