GREAT SONGS OF THE AMERICAN YIDDISH STAGE

A Multi-part Exhibition on the American Yiddish Theater

Part 1: Abraham Ellstein

A Virtual Exhibit
Curated by: Jeff Janeczko

 

Like most of the people who made it what it was, the American Yiddish theater was born in Europe but found its greatest success in America. And though its 1882 American premiere ended in a brawl, Yiddish theater (or "Second Avenue," after the Manhattan street that housed most of the theaters) quickly became a popular entertainment choice for American Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

How popular? Irene Heskes relates that by 1910, New York City boasted thirteen theaters featuring Yiddish musical theater productions—three hundred performers putting on eleven hundred performances a year. One personal account collected in the Milken Archive’s oral history project (see below) described up to nine shows per week, with multiple productions playing simultaneously in the theaters of Second Avenue, Brooklyn, and beyond. A 1939 New York Times review of a concert held in honor of Joseph Rumshinsky noted a house that was "crowded to capacity, with many standees half-circling the orchestra."

The two most important figures in the origins of the American Yiddish theater are Abraham Goldfaden and Boris Thomashefsky. Goldfaden established the first known Yiddish theatrical company in Romania in the 1870s. He later emigrated to the United States with hopes of great success, but never achieved it. Thomashefsky put on the first American Yiddish theater production—written by Goldfaden—with an acting troupe imported from London, and went on to become the genre’s most important impresario, as well as a noted writer and actor.

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Though Goldfaden struggled to find success in America, his contributions to the genre were widely acknowledged. Upon his death, a large funeral procession accompanied his family to the cemetery and his tombstone was inscribed with the sobriquet, Father of the Yiddish Theater. Thomashefsky’s success continued unabated.

Beyond Goldfaden and Thomashefsky, American Yiddish theater would not have been what it was without the “big four” composers of Second Avenue: Abraham Ellstein, Alexander Olshanetsky, Sholom Secunda, and Joseph Rumshinsky, a talented group with broad musical backgrounds and diverse artistic output.

Over several decades, the composers, lyricists, actors, and playwrights of Second Avenue created a body of work that spoke to immigrants' experiences as they struggled to adapt to life in a new world and come to terms with the one they left behind. It was not always viewed positively in terms of artistic merit, but it was crucial to the audience it served. As Nahma Sandrow has noted: “in the confusing shifting scramble for survival in a strange land, [Yiddish theater] substituted in subtle ways for the older communal institutions that had been the basis for centuries of Eastern European [Jewish] life.”

Yiddish theater was a powerful force in the turn-of-the-century American Jewish experience. Its songs captured the aura of an era, embodying—often simultaneously—the joy, sorrow, humor, and tragedy of a generation caught between two worlds.

BorisGoldfadenAbraham Goldfaden (left, Source) and Boris Thomashefsky (Source)

Part 1

Abraham Ellstein

Abe Ellstein Title

Abraham Ellstein was born on New York’s Lower East Side in 1907. Serving as a boy chorister in local synagogues exposed him early on to the intricacies of cantorial art, or hazzanut. He received his early musical training at the Third Street Settlement House and sang in the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus. He is said to have written a short opera at the age of eight. At only thirteen he conducted a boy choir in John Barrymore’s Broadway production of Richard III. Ellstein was later awarded a scholarship to The Juilliard School, which he attended from 1926 to 1929.

Equally adept as a composer, arranger, and accompanist, Ellstein touched virtually every aspect of the Yiddish theatrical scene—and beyond. Of all the Second Avenue composers, Ellstein was the most successful at venturing past the relatively closed world of Yiddish music and into the American mainstream. Ellstein wrote and arranged for Broadway, general radio and television, as well as “pop” concerts and even some British and American film shorts. His opera, The Golem, was produced by City Opera in 1962, one year before his premature death.

Ellstein made his debut as a theater composer with music for B. Epelboym’s play Gerangl (Struggle), the first of thirty-three scores he would write for the American Yiddish theater. By the 1929–30 season he was engaged as resident composer and music director at Ludwig Satz’s Folk Theater. After touring Europe as pianist for actor-singers Dave Lubritsky and Dina Goldberg, Ellstein moved to the Public Theatre as resident composer and director for the 1930–31 season.

Ellstein Album 1Album recorded for the Milken Archive

While on tour with Molly Picon in Europe and South America, as her arranger, accompanist, and conductor, Ellstein wrote new music especially for her performances of Goldfaden’s Shmendrik, and for the operetta, Oy iz dos a meydl (O, What a Girl!). Ellstein also later wrote two film scores—Mamele and Yidl mitn fidl—for Molly Picon, which became “Jewish box-office hits.”

Active for many years in Yiddish radio, Ellstein had regular programs on WEVD, where he produced and presented a variety of Yiddish folk as well as theater music and cantorial selections. Several of his best-known songs were written specifically for these radio broadcasts. He directed a weekly broadcast devoted to liturgical music, The Song of the Synagogue, which featured many of the most beloved cantors with his choral ensemble.

Ellstein was in great demand as a pianist and conductor for cantorial concerts and recordings, and was Yossele Rosenblatt’s pianist for his European and American tours. His cantorial orchestrations in particular are considered the most stylistically classical in that genre. He conducted synagogue choirs for many years, especially for High Holy Day services, for which he wrote a good deal of traditional cantorial-choral music, most of which remains unpublished. He also wrote two modern Sabbath services, commissioned by the Metropolitan Synagogue in New York, and served for many years as the musical director for Jan Peerce.

Among Ellstein’s classical works are two oratorios: Ode to the King of Kings—televised on CBS and sung subsequently by Jan Peerce—and Redemption, based on the Hanukka story and premiered posthumously at a Cantors Assembly Convention with a subsequent CBS telecast. Apart from his actual synagogue music, his concert cantorial settings remain popular and are frequently performed.

Abraham Ellstein Young Cantor2
Abraham Ellstein as a young cantor.

MAMELE

Made in Poland in 1938, the film Mamele starred the inimitable Molly Picon (1898–1992), probably Second Avenue’s longest-reigning queen and the best-known Yiddish actress/singer later on Broadway. The first American-born Yiddish performer to rise to the highest levels of Second Avenue fame and box-office attraction, Picon starred in countless plays, operettas, musicals, and films—enchanting audiences with her childlike voice, idiomatic humor, and emblematic stage mannerisms.

Mamele costarred Edmund Zayenda, with a full cast under the artistic direction of Molly Picon’s actor-singer husband, Jacob (Yankel) Kalich. Eight years earlier there was a staged operetta on the same story, with music by Joseph Rumshinsky. In the film, Picon played the heroine, Khavshe—the youngest of three sisters in a family of six siblings in a prewar Polish town, whose mother has died. To her falls the role of substitute “little mother”—one for which, despite her young age, she seems naturally suited, taking care of the entire household and all her siblings. When she feels she must avert her older sister Berta’s path toward marriage with an undesirable man, Khavshe is willing to sacrifice her own happiness by trying to convince her sweetheart, a musician named Mr. Schlessinger, to pursue Berta instead and thus win the girl away from her current involvement. Initially, Schlessinger had been interested in Berta, but she had rebuffed him. Now, suddenly jealous that her younger sister is closer to marriage than she is, Berta is not only amenable but asks Khavshe to persuade Schlessinger to give her a second chance. But when the sacrifice plan backfires and the family quarrels with Khavshe for interfering in Berta’s romantic affairs, Khavshe decides to leave the family to its own devices and exit the home. She revises her appearance to the attractive young maiden she really is and goes to Schlessinger—for herself. She finds him singing a love song, which becomes a love song for her. They become engaged. Meanwhile, her family pleads for her return. She does so, now with her fiancé. They marry, and she accepts a dual role as wife and, once again, as “little mother” to the siblings.

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Molly Picon and Edmund Zayenda in Mamele

Khavshe sings Abi gezunt (So Long As You’re Healthy) in the midst of preparations for the Sabbath eve meal, while reminding her sister of the quintessential Jewish sentiment that good health is all that is really needed for happiness.

When Khavshe goes back to Schlessinger to try to salvage the chance for happiness, she finds him at his piano, singing Ikh zing (I Sing)—a love song recalling King Solomon’s love song to Shulamit in the biblical Song of Songs.

Khavshe sings Mazl (Good Fortune) in a scene prior to her own courtship by Schlessinger, where she reflects on her lot and her lonely condition, while everyone else seems to find some bit of happiness. A fleeting moment of imagined happiness inspires a brief upbeat, fanciful mood, mirrored in the orchestra, but then she returns to her lament: “The dream I have dreamt for myself is gone with the wind once again.” In the film there was an additional superimposed element, when Schlessinger, soon to become her suitor and eventually her husband, sits at his window across the street, fiddle in hand, and reflects her sentiments vis-à-vis his own loneliness. It becomes a quasi-duet, although the song itself stands on its own as a solo number.

All three of the songs are Picon’s words with Ellstein’s music. Abi gezunt became one of Picon’s most recognizable theme songs, and became such a hit that Cab Calloway took the title for an otherwise unrelated new swing-band tune, A Bee Gezindt.

 

Selections from Mamele, featuring compositions by Abraham Ellstein, sung by Amy Goldstein, Robert Bloch, and Elizabeth Shammash.

YIDL MITN FIDL

Oy, mame, bin ikh farlibt is one of several Ellstein songs from what has been called the most successful Yiddish film of all time: Joseph Green’s 1936 romantic musical comedy Yidl mitn fidl (Yidl with His Fiddle). Shot on location in Poland, it became one of Molly Picon’s signature roles for many years thereafter. The film tells the story of a young woman posing as a male in an itinerant band.

Facing poverty in his hometown, Ari, a bass player (presumably a widower), takes his violinist daughter on the road to play with him as a traveling duo. Out of fear for her safety in strange territory, she takes on the disguise of a young man—clothing, mannerisms, and a male name, Yidl (little Jew). As they embark, Yidl sings the title song, Yidl mitn fidl, ari mitn bass, which Ellstein based on a European folksong and which asserts that life is just a song.

Ari and Yidl meet a similar duo, Isaac and Froim, also a fiddler, and they decide to join forces as a traveling quartet. Yidl becomes increasingly attracted to Froim and falls completely in love with him. When Froim pats her cheek condescendingly as he would a little boy, she is in agony both at the tantalizing vibration and at her predicament. Left alone, she launches into the song Oy, mame, bin ikh farlibt (Oh, Mama, Am I in Love!). Yidl sings the song to herself in frustration, pouring out her heart. She even imagines him speaking to her as a girl.

The quartet takes on yet another performer: Tauba—a runaway from an imminent arranged marriage with an elderly rich man. To Yidl’s dismay, Tauba and Froim begin a love affair. When the quintet decides to settle in Warsaw, Tauba’s singing talents are recognized by a theater director, and she is invited to sing in the theater—with Froim playing violin in the orchestra. Unable to keep up the ruse any longer, Yidl tells the truth of her plight to Isaac, who agrees to help her by locating Yosl, who was Tauba’s true love (before her arranged match), certain that she would not hesitate to leave Froim for him. Yosl shows up backstage at the theater, he and Tauba are instantly reunited, and the two run off together after Tauba has left a good-bye note in her dressing room. Yidl, in the theater to see if the plot will work, comes into the dressing room, sees the note, and goes out onto the stage to announce the cancellation of the show in light of Tauba’s escape.

The action then becomes a bit of a “play within a play,” as the director pleads with the now undisguised Yidl to sing in Tauba’s place. When Yidl asks from the stage what she should sing, Froim, in the pit, begins playing the melody of Yidl mitn fidl. Yidl picks up the cue and begins singing that song, but she also tells the audience her story: how she had been a fiddler disguised as a boy, and how she had fallen in love with a fellow musician in their group who ignored her. As she begins to cry, she repeats her love song, Oy, mame, bin ikh farlibt, and the audience, assuming it is part of a prearranged performance sketch, roars with laughter. After the show, Froim comes back to the dressing room, where Yidl confesses her love for him as real. From her success singing in the theater, Yidl is offered performances in America, but Froim cannot be released from his orchestral obligation. Aboard the ship to America, Yidl, agonizing over the separation, suddenly hears Yidl mitn fidl being played on a violin. To no one’s surprise, it is Froim, who has secretly run away from the orchestra, and the two are finally united.

 

Abraham Ellstein's Oy, mame, bin ikh farlibt, from the film, Yidl mitn fidl. Sung by Elizabeth Shammash.

STAGE

Ellstein Cover Art

Ikh Vil Es Hern Nokh Amol

Ellstein’s Ikh vil es hern nokh amol (I Want to Hear It Again), with lyrics by Jacob Jacobs and Isidore Lillian, was sung in William Siegel’s 1946 romantic musical comedy Ikh bin farlibt (I’m in Love). The production starred the sensational comic actor and singer Menashe Skulnik at the Second Avenue Theater in New York, and the song was introduced by cast members Lilly Lilliana and Leon Liebgold.

Neither the script of the play nor press reviews have been located, but some indication of the show’s public success might be gleaned from the fact that it toured a year later to St. Louis, with the same actors and actresses, and perhaps to other cities as well.

Menashe Skulnik 2
Menashe Skulnik. Credit: Ivan Bussat/Museum of the City of New York

 

Abraham Ellstein's Ikh vil es hern nokh amol. Sung by Amy Goldstein and Simon Spiro.

DER ALTER TSIGAYNER

It is not altogether clear whether Der alter tzigayner was part of a theatrical production or whether it was one of Ellstein’s independent songs. One latter-day (1970s) but not always reliable source attributed it to Ellstein’s 1938 operetta Bublitshki (Little Bagels), starring Molly Picon and Aaron Lebedeff. The script or stage version of the play, however, has not been found, and the synopsis contained in the program booklet makes no mention of any of the show’s songs—as is frequently the case. As an operetta, the play obviously centered around songs, although this one was not copyrighted until its folio publication five years after the production. On the other hand, a newspaper review of the show refers to “an old fiddler” as a “high point of the evening’s entertainment.” Further complicating the uncertainty is the possibility of multiple but unrelated shows with the same title. In any case, Der alter tzigayner certainly stands on its own as a song, celebrating the typically romanticized perception of Gypsy violinists.

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Molly Picon and Aaron Lebedeff in Bublitshki.

 

Abraham Ellstein's Der alter tzigayner. Sung by Simon Spiro.

 

OYGN

Ellstein’s romantic song Oygn (Eyes), with lyrics by Molly Picon, is from his and Anshel Schorr’s 1934 musical comedy Eyns un a rekhts, or One in a Million. The show opened at New York’s Second Avenue Theater and starred Molly Picon (who introduced the song) as well as an all-star cast that included Muni Serebrov.

The story takes place in New York and concerns a wealthy banker, Joseph Hershberg, who has run into such a severe financial crisis that he has had to summon his youngest daughter, Lillie, home from boarding school. Lillie (played by Molly Picon), who is unaware of her father’s difficulties, has fallen in love with Henry Orenstein (played by Muni), a younger generation financier with a reputation as a ladies’ man, from whom Hershberg seeks financial assistance.

Cast of One in a Million
The cast of One in a Million.

Lillie met Orenstein while she was away at school, when he came to visit his own daughter there. He has invited her to his flat on a wager, and she has decided to accept that challenge, somehow intuiting that she could trust him. Meanwhile, her father has swallowed his pride in deciding to request Orenstein’s assistance, because he has always had contempt for the man as a onetime waiter who was now an upstart in the banking world. Lillie proceeds to Orenstein’s home and begins drinking to calm her fears and restore her courage. In her intoxicated state, all reticence evaporated, she sings tenderly to him of her heartfelt love and the magical effect his dark eyes have on her.

By then inebriated, Lillie ends up spending the night at Orenstein’s place, but presumably innocently, and is brought home late the next morning. After a farcical set of misunderstandings among the various characters, Orenstein decides to assist Hershberg because he is truly in love with Lillie. As the plot synopsis in the program booklet states, "all ends happily."

 

Abraham Ellstein's Oygn, from Eyns un a rekhts (1934). Sung by Elizabeth Shammash.

Zog Es Mir Nokh Amol

Zog es mir nokh amol, with lyrics by Jacob Jacobs, is a song from Ellstein and Israel Rosenberg’s operetta Der berditchever khosn (The Bridegroom from Berditchev), which starred Ludwig Satz and Zina Goldstein and opened the 1930–31 season at the Public Theatre in New York.

The plot is set in the Ukranian city of Berditchev prior to the First World War. It was the custom throughout eastern Europe for well-to-do merchant-class households to provide meals for out-of-town students at local yeshivas, with specific nights assigned to each of them on a weekly basis. In this play, a yeshiva student named Avremele is assigned his weekly esn teg (eating day) at the home of such a wealthy Jew, Isaac Varshavsky, who has pursued worldly cultured enlightenment—having sent his children to Paris for secular education—while still fully observant of traditional Jewish life and law and a member of the religious community. Avremele falls in love with Varshavsky’s daughter, Reizele, but he conceals this from her father, as well as his secret ambition to become a painter. A more socially and economically suitable student from her own circle, Boris, is also in love with her, but she is ambivalent about Boris’s marriage proposal.

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Sheet music cover for Zog es mir nokh amol. Credit: Trio Press/Museum of the City of New York 

During a party for Reizele at her home, her parents and other adults step out, leaving the young people celebrating on their own. Meanwhile, Avremele shows up for his esn teg meal. Reizele’s friends, knowing of his feelings for her, tease him by staging a mock wedding ceremony, with her complicity, simply as a party joke. Her father returns home just as the mock ritual has been completed. Astounded, he informs Reizele that joke or not, she is now legally married according to the provisions of Jewish law (since the prescribed words have been said in the presence of legally acceptable witnesses), and she must get a get (a bill of divorce) from Avremele. Avremele refuses, even when offered various enticements. In Jewish law, a married woman cannot be divorced if she cannot obtain a bill of divorce directly from a husband known or presumed to be alive—in which case she is known as an aguna. As a man who refused to give his wife a get, Avremele would become a pariah in the community, subject to ostracism, and perhaps even harm. So he runs away to Italy to study painting. Isaac manages through unspecified means to secure a rabbinical annulment of the marriage, but after two years Avremele returns as a famous painter to find that Reizele is about to be married to Boris. Avremele gives her a picture he has painted of her in Italy, demonstrating that he has never forgotten her. Reizele asks his forgiveness—telling him that in the end, he is the most charming of all suitors. In the song Zog es mir nokh amol (Tell Me Again), Avremele pleads with her to marry him (properly, this time). He sings that he will do anything to gain favor in her father’s eyes: become a Zionist (presumably like Isaac), or return to religious orthodoxy. Most important in the song is Avremele’s plea to Reizele to repeat what she has just told him, having longed for more than two years to hear it: “Tell me again, oh, tell me again, I’d like to hear those beautiful words from you. Tell it to me again.” Following the song, Reizele goes off to the marriage canopy with Avremele instead of Boris.

The review in the Forverts, the largest Yiddish daily newspaper, criticized the play as tired and uninventive, but the music was praised as the redeeming element: “The operetta is full of beautiful melodies composed by the young Abe Ellstein.”

Jacob Jacobs
Lyricist Jacob Jacobs penned the words to many of Yiddish theater’s most popular songs.

RADIO

Moshe Ganchoff

VOS IZ GEVORN FUN MAYN SHTETELE

Although one 1970s anthology cited Ellstein’s beloved song Vos iz gevorn fun mayn shtetele? (What Has Become of My Little Hometown?) as having been featured in “an operetta” (suspiciously unidentified) starring Menashe Skulnik at Brooklyn’s Hopkinson’s Theater, no play has been located that would verify this. More likely, this is one of Ellstein’s various single songs, whose fame was advanced by its many renditions on a variety of stages and especially on the radio by such artists as Moyshe Oysher, Freydele Oysher, Moshe Ganchoff, Seymour Rechtzeit, and a host of others.

This is the quintessential Yiddish “longing for home” song of that era, not meant to be taken literally in its romanticized imagination of the shtetl or, for that matter, of anything to do with Europe. In that sense it is highly fictional and therefore theatrical, joining an entire category of songs titled after particular towns or even larger eastern European cities. Such songs reflect little actual sentiment among Jewish immigrants, many of whom certainly missed relatives, but precious few of whom missed the Europe they had so eagerly left. Even among the most disillusioned laborers in sweatshop conditions, there was never any organized expression of a desire to return, although a very small number of orthodox Jews did occasionally go back, for religious reasons. Yet these songs of an idealized past, whether as components of plays or as singles, made for good theater and emotionally satisfying entertainment.

 

Abraham Ellstein's Vos iz gevorn fun mayn shtetele?  Sung by Benzion Miller.

 

DER NAYER SHER

Der nayer sher (The New Sher [i.e., new dance tune]) was written in 1940 expressly for recording, and according to one recollection, it was composed in an automobile between rehearsals or concerts (or perhaps broadcasts) for a session with Seymour Rechtzeit for the RCA Victor label. It was an immediate commercial success and was sung by many radio and stage singers, including Molly Picon, the Bagelman (Barry) Sisters, and the famous clarinetist Dave Tarras. Ellstein subsequently published it (1948) in two orchestral versions—with and without voice—and labeled them as a “special rumba,” with some rhythmic modification. It was also performed in an English version by Edmundo Ross, as The Wedding Samba.

Seymour Rechtzeit 2
Seymour Rechtzeit, 1995.

The sher is one of the most popular celebratory dance forms among Jews of Eastern European background—a type of “scissor dance” (sher translates literally into scissors, or shears), possibly related to its to-and-fro movements. The movements also bear some resemblance to the American square dance. Among eastern European Jewish immigrants and their succeeding generations, the sher has generally been considered mandatory at traditional and even quasi-traditional weddings, and it was adopted into general ethnic folk dance circles in the 1930s and 1940s.

The wider reference of this song seems to go beyond just another tune for a sher, to a new dance and a new dance tune—perhaps a “modern sher.” (“Hey, klezmer, pick up your fiddle … and we’ll dance the new sher … for when we dance, life becomes so sweet … hope that by tomorrow we’ll all dance the new sher together.”)

 

Abraham Ellstein's Der nayer sher. Sung by Simon Spiro.

For more music by Abraham Ellstein, including performances by Jan Peerce, The Barry Sisters, Mickey Katz, and more, see our Spotify playlist below. The next installment of Great Songs of the American Yiddish Stage, featuring Sholom Secunda and Alexander Olshanetsky, will be available June 20th.

Links & Credits

Featured Recordings:

Abi gezunt
Ikh zing
Mazl
Oy, mame, bin ikh farlibt
Ikh vil es hern nokh amol
Der alter tsigayner
Oygn
Zog es mir nokh amol
Vos iz gevorn fun mayn shtetele?
Der nayer sher

Featured Composer:

Abraham Ellstein

Credits

Liner notes by Neil W. Levin
Exhibit curated by Jeff Janeczko

References

Heskes, Irene. 1984. “Music as Social History: American Yiddish Theater Music, 1882–1920.” American Music 2(4): 73–87.

Sandrow, Nahma. 1996. Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater. Syracuse University Press.

Yiddish Theater collection at the Museum of the City of New York: http://collections.mcny.org/Gallery/24UPN4NG3LV


 

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The playlist below includes selected tracks from the works featured in this exhibit. Much more is available on our Spotify Channel.