Letters to the Editor
The Summer 2014 issue of Pakn Treger, which focused on Yiddish theater, inspired so many readers to write to us—with memories of family trips to the theater, of sharing laughter and tears with fellow audience members, of personal connections with some of the greats of the Yiddish stage, even of romances that began at the theater—that we didn’t have room for all their letters in the Fall issue of the magazine. Here are more of those wonderful stories. Plus, a reader corrects a translation error from the issue:
•My grandmother started taking me to Yiddish plays in the early 1940s, when I was very young. By that time, the Yiddish was already laced with English—a sort of Yinglish that I understood very well. We usually had passes, since my grandfather allowed the theater company to put advertising posters in his store window.
One of my most vivid memories was a bit of shtick with two comic performers, Yetta Zwerling and that master of the double take, Menasha Skulnik. In the scene, Zwerling is alone on the stage wearing a “Carmen Miranda” headdress, but instead of fruit, hers contains vegetables. Skulnik enters stage right. The laughter begins. He starts across the stage, sees Zwerling, then notices her hat. The laughter grows. He reaches into the headdress and pulls out a radish and takes a bite. The laughter increases as he walks on. Suddenly he pauses, turns back to Zwerling, reaches into her headdress again, pulls out a salt shaker, salts his radish, replaces the shaker, and continues across the stages, nibbling his radish. In the audience, hilarity reigns!
I have not seen a funnier comic turn since. And this from a confirmed theater junkie.
Zelda Brainin Reeber
• As a youngster, performing in Yiddish theatre was one of the most nourishing, defining moments in my life. A groysn dank, Aaron Lansky and David Mazower, for the gift of the Pakn Treger issue devoted to Yiddish theatre.
When we were youngsters in the early 1950s, about fifty of us were selected to become part of the Los Angeles Yiddish Kinder Theater. We came from many of the secular Yiddish kindershuln in the area, sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Jewish Federation. With the help of our parents (who came from all possible Yiddish and political movements), our Yiddish teachers, Jewish educators and theatre professionals (including Benjamin Zemach and Than Wyenn), we performed in Yiddish to enthusiastic audiences. To prepare, our classes included acting, improvisation, and Yiddish literature. Parents sewed costumes, helped with set construction, and sold tickets.
Our repertoire included everything from Bontshe Shvayg (by I.L. Peretz) to King Solomon and the Bee. We performed, among others, Der arendar (also by Peretz) as well as plays by Peretz Hirschbein, Sholem Aleichem, and Kadia Molodovsky. Hirschbein's son, Omus, was part of our troupe.
I am blessed to have been part of this unique acting company. It provided me, and all the others involved, with a sense of self, good friends (a few of us still meet occasionally), a love of the Yiddish language, and an appreciation of Yiddish literature.
A defining moment in my life? I should think so, considering that I was lured into becoming a teacher of Jewish literature, poetry, and creative writing.
A groysn dank for this precious gift!
• The Pakn Treger’s stories about Yiddish theatre brought back some vivid memories. As a child in the 1930s, I was dragged (word carefully chosen) by my parents on the occasional Sunday to one or another of the Second Avenue theatres. In one performance, a dominant presence on stage (it may have been the magisterial Maurice Schwartz) let loose a penetrating shriek –“PROSTITUTSYE!” The word meant nothing to me at the time, but the actor’s tone and intensity told me it was something very, very bad.
Another memory is of the great Schwartz (this time there is no doubt) playing Der vaser treger (The Water Carrier). Half the play saw him staggering back and forth across the stage, bent under a shoulder yoke and two supposedly full buckets of water. A dozen years later, as an undergraduate at Michigan State, I spent my afternoons on a truck delivering spring water from Grand Rapids to customers all over Lower Michigan. As I carried the five-gallon glass carboys—sixty-plus pounds at least—from spring to truck and from truck to customer, the image of the vaser treger accompanied me all the way.
• I have heard that among all of Shakespeare's plays presented in the Yiddish theater, the audience favorite was King Lear, and I have always thought I knew the reason: in Act 3, Scene 4, Lear insists that Edgar, who is playing Mad Tom, must have daughters because only daughters could have made him a sakh meshuge [really crazy]. I think that in the midst (and this is really in the midst, literally almost the middle lines) of that painful and moving tragedy, that exchange elicits the epitome of the Yiddish phrase, lakhn mit yashtsherkes [laugh through tears].
With thanks for an especially marvelous issue,
• I was discharged from the U.S. Army on Jan. 14, 1946, after five years in the European theater of operations. Trying to find myself was difficult. A friend, Izzy Smelkinson, just returned from the Pacific theater of the war, called and said his father had tickets for a show at the Lyric theater in Baltimore. I asked what the show was and he told me it was Dr. Herzl, starring Maurice Schwartz.
Well, the fact that it was in Yiddish did not bother me, as I understood and spoke Yiddish, thanks to my maternal grandparents. What bothered me was the idea of sitting through two-and-a-half [hours] of this show when we could be out having a drink and trying to meet some girls. I conceded after a lot of pressure from my mother and his father, whom I had great respect and love for. I said we would sit through the first half and leave at the intermission. He concurred.
And so the show began. Maurice Schwartz came on the stage and began by saying, "[Mayn fraynt, mir kumen tsu Tsion tsu makhn a nay land far Yidn]” (“My friends, we come together to Zion for a new land for the Jews.”).
By the intermission, I was ready to leave. We said good-bye to [my friend’s] father and went into the hall to leave. Lo and behold, I saw this gorgeous young lady, all six feet of her in a red suit with fur trim, talking to a man. My friend said he didn’t know [her], but we went back and watched the rest of the play.
At the end we ran to the back of the theater and there she was, talking to a man with a slouch hat who seemed familiar, but I could not place him. My friend said his name was Nat Youngelson, a Yiddish commentator locally. I walked up to him and said, “Nat, how are you?” He said, “Fine,” and turned away. I asked him to introduce me to the young lady and he said he had forgotten my name. (He had never met me before but was trying to be nice.)
He introduced me to the young lady: “This is Jean Turk, and this is—what was your name? I forgot,” he said. “Sol Goldstein,” I said. And so I took her home, met her parents, Henry and Jessie Turk (he was the managing editor of the Forward in Baltimore).
That was Feb. 24, 1946. We were married in August and had three wonderful sons, five grandchildren, ten great grandchildren, and more to come. We were married for sixty years, and then I lost her to cancer. What a fabulous life we had.
• During the 1940s, Yiddish theater thrived at the Douglas Park Auditorium, at Ogden and Kedzie avenues in Chicago. On countless weekend afternoons and many evenings, Bubbie and Zaydie took their eldest grandchild, then 12 to 16 years old, to see stars such as Dina Halpern, Maurice Schwartz, Abe Lax and Frances Weintraub, Menasha Skulnik, Ben-Zion Witler, and other, including young Bernard Schwartz (who became Tony Curtis), in comedies and tragedies while we sat in appreciative audiences eating Bubbie’s chopped liver sandwiches we had brought from home.
I particularly remember Ms. Halpern in the Yiddish adaptation of Philip Yordan’s Anna Lucasta. As I recall, there was a recurring plot in many of the “heavy” plays: an Orthodox father throws his irreverent “American” son out of the house, and the two are estranged for years and years until they reunite at the father’s deathbed while everyone on stage and in the audience weeps. Curtain.
Bubbie and Zaydie, who had come from Zhitomir, Ukraine, in 1907-08, recounted for me many times their happy experiences during the twenties at Glickman’s Palace, a famed Yiddish theater that flourished from 1920-30 at Twelfth Street and Blue Island Avenue, where they saw the elder Adlers and the Thomashefskys, among others. Bubbie’s greatest theater memory was of young Muni Weisenfreund performing with his parents on the streets of Chicago and then seeing him on stage as Paul Muni, the star of Four Walls, a prison drama, in the 1920s.
This longtime member of the Yiddish Book Center wonders why Chicago plays so little a part in your publication. I sometimes think your editors share Saul Steinberg’s old cartoon perception, that there was and is little west of the Hudson. The West Side’s Lawndale neighborhood was a rich enclave of Jewish life and culture, including theater, from the beginning of the twentieth century through the 1950s.
Gordon Cohn (that eldest grandchild, now 81)
• My heart “fluttered” a bit when I read the “The Sun Never Sets on the Vilna Troupe.”
A few years ago—about 1944, when I was a freshman in high school—I started dating. For my very first date we went to a play in a local library in the Bronx. This was my first exposure to theater and to plays. The presentation was Across the Board on Tomorrow Morning by William Saroyan.
Although I did not understand the title nor the play, I immediately fell in love with theater and went backstage and joined their troupe. At first I did curtain pulling and property caring. The headquarters for the group was in a religious temple near Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, which had no stage. The group thereupon built a stage that readily could be taken down, folded, and stored in minimal space.
One play we put on was The Dybbuk, in an English translation. By then, about 1948, I was one of the actors and played the somewhat mysterious “wanderer” in this play. I still recall one of my lines wherein, when the lead girl enters a trance after her fiancé dies, I, pointing to her, loudly proclaim: “Into her soul has entered a Dybbuk!” prolonging the first syllable of “Dybbuk.” The troupe, scattered on stage then exclaim, “Oooh!” and “Oi weh!”
A great time for me.
Norman R Gevirtz
• I was pleased to see Pakn Treger print a newly translated excerpt from Moyshe Nadir's Messiah in America, a wonderful satiric play I directed here in San Francisco some years ago. But why is only Act One going to be placed online? When a messiah arrives, even in an English translation, we should get the whole megile, all five acts of Nadir's comedy, especially the scene where two rival messiahs meet in a boxing ring!
• Thank you for your wonderful edition on Yiddish theater. It brought back great memories.
After Yom Kippur, our family would go to the theater on Second Avenue to welcome the New Year. We saw some of the great actors of the time: Maurice Schwartz, Molly Picon, and Menasha Skulnick, to name a few.
My brother, who was about five years old, would sit on the lowest step of the balcony, and I would next to him to watch him. I must have been about ten years old. My mother, father, and sister (about thirteen years of age) had seats further back in the balcony. I felt I had front-row seats and was on top of the world.
My parents only spoke Yiddish, so I could understand a great deal of the story. The emotions on stage and in the theater were amazing. When it was sad, it seemed as if everyone in the theater cried. When it was funny, everyone roared with laughter.
Before I left New York I went to the Folksbiene National Yiddish Theater to see a play for old time’s sake. We laughed and cried as before, but besides sitting in the orchestra, the big difference was that I took two hearing aids from the box office. One aid had the job of making the sounder louder, and the other’s job was to translate the Yiddish for me. Too bad I didn’t keep up with the Yiddish language.
• In the latest issue of Pakn Treger, a journalist wrote about her experience with the late, inimitable Yiddish actress Molly Picon. I was always a fan of hers and of Yiddish theater.
Many years, I attended an afternoon performance of Miss Picon at the old Colonial Theater in Boston and went backstage to meet her. She was extremely cordial. I asked if I could interview her. At that time I wrote a column for a local paper. She explained that since she traveled extensively, she and her sister (both widows) lived in a small cottage on Long Island. She wrote down her telephone number and address and arranged a date. She invited me for tea.
The day before, I baked some mandelbrot. I drove four hours to her house. I arrived early, and no one was home. I checked both doors and walked around. Not a person in sight. I had not looked at my notes—I was a day early!
That evening I called her and suggested I drive down again, which I did. She was petite, charming, and hospitable. We chatted for about an hour. At the time, she told me was eighty years old and did a cartwheel like a teenager! In a rare coincidence, our birthdays are the same: February 28. She spoke about her beloved late husband, Jacob Kalich, who was her agent.
We began to write little notes from time to time, which I of course meticulously kept. She told me that [she and her sister] were going to move to New York City. Another coincidence: the address was a lovely building on Central Park West … just across the street [from my cousins]! Whenever I visited my cousins I called [the sisters] to say hello and left a package of my mandelbrot. She told me that her doorman was always given a few pieces and was willing to become a convert for this delectable Jewish biscotti.
On our birthday, I drink a l’Chaim to Molly and to myself.
• Thank you for your article on the Vilna Troupe in Pakn Treger. I was, however, disappointed in your not mentioning Noach Nachbush, OBM, who was a family friend and a remarkable presence for myself as a young child.
Nachbush would sit next to me at the kitchen table and change personalities right before my eyes. He was a remarkable actor and a dedicated Yiddishist. He was very poor and earned some money in America by selling vinyl records of his songs and recitations. Nachbush played the voice of conscience in The Dybbuk. I can hear his voice in my memory intoning [the role of] Sendor ben Henya.
Rosalind Wholden Thomas
• I grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household and we frequented the theaters on Second Avenue in New York City to enjoy Yiddish shows. I remember Menasha Skulnik hiking up the back of his jacket as he entered the stage—always asking, “Ir derkent mikh?” [Do you recognize me?] Listening to Miriam Kressyn and her husband, Seymour Rechtzeit, sing together was a joy. Maurice Schwartz scared me to death!
Upon leaving the Jewish musicals, outside the theater one could buy sheet music—notes and words—from that particular show. My mom loved when I’d finger the notes on our piano at home and we’d sing the songs together. Wonderful memories!
• Milwaukee had an active Yiddish Theater group, the Perhift Players [named for the playwright Peretz Hirschbein]. The biography of my late friend Howard Weinshel, a prominent Yiddishist and member of the Perhift Players, goes into some detail.
I hope you find this useful. Meanwhile, keep up the good work. Who would have known what der tsenter would grow into when in the 1980s that nut Aaron Lansky started to collect books—to stop history. I didn’t have much hope, but it was such a good cause, so I sent him a few dollars. And now, in 2014: wow!
A correction to your translation of the title of one of the books mentioned in "Four Unexpected Yiddish Volumes" (Pakn Treger, Summer 2014). The title given is Di shklaveray, oder di laybeygenshaft, with your translation Slavery, or the Daily Life [of American Slaves]. The word laybeygenshaft has nothing to do with lebn, but is the German word Leibeigenschaft, meaning bondage or serfdom. Leib here means body, and Eigenschaft, ownership. It may have been a daytshmerism in the original title, but must have been familiar to Yiddish speakers in 1868.