Among the “Big Four” composers of Second Avenue Yiddish Theater, Alexander Olshanetsky had the longest name, but unfortunately the shortest life. Born in Odessa in 1892, Olshanetsky showed musical promise early, singing in synagogue choirs and beginning violin lessons at age six. He went on to join and tour with the Odessa Opera orchestra and later became the choral director for a Russian operetta company. While serving as a bandmaster in the Russian army, he encountered a Yiddish theater troupe run by Peretz Sandler in Kharbin in northeastern China. When Sandler left for the United States, Olshanetsky took his place.
What was a Yiddish theater troupe doing in northeastern China? Long story short, when the Russian government wanted to build the Trans-Siberian railroad they leased land from China for the route’s final leg. Eager to establish an economic foothold in the region, the Czar offered Jews the opportunity live there free of the restrictions that they had to endure elsewhere in Russia. Between 1899 and 1913, the Jewish population of Kharbin grew to 13,000. Included among their ranks were the parents and grandparents of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. (Read more on the history of Jews in Harbin in the Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora, 2009.)
In search of a good home, Olshanetsky immigrated to the U.S. in 1922, where his uncle (and future father-in-law when he married his cousin) Hyman Meisel lived. In short order he became a sought-after figure on the Yiddish theater scene. His shows played in virtually every theater on Second Avenue and his musical prowess was much recognized. Among the big four, Milken Archive artistic director Neil W. Levin credits Olshanetsky with having the greatest gift for melody, and some of the most sophisticated cantors of the time considered him one of the best choirmasters and lauded his ability to write for the idiosyncracies of the cantorial voice. In a Milken Archive exclusive interview veteran performer Freydele Oysher said in reference to Olshanetsky’s conducting: “He had a fire; he had a soul. He was the kind of man I like to have in the [orchestra] pit.”
Olshanetsky also became the first musical director at the famed Concord Hotel in the Catskills Mountains north of New York City, a post he held for only one year due to his untimely death in 1946. As detailed in part two of our Summer Stock series, Sholom Secunda assumed that position and held it for 28 years.
Olshanetsky wrote the song A gute heym (A Good Home) for the 1926 show In gortn fun libe (In the Garden of Love), a comedy about an arranged or financially driven marriage that is averted by true love that featured Olshanetsky’s wife in the lead female role. Sung here by the late tenor and cantor Robert Bloch, the song extols the values of a good home and solid family.
The show titled Der letster tants, or The Last Dance, starred Olshanetsky’s wife, Bella Meisel, and featured a song for which she wrote the lyrics. The plot of Der letster tants concerns an elderly father who has specified in his will that his daughter must be married in order to become the recipient of her inheritance. The daughter thus arranges a marriage with a falsely convicted felon named Mischa, who’s awaiting execution at Sing Sing prison and accepts the proposition in order to be able to leave some money to his sister. According to Neil W. Levin, the plot follows a totally predictable and common scenario. I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice it to say that the two actually fall in love. You can find out the rest here if you want.
Glik (Happiness) is a somber and touching song about the bittersweet irony of the two finding each other on the eve of his death. Though sung as a duet in the show, it became a signature stand-alone song for Michael Michalesko, who played Mischa in Der letster tants. It is sung here in that solo version by Robert Abelson, accompanied by the Vienna Chamber Orchestra.
But perhaps Olshanetsky’s most enduring song is Ikh hob dikh tsufil lib (I Love You Too Much) from the show Der katerinshtshik (The Organ-grinder), that opened the 1933–34 season at Kessler’s Second Avenue Theater. The plot of the show involves something of a love quadrangle that Neil Levin has unraveled far better than I could. But it should pique your interest to know that it involves mistaken identity, intermarriage, kidnapping, tarot cards, organ-grinders, stereotyped Gypsies (Roma), a rebbe, and more.
Ikh hob dikh tsufil lib expresses the sentiment of a woman who loves a man too much to interfere with his pursuit of true love with another woman. It was sung in the original production by Luba Kadison (1906–2006), a highly regarded actress in serious Yiddish theater who until this time had not been involved in any Second Avenue productions, who played the role of a tarot card reader named Masha.
Ikh hob dikh tsufil lib was later recorded in an English version by Bob Zurke and his Delta Rhythm Band, and subsequently by Gene Krupa, Ella Fitzgerald, Jan Peerce (in the original Yiddish version), Connie Francis, Dean Martin, and others. Carlos Santana’s instrumental cover follows below.
At a memorial tribute at the Concord Hotel following his death, a large banner read: "Olshy, we loved you too much!"
About Summer Stock: For many in the theater business, summer means work. From Shakespeare in the Park to opera under the stars, summer stock theater companies lure committed patrons and newbies alike through the enticement of fresh air, picnic dinners, and the possibility of getting caught in the rain. In recognition of the summer theater season, over the course of June and July the Milken Archive will highlight songs, performers, and composers from the heyday of the American Yiddish theater. Our summer stock will only be happening online—but if you want to enjoy it in the park or under the stars, grab a mobile device and your headphones and head outside!