GREAT SONGS OF THE AMERICAN YIDDISH STAGE

A Multi-part Exhibition on the American Yiddish Theater

Part 4: Schmaltz and Strudl

A Virtual Exhibit
Curated by: Jeff Janeczko

This is the fourth—and final—installment in a multi-part exhibit on the American Yiddish theater. Parts one through three covered the so-called “big four” composers of Second Avenue—Abraham Ellstein, Alexander Olshanetsky and Sholom Secunda, and Joseph Rumnshinsky.—while also touching on their mainstream successes and interactions with some of the genre’s key players. Under their guidance, Second Avenue became a wildly popular form of entertainment. As generations of Jews struggled to adapt to life in a new land, the dramas that unfolded on the American Yiddish stage provided both escape and enlightenment. It helped the topsy-turvy world-in-transition keep its eyes on the old world and new at the same time.

Rumshinsky, Ellstein, Secunda, and Olshanetsky may be the names we most know today, but it took far more than four composers to fuel Second Avenue. Behind the Secundas and Rumshinskys were Trillings, Meyerowitzes, Yablokoffs and others—not to mention the writers, musicians, set-builders, and ticket-sellers—fueling a scene that by 1910 included some thirteen theaters and 300 performers putting on eleven hundred performances yearly (Heskes 1984).

Without diminishing the contributions of the “big four,” it seems prudent to point out that shows, often, were not so much composed as compiled. That is to say, songs, storylines, and themes circulated freely, with songs written for staged productions enjoying extended lives in vaudeville houses, radio studios, and printed music. Some productions benefitted from the participation of multiple composers. And some songs, written as one-offs or for non-dramatic purposes, became so popular that they were turned into full-length, staged productions or films—and not always by the same composer. It is with a turn toward this aspect of that vital and vibrant world that our four-part exhibit closes.

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 4

Schmaltz and Strudl

Schmaltz:
Love Songs and Laments

 

Ilia Trilling

Ilia Trilling (1895–1947) was born in Elberfeld (now Wuppertal), Germany, to parents who were Yiddish theater actors. He began formal musical studies in Warsaw and served as the director of a Yiddish theater in Kiev during the First World War. Later, he was involved with a number of Yiddish theater troupes in the Ukraine and Russia. Trilling immigrated to the United States in 1929, became a dance instructor for a theater company in New York and then took a position as choirmaster of the major Yiddish theater in the Lawndale district of Chicago. A few years later he was engaged as the composer-in-residence of the Hopkinson Theater in Brooklyn, and he began writing for full-length Yiddish theatrical productions.

Trilling collaborated with lyricist Isidore Lillian on an elaborate production titled Leb un lakh (Live and Laugh), first produced at the Second Avenue Theater in 1941, with a cast that included Menashe Skulnik and Bella Meisel. The show produced two duets, Mit dir in eynem (Together With You) and Di shaynst vi di zun (You Shine Like the Sun), both love songs.

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Menashe Skulnik, 1965. (Credit: Masterworks Broadway)

The story is told in flashback over a ten-year time frame. Samuel Shtral, an American businessman whose wife has left him and their young daughter, falls in love with and marries a woman named Miriam. But Miriam has a sordid past—one that includes a relationship with an unsavory gambler named Max.

Trilling Ilia 1089
Ilia Trilling

In one scene, Miriam expresses concern to Samuel that her past may give him second thoughts about their marriage. Samuel reassures her that he is committed to her, and they conclude the scene with the duet Mit dir in eynem.

Later, when Max learns that his former girlfriend is married to a man of some means, he extorts money from Miriam on the threat of otherwise revealing her past to Samuel, not realizing that Samuel is already aware of it. Miriam complies for a while, since he also threatens to expose her publicly. But when the extortion escalates into a demand to renew their sexual affair, Miriam shoots him. To save her from the consequences, Samuel confesses to the murder. He is sentenced to sixteen years in prison, but is paroled after ten years.

It is unclear at what point in the production Di shaynst vi di zun (You Shine Like the Sun) was sung. As a love song, the lyrics are general enough to render appropriate for many scenes.

Ilia Trilling's Mit dir in eynem and Du shaynst vi di zun.

David Meyerowitz

David Meyerowitz (1867–1943) was part of the early phases of the American Yiddish stage. His work was often oriented toward vaudeville and revue formats, and included sentimental songs as well as humorous jibes at the “golden land”—Kolombus, ikh hob tzu dir gornit (Columbus, I’ve Got Nothing Against You!) is one example.

Born in Dinaburg, Latvia (then part of the czarist empire), Meyerowitz had no formal education. His life as a songwriter started as he entertained fellow workers in a match factory. When his father emigrated to America, temporarily leaving his family behind until he could earn enough money to pay for their passage, Meyerowitz began earning extra income by singing songs from Abraham Goldfaden operettas, and ballads by the famous bard Eliakum Zunser, which he had learned from his mother.

In 1890, Meyerowitz came to America, but he continued at menial shop labor while also singing at various public venues and events, eventually becominh known as “the wandering poet.”

Among his early original songs that gained popularity were several he created for the famous Yiddish actor and producer Jacob P. Adler (1856–1926). When Boris Thomashevsky needed a Zionist-oriented song to sing in his play Tate mame tzores (Heartbreak, Papa and Mama), he turned to Meyerowitz, who then wrote Kum, srul, kum aheym (Come, Little Srul, Come Home).

Meyerowitz’s one-act operettas, in which he sometimes played and sang while also producing and directing, grew in popularity throughout New York music halls and vaudeville houses, playing at no fewer than all fourteen that once existed simultaneously. The following two examples illustrate Meyerowitz’s knack for wrenchingly sad songs.

Broken Hearts

Meyerowitz collaborated with Louis Gilrod to compose Got un zayn mishpet iz gerekht (God and His Judgment are Just) for a 1903 production of Zalman Libin’s play, Gebrokhene hertser (Broken Hearts), known in its original production by the longer title Gebrokhene hertser oder libe un flikt (Broken Hearts, or Love and Obligation). Set in turn-of-the-century New York, the play explores the tension between the insular world of Jewish orthodoxy and its surrounding secular environs through the lens of arranged marriages and forsaken loves. It starred Jacob P. Adler, the reigning dramatic actor, who introduced Got un zayn mishpet in the play.

The lyrics contain a host of references to contemporaneous and historical circumstances, including Haman, the villain of the Book of Esther, and Pavolaki Krushevan (1860–1909), a virulently anti-Semitic Russian journalist whose series of articles on “the program for the conquest of the world by the Jews” is considered to have formed the “argument” for the infamous Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. In 1903 Krushevan was instrumental in the manufacture of a blood-libel rumor which became the pretense for the bloody Kishinev Pogrom on Passover, 1903. Gebrokhene hertser opened in New York in September of that year, when the pogrom was still very much on the minds of Jews in America.

David Meyerowitz's Vos Geven Iz Geven Un Nito

David Meyerowitz's Vos Geven Iz Geven Un Nito

Memories of Days Gone By

Meyerowitz wrote Vos geven iz geven un nito (What Was, Was, and Is No More) for a vaudeville star, Sam Klinetsky, who rejected it as too sentimental. Meyerowitz published it anyway, in 1926, with an English subtitle, “Memories of Days Gone By.” It was made famous initially by Nellie Casman, one of the leading stars of the Yiddish stage, and was subsequently sung by such luminaries as Sophie Tucker, Lillian Shaw, Aaron Lebedeff, and Seymour Rechtzeit (1912–2002), who performed the song for the Milken Archive’s cameras in 1995 (see below).

David Meyerowitz's Got un zayn mishpet iz gerekht

Seymour Rechtzeit (1912–2002)

The

Dishwasher

 

Der dishvasher is the lament of an elderly man, abandoned by his children, so that he is forced to wash dishes in a restaurant. It was a familiar theme, especially resonant among elderly audiences, even though it was largely exaggerated.

Yablokoff wrote Der dishvasher (The Dishwasher) initially as an independent song. But because the song was so successful on its own, he later decided to write a play around it. The full-length production opened at the Second Avenue Theater in New York in 1936, with a young Walter Matthau playing the role of a cellist.

Yablokoff considered Der dishvasher his finest play. He played and sang the role of Abrashe the dishwasher in the staged production, which also featured such celebrities as Bella Meisel (his wife), Leo Fuchs, Annie Thomashevsky, Esta Saltzman, and Dave Lubritsky. Most or all of the score, apart from Yablokoff’s song, was written by Ilia Trilling.

Born in the city of Grodno (now in Belarus) in 1903, Yablokoff was one of the most pervasive personalities on Second Avenue. One of the many major musical shows he wrote, directed, and produced was Der payatz (The Clown), which catapulted him to even wider fame under that sobriquet. He further popularized that role on his weekly Yiddish radio program of the same name.

Papirosn (Cigarettes), from his play with the same title, is probably his most enduring song and is still performed today. The tune of his song Shvayg mayn harts (Be Still, My Heart) became popular in English as Nature Boy when it was allegedly appropriated by the songwriter and musician Eden "Ahbe" Ahbez (born George Alexander Aberle). According to Yablokoff’s own account, Ahbez had claimed to have “heard the tune in the mist of the California mountains,” but legal proceedings resulted in a substantial monetary settlement.

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Velvet, Silk, and Nostalgia

Wohl Herman 629Herman Wohl

SAMET UN ZAYD

More than one song titled Samet un zayd (Velvet and Silk) was written to the same set of lyrics by Louis Gilrod and associated with various productions and versions of the same musical show, Hayntike meydlekh (The Girls of Today). The best known of these songs is attributed to Herman Wohl (1877–1936), an early pioneer of Yiddish song in America, as well as highly respected choral conductor and arranger who worked with the famous cantor, Yossele Rosenblatt. Samet un zayd was sung by Jennie Goldstein in a 1924 production, advertised as a “drama of present-day life,” at Max Gabel’s Peoples Theater in New York.

Wohl was credited as the principal composer of the show for that production. But Olshanetsky’s name was prominently associated with other productions of the show, which was sometimes staged under the name Samet un zayd and also involved other composers and lyricists. Olshanetsky’s hand in this song remains in question. Similar themes appear in the 1918 song, “Lost Youth” (also associated with Jennie Goldstein and Max Gabel), which is attributed in one published version to David Meyerowitz. And there are other similar versions of the song attributed to different authors.

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Sheet music cover for “Lost Youth,” featuring Jennie Goldstein and Max Gabels, 1918.
(Credit: Museum of the City of New York)

Hayntike meydlekh urges caution for young women in regard to the social temptations of “the new American life” and harbors warnings about unscrupulous men and misplaced priorities. The plot has elements of drug addiction, sexual exploitation, abandonment, and redemption through love, but not before it is too late for one of the victims.

Herman Wohl's Samet un zayd

SLUTSK

The song Slutsk does not appear to have been affiliated with any particular staged production, but rather to have been independently composed as a “nostalgia song” that refers longingly to a romanticized eastern European Jewish past. Slutsk, which takes its name from a Belorussian (formerly Lithuanian) town, expresses its nostalgia through recollections of shtetl life and family Sabbath rituals.

Precise knowledge of the song’s authorship, however, has been elusive. The version recorded for the Milken Archive was published in 1936 with attributions to Herman Wohl (melody) and Aaron Lebedeff (lyrics), but the same song, with only minor variances in the lyrics, was published in Buenos Aires simply as an anonymous “popular song.” What’s more, Lebedeff twice registered a copyright for himself as author of both the lyrics and the music for a song of the same title, and a variant also appears in Abraham Zvi Idelsohn’s Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies Vol. IX (1932).

Herman Wohl's Slutsk

A Letter to Mama

First published in 1907, Solomon Smulewitz’s (1868–1943) A brivele her mamen (A Little Letter to Mama) gained instant popularity when it was first recorded by its composer (See the Judaica Sound Archives for the original recording). It recounts the story of a mother whose only request to departing son is to write her a letter every now and then, telling her of his new life in America. But the son becomes a prosperous and busy New Yorker, with a lavish lifestyle and beautiful family, and never gets around to writing until it is too late. So, he abides by her one last wish: to remember her in death by reciting kaddish each year on her yortzayt.

A brivele der mamen reverberated for decades and touched off a virtual category of mother-related and letter-based songs. And although the song was not composed in connection with any operetta or other theatrical piece, it spawned subsequent full-length productions of the same title that built around or incorporated it, including S. H. Kohn’s four-act comedy-drama (subtitled The Golden Dream) and a 1938–39 Yiddish film (subtitled The Eternal Song ) with a score by Abraham Ellstein. While the story line of the film departs from that of the song, Smulewitz’s song recurs throughout the film, and strains from its melody are used as a quasi-leitmotif.

In a twist similar to Sholom Secunda’s Bay mir bistu sheyn, Smulewitz reputedly sold his rights to A brivele der mamen for twenty-five dollars—before it achieved its immense popularity and long before its use on the stage or in a film. Unfortunately, he had no legal recourse. Subsequent versions and variants, none of which credited Smulewitz, appeared as late as the 1970s.

Solomon Smulevitz's A brivele der mamen

Strudl:
Variety is the Spice of Life

The More Things Change...

Though vaudeville is generally thought of as a kind of “variety show” theater comprising many performance genres, its origins lie in a particular type of French satirical song: the Vau de Vire. Satire, of course, is meant to be funny, but also to sting. The laughs aren’t always cheap and the jokes contain a tinge of truth.

Rueben Doctor’s 1922 vaudeville song, Ikh bin a “boarder” bay mayn vayb (I’m a “Boarder” at My Wife’s), offers a creative solution to the stale marriage: become roommates in stead. In a twist on the stereotypically nebbish husband who acquiesces to his stereotypically kvetching wife, this song relates the joyfully exuberant expressions of a man who enjoys all of the benefits of his committed relationship without any of the responsibility. By paying his wife rent, he is cooked for, cleaned up after, and never asked to tend to anything—“a sweet deal.” Another version of the song offered a specific example: “She listens nice to my suggestions/I come home, she’s got no questions.”

Ikh bin a “boarder” bay mayn vayb became one of the most famous vaudeville hits of its time, largely through a recording by the celebrated Aaron Lebedeff. Like the sentiment it expresses, the song lived on long after the decline of Yiddish theater’s heyday.

[Curator’s note: If the term “boarder” seems anachronistic to the present era, the song’s sentiment is as timeless as ever—and came to mind very recently when I happened upon a conversation between a local café owner and one his regular customers. The café owner inquired about the customer’s romantic partner and a pending real estate transaction, asking if the couple would be moving in together. The customer responded in the negative, explaining that the real estate transaction was taking place precisely because the two would not be moving in together, but assured him that the couple were doing just fine. The café owner paused briefly and lowered his head, before expressing his envy of the customer’s situation—would that he could only have the same arrangement with his partner, with whom he was currently living (and who later arrived with the couple’s newborn child).]

A223 lebedeff in bowler hat

Aaron Lebedeff

 

Hudl’s Strudl

If the desire to “board” with one’s wife can be expressed directly, other topics necessitate a more “subtle” approach—or, they’re at least funnier when presented as such. Dudl’s wife Hudl makes a really fine “strudl”—good enough to immortalize in song.

The exact year in which Hudl mitn strudl was written or published is uncertain, as is its author. A 1927 recording by Aaron Lebedeff lists Olshanetsky as a possible composer, while Yiddish theater veteran Seymour Rechtzeit, a founder and proprietor of Banner Records, remembered attending a 1945 recording session (also with Lebefeff), and he could recall—albeit fifty-five years later—only that the song was written by “a guy named King.” It is due to this ambiguity that the Milken Archive has listed the song’s author as anonymous.

 

That’s How It Is

And when double-entendres won’t suffice, perhaps gibberish will do. The title of Fishel Kanapoff’s 1924 vaudeville number, Hu-tsa-tsa, is meaningless, although the published Yiddish title in Hebrew characters, O-tsa-tsa, carries the connotation “That’s how it is!” The subtitle in Roman characters reads hu-tsa-tsa [utzatza], which is how the song has always been sung.

Hu-tsa-tsa is a couplet song, a vehicle in which recurring refrains frame sections of narrative accompanied by a musical vamp. The narratives are humorous and, in some cases in this example, play with stereotypical images and constructs: a man comes home to find his wife crying over the fact that the dog has eaten the dinner she prepared. “It’s okay,” he replies, “I’ll get you a new dog.” To interpolate a phrase like “that’s how it is” or “that’s how it goes” in the refrain would not be out of place in this context.

Links & Credits

Featured Recordings:

Mit dir in eynem
Du shaynst vi di zun
Got un zayn mishpet iz gerekht
Vos geven iz geven un nito
Der dishvasher
Samet un zayd
Slutsk
A brivele der mamen
Ikh bin a "boarder" bay mayn vayb
Hudl mitn strudl
Hu-tsa-tsa

Featured Composers:

Ilia Trilling
David Meyerowitz
Herman Yablokoff
Herman Wohl
Solomon Smulevitz
Reuben Doctor
Fischel Kanapoff

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.


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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.