Born in Lithuania, Joseph Rumshinsky studied piano and was a cantorial-choir assistant as young boy. Arriving in America in 1904, he became one of Second Avenue's "big four" composers and sought to transform American Yiddish theater into a more opera-like genre.
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Among the significant composers and conductors associated with Second Avenue Yiddish musical theater at its zenith—a list that includes a great many once-prominent names that are now no longer so widely remembered—Joseph Rumshinsky, along with Sholom Secunda, Alexander Olshanetsky, and Abraham Ellstein, is always considered one of the “big four” in aggregate achievement as well as undiminished fame. The beginning of his Second Avenue career, however, preceded the entrance of the other three in that group. He arrived in America as a young adult and an experienced musician before Ellstein was born, more than a decade before Olshanetsky immigrated from Europe, and only a few years before Secunda’s bar mitzvah. (By the time Secunda first attempted to break into the Second Avenue arena, for example, Rumshinsky was already a major force within the entrenched establishment, whose hegemony posed an obstacle to the young newcomer that he could overcome only gradually and patiently—a situation Rumshinsky himself had faced upon his own arrival on the scene years earlier.) In terms of his formative role in the progress of the Yiddish musical, Rumshinsky’s generic impact as a would-be reformer—independent of qualitative artistic or literary judgments of his ultimate products—was probably greater than that of the others who followed him. For it was he who first tried to edge Yiddish musical entertainments away from their earlier theatrical crudeness and lift them toward his theoretical ideal of a new American genre of Yiddish light operetta (or, as one critic later characterized Rumshinsky’s admittedly unfulfilled aim, operetta in Yiddish). He succeeded, to a degree, in terms of form and structure, as well as with certain lasting innovations both in the pit and on the stage. But content remained little affected in the wake of his commercially driven recidivism. In many respects it may be said of Rumshinsky that his American career mirrored the chronological course of Second Avenue’s development from the first decade of the 20th century until the 1950s.
He was born in a town near Vilna (Vilnius; now, and historically, Lithuania, but then part of Russian Poland), where his father was a hatter by trade and his mother was an amateur voice teacher to local avocational singers and badkhonim (wedding entertainers). He later recalled that his father’s shop reverberated with labor-oriented and other Yiddish songs, which were also brought home to the family.
The young Joseph exhibited musical talent at an early age, taking piano lessons at a local private school, and he soon became known affectionately by the sobriquet Yoshke der notn-freser (little Joseph the devourer of music [notes]). He also had some formal Russian secular schooling, which he claimed to have requested on his own, but his further musical exposure and training came with his immersion in the typical eastern European cantorial-choral apprentice—or m’shorer (cantor’s choral “assistant”)—system. For a time he sang in the choir of the learned and esteemed cantor Abraham Moshe Bernstein (1866–1932) at the Taharat Hakodesh Synagogue in Vilna. This was a typical khor shul (lit., choral synagogue)—one of the Westernized, culturally progressive, and musically sophisticated synagogues, albeit still within a basically orthodox framework, that had been established in many cosmopolitan eastern European cities as a response to modernity. Between 1890 and 1894 the young Rumshinsky toured as a student chorister with several other cantors to various cities throughout the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, where he was exposed to a wider variety of cantorial styles. It was on one of those tours, in Grodno (Russian Poland), that he first encountered not only Russian theater but, fortuitously for his future career, Yiddish theater as well—through the professional touring productions of the famous Kaminski [Kaminska] theatrical company.
Rumshinsky appears to have been instantly attracted to the Yiddish musical stage when he heard his first Goldfaden operetta, Shulamis. First as a chorister and later as a conductor, he toured with the Kaminskis and other troupes, becoming familiar with many of Goldfaden’s operettas and enamored of the entire genre, which he would eventually seek to implant and to emulate in New York as the basis for a new American brand of Yiddish musical theater. He was only seventeen years old when he conducted a full-scale production of Goldfaden’s Bar Kokhba.
In 1899, in Łódz, he became the first conductor of the newly formed culturally Zionist and Haskala-oriented Hazomir Choral Society, but in 1902 he emigrated to London to avoid conscription in the czarist army. He soon became persuaded that his future lay in America. He arrived as an immigrant in New York in 1904 only to find no ready welcome from the Yiddish theater establishment or its union for a young newcomer and potential competitor.
In the overall scene he encountered, which continued to prevail for some time, American-born purported Yiddish musical theater, which Rumshinsky often dismissed as “elevated vaudeville,” had yet to undergo development into a more cohesive, yet still manifestly popular, form that could be said even to approach a type of operetta in which music, plot, and dialogue were at least interrelated. That was a process in which Rumshinsky was later instrumental.
Pure drama and Goldfaden imports and imitations aside, the pandering level of homegrown Yiddish musical theater during the decade or so of Rumshinsky’s immigration can be gleaned partly from a glance at the titles of some of the commercially successful productions of the day. These ranged from such Americana-infused curiosities as Der yidishe Yankee Doodle (1905) and a melodramatic Yiddish version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to a reimagined “Jewish Hamlet” as Der yeshiva bokher (the Talmud student), replete with cantorial renditions and a cemetery service for the “Jewish Ophelia,” to the 1907-08 supposedly farbeserd (“improved” or “updated”!) offering of Goldfaden’s last work, Ben Ami—a serious drama with music that seems to have drawn loosely on George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda, but which was nonetheless made to appeal to astutely predicted popular tastes by the insertion of comic songs and couplets.
According to his not undisputed memoirs, the soon-to-become-legendary Boris Thomashefsky (1868–1939)—as a young immigrant cigar roller and synagogue chorister on New York’s Lower East Side—had persuaded a benefactor to bring an acting troupe from London for a performance of Goldfaden’s recently created Di kishefmakhern (The Witch, or The Sorceress). The production, in which the young Thomashefsky also sang and acted, took place in 1882 at Turn Verein Hall and more or less gave birth to popular Yiddish theater in America. Exhilarated and emboldened by the experience, Thomashefsky—by dint of his larger-than-life personality, his natural theatrical proclivities, and his remarkable market instincts about the type of entertainment the growing Yiddish-speaking immigrant community would demand—went on in effect to found Second Avenue as a stage genre, an emotional outlet, a creative vehicle, and a virtual way of life for its insider professional contributors and its patriotn (fans, or groupies) alike. By 1912 he had his own venue, the Downtown National Theater, and he became a force that could not be ignored. Eventually a new breed of more musically sophisticated and schooled composers such as Rumshinsky and his emerging circle managed to build on that standard, but Thomashefsky’s initial generic imprint was almost always discernible, especially with regard to the principle of commercial audience appeal.
As the immigrant population swelled, it was less interested in the biblical, historical, literary, or morally and ethically didactic and even homiletical subject matter of much of Goldfaden’s work, and it preferred topical themes, artificial nostalgia, romanticized Old World folk motifs, sheer diversion, and, especially, New World immigrant situations and characterizations with which it could identify directly—through tears as well as laughter, including, healthfully, at themselves. Rumshinsky quickly understood that distinction, and in order to overcome the barriers to his participation, he let it be known that he was prepared to reset his sights—at least for a while—and write for the oylem (the “people”) and its demonstrated appetites, if only given the opportunity. Still, he continued to imagine the artistic possibilities of an altogether new, higher form of American Yiddish operetta, perhaps even opera. Rumshinsky had to contend with the fact that from the 1890s through the turn of the century, a number of well-received composers, songwriters, and lyricists had emerged, eager to follow Thomashefsky’s proven recipe for popularity. The books and scenarios for many of their productions could be characterized within the extended context of what came to be known, not always with opprobrium, as shund—an almost institutionalized popular industry of “literary trash” that encompassed a world of cheap pulp fiction, common periodicals, and other coarse diversions.
Rumshinsky spent a year at Boston’s main Yiddish venue, the Hope Theater. By the 1908–09 season, his career began to fall into place in New York when the “matinee idol” Jacob P. Adler (1856–1926), one of the giants among serious dramatic actors, brought him to conduct and compose at the Windsor Theater, in which Adler was a partner and co-manager. An ardent advocate for a higher artistic and literary plane of theatrical experience even for the popular realm, a sort of “kunst for the people”—though his was ultimately a losing battle—and a voice of opposition to the shund approach, Adler naturally appreciated Rumshinsky’s long-range goals as well as his superior musical endowments and dramatic sense.
It was at the Windsor that season that Rumshinsky wrote what he considered to be his first full operetta-type score: A yidish kind, a revision by Bernard Wilensky of an earlier operetta by Shomer [Nohum Meir Shaykevitsch; 1846,1847,1849?–1905]. He also wrote the songs that season for another Wilensky operetta, Nosn hakhokhem (Nathan the Wise), based on the German (non-Jewish) dramatist and philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s famous but perplexing play, in which the relative merits of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are argued. That operetta included Rumshinsky’s song V’yiten l’kha, with lyrics by Solomon Shmulewitz, which, when issued independently in 1909, became his first American publication of an original song. It later acquired the erroneous status of an anonymous folksong.
Rumshinsky teamed up with Anshel Schorr to write the show he later described as the first “modern” Yiddish musical comedy: Dos meydl fun der vest (The Girl from the West). It was followed by his operetta Shir hashirim (Song of Songs), which Rumshinsky—a bit boldly—characterized as nothing less than “the first romantic Yiddish opera.” After residencies in several other major Second Avenue venues, Rumshinsky hooked up with Thomashefsky in 1916 in an official affiliation as composer and conductor at the latter’s National Theater. During the next three seasons there, he wrote full scores for comedies as well as melodramas with Thomashefsky and other librettists and lyricists. His Tsubrokhene fidl (Broken Fiddle) at the National was a watershed event on two counts. First, Rumshinsky persuaded Thomashefsky to introduce for the first time a full professional dance corps (reports refer to it as “ballet,” which is debatable), to expand the elements within a single production along the lines of European opera and operetta, and to avoid reliance upon “chorus line” or vaudeville-level dance movements. But his more far-reaching innovation in that show was his insistence on a full pit orchestra with a minimum of twenty-four professional musicians, upgrading the entire orchestral parameter for the future of Second Avenue beyond the small dance band or modestly expanded wedding band formats that had sufficed for most earlier productions and to which audiences were accustomed.
Indeed, it is in the size, quality, and instrumentation of the pit orchestra for full-scale Yiddish theatrical productions that Rumshinsky made one of his most enduring contributions. When he first added harp, oboe, and bassoon to his orchestrations, word had it that some actors in those productions referred to him as “crazy Wagner!” Yet some of those innovations, such as harp, caught on and became rooted in Second Avenue orchestrations, while others—double reeds in particular—did not. If Rumshinsky was unable fully to achieve his symphonic ideal, he at least advanced toward it on the order of Lehár, Kalman, Romberg, and Herbert—and 1940s–1950s Broadway. Also stemming from his years at the National Theater, Rumshinsky insisted on fully trained singers with legitimate light operatic voices—on the models of Central European operetta. That, too, became the desiderata and the standard thereafter.
By 1919 he felt that his professional association with Thomashefksy had reached its limits, in view of their divergent views concerning dramatic aspects, especially plots and librettos, and he moved over to the Kessler Second Avenue Theater beginning with the 1919–20 season. He and Thomashefsky, however, remained friends and maintained collegial contact for many years.
Dem rebns nign (The Rabbi’s Melody) was Rumshinsky’s first production at the Second Avenue Theater, and it was a hit that ran for more than six months. In the succeeding thirty-five years, he wrote, produced or coproduced, and conducted an unprecedented—and since unequaled—number of shows, both there and at other principal theaters, which must be acknowledged to vary in quality. But his position as the de facto musical dean of Second Avenue by the mid-1920s is indisputable. Beginning in the 1930s, he was also active in radio programming and broadcasting for various stations, and he became music director of the only Yiddish program broadcast on a nationwide network, The Jewish Hour, sponsored by the Yiddish daily newspaper Der Tog. At the other end of the artistic spectrum, he spent three seasons (1946–49) at Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theater, where he composed music for such literary plays as Hershele ostropoler, Isaac Leyb [Yitskhoh Leyb/Leybush] Peretz’s Dray matones, and Shalom Aleichem’s Blondzhende shtern.
No consideration of Rumshinsky’s career can bypass his mutually fruitful association for more than thirty years with the adored American-born comedic actress, singer, comedienne, film star, and writer of many of her own songs for the Yiddish stage, Molly Picon [Margaret Pyckoon] (1898–1992), for whom he wrote many scores. Ironically, Rumshinsky first encountered her in 1921 on a trip to Europe, where her “discoverer,” manager, and newly wed husband, Yiddish actor and producer Jacob [Yankl] Kalich, had taken her for the ostensible purpose of honing and naturalizing her Yiddish diction and fluency.
Kalich had created a musical play for his new wife, called Yankele, which Rumshinsky happened to see in Łódz and which would become one of Picon’s signature vehicles for decades. Rumshinsky claimed, without being perturbed, that the production was partly a patchwork of versions of his own songs, which he had written “over the years” and by that time had transcended their authorship. He was mightily impressed with the young newcomer to the Yiddish stage, but he also discovered the soubrette Mathilda St. Claire, whom he brought back to New York to star in Yiddish operettas. By the time Molly Picon and Kalich returned to the United States in 1923, however, Rumshinsky had determined to make her his protégée and to champion her career as well, since he realized that her refreshing youthfulness, her impish stage presence, her warm immediacy, and her spirited voice would make her ideal for lead roles in the lighter fare he was planning and producing. He introduced her to Second Avenue in a reworked production of Yankele, which inaugurated her long-running career in Yiddish theaters throughout America and abroad, later including Broadway and Hollywood as well. It was not long before the three—Picon, Rumshinsky, and Kalich—were a recognized team, to which a 1931 New York Times article referred as “the Three Musketeers of the East Side.”
Like the other three composers of the Second Avenue “big four,” Rumshinsky never abandoned entirely his sacred music roots and his youthful cantorial exposure, and he composed a number of enduring liturgical pieces once he was firmly established in the theater. In 1926 he conducted the more than 100-voice chorus of the Jewish Ministers Cantors Association—the Hazzanim Farband Chor—in a premiere of his biblically based cantata, Oz yashir, at their concert at New York’s Mecca Temple (now City Center), along with an orchestral fantasy on liturgical melodies. And the Farband’s 1931 concert featured three of his major synagogue settings: Al tira, Min hametzar, and his best-known cantorial-choral work, Shma koleinu, which remains in the standard traditional Yom Kippur repertory.
In 1931, the Yiddish theater world celebrated Rumshinsky’s fiftieth birthday with a gala concert and banquet and with the publication of a festschrift titled Rumshinsky bukh—an honor accorded to no other composer in that milieu before or since. The Rumshinsky bukh contained numerous testimonial articles and messages by colleagues as well as by critics. Maurice Schwartz, the advocate of art theater, nonetheless congratulated Rumshinsky on not being “ashamed to write for ‘the people,’ ” and conductor Edwin Franko Goldman dubbed him “the second Victor Herbert”—a “sort of Victor Herbert with a yarmulke,” as Isaac Goldberg added. And Abe Cahan, editor of the Forverts, the largest circulating Yiddish daily newspaper, placed Rumshinsky squarely in the pantheon of such theatrical pillars as Goldfaden, Adler, Kessler, and Jacob Gordin.
There were also critical assessments that lamented the commercial practicalities of public demand that had prevented Rumshinsky from rising above mass entertainment and further realizing his artistic aims for Yiddish musical theater. For despite his advancements in terms of musical continuity, in the end most of the books, plays, and librettos for his successful scores were not of much higher quality than those of his contemporaries, and they continued to contain some of the same clichés, vaudeville residues, and other weaknesses that he had criticized from the beginning. However, Jacob Shatzky, an intellectual with no predisposition to forgive diluted standards, praised him for his vision, his initial quest for worthy librettos, and his cosmopolitanism “even when depicting [musically] a kleyn shtetl (small town) story” with kleyn shtetl—folk-oriented—sensibilities.
In the 1940s Rumshinsky completed an opera, Ruth, based on the biblical story and written entirely in Hebrew. Some of those closest to him maintained after his death that he had considered it his most important work. That it was never performed (and has not been performed or recorded to this day), despite a planned production in Israel and another in Los Angeles—neither of which materialized—was a source of personal disappointment for him.
Rumshinsky’s final show was Wedding March, which was in the midst of its run at the time of his death. He had also been in discussion about an English musical comedy in collaboration with Julie Berns.