|A malke af pesekh
Although it exudes the spirit of the vaudeville stage and music hall, Louis Gilrod’s A malke af peysekh (A Queen for Passover) was one of the numbers in the musical comedy Tants, gezang un vayn (Dance, Song and Wine), with a book by Harry Kalmanovitsh. It first played in 1922 at the Thomashefsky Theater in New York, with Aaron Lebedeff (who played the lead role and also sang this song), Bessie Wiseman (his wife), and Boris Thomashevsky himself. More than one songwriter had a hand in the show (with respect to both lyrics and music), which appears to have featured an especially large amount of music. Most of the music, however, was composed by Joseph Cherniavsky (1895–1959), originally a serious classical musician who had come to New York a few years earlier as a member of the Zimro Ensemble—an artistic Zionist-affiliated group that had been on a concert tour from Russia en route to Palestine. He remained in New York and soon became deeply involved in the theater as well as in vaudeville, in which he pioneered a purported fusion of popular Jewish music and jazz—his brand of “Jewish jazz”—by establishing Joseph Cherniavsky’s Yiddish American Jazz Band and bringing it on the vaudeville circuit.
Our information is too sketchy to know whether or not A malke af peysekh was written expressly for this show. Second Avenue was not always guided by artistic integrity, and insertions of independently written songs were motivated by various factors: a guaranteed ovation, the need to fill or liven up a lagging spot, or a song’s association with a particular cast member. Lebedeff’s performances, for example, are known to have elicited cheering demands from audiences that he sing one of his famous hit songs on the spot, even if there was no connection to the production in progress; and pit orchestras were often supplied in advance with those instrumental parts as a contingency. While A malke af peysekh was indeed one of Lebedeff’s renditions in this show, and souvenir copies of its printed folios were sold at the theater, there is no reference to it in any of the located scripts. How indelibly wedded this song was to Tants, gezang un vayn—especially for later productions—is therefore uncertain.
“It is difficult really to say what the show is about,” commented Abraham Cahan, the longtime editor of the Forverts (at its peak the most widely circulated of the several Yiddish daily newspapers in America). Certainly, Passover plays no part in this loosely pasted mélange of scenes and numbers. There is, however, ample content related to marriage, including the usual array of both stereotypical jokes and jibes from the male perspective. The Passover seder provides the backdrop to the singer’s ode to marriage and the benefit a wife would bring him as his “queen” at the festive table, completing for him the status of king in the household that tradition accords him at the seder. But the second strophe, in which he feels tricked into having to take in her two previously concealed children, is consistent with similar humor elsewhere in the show. A malke af peysekh was probably one of several “couplet songs” in the show. The publishers sought further mileage from its seder setting by subtitling it “A Passover Song” (actually “An Easter Song,” since immigrant-era Jews in that milieu commonly confused Easter with a proper translation of pesaḥ, sometimes identifying it as “Jewish Easter”).
By: Neil W. Levin
Passover is a joyous time;
the Jew is then a king.
He sits with his queen all adorned.
At the seder table along with the kharoysies [sweet ritual condiment]
and the four cups of wine.
The queen lifts the washbasin to him in his “royal” chair.
This king is so happy with his world.
He smiles at his queen, and he beams.
He who has a queen on Passover,
is happy and joyful, that I know.
A queen like a doll,
with her little princesses
in their holyday finery,
with matza cakes and with matza balls—
a queen on Passover is the best thing.
Listen to this story—to what happened
to a cousin of mine.
Hear just what kind of luck he had;
Oy, what a mess.
He’d had enough of being single,
so he bought a wedding ring
and married a beautiful girl.
He fixed up a flat
with a bed and a table, and prepared a luncheon.
And this happened just before Passover.
The next day after the wedding, listen to this,
she shows up with twins from her first husband.
Oy, now he has a queen on Passover, all right.
He’s suffering and is in pain, that much I know.
A queen like a doll
with her little princesses!
Now he has a problem with her,
and he asks her, “What’s going on here?"
A queen on Passover, now, what do you think of that?
peysekh tsayt iz frelekh,
der yid iz dan a meylekh,
er zitst zikh mit zayn malke,
oysgeputst gants ne
baym seder mit kharoyses,
mit vayn, mit arbe koyses,
di malke heybt di shisl afn he’sebet.
gliklekh iz der meylekh af der velt.
er shmeykhlt tsu der malke un er kvelt.
ver s’hot a malke af peysekh,
dem iz voyl un gut, dos veys ikh.
a malke vi a lalke,
mit kleyne printselekh
mit yontefdike kleydelkh,
un mit khremslekh un mit kneydlekh.
a malke af peysekh iz di beste zakh.
nu, hert zikh a mayse
vos hot pasirt mit mayns a kuzin.
hert vos far a mazl er hot,
a brukhe iz tsu mayne yorn…
genug gevezn single,
gekoyft a "marriage" ringl.
gegangen tsu der khupe mit a meydl sheyn.
zikh ayngefikst a fletl,
a tish, a "lunch," a betl.
un punkt af erev-peysekh iz take dos geven.
af morgn tzu der khupe, hert zikh ayn,
brengt zi im a tsviling fun ir ershter man.
oy! hot er a malke af peysekh
s’iz im vind un vey, dos veys ikh.
a malke vi a lalke,
mit kleyne printselekh
er hot tsu ir a tayne
un er fregt zi, “ma nishtane?”
a malke af peysekh vi gefel dos aykh?
Composer: Louis Gilrod
Genre: Yiddish Theater
Bruce Adler, Tenor;
Barcelona Symphony-National Orchestra of Catalonia;
Elli Jaffe, Conductor
Date Recorded: 06/15/2001
Venue: Sala Sinfonica del Auditori (A), Barcelona, Spain
Engineer: Hughes, Campbell
Assistant Engineer: Kornacher, Bertram
Assistant Engineer: Weir, Simon
Project Manager: Schwendener, Paul
Arranger/Orchestrator: Patrick Russ
Yiddish Translations/Transliterations: Eliyahu Mishulovin & Adam J. Levitin
Arrangement © Milken Family Foundation