Number 55
Fall 2007 / 5768

Do You Know What Time it Isn't?

Zuni Maud: Yiddish Bohemian

It’s a breezy, late September day in Warsaw, 1929. There is a stranger in the chess room at the Literatn fareyn, the Jewish Literary Union at Tlomatski 13 – a short, swarthy man chain-smoking and wearing a curly wool coat so long that its hem touches the floor. He has an odd look on his face, somewhere between anger and sadness. His fingers are rough and stained with ink. Without uttering a word, he has managed to beat everyone in the room at chess. The Union’s housekeeper approaches several times to ask who he is and what he’s doing there, but he doesn’t answer. Instead, he growls at her like a bear, she says. Frightened, she runs to the Union’s secretary, Meylekh Ravitsh, who jumps up and says, “Aha! That has to be Zuni Maud! He should have been here days ago.” Ravitsh hurries to greet him, the “American,” who had come to Warsaw to present the puppet theater he created along with fellow artist Yosl Cutler.

Zuni Maud (1891-1956) was one of the most creative personalities in the Yiddish culture of his time. An artist, writer, and performer, Maud illustrated dozens of Yiddish books and periodicals, his calligraphy graces the covers of hundreds of book covers and title pages, he painted and built sets for the Yiddish theater, drew cartoons in multiple Yiddish periodicals, and founded the only professional Yiddish puppet theater in America. A uniquely Yiddish bohemian, Maud had unusually close working and personal relationships with major Yiddish literary figures in the United States and Europe.

As a child growing up in the shtetl of Vashlikov, a shtetl near Bialystok, Maud’s interest in drawing was seen more as a detriment than an advantage. In his khadorem and yeshivas, he became known for “illustrating” mishnayes, stories of the Mishna, which earned him threats and occasional beatings from his rabbi-teachers. It got worse when he began to whittle characters and designs into the tables and shtenders. As a result, he had to switch yeshivas at least four times before turning 15. In spite of his obstreperous nature and inability to stop drawing, Maud forged a connection with Jewish tradition that informed his work for the rest of his life.

He arrived in America in 1905 as 16-year-old Yitzhok Moyed and became Isaac Maud at Ellis Island. After working as a delivery boy on the Lower East Side, where he was constantly called “sonny,” he kept the name, Yiddishizing it to “Zuni.” Among the many jobs he held as an immigrant kid in New York City were cigar roller, errand boy, and jack-of-all-trades in clothing sweatshops. Zuni never kept these jobs for long, since his real interest was in the arts. He attended night classes at the National Academy of Art, Cooper Union, and the Ferrer School, which were packed with other eager young immigrants.

By all accounts, Zuni Maud was extremely bright, quick-witted, and cruelly funny with a deep sense of the absurd. He also appears to have had a deeply melancholic side, which imposed itself on much of the art that he produced. In spite of his morose nature, his deadpan sense of humor, delivered stone-faced in his deep bass voice, cracked up his colleagues. Gershn Einbinder recounts how denizens of the Yiddish literary hangout Café Europa were robbed at gunpoint in a holdup that netted $4.50. Zuni was the first to comment: “Yiddish literature in America is of no value even for holdupniks! People come in and threaten you with your life and what do they come away with? Nothing! Now even thieves in America will avoid Yiddish literature! They’ll say, bums, losers, derelicts – tfu!” This was the kind of self-deprecating gallows humor that his literary colleagues loved.

Maud drew the cover illustration for the small journal Di yugend, “The Youth,” the 1907 literary debut of a group of dilettantes dubbed Di yunge, The Young Ones, by the mainstream Yiddish press. The group included Mani Leib (Brahinsky), Moyshe Leyb Halpern, Yosef Opatoshu, Ruvn Ayzland, Y. Y. Shvartz, and Isaac Raboy, among others. Collectively they represented the interests of a younger generation of Yiddish writers who wanted to break away from the sweatshop and labor-oriented poetry of Morris Rosenfeld and Dovid Edelshtadt. Shortly thereafter, two more popularly oriented journals appeared, Der kibitzer and Der groyser kundes (see Pakn Treger, Spring 2005), whose mission became to satirically attack the Yiddish press and other Jewish institutions in prose, verse, and image.

Zuni Maud was one of the early staff cartoonists at the Kibitzer and later at the Kundes. At these magazines he began to hone his skills as a visual satirist, launching his career as one of the most published cartoonists in the history of the Yiddish press. His cartoons and drawings can be found in the Kibitzer, the Kundes, Forverts, Di tsayt, Der hamer, Morgn Frayhayt, Kanader odler, and dozens of other smaller literary and political journals. His artistic output provides a fascinating though heavily editorialized look into American Jewish life and reflects his love of the absurd, his interest in modernism, and his deep connection to the Jewish past.

Attempting to mimic the popular “funny pages” of the English-language American press, the Forverts hired Maud to redesign the humor section of its newly expanded Sunday edition in 1916. He created Dos shtif kind, “The Stepchild,” a full page of cartoons, humorous stories, jokes, and anecdotes. The page, seen by hundreds of thousands of readers each week, had some of the most artistic and complex cartoons in the Yiddish press, all created by Maud. In 1920 Maud quit to work at Di tsayt, a short-lived but memorable Labor Zionist daily. It was in Di tsayt that he created “Charlie Howyadoin’,” a vaguely autobiographical work about a Yiddish bohemian on the Lower East Side. When Di tsayt collapsed in 1921, the peripatetic Maud hopped right back to the Kundes.   

In 1922, at the behest of satirist Moyshe Nadir, the Kundes hired one Yosl Cutler, another innovative young artist. He and Zuni Maud became fast friends. They opened a studio together in Union Square where they sold unusually painted furniture, knick-knacks, and drawings. Maud and Cutler were seen as a kind of inseparable Mutt-and-Jeff team who lived together, worked together, and were outrageous together. Two jokers, they were known to quickly sketch diners in restaurants in unflattering caricatures and hand them off as they left. They also drew on everything, from ceilings to floors and everything in between, and were known for frequently drawing pairs of hands on chair seats that would seem to grab people’s rear ends as they sat down.

Literary reminiscences describe the team of Zuni Maud and Yosl Cutler as best friends and polar opposites. Poet Meylekh Ravitsh recalled, “Truly, if there was anyone who ever doubted that a pair is prearranged in heaven, he should take a look at Zuni Maud and Yosl Cutler. Such an artistic duo, each complementing the other so wonderfully, is truly a rarity in this world. Maud is short – Cutler is tall; Maud has a deep bass, a murky, dark bass; Cutler has a bright, cheeky, boyish tenor; Maud is full of Jewish folkloric tradition, Cutler is an expressionist – but when they’re together there is no contrast whatsoever.”

Their reputation grew. In 1924, Yiddish Art Theatre director Maurice Schwartz hired Maud and Cutler to design the set for his upcoming production of Avrom Goldfaden’s Di kishef-makherin (The Sorceress). At the time, puppetry was undergoing a renaissance in New York, and Schwartz requested marionettes for the show. The pair created two somewhat bizarre Jewish characters, which were rejected as too small to be seen from the seats of a big theater.

Unfazed, Maud and Cutler practiced “shtik” with the puppets back in their studio and began taking their
creations to literary cafés and to parties, where the Yiddish-speaking puppets were a hit. A year later the two rented a second-floor space on 12th Street and 2nd Avenue, a former children’s clothing factory near the Yiddish theater district. They set up a puppet stage, brought in some wooden benches, and left the cutting tables in place to provide some local sweatshop flavor. Tickets were sold around the corner at Moyshe Nadir’s “Communist Café” (where you could get a glezl tey, a glass of tea, at “proletarian prices”).

They named their theater Modicut, after themselves. Lower East Siders packed the little 150-seat theater for nine shows weekly throughout 1926 and 1927, and even the usually cantankerous theater critics of the Yiddish press were impressed. When Modicut’s landlord, at the end of 1926, took them to court to try to get them evicted, Zuni and Yosl showed up in the courtroom with their gear and had their puppets plead their case, which so impressed the Irish judge that he proposed establishing a private Modicut Club, thus avoiding the illegality of operating the rented space as a public theater.

In their Modicut plays, Zuni and Yosl brought Groyser kundes caricatures to life by fusing fantasy, satire, politics, and Jewish tradition. Though puppets were not part of Jewish tradition, Maud and Cutler adapted the genre by featuring Jewish folk themes and characters. The exaggerated faces of their puppets leaned to the grotesque, and Modicut’s sets later tended toward the surreal, which led to many comparisons with Chagall. Their repertoire included original plays, Purim-shpiln composed in rhyming couplets, and parodies of S. Anski’s The Dybbuk.

Modicut’s audience, culled mostly from the millions of Yiddish speakers in the New York area, found the theater’s combination of literary parody, social satire, and slapstick engaging and hilarious. The two toured Jewish communities in the United States and Canada to great acclaim. During the summers, they worked at Zumeray, a Poconos resort that belonged to Zuni’s brother and sister-in-law. Many of the journalists connected to the Frayhayt spent time at this center for left-wing artists and writers, as did celebrities and political activists like Paul Robeson and Earl Browder. Zuni’s job at Zumeray was to teach art and drama and to serve as a kind of morose tumler, though he was generally regarded as an eccentric character who dressed outlandishly and always went barefoot, causing his feet to remain excessively dirty. He was known to walk about wearing a long glove in place of a necktie or with a large wooden watch chain with no watch at the end. When someone would ask him why he wore a watch chain with no watch, he would reply, “Maybe you want to know what time it isn’t?” Zuni and Yosl festooned the resort’s dining hall with giant surrealist murals and once turned the main house into a giant rooster. Zumeray was clearly not like most of the Jewish summer resorts.

In 1929, Modicut’s success carried the two artists to Europe. They performed in London, Paris, and Brussels before heading to Warsaw, where they played 200 sold-out shows in the Jewish Literary Union’s auditorium. Not only were they a huge hit with tens of thousands of Warsaw’s Jews, the two puppeteers found friends among the city’s Yiddish literary elite. A hastily organized tour of Jewish Poland resulted in more packed shows all over the country. After two weeks of performances in Vilna, writer Zalmen Reyzen mounted the stage and begged them to stay. Shortly after they performed there, a new Yiddish puppet theater, “Maydim,” began appearing in Vilna.

The following year, Modicut was invited to perform in the Soviet Union, where the artists were received with equal enthusiasm. They did, though, retool their plays to conform to Soviet cultural reality, understanding that their performances would have to walk the Party line. Their plays began to focus more on sweatshop realities, the evils of Wall Street, and of nefarious Western politicians, all acceptable themes in the USSR. Invited by the government to remain in the country as heads of a Yiddish performance organi-zation, they stayed for about six months, spending their time with leading Yiddish literary figures. Then, as Maud recounted, they grew bored and returned to New York in mid-1932.

Although they continued performing together, the act broke up the following year, apparently the result of a dispute. No one knew the reason, but many Yiddish writers considered it a tragedy. Eventually each puppeteer hired a new partner and began performing on his own. In early 1935, Cutler made a short film, Yosl Cutler and His Puppets, intended as a teaser to attract funding for a full-length screen version of his Dybbuk. Having completed the film, Cutler set off on a road trip to Hollywood. Tragically, he was killed en route by a drunk driver in Iowa. Maud was too devastated to go to the funeral or attend the memorial services. As testament to the popularity of Modicut, an estimated ten to fifteen thousand people marched in Yosl Cutler’s funeral procession.

After Yosl’s death, Zuni’s life declined. He continued drawing, painting, sculpting, writing, and performing with puppets as well. But his time had passed. In the end, he lived off the largesse of his brother and sister-in-law and their success with Zumeray, supporting himself in part by drawing cartoons for the Frayhayt and the Daily Worker. He also continued to illustrate Yiddish books.

By the 1950s, Zuni had practically retired, living with his sister and her family after his brother and sister-in-law died. Still connected to the Frayhayt, he spent much of his time in its offices. In April 1956 there was talk about what had happened to the Yiddish writers in the Soviet Union. While the Forverts had alleged that the writers had been imprisoned or executed, the Frayhayt, staunch supporter of the USSR, consistently refuted these claims. But on April 25, Frayhayt editor Pesach Novick called a meeting of the paper’s inner circle and told them that the stories were true: the Yiddish writers had been imprisoned and executed on Stalin’s orders. Zuni, who was at the meeting, had befriended many of these writers when he was in the USSR in 1932. Hearing of their executions made him physically ill. Shirley Novick, Pesach’s wife, drove Zuni home after the meeting and said that he looked awful, “as black as dirt.” Zuni Maud died that night of a heart attack, at the age of 64. Since then, he has disappeared into the nether world of Yiddish history.

One day last winter, the National Yiddish Book Center received a large, flat package in its daily pile of mail. Sent by Ritta Rosenberg of East Lansing, MI, a longtime friend of the Book Center, the package contained a dozen unusual pen-and-ink drawings signed by Zuni Maud. Mrs. Rosenberg wrote, “I came across a folder full of sketches that my mother had kept under the rug in her livingroom.” Some were cartoons that had been printed in either the Morgn Frayhayt or The Daily Worker, but most were works that Maud probably made in the late 1940s or early 1950s. They reflect themes that appear frequently in his work: social and economic disenfranchisement, proletarianism, and Jewish men and women, from youth to the elderly.

The provenance of the drawings is the collection of Mrs. Rosenberg’s father, Philip, who was Zuni Maud’s friend. Both worked at the Morgn Frayhayt, where Philip Rosenberg was a journalist and editor. In the wake of the revelations of 1956, Rosenberg quit the Frayhayt and went to work at the Tog-morgn zshurnal, then the Forverts, until his death in 1979.

Considering Zuni Maud’s role as a seminal illustrator of Yiddish books, it was most appropriate for Ritta Rosenberg to donate these original works to the Book Center. Zuni Maud was one of Yiddish booklore’s most significant innovators, and his calligraphy and drawings can be found in hundreds of books throughout the Book Center’s huge collection. It was Zuni Maud’s ability to visually meld Jewish tradition with modernist literature that made writers like Meylekh Ravitsh recognize and laud him. And it’s just one example of many, many Yiddish books that were lovingly designed by a rare artist and lovingly appreciated by millions of readers.

Eddy Portnoy wrote his master’s thesis on Zuni Maud and Yosl Cutler. He is currently completing his dissertation on cartoons of the Yiddish press at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.