GREAT SONGS OF THE AMERICAN YIDDISH STAGE

A Multi-part Exhibition on the American Yiddish Theater

Part 2: Alexander Olshanetsky & Sholom Secunda

A Virtual Exhibit
Curated by: Jeff Janeczko

 


*This is part two of a multi-part exhibit on the American Yiddish Theater. Part one, on the music of Abraham Ellstein, is available here.


 

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 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.

 

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

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.

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Part 2

Alexander Olshanetsky & Sholom Secunda

Alexander Olshanetsky

Born in Odessa in 1892, Alexander Olshanetsky was among the most prominent and prolific Second Avenue composers and conductors. His earliest musical experiences involved singing in a synagogue choir and violin lessons, but he learned other instruments as well. He later played in the Odessa Opera orchestra and toured with them throughout Russia and Siberia, after which he became the choral director for a Russian operetta company.

While serving as a regimental bandmaster in the Russian army, he traveled to Kharbin, Manchuria, in northeast China, where he encountered a Yiddish theater group. When the group’s conductor emigrated to America, Olshanetsky replaced him and also began writing Yiddish songs and music for Yitzhak Kaplan’s play Tsurik aheym kayn tsien (Going Back Home to Zion).

Olshanetsky emigrated to the United States in 1922. After some initial involvement with the Yiddish Art Theater, he traveled to Cuba to direct a theater company there. When he returned to New York, he served successively in two Yiddish theaters (the Lenox, in Harlem, and the Liberty, in Brooklyn), and then the more prestigious downtown National Theater.

Olshanetsky’s name became ubiquitous throughout the Second Avenue world, and his operettas played in nearly all its major theaters. He also became the first musical director of the Concord Hotel in the Catskill Mountains—the destination of choice for New York Jews looking to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. Beyond his work in Yiddish theater, Olshanetsky wrote a small amount of liturgical music, and some of the most sophisticated cantors of the time considered him among the very best choirmasters.

Alexander Olshanetsky

Alexander Olshanetsky

 

MISHA, MISHA, MISHA

GLIK

The heartrending and bittersweet song Glik (Happiness) was composed by Olshanetsky to lyrics by his wife, Bella Meisel, for Der letster tants (The Last Dance). Produced initially at the Prospect Theater in the Bronx in 1930—Der letster tants was the first major production for any Bronx theater. Its story revolves around an elderly father desperate to ensure a marriage for his daughter before he dies—an idea so prevalent that one reviewer “saw it coming the moment the curtain rose.”

We can determine that Glik was sung at a climactic moment in a dramatic scene in an otherwise lighthearted musical. Reviewers’ descriptions of the production allude to a large cast of supporting roles and extraneous subplots, burlesque elements, cabaret scenes, and glimpses of the underworld.

An aged wealthy man has specified in his will that his daughter Mildred must marry by a certain date or forfeit her inheritance. Her lawyer organizes a “marriage of convenience” to Misha Feinman, a convicted but completely innocent prisoner awaiting execution on death row at Sing Sing prison. Misha goes along with the scheme in order to leave some money to his sister.

On the day before Misha’s scheduled execution, a proper Jewish wedding ceremony is conducted at Sing Sing by its Jewish chaplain and a cantor. After the ceremony Misha is granted a few moments alone with his new bride, essentially just to have a few words with her for the last time and to assure her that she will, in fact, be the widow of an innocent man. But during that brief encounter they fall in love. Hence the reference in the lyrics to the strange vicissitudes and twists of fate that have given him only one moment of joy at his life’s last moment. The poignancy is short-lived, for the next day Misha receives a full pardon from the governor, and eventually, he and Mildred marry.

Glik was introduced in that production by Michal Michalesko (1885/88?–1957), one of the reigning leading men of the Yiddish stage, who, in addition to playing the part of Misha, also produced the show. The song was written and sung as a duet between Misha and Mildred (played by Meisel). But Michalesko, for a long time almost inextricably associated with the song, also sang it frequently as a solo rendition at public performances.

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Michal Michalesko, 1910. (Source)

A GUTE HEYM

Olshanetsky and Jacob Jacobs’s song A gute heym (A Good Home) was sung in William Seigel and Harry Kalmanowitz’s musical comedy In gortn fun libe (In the Garden of Love), produced and staged in 1926 at the National Theater in New York. In the absence of the script, we cannot know much of the plot or how the song fit into it. Apparently, the heroine (again, Bella Meisel) is saved from a financially driven but unwanted or forced marriage by an eleventh-hour revelation of mistaken or hidden identity, and she is then able to be united instead with her true love, Misha.

JacobJacobsComposer Jacob Jacobs

Alexander Olshanetsky's A gute heym.

NU, ZOG MIR SHOYN VEN

Nu, zog mir shoyn ven (So Just Tell Me When, Already), with lyrics by Jacob Jacobs, is a love duet between Misha, a young doctor completing his residency, and Tootsie, an orphaned young lady who operates a newsstand on New York’s immigrant-saturated Lower East Side and anonymously finances his advanced medical studies abroad. The song is from Olshanetsky’s operetta Vos meydlekh tuen (What Girls Do), with a book by William Siegel. The original production played in 1935 at David Kessler’s Second Avenue Theater, with Molly Picon and Muni Serebrov in those lead roles. Molly Picon’s husband, Jacob Kalich, produced the show and also collaborated with Olshanetsky on some of its music. The plot revolves around a love triangle, in which Tootsie is in danger of losing Misha to the social-climbing Sylvia.

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Molly Picon and Muni Serebrov in an unrelated production, 1934 (Credit: Museum of the City of New York)

Alexander Olshanetsky's Nu, zog mir shoyn ven.


“Olshanetsky had a fire; he had a soul. He was the kind of man I liked to have in the [orchestra] pit.”

—Freydele Oysher (1913–2004), Yiddish Theater Actor

EYN KUK AF DIR

Eyn kuk af dir (Just One Look at You), with lyrics by Jacob Jacobs, is one of the principal songs from Olshanetsky’s operetta Di eyntsike nakht (The One and Only Night). With a book by Abraham Bloom, it was first produced in 1929 at the Downtown National Theater in New York. Although it ends happily, the play addresses one of the most tragic episodes in European Jewish history: the era of rigorous enforcement of the Cantonist laws in the Czarist Empire from about 1827 (when, under the reign of Nicholas I, military service was made compulsory for Jews) until 1856, when they were abolished under Alexander II.

Under the Cantonist decrees, Jewish boys of age twelve or older were subject to seizure by military agents—known by the Jews as khapers (grabbers, or kidnappers)—according to a quota system. However, even those rules were often ignored and abused, and sometimes very young boys were taken—as in this play. Part of an overall imperial scheme to address the “Jewish problem” in the empire, the children were placed in military-type institutions where they were given Christian religious instruction and induced to accept Christianity and baptism. At the age of eighteen they were conscripted into the army or navy for a period of twenty-five years. Estimates of the number of Jewish youth affected during that time frame range from 30,000 to 40,000.

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Sheet music cover for Eyn kuk of dir. (Source)

The One and Only Night is set between 1830 and 1850. Ḥayyim, the young son a Hassidic rebbe, is seized by khapers, but he is befriended by a Russian general, Rudinsky, who rears him as his own son—with a new Russian name, Vitalin. As he grows up, Vitalin recalls nothing of his Jewish origins or family, but he has a naturally friendly attitude toward Jews and an inexplicable attraction to Jewish songs. Eventually he goes on to a brilliant military career and becomes a famous general. Meanwhile, his real parents, together with Esther, an orphan they had adopted as a young girl, and a group of other Jews, are arrested by Cossacks and falsely accused of spying. General Vitalin’s intercession saves them. In the process he hears some of the detained Jews singing another of the operetta’s most successful songs, Az got iz mit mir (When God Is with Me), which ignites a mysterious internal echo within him. He thinks he has heard the song, but cannot recall where or when. He then meets Esther, now a young woman, and falls instantly in love with her, neither one realizing that they were childhood playmates. He begs her to sing Az got iz mit mir again as he tries unsuccessfully to jog his memory, and he is strangely affected and agitated by it. The typed prompt in the script indicates an unidentified duet here, and it is likely therefore that Eyn kuk af dir was sung at this point.

After his departure, Vitalin remains preoccupied with the song Az got iz mit mir and with Esther, and he travels to her (and his own childhood) town—arriving just as she is about to wed someone else. He proclaims his love again, recalling that the night he met her was “the one and only night” he ever felt true love. The lyrics of Eyn kuk af dir seem to apply more directly to this moment than to the initial meeting in the first act, especially given his words: “Everyone knows that because of you, I’m a changed man.” Or it may have been repeated here with these lyrics. In any case, they now sing that they know they must be separated, without stating the obvious reason: the adopted daughter of a Hassidic rebbe cannot possibly marry a non-Jew. To save the day, Vitalin’s father arrives and reveals to Vitalin his true identity, which allows them to marry.

Alexander Olshanetsky's Eyn kuk af dir.

IKH BIN FARLIBT

Olshanetsky’s Ikh bin farlibt (I’m in Love), with lyrics by Jacob Jacobs, is a love duet from his operetta A ganeydn far tzvey (A Paradise for Two), first produced in 1928 at the National Theater in New York. Leybke and Fanitshke are young lovers, both of whom are poor and live on New York’s Lower East Side, They also knew each other in Europe, where he once saved her life and where the two first became infatuated with each other. Khane Tsipe, her conniving aunt, is portrayed as the quintessential yente—the stereotyped combination shrew, henpecker, and meddler made famous by Bette Jacobs (who played the role of Khana Tsipe in this production) through her hilarious radio and vaudeville character Yente Telebende. Khana Tsipe’s second husband was played by her real-life husband, Jacob Jacobs, who also regularly played her scolded husband, Mendel Telebende, in those sparring skits.

Khane Tsipe schemes to accomplish a match for her niece with David—ostensibly because he would be able to provide expensive medical treatment for Fanitshke’s older sister, a pressure to which she yields. But in fact, such a wealthy and socially prominent “nephew-in-law” would give Khana Tsipe the status she craves as a grande dame of the fashionable Upper West Side. At some unidentified point in that first act, Leybke and Fanitshke sing their love duet, Ikh bin farlibt, in which they recall nostalgically their initial love in Europe.

The show contains exaggerated and coarse but sidesplitting comic routines between Khana Tsipe and her husband (probably written with the Jacobs duo in mind), including one in which he knocks her out with boxing gloves. Meanwhile, when David inadvertently overhears Leybke and Fanitshke’s farewell to each other, he realizes that his marriage to her is ill-advised, and he relinquishes her to Leybke.

Alexander Olshanetsky's Ikh bin farlibt.

UNTER BEYMER

Olshanetshky’s lullaby Unter beymer (Beneath the Trees) was featured in the 1940 Yiddish film Der vilna shtot khazan (lit., the Vilna Town Cantor, but subtitled in English as Overture to Glory), which was based very loosely on the fragmentary evidence concerning the life of Hazzan Yoel David Lewensohn (1816–50). Lewensohn was a legendary Latvian-born virtuoso cantor who assumed the post of town cantor in Vilna (Vilnius) at the age of fourteen, and whose fame soon spread across Lithuania and Poland as the der vilner balabesl (the young master of Vilna). Eleven years later he left his pulpit and his family for advanced musical studies and a classical career in Warsaw. Little else of his life has been unearthed, other than that he died in an asylum.

In the film, which alters the facts and the story considerably, the cantor is played by Moishe Oysher (1907–58), who had a brilliant and also short-lived career as a star cantor, actor, entertainer, and composer. The cantor is urged by his teacher, a classical Polish composer, to relocate to Warsaw and pursue an operatic career—beginning with a role in that teacher’s new opera. As a devoted Jew, the hazzan is torn by inner conflicts over priorities. In his community’s perception, abandoning Vilna and the synagogue for the opera world in cosmopolitan Warsaw is tantamount to abandoning Jewish life. It will mean leaving his family, who actually mourn when he is unable to resist the opportunity and leaves. He enters his sleeping son’s bedroom late one night and sings this lullaby—for which Oysher also wrote the lyrics—as his farewell.

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Source

In Warsaw, he becomes enamored of a Polish countess and appears on the opera stage. There is no news from Vilna until his father-in-lawarrives one night to tell him that his son has died. Crazed with grief, he begins singing the Yiddish lullaby onstage in the middle of an opera performance, and then disappears. He wanders inexplicably on foot all the way back to Vilna, where he arrives exhausted and frail at the synagogue just as the services for Yom Kippur eve are beginning. He walks into the synagogue, where, taking over from the cantor who has just begun to sing kol nidre, he ascends to the pulpit while singing, but then collapses and dies.

Clearly a heavily symbolic and emotionally compelling story, the film met with considerable success. A reviewer writing for the New York Herald-Tribune deemed it “an artistic triumph for the Yiddish film industry” (Hoberman, 2010: 312).

Alexander Olshanetsky's Unter beymer.

IKH HOB DIKH TSUFIL LIB

The heartrending lament Ikh hob dikh tsufil lib (I Love You Too Much), one of Second Avenue’s most enduring and familiar love songs, is the best remembered number from Olshanetsky’s musical comedy Der katerinshtshik (The Organ-grinder). The show opened at David Kessler’s Second Avenue Theater in the 1933–34 season with a stellar cast that included Julius Nathanson, Annie Thomashefsky, and Luba Kadison, who introduced this song in that production. Kadison was known for her acting in literary and classical Yiddish plays, and this was her first involvement in a popular musical vehicle.

The story concerns Tsirele, the daughter of a Jewish widow and innkeeper in a small Polish town, and Abrasha, a presumed Gypsy organ-grinder and pickpocket, to whose mystique many women are nonetheless attracted, and whose parents—also organ-grinders from a Gypsy camp—are perceived by the townspeople as “thieves from gutter society.” Tsirele and Abrasha are truly in love and intent on marriage despite her family’s vigorous objections. Her mother, Rivke, has selected a different match for her, Pinye, who consults Masha, a Gypsy fortune-teller and card reader, for a prediction about his future with Tsirele. It happens that Masha is deeply in love with Abrasha, who apparently once had some romantic relationship with her. Masha reads her own fortune, and learning that Abrasha expects to marry Tsirele, she pours out her heart in this lament. In the song, Masha articulates her grief while simultaneously and unselfishly wishing Abrasha happiness: “I love you too much to be at all angry with you.”

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Kessler's Second Avenue Theatre, 1916.

Kadison, who became identified with the song for years, later claimed credit for having inspired the songwriters to give it its present shape and its role in the play. She referred to the song that she was originally given for her principal solo as a “hearts and flowers tune,” which, she protested, neither provided exploration of Masha’s character nor furthered the plot—a weakness of many songs in Second Avenue productions. According to Kadison’s account, it was she who insisted that the song be rewritten so that it would arise naturally out of her onstage fortune-telling activity. And she maintained that it was also she who suggested both the card-reading scenario and the song’s specific human expressions of painful acceptance and lifelong heartache.

Just as Tsirele and Abrasha are about to go to the wedding canopy without her mother’s consent, agents from another town arrive to reveal that the Katerinshtshiks are not Abrasha’s real parents, and that Abrasha is no Gypsy, but a Jew who was kidnapped as a baby and reared in a Gypsy camp. In fact, Abrasha has an enviable Jewish pedigree as the grandson of a prestigious living tzaddik and rebbe.

Abrasha is forced to comply with the rebbe’s demand that he be returned to him and his court, where another religiously appropriate match for him is attempted. Ultimately Rivke relents—as does the Makarover Rebbe, in time to appear uninvited at the wedding, this time to bless rather than curse the union he had opposed, and even to acknowledge its divine preordination.

As was frequently the case, the music was enthusiastically received by the critics, while the play was dismissed for, among other things, its holes and implausibilities. The music was called “a classic that would have been appropriate for the best Viennese operetta ... a jewel of the Yiddish stage.” Ikh hob dikh tsufil lib was praised for its fresh invention and form, and Kadison’s rendition won accolades. Over the next few years, the song, in vocal and instrumental versions, was a favorite of Jewish wedding bands and popular entertainers, for whom it became completely divorced from its original theatrical context.

In 1940 it was recorded in an English version, I Love You Much Too Much, by Bob Zurke and his Delta Rhythm Band, and it achieved recognition in the non-Jewish world. Subsequent recordings included renditions in a host of styles by Gene Krupa, Ella Fitzgerald, Jan Peerce (in the original Yiddish version), Connie Francis, Dean Martin, and Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians—in a choral arrangement. At a memorial tribute at the Concord Hotel following Olshanetsky’s sudden and early death in 1946, a large banner poignantly expressed the feelings of so many there who had known him: “Olshy, we loved you too much!”

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Sheet music cover for Ikh hob dikh tsufil lib. (Source)

Sholom Secunda

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Although he excelled in a number of musical genres, Sholom Secunda will always be remembered primarily for his association with the American Yiddish musical theater. He established himself as one of the preeminent composers and songwriters in that arena, and became known outside of it through the song, Bay mir bistu sheyn.

Born in Aleksandriya, in the Kherson region of the Ukraine, Secunda became a coveted boy alto soloist in major synagogue choirs, and he soon gained a reputation as a brilliant wunderkind boy cantor. Following a pogrom in Nikolayev, where his family had relocated, he emigrated to America with them in 1907. Until his voice changed, was known in the New York area as “the prince of the young hazzanim.”

By 1913 he was engaged as a chorister in Yiddish theater productions and he began writing songs. A year later he began studies at the Institute for Musical Art (now The Juilliard School), and shortly afterward, together with Solomon Shmulevitz (1868–1943), a well-established songwriter and lyricist for Yiddish theater and vaudeville, he wrote his first full-length score—Yoysher (Justice). When he became acquainted with the music of Ernest Bloch, he was struck by the high artistic level to which Jewish music could be elevated, and he took lessons with Bloch for about a year.

After working in Yiddish theaters in Philadelphia for three years, Secunda saw his first operetta with his own orchestration produced in in 1926. As his composing for the Yiddish theater increased, he began simultaneously turning his attention to serious Yiddish poetry with a view to writing art songs. But the lure of the theater remained paramount for him in those years, along with opportunities in Yiddish radio programming and broadcasting. Between 1935 and 1937 alone, Secunda wrote scores for at least seven shows, and he also began to experiment with more serious incidental music for Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theater.

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Sholom Secunda as a young cantor.

In the late 1930s Secunda began a rewarding artistic association with Cantor Reuben Ticker, who subsequently became the international superstar opera tenor Richard Tucker and reigned for many years at the Metropolitan Opera House. Secunda composed and arranged a considerable amount of Hebrew liturgical music for Tucker’s cantorial services, recordings, and concerts; and Tucker became the principal advocate for Secunda’s synagogue music.

Secunda wrote more than eighty operettas, melodramas, and musical shows for the Yiddish stage, in addition to numerous independent songs. But without question, his most famous song from his entire career was Bay mir bistu sheyn (To Me You’re Beautiful).

From the 1960s on, Secunda accelerated his energies toward serious concert music and attempted, unsuccessfully, to break into the world of film composing. In addition to String Quartet in C Minor, that part of his aggregate oeuvre includes a violin concerto and an orchestral tone poem (both recorded for the first time by the Milken Archive), as well as two major cantatas: If Not Higher (also recorded by the Milken Archive), on a classic story by Isaac Leyb [Yitskhoh Leyb/Leybush] Peretz, and Yizkor—both of which were sung at live performances and on television broadcasts by Richard Tucker.

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Cantor Richard Tucker (Credit: Richard Tucker Music Foundation)

DOS YIDISHE LID

Dos yidishe lid (The Jewish Song) began its life as a showstopper written expressly for a newly expanded 1924 production of Secunda’s melodrama, In nomen fun got (In the Name of God. But ever since it was recorded by the renowned cantor Mordecai Hershman, it has also been an independent, quasi-cantorial concert number. 

Secunda wrote Dos yidishe lid for Joseph Shayngold, an accomplished singer-actor (and son-in-law of the Yiddish stage idol Jacob P. Adler) who also had the ability to interpret the idioms of virtuoso cantorial art and who had already been engaged to play the part of Yitzḥak. Because Shayngold possessed what Secunda considered one of the “few cultivated voices in the Jewish [Yiddish] Theater,” he decided to compose something that would justly exploit his gifts. At the same time, since the show was scheduled to open just around Rosh Hashana, he aimed at something that would represent Judaic religious culture. What emerged was a song that contains, integrated within its descriptive Yiddish “lied” framework, three of the most familiar Hebrew prayers and cantorial harbingers of the upcoming holy days: hinn’ni he’ani mimma’as, the cantor’s plea on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur for worthiness to intone the liturgy on the congregation’s behalf; kol nidrei, the recitation on the eve of Yom Kippur of an ancient legal formula absolving Jews from vows they are unable to keep; and sisu v’sim’ḥu, a traditionally lively expression in the liturgy for Simhat Torah.

The plot of In nomen fun got unfolds in a small eastern European town, where a wealthy and religious elderly widower and curmudgeon, Reb Nison Kluker, also the town’s cantor, seeks to marry a much younger woman—D’vorale—the daughter of a poor tailor. Though her father welcomes it, she resists, primarily because she is having a secret love affair with Reb Nison’s son, Yitzḥak, who has inherited his father’s musical talent. When D’vorale becomes pregnant and is about to be driven from the town, Yitzḥak swears “in the name of God” that he will always love her. But she disappears, and he loses touch with her completely, going to Italy to study music. The surviving scores indicate that he sings Dos yidishe lid at some point in that first act. 

By the last act, all the characters have immigrated to New York, where Reb Nison has become a well-known cantor and Yitzḥak is engaged to a millionaire’s daughter. While driving himself to his wedding, he accidentally runs over and kills a young boy who has darted in front of his car chasing after a ball. The child turns out to be D’vorale’s and his own son. He and D’vorale reunite in grief, and instead of going through with his wedding, he pulls the ring from his pocket and presents it to her as a marriage pledge—renewing his vow “in the name of God” to remain steadfast forever.

Sholom Secunda's Dos yidishe lid.

Mayn yidishe meydle

Mayn yidishe maydele (My Jewish Girl), with lyrics by Anshel Schorr, was the signature song in Secunda’s 1927 musical production (billed then as a “grand [groyse] Yiddish operetta”], Zayn yidishe meydl (His Jewish Girl).

The story takes place somewhere in the Russian Empire prior to the First World War. Grisha, a non-Jewish Russian army officer whose father is a general, and Aniuta, the only daughter of a well-to-do Jew, are in love and intent on marriage. But Aniuta cannot bring herself to defy her father, and just as she is about to sign the t’naim (betrothal contract) together with an elderly Jew her father has selected for her, Grisha comes on the scene with startling news. He has just learned that he is, in fact, a Jew, since his mother—whom apparently he never has known—is Jewish. Known as Khayke the meshu’gener (the crazy one), she is said to have gone mad when Grisha’s father abandoned her, took the children with him, and had them converted to Christianity. Not only do Grisha and Aniuta wed in a proper Jewish ceremony, but the entire family emigrates to Palestine.

The lyrics of Mayn yidishe maydele render it suitable for more than one spot, and it is likely that it was intended for the scene in which Aniuta and the elderly Jew are about to become engaged. We know from press accounts that Grisha repeated it following the wedding. And Der Tog, one of the major Yiddish daily newspapers, reported that the ovation from the women in the audience required a reprise after his first rendition.

Mayn yidishe meydle is one of sixteen musical numbers in the original version of the show. The remains of the performance materials also contain the song Sing, Sing, Sing, by Louis Prima, and Irving Berlin’s Puttin’ on the Ritz. For one revival, in 1937, a review referred to it as a “new musical by William Siegel and Secunda,” which suggests that Siegel might have made revisions to Lash’s original book. In 1949 Secunda revised the song for its publication.

Sholom Secunda’s Mayn yidishe meydle.

SKRIP, KLEZMERL, SKRIPE

Skrip, klezmerl, skripe (Fiddle, Klezmer, Scrape Away), with lyrics by Chaim Tauber, is a brief reflection on parental devotion, followed by a frenzied exhortation to the band (the klezmorim) to bring accelerated joy to a wedding celebration. It was introduced in Sholom Secunda’s musical show A freylekhe mishpokhe (A Happy Family), with a book by William Siegel. The production, characterized in the press as “a mixture of operetta, comedy, melodrama, farce, and even some burlesque,” was the opening musical attraction of the 1934–35 season at the Public Theater in New York. With a star-studded cast that included Aaron Lebedeff, Lucy Levin, Vera Lubov, Menachem Rubin, Yetta Zwerling, and Itzik [Yitzkhok/Isadore] Feld—who sang this song in the production—A freylekhe mishpokhe enjoyed both considerable public success and, unusual for Yiddish musicals of that era, a measure of respectable critical acceptance for its realistic character portrayals and plausible plot situations. As his first full-length show for an actual Second Avenue area house, it also marked a personal triumph and milestone in Secunda’s career.

The show was conceived and produced primarily as entertainment—with a variety of ethnic music and dance elements (including a Spanish carioca dance tune that Secunda borrowed from the 1933 Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers film Flying Down to Rio for a comic Yiddish duet), in addition to an abundance of music with perceived “Jewish flavor” and even some English lyrics. Still, underlying and threaded through its action is the question of whether parenthood is properly defined by biological ancestry on its own merits, or by rearing, nurture, and love—a pervasive theme that also informs the opening lyrics of this song. The show was also saluted in the press for its absence of vulgarity and avoidance of off-color humor, which reminds us of that general reputation among Second Avenue Yiddish comedies.

Lily, who was abandoned in infancy by her father and then adopted and reared by an uncle, Kopel Kieve, becomes engaged to a young lawyer, Sidney, who—clandestinely beguiled by Eva, an unsavory and ambitious woman with no love or fidelity to him—avoids the actual marriage. Meanwhile, Lily’s biological father surfaces in the person of Misha, a past “victim” of Eva’s, who is now an alcoholic derelict. Kopel persuades him, for her sake, never to reveal his identity, and through a clever, stage-worthy trick in which Sidney, with Misha as a silent ally, is made to witness Eva’s perfidious falseness, Sidney realizes Lily’s worth as a bride, and the wedding takes place.

It is likely that Skrip, klezmerl, skripe was sung more or less in its present form by Kopel in connection with the wedding. It appears to be a composite of songs or parts of songs from earlier numbers within the play, but from the content of the lyrics, from the nature of the tune, and from what we know of established theatrical conventions that attended such Yiddish musicals, it is logical to place the song in its entirety at the wedding scene—as a sort of reprise. Indeed, in keeping with the pattern of conventions attached by then to Second Avenue, one can also imagine that the chorus might have enjoyed yet another reprise during the curtain calls. It is also possible, however, that Secunda fashioned the present composite expressly for its subsequent publication.

Sholom Secunda’s Skrip, klezmerl, skripe.

 

BAY MIR BISTU SHEYN

As previous examples in this exhibit have shown, songs composed for the American Yiddish theater did occasionally cross over into the mainstream. But Bay mir bistu sheyn stands in a class of its own on this account. First, because it is without a doubt the most popular and well known song to have originated in the Yiddish theater; and, second, because of the manner in which it achieved such popularity.

Bay mir bistu sheyn was written for the 1932 production M’ken lebn nor m’lost nit (One Could Really Live, but They Won’t Let You), officially subtitled as I Would If I Could. The show opened at the Rolland Theater in Brooklyn and the song was premiered by the legendary Aaron Lebedeff as a duet with Lucy Levin.

According to one account, Lebedeff first suggested the title of the song to Secunda, after which Jacobs furnished the lyrics once Secunda had written the tune. In that account, Lebedeff then vehemently resisted the song, insisting instead on melodic alterations of his own, and he sang it as written on opening night only on a bet with Secunda over the audience reaction. The ecstatic ovation, however, reportedly required three encore repetitions. Another account (see below) suggests the initial phrase and melodic hook belong to Jacob Jacobs, who took the idea to Secunda and then penned the lyrics.

 

MNY271867
Sheet music cover for Bay mir bistu sheyn, 1933. Credit: Trio Press/Museum of the City of New York.

Whatever its origins, the song became an instant hit on Second Avenue and Secunda and Jacobs later published it as independent song. A few years later when the song’s popularity began to wane, the duo sold the rights to an independent publisher for what today would amount to roughly $500. The song was shortly thereafter catapulted onto the international scene as a commercial sensation in a revised arrangement with English lyrics performed by the Andrews Sisters. It received the ASCAP award for the most popular song of 1938 and was subsequently given further new treatments and arrangements in renditions by dozens of singers and orchestras. Unfortunately for Secunda and Jacobs, the song’s ascendance to mainstream popularity occurred after they had sold the rights. (The Yiddish Radio Project has rare audio of Secunda discussing the matter.)

In 1938, when public performances in Germany of any music by composers of Jewish ancestry was forbidden as entartete musik (degenerate music), Bay mir bistu sheyn was enthusiastically received on German radio broadcasts. Inadvertently presumed to be a general pop song sung with a southern German dialect, it caused an embarrassing furor and a round of demotions when its identity was discovered. Conversely, a political cartoon that year depicted Hitler singing the song to a personification of the Netherlands. The tune was expropriated by the Soviet Union for an anti-German propaganda song during the war, under the title Baron von der Spik, credited fictitiously to a Soviet songwriter. 

The plot of the show the show that spawned the song appears to have been a bit shopworn. Jake, a shoe factory worker who is fired for union organizing activity, is in love with the owner’s daughter, Hene. In response to her concern about his commitment to her, he sings Bay mir bistu sheyn to her at some point in the first act. Despite a series of predictable attempts to thwart the marriage, they are wed in the end. 

In 1961 Secunda and Jacobs were finally able to regain a portion of the rights, and they recycled the song for a new, unrelated musical built around it, which was produced under the title Bay mir bistu sheyn at the Anderson Theater. But shortly thereafter, following the critical success of Secunda’s classically oriented cantata If Not Higher, he expressed the hope that this serious work might make people forget that he was the composer of Bay mir bistu sheyn.

Sholom Secunda died in 1974, one year after composing music for one last Yiddish theatrical production—Shver tsu zayn a yid (It’s Hard to Be a Jew), a musical version of a well-known Sholom Aleichem play that was first presented in New York in 1921. An obituary in the New York Times (a worthwhile read) aptly described him as “a man of many and varied musical talents.”

SecundaAndrewsSisters
Sholom Secunda with the Andrews Sisters.

 

Links & Credits

Featured Recordings:

Glik
Nu zog mir shoyn ven
Eyn kuk af dir
Ikh hob dikh tsufil lib
Dos yidishe lid
Mayn yidishe meydle
Skrip, klezmerl, skripe
Bay mir bistu sheyn

Featured Composers:

Alexander Olshanetsky
Sholom Secunda

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.

Hoberman, J. 2010. Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds. Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England.

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

Cantor Mordechai Hershman's rendition of Dos yidishe lid can be accessed at: https://rsa.fau.edu/album/1514


 

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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.