Bronx Bohemians

An Introduction

New York was a mecca for visiting Yiddish writers and actors in the early decades of the last century. On arrival in the city, eager to khapn a shmues (shoot the breeze) or hear a bisele rekhiles (the latest gossip), most made their way to one of three legendary addresses. The editorial office of The Forward, the world’s best-known Yiddish daily, was one. Another was the Café Royal, storied hangout of stars and celebrities. The third was a home in the Bronx where the door was always open and the aroma of home cooking filled the hallway. A combination of salon, sanctuary, sisterhood, and svive (community), this was the home of Yiddish poet Bertha Kling and her husband, Yekhiel.

The Klings’ home drew into its orbit dozens of novelists and poets, composers, klezmer and classical musicians, painters, satirists, actors, singers, puppeteers, and journalists, and their friends and relatives. All were attracted by the warmth of its hosts, and the heymish, convivial atmosphere. Almost all spoke Yiddish and English and moved easily between both languages and cultures. Many also spoke some combination of Russian, Polish, Hebrew, and German. Most had come to the US as children or teenagers, leaving behind homes and parents in the Russian Empire.

Not all members of the group were famous, though some were known throughout the Yiddish-speaking world. But a circle implies a democracy of meaning and value, and the story of this group is one of connections, support, and shared values, as much as individual talents. Together with her family and friends, Bertha Kling nurtured and sustained a remarkable cultural community that was both local and transnational. Women creative artists and female friendships were central to the group’s identity. Immigration was another common factor; this was a group of people who arrived in America with little except abundant talent, remade themselves, and helped remake America in turn.

Letters and postcards in Yiddish, Russian and English from Lara Cherniavsky, Rokhl Korn, Itzik Manger, Zuni Maud, Moyshe Nadir, Dora Shulner, and the Jewish National Workers Alliance of America. (Kling family collection, courtesy of Deborah Ramsden).

This blog grew out of the conviction that it was high time to put the Bertha Kling salon back into conversations about Yiddish modernism and Yiddish in America. It was, after all, no less remarkable than The Forward, every bit as stylish as the Café Royal, and surely cooler and more free-spirited than either. 

We will explore the Bertha Kling circle in its particular setting—the Bronx of the early twentieth century, which was heavily Jewish and a haven of yidishkayt. But we will also situate it in a broader context. Cultural and political connections radiated from the Bronx to Greenwich Village, the Lower East Side, the Catskills, Hollywood, Montreal, Paris, Kiev, Odessa, and beyond. Recovering the forgotten history of this group also raises broader questions of memory, identity, archives, and cultural heritage, prompting us to consider what has been lost, and what endures. 

As we explore the circle and its legacy, we will draw heavily on two sets of records. The first is the Bertha Kling collection at YIVO, donated by her daughter, Cora Ginsburg, a noted textile scholar and dealer. The second archive has remained in the possession of Cora’s daughter, Deborah Ramsden. Both cover the period from the 1900s to the 1960s and are full of remarkable documents. Viewed as a whole, they offer a unique picture of the rich creativity and cosmopolitanism of the Yiddish world in the early part of the century.

—David Mazower

A group photo from the salon taken around 1920, courtesy of Deborah Ramsden. Bertha is third from left in the bottom row.

Neither the location nor the date of the gathering are identified, but someone has added a handwritten list of names on the back of the photo. The names are reproduced here exactly as written, with some additional notes in brackets: 

Top row (left to right): Lillie Miller (Bertha Kling’s sister), Sarah Weiner, Rosie Miller (Bertha Kling’s sister). Middle row: Ida Glaser (aka Ida Glazer or Edith Glasser, Yiddish poet and story writer), Joseph Cherniavsky (cellist, composer, and klezmer bandleader), Louis Miller (L. Miler, a noted poet, also a translator of Walt Whitman into Yiddish), Peretz Hirshbein (celebrated Yiddish playwright and travel writer), Dr J. Kling (Jehiel Kling, Bertha’s husband, a medical doctor), Min (? N. B. Minkoff, a prominent Yiddish poet and critic).  Bottom row: Lazar Weiner (composer of Yiddish art songs and choral music), Mrs Miller, Bertha Kling, Esther Hirshbein (aka Esther Shumiatcher-Hirshbein, poet and playwright), Lara Cherniavsky (klezmer pianist and piano teacher), Witkewitch (?)