Dir a "nikl," mir a "nikl"
A Nickel for You, a Nickel for Me
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The zany musical comedy in two acts and a prologue to a book by Louis Freiman, Fishl der gerotener (Fishl the Successful One), which featured Rumshinsky and Isidore Lillian’s puckish song Dir a "nikl," mir a "nikl" (A Nickel for You, and a Nickel for Me), opened at the Yiddish Folksteater in 1935. It was an admittedly silly, farcical, and lightweight burlesque (even by Second Avenue standards), with all the signs of having been conceived as a vehicle for the signature talents and stage shtik of its well-tested star—Menashe Skulnik (1892–1970), one of the greatest, funniest, and most original comic character actors and singers in the history of Yiddish theater and popular entertainment.
The title of the show is deliberately facetious, for far from being successful, Fishl is the quintessential luckless, impractical, and meek victim of circumstances, and sometimes an outright fool, known in Yiddish as a shlimazl—a role Skulnik played to perfection in countless shows during his long career. Press previews for the season even gave the English title as Fishl the Perfect, adding to the mockery, although the actual production was eventually called, simply, Fishl.
Fishl and his boyhood friend Berele, who has become Bernard in America, have immigrated to New York from their hometown in Poland. During the seventeen years since his arrival, Bernard has become a successful photographer, and he is engaged to Alice. Fishl, however, is a streetcar conductor (to whom passengers pay their fare upon boarding). In a comic moment, poking fun nonetheless at a serious topical political issue, he tells of his court appearance for citizenship. When the judge quizzed him on his awareness of American government by asking the name of the First Lady, Fishl replied—instead of Eleanor Roosevelt—that “there is no First Lady, since the First Lady used to be the Statue of Liberty; but ever since America closed its doors to immigrants, the First Lady has died.”
Bernard’s sister Teme becomes interested in Fishl. But he has not forgotten his childhood attraction to Fanytshke, who told him that she loved him when she was eight years old, and he sends for her. In this connection the audience is treated to a variant on a stock comic device of false or manipulated photographic identity, which is found in numerous plays, skits, and shows—most notably Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella (1957)—and even up through 1950s American television (in shows such as Sergeant Bilko, for example). Fani has asked him to send a photograph of himself, since she has not seen him since childhood. But he is uneasy about his appearance and clothing (even though, in those days, photographers routinely hired out suits and various regalia for just such purposes or to reassure parents in Europe that their children were doing well). Fishl sends a picture of Bernard instead, claiming it is of himself. Even when Fani arrives, he asks Bernard to exchange identities for a while, which seems safe since Bernard already has a fiancée. As any audience could guess, Fani proceeds to fall in love with the real Bernard, romantically thinking he is the Fishl of her childhood; and she shuns the disguised real Fishl, since she never liked Bernard when he was little Berele in Poland.
At a summer resort hotel in the district north of New York City known as the Catskill Mountains (usually the foothills region, later known as the Borscht Belt), which is managed by Alice together with her father, Fani’s brother Hershl arrives as one of the entertainers for a Fourth of July program. He and Alice become attracted to each other despite her engagement to Bernard, and they are “in love” in short order. But this is no calamity for the real Bernard, who arrives with Fani. Still pretending to be Fishl, he has gradually fallen in love with her, returning what she thinks are her feelings for Fishl. Meanwhile, the real Fishl happens to have a summer job as a bellboy at a nearby hotel, and when he comes on the scene for a visit, he and Bernard finally give up the gag and explain everything to Fani. She is so furious that she will have neither of them—preferring, if necessary, to remain unmarried. But Fishl, realizing that he can never have her love, convinces her to follow her heart and forgive and marry Bernard. He disappears, and shortly afterward his clothing and a suicide note are found near a lake. Shlimazl that he is, however, he chose a lake too shallow for drowning and survived his attempt. In the end, he marries Teme; Bernard and Fani marry; and Alice and Hershl pursue their romance. Everyone is content. The audience, even happier, can—after the ovation and cheers that always followed a Menashe Skulnik performance—now proceed to the various Romanian, Gypsy, and Russian restaurants and cafés in the area for a glass of tea or something stronger, maybe with some stuffed cabbage or an old-fashioned Romanian skirt steak—and perhaps some live tsimbalum music.
Fishl sings Dir a nikl midway through the first act, when he appears in a streetcar conductor’s uniform and explains the nature of his job. Other songs from the show that became popular were I Like Soup, also sung by Skulnik, which also transcended Second Avenue as a household expression; the slightly risqué S’heybt zikh on mit dir, un es lost zikh oys mit dir (It Begins and Ends with You); and Dos zelbe fun dir tsu heren, a comic “letter song” with the message: “I’m sending this little letter to you. I’m sick, alone, without a penny, and being sued; and I hope to hear the same from you.”