Saturday, January 16, 2016

Applause! Applause! Review of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene's production of The Golden Bride at the Museum Of Jewish Heritage by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg

This review of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene's production of The Golden Bride (Di Goldene Kale) at the Museum Of Jewish Heritage was written by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Golden Bride (Di Goldene Kale)
Music by Joseph Rumshinsky
Lyrics by Louis Gilrod
Libretto by Freida Freiman
Co-Directors: Bryna Wasserman & Motl Didner
Scenic Design by John Dinning
Costume Design by Izzy Fields
Conductor & Musical Staging: Zalmen Mlotek
Choreographer & Musical Staging: Merete Muenter
Museum Of Jewish Heritage
Edmund J. Safra Hall
36 Battery Place
New York, New York 10280
Reviewed 12/23/15  

On December 23, 2015, it was a melancholy experience for me to have watched The Golden Bride, a Yiddish operetta performed by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, the world's oldest Yiddish theatrical organization, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park. This was the second time I had seen a performance by this company. This was a much better experience than the first time when I saw a Yiddish play performed at the Central Synagogue in mid-Manhattan about two decades either. Then I heard an English translation through a headphone. Now, I was able to read supertitles above the stage as they do at the Metropolitan Opera for their foreign language productions. The downside was that a generation earlier, I heard Yiddish actors perform. Now I heard many actors who had learned Yiddish in transliteration emoting in a language they could not understand. To give them credit, no one could tell the difference. 

The Yiddish audience in Europe was murdered by Adolf Hitler; the Yiddish playwrights were murdered by Joseph Stalin. Stalin's daughter Sevetlana, in her memoirs, recalled her murderous father making a telephone call to arrange an automobile accident for Solomon Mikhoels, the Yiddish playwright, whose funeral he then attended. In the U.S.A., it was the force of assimilation that did in Yiddish theater. An Irish student completed his Ph.D. comparing the fate of Gaelic in Ireland and Yiddish in America. He noted sadly that English was the language of fate and fortune that would dim the prospects of these languages surviving. The Zionist pioneers of Israel promoted Hebrew that once more became a living language while Yiddish was marginalized. Half the population of Israel are descendants of Sephardic Jews who never spoke Yiddish. Yiddish had no champion like Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who was instrumental in the revival of Hebrew as a modern, living language. I remember doing research on the Bund, a socialist Jewish group who championed a federation of languages in Europe in which Yiddish would be an equal, at the Bundist Archives and YIVO Archives in Manhattan. I was fascinated by the stories I uncovered, but unfortunately, I found no evidence for the future of Yiddish as a spoken language. 

My parents had belonged to The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring, a fraternal organization, for its benefits, not for its promotion of the Yiddish language. Workmen's Circle and several other fraternal organizations had attempted to continue Yiddish by sponsoring summer camps and schools in which activities took place in Yiddish but they were not successful in the long run. I helped my father keep the minutes of a fraternal group or landsmanschaft whose minutes shifted from Yiddish to English. When he died in 1987, I gave the records of the organization to YIVO that maintains an archive to preserve the papers of such groups. In 2014, KlezKamp, the Yiddish folk arts gathering that took place in the Catskills every winter for the last 30 years, had its last gathering. Yiddish New York took place during the Christmas week in 2015 but whether this will continue remains to be seen.

Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, and James Cagney got their start in the Yiddish theater but moved onto Broadway and then Hollywood. James Cagney (whose mother was Jewish) was completely fluent in Yiddish. I remember him casually mentioning in one of his interviews with David Hartman to promote Ragtime that he had just finished reading a book of Yiddish poetry he had received in the mail. Jose Ferrer got his start in the Spanish theater before moving on to the Broadway stage and then Hollywood. When I saw The Golden Bride at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene on December 23, 2015, it was a centennial of its founding.  Back in 1915, when it got started, the Yiddish theater was at its apogee: the three million Jews of America supported twelve Yiddish theaters in the "Jewish Rialto" and four in Brooklyn plus a few more in other major American cities. In that year, the native-born Molly Picon got her start by first learning in transliteration her lines in Yiddish before becoming fluent in the language. In the golden years from the 1920s to the 1950s, Yiddish theatrical companies would first put on a performance in New York, travel throughout the United States, and then spend winter in Argentina performing before the large Yiddish-speaking population there.

Inevitably, the forces of assimilation, the end of mass migration from Europe following American restrictions on immigration, and the Holocaust doomed the survival of Yiddish in America. The few enclaves where Yiddish is spoken as a first language tend to be Chassidic Jews who despise secular Jewish culture. The Forward, once the world's largest daily Yiddish newspaper at a quarter million readers, is now a weekly printed in English, Hebrew, Russian, and Yiddish editions. There were once over sixty Yiddish radio stations from the 1930s to the 1950s; but, alas, they are no more. I remember Art Raymond hosting a show of Jewish music on WEVD, "the station that spoke your language." The once 24-hour a day Yiddish radio station, launched in 1927, stop broadcasting in 1981. The last commercial Yiddish theater, The Yiddish Art Theater, winked out in 1962 on Second Avenue. It has been landmarked as the East Village Cinema at 12th Street where you can see its Star of David candelabra. Other remaining Yiddish theater buildings still standing are the Anderson Yiddish Theater at East 4th Street (which was abandoned), the Orpheum (at St. Mark's Place), and the former Sunshine Theater building (at 147 East Houston Street), which was built circa 1910 as the Sunshine there. The American Jewish Repertory Theater in the 1970s did not make it.

Fate was no less kind to other live foreign-language theaters in America. The Chinese 3,000 strong in 1900 in New York City supported one theater; today, it still supports it even though its population has increased to almost 500,000. There are three Chinese radio and three Chinese language television stations in New York City. The Italian theater is down to one theater supported by almost 700,000 Italians. There are three radio stations in the suburbs that offer a few, and I mean a few, hours of Italian music and language programming. The almost 2,300,000 Latinos support a mere three theaters including the Thalia, which is bilingual. There are four Spanish-language radio and five Spanish-language television stations including one that has the largest radio audience of any in New York City. Of course, how many are fluent in Chinese, Italian or Spanish is another story. There is the Irish Repertory Theater that flourishes because the Irish made the English language their own. WFUV at Fordham University spins an hour of Irish musical favorites every Sunday. PBS has a program of Irish singers and dancers from Ireland, but not from America, on television. A century ago, one in three New Yorkers spoke German. Unfortunately, German-American culture did not survive the nativist attacks of Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and their supporters during World War I. Liberalized immigration laws since 1965 have enabled Chinese and Spanish media to flourish but they face constant erosion of their audiences as they assimilate into the American way of life. Erik Estrada, a Puerto Rican, the star of "C.H.I.P.S.," learned Spanish to star in a Spanish telenovela on one of the Spanish-language networks. This is in contrast to Jacob Adler, who scored two Broadway triumphs doing Shakespeare in which he spoke his lines in Yiddish while the rest of the cast did it in English. 

The Hebrew Actors' Union (HAU) was a craft union for actors in Yiddish theater in the United States (primarily in New York City), affiliated with the Associated Actors and Artistes of America (AFL-CIO). Founded in 1899 by Joseph Barondess, it was the first actors' union in  the United States. At another point, it also included actors that spoke Hebrew. You can still see giant letters stating "Hebrew Actors' Union, Inc." on the building at 31 Seventh Street between Second and Third Avenues. H.A.U. merged with AFTRA in 2007.

The Second Avenue Deli, formally located at 156 Second Avenue in the heart of the former Yiddish Theater District, was founded in 1954 by Abe Lebewohl. In 1980, he inaugurated his own version of the Grauman Chinese Theater plaques in Hollywood with his Second Avenue Hall Of Fame: Molly Picon and her husband/manager Jacob Kalish, Ben Bonus, the Barry Sisters, Adler parents and Adler children, Zvi Schooler, Menashe Skulnic, Rose Boyzic, Boris & Bessie Thomashevsky, Maurice Schwartz, and Paul Muni (Muni Weisenfeld) are honored. Joseph Goldfaden was the founder of the Yiddish Theater. He established the first Yiddish Theater in Bucharest, Romania in 1876. When the Russian Empire banned Yiddish theater, he came to America to establish one in New York. Fyvush Finkle was the last name added in 1995. Although the deli moved uptown and has been replaced by a Chase bank branch, the names are still there.

I had no idea New York City once had a flourishing Yiddish theater scene except for incidental mentions by my parents when I was a young person. once been a flourishing center My mother, in recounting her youth, mentioned she used to date Yiddish actors in the 1930s. My mother's nickname for my younger brother Elliot was "Tomashevsky," an actor that she greatly admired. My father mentioned that Menusha Skulnick had been a star in the Yiddish theater when he took me to the Tarrytown Playhouse when I was about eight years old to see a comedy in English. In 1995, I started a Jewish Walking Tour for business entitled "Jewish Maven" during which I would talk about one or two of the former Yiddish theaters you could see on my tour route. In 2004, the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas led my theatrical tour as he recounted his childhood memories to his buddies on the tour. This was the closest I had been to the Yiddish theater before I saw the two productions at the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene. The Golden Bride, as a Yiddish opera, was last staged in 1948. In 1984, musicologist Michael Ochs became interested and eventually spent a few years in research to restore and recreate the opera, partially in 2014, and as a fully restored operetta a year later. I needed the supertitles to understand the script. Once upon a time, I did know the Yiddish language but, of course, if you don't use it, you lose it. Here and there, I could understand some of what was sung and I was then especially moved by what I understood. The romantic comedy itself is divided into two parts: in the first act, a wealthy woman in the old country (in an idealized upper scale version of Fiddler On The Roof) wants to find her mother; in the second act, she is now an assimilated American of the upper class akin to The Philadelphia Story, who is shown the same day three women and one man as her missing mother! Even though the opera premiered nearly 90 years ago, I still found the plot humorous and the songs amusing. Here and there some of the jokes creaked due to their age. Notes in the Playbill promise future revivals but no new Yiddish productions.

I can only compare The Golden Bride in Yiddish to the buzz that Z in French got in 1969, Hester Street, partially in Yiddish, received in 1975, and Das Boot in German got in 1981. Z and Das Boot were widely shown in the original language with English subtitles before new versions were distributed with English voices replacing the French and German voices. In Z, you were appalled at the overthrowHester Street won acclaim as the film to see  for the 1976 bicentennial year as the celebration of the American melting pot. In Das Boot, you were ready to cheer when the German submariners escaped from almost certain death caught between Allied airplanes and the ocean bottom until you realized that they were the bad guys.

The Yiddish theater survives as transformed into the Jewish experience presented in such on plays on Broadway as Brighton Beach Memoirs, Funny Girl, I Can Get It For You Wholesale, Sundays With My Father, Soul Doctor, Yentl, and of course, Fiddler On The Roof. They have entered American Mainstream Culture, admired by Jews and Gentiles alike. Unfortunately, Yiddish theater has no commercial future, but the Jewish life, culture, heritage and experience does.

Let me conclude with a Jewish proverb: Words should be weighed, not counted. 

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