A Multi-part Exhibition on the American Yiddish Theater
Part 3: Joseph Rumshinsky
This is part three of a multi-part exhibit on the American Yiddish Theater.
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.
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.
Of all the composers who shaped the American Yiddish theater, Joseph Rumshinsky can’t lay claim to a great deal of major firsts. Secunda had the biggest crossover success with Bay mir bistu sheyn, Olshanetsky was the first musical director at the storied Concord Hotel in the Catskills, and Ellstein had an opera produced by City Opera. Though he had no major breakout hits and left behind an opera he never got to stage, Rumshinsky’s influence on Yiddish theater in America was widespread and far-reaching. And given that he was the first of the “big four” on the scene, it’s hard to imagine Yiddish theater becoming what did without him.
Rumshinsky was born near Vilna in 1881 to an amateur voice teacher mother and a father who worked as a hatter. He later recalled that his father’s shop reverberated with labor-oriented and other Yiddish songs. That his talent and motivation were substantial is attested to by a nickname he acquired as a young piano student: Yoshke der notnfresser (little Joseph the note-devourer). He also worked as a m’shorer (cantor’s choral assistant) in Vilna, singing in the choir of cantor Abraham Moshe Bernstein (1866–1932) at the Taharat Hakodesh Synagogue.
It was on tour as a chorister in the Pale of Settlement that Rumshinsky first encountered, and was immediately attracted to, Yiddish theater. After seeing a production of Goldfaden’s Shulamis, he joined the Kaminski theater troupe, first as a chorister and later as a conductor. He was only seventeen years old when he conducted a full-scale production of Goldfaden’s Bar Kokhba. In the following few years a series of events landed the young musician in the milieu in which he would seek to exact his influence. After brief stints in Łódz and London, Rumshinsky arrived in New York in 1904. His initial assessment of the Yiddish theatrical fare he encountered in was that it was “elevated vaudeville.” His chief aim was to transform it into something along the lines of operetta—light and accessible but artistically sound.
After a year in Boston at the Hope Theater, Jacob P. Adler hired Rumshinsky for the 1908–09 season at the Windsor Theater in New York, providing the composer/conductor with the foothold in the New York scene he had been seeking. After working in several other Second Avenue venues, Rumshinsky began a professional partnership with Boris Thomashefsky that would last three years and provide him with the opportunity to put in place many of the innovations he had long wanted. For Tsubrokhene fidl at the National Theatre that season, he added a professional dance corps, a chorus line, and full pit orchestra of twenty-four professional musicians. 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!”
In 1920, Rumshinsky produced his first show at the Second Avenue Theater, Dem rebns nign (The Rabbi’s Melody). Actor Seymour Rechtzeit recalled getting hired to replace Ludwig Satz for the show’s second season:
By the mid-1920’s, Rumshinksy’s position as the de facto musical dean of Second Avenue was undisputed. In the succeeding years, he wrote, produced, and conducted an unprecedented number of shows. In the 1930s, he began working in radio and became music director of the only Yiddish program broadcast on a nationwide network, The Jewish Hour, sponsored by the Yiddish daily newspaper Der Tog. Toward the end of his career, he worked for three years in the more highbrow literary realm of Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theater, composing music for plays by Shalom Aleichem and Isaac Leyb Peretz.
In addition to the 1939 “crowded to capacity” concert mentioned above, Rumshinsky’s fiftieth birthday was celebrated 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 evening featured performances of songs from several of Rumshinsky’s theatrical productions, as well as some of his liturgical settings performed by the Synagogue Choir Union and the Cantor’s Association of America.
In the 1940s Rumshinsky completed an opera based on the biblical story of Ruth 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, despite planned productions in Israel and Los Angeles, was a source of personal disappointment for him. His final show, The Wedding March, finished a successful season at the Second Avenue Theater just hours before his death in 1956. An obituary that appeared in the New York Times credited Rumshinsky with having composed more than 100 operettas. One of those shows, The Golden Bride (featured below), was revived to significant acclaim by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene in 2015.
The musical comedy Fishl der gerotener (Fishl the Successful One), which featured Rumshinsky and Isidore Lillian’s Dir a "nikl," mir a "nikl" (A Nickel for You, and a Nickel for Me), opened at the Yiddish Folksteater in 1935. A farcical, lightweight burlesque show, it appears to have been tailor-made for the signature talents of Menashe Skulnik (1892–1970), one of the Yiddish stage’s most legendary actors. The title of the show is deliberately facetious, for far from being successful, Fishl is the quintessential luckless fool, a shlimazl—a role Skulnik played to perfection in countless shows during his long career.
In the show, Fishl and his boyhood friend Berele have immigrated to New York from their hometown in Poland. During the seventeen years since his arrival, Berele has become a successful photographer and has changed his name to Bernard. Shlimazl that he is, Fishl has not found success and is working as a streetcar conductor.
Fishl sings Dir a nikl midway through the first act, when he appears in a streetcar conductor’s uniform and explains his unique approach to the job: “I’ve noticed the company already has lots and lots of nickels, so I’ve decided that I’ll split things with them evenly.”
During the first year of Rumshinsky’s partnership with Boris Thomashefsky at the National Theater, he produced a four-act musical comedy titled Up-to’un un da’un-to’un (Uptown-Downtown), about a frequently unemployed and struggling New York cabinetmaker who becomes wealthy overnight. Thomashefsky adapted the libretto for the show. Louis Gilrod provided lyrics for the song Fifty-fifty, a comedic expression of the socialist notion of workers seizing the means of production.
The plot of the show suggests a Jewish version of Horatio Alger in its familiar Second Avenue mold of a poor Lower East Side immigrant becoming rich in the “land of opportunity” and then aspiring to a life in high society. But it also bears a social message consistent with historical Jewish values. The show ends with the family moving back downtown, rejecting the superficial mores to which they had ascribed as uptown folk, and the cabinetmaker ultimately finds true happiness through helping and accepting others.
Fifty-fifty lived on far past the life of the stage production. It became a frequently performed number by entertainers in vaudeville routines, music hall revues, and the like. It is in that guise that the song achieved its greatest popularity, and in which it has therefore been recorded for the Milken Archive.
Joseph Rumshinsky's Fifty-fifty.
Meanwhile, Goldele is convinced that her mother is still alive and, mildly suggestive of mythical prenuptial contests, announces that she will marry the one man who can find and bring her mother to her. Since she is now a woman of means, she will spare no expense.
Acts II and III are set in New York a year later in Goldele’s lavish home. When she receives a letter from Misha telling her that he is about to board ship for America but has been unsuccessful in finding her mother—and therefore knows that he has lost Goldele forever—she weeps and reiterates her love for him, but adheres to her vow. In a scene worthy of Italian opera at its grandest, Goldele organizes a masked ball, and each eligible male guest is challenged to bring her mother. In a farcical parade, each of her many suitors brings a woman either claiming to be Goldele’s mother—assuming that the passage of years would cloud physical recognition—or truly hoping to find a long-lost daughter.
Disguised in a mask, Misha arrives to bring “regards from Misha,” and he sings a song of hope couched in a Zionist reference: “Palestine, our land . . . may the sh’khina (God’s feminine manifestation, or presence) rest on her; Land of Israel, one day I will see it again.” He and Goldele chat, and she asks if he can tell her anything that might relieve her pain. Telling her that Misha has sent along a song, he begins echoing Mayn goldele, and she soon joins him as in the original duet. In a climactic moment worthy of Verdi, Goldele’s mother appears, heavily disguised and masked as an elegant grande dame. She reveals her identity and—points at the disguised Misha, acknowledging that it is he who has found and brought her. Before the curtain falls, Misha triumphantly unmasks himself.
Joseph Rumshinsky's Mayne-goldele.
OYB S'IZ GEVEN GUT FAR MAYN MAME, IZ GUT FAR MIR
Oyb s'iz geven gut far mayn mamen, iz gut far mir (If It Was Good Enough for My Mother, It's Good Enough for Me), with lyrics by Molly Picon, is from Rumshinsky’s 1927 musical comedy to a book by Meyer Schwartz, Dos mamele—“Kid Mother” (lit., the little mother), which became one of Picon’s most famous and most enduring roles. The show was also the prototype for the 1930s film Mamele, based on a similar story with essentially the same theme, but with a new score by Abraham Ellstein (featured in Part 1 of this series). But where the film was set in Poland, the action of Rumshinsky’s show takes place in the United States.
Molly Picon’s leading lady character, Ida, or Khaye Feygl, is the youngest of three sisters, and she has two brothers. Their mother has died and Khaye has stepped in to assume her role. But neither her siblings nor her father appreciate her devotion and sacrifice. When her sister Gertie’s “gentleman caller,” Sidney, invites her to spend a weekend with him at a country house he has rented with friends, Khaye tries unsuccessfully to persuade the oldest sister, Selma, to accompany them as a chaperone. Intent on looking after Gertie’s welfare, Khaye insists that if necessary, she will go along with Gertie and Sidney. At that, the family mocks her, reminding her of the impossibility of her going to a weekend party with no fashionable clothes to wear (she apparently has made do with their mother’s old clothes). “Oy, mame, what a bunch you left me to look after; but I’m not complaining!” Khaye exclaims, as that line—according to indications in the script—leads into her first rendition of the song Oyb s’iz geven gut. “I can look after my sister in these clothes, too; I’m not embarrassed by them,” she adds after singing the song, which is repeated before the end of the first act.
Photo Credit: Trio Press
Meanwhile, Khaye has developed romantic feelings for a man named Louis—identified in the cast list of the program booklet as a “modern cantor.” After a series of events, Louis suggests that he and Khaye leave together for a while, so that her family will realize how lost they are without her. The strategy works, and, before long, she receives word from home that the household is falling apart and she must return to save it.
In the final act, Khaye returns home with Louis. The entire family welcomes them, having learned its lesson, and she assures them that a good future awaits them all. At or toward the end of the show, Oyb s’iz geven gut is repeated, apparently as a finale.
Joseph Rumshinsky's Oyb s'iz geven gut far mayne mame.
One of the most successful products of Rumshinsky’s partnership with Thomashefsky was the 1918 show Di khaznte (The Cantor’s Wife). Included in that production was a heart-rending, emotional plea for divine assistance that references the incipit shma yisro’el, the beginning of the credo affirming God’s unity. With lyrics by Thomashefsky, this expression of love and desparation reflects the not uncommon appearance of religious themes in Yiddish theatrical productions.
Di khaznte was one of Rumshinsky and Thomashefsky’s most successful shows, enjoying several successful runs in the decades following its premiere. It was later revised and translated into English by Thomashefsky’s son and presented on Broadway at the Selwyn Theater. Despite its substantial plot and character revisions, it is generally considered one of the first—if not the first—Yiddish musicals to be presented in English on a Broadway stage. Which is, after all, a kind of first Rumshinsky can lay claim to, but paltry in comparison to the broader impact he had on the history and development of American Yiddish theater.
Liner notes by Neil W. Levin
Exhibit curated by Jeff Janeczko
Heskes, Irene. 1984. “Music as Social History: American Yiddish Theater Music, 1882–1920.” American Music 2(4): 73–87.
Sandrow, Nahma. 1996. Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater. Syracuse University Press.
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