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Joseph Rumshinsky Tells About
Fifty Years of Yiddish Theatre
 A series of thirty-six articles written by Rumshinsky, over a four-month period, for the Jewish Forward newspaper,
from December 1, 1952, until April 2, 1953. Articles appeared in the Jewish Forward every Monday and Thursday.

Episode 25: February 23, 1953

His own life story. -- He is born to a furrier in Vilna. -- His father was a bit of a musician.
-- His mother also knew how to sing. -- For the new year he was a soloist in the Vilna city synagogue.
-- At the age of sixteen he was a conductor for the great cantors.
-- Israel Zangwill paid for my music lessons.

SOME DETAILS OF MY OWN LIFE STORY

I was born in Vilna to Moshe, a hat maker, in 1881. Moshe Mendel's, such was the name of my father; my grandfather was called Mendel, and my father -- Moshe, and thus my father was called Moshe Mendel's. My father; a brunette, Of low stature, a "שמה בחלקו," happy with his fate, good-natured. He used to express  his feelings with singing, together with his five to six workers -- furrier apprentices. He used to sing parts of the "peyrek" [chapters in the Mishnah], which he knew by heart. He used to begin in Hebrew and then divide it into Yiddish. The music or this he used to improvise in a peculiar manner. When circumstances were stressful, such as regards his livelihood or illnesses at home, my father used to sing chapters of psalms, and this initially began in Hebrew and then separated into the mother tongue.

When my father had a good day at the market, where he used to sell hats, it was like he was in a "Jewish" house. There my father was the "soloist," that is, he started and everyone caught on. The happy songs consisted of half-Russian, half-Polish, and Yiddish and Hebrew were mixed in.

By the time "Pirkei Avot" was sung, the work went on as usual. Not quickly and not slowly. By the Psalms they used to work very slowly, adagio. But with the merry songs, fire used to go with it: the needles used to fly, the iron used to press fast. The workers used to go and get a drink of water, which was found at the door, and they used to dance to the happy tempo of the singing. And friends often went out to drink water with an outburst, and one might have an opportunity to catch a little dance.

And by all accounts, my parents were different people. My father was of small stature; my mother had a small, slim figure; my father was quiet, my mother -- effervescent; Dad was happy, short; two different people. But when it came to "music," singing, they were like one person. Their voices sounded pleasant, delicious; they used to sing quietly, heartily, deliciously. And just like the father, so the mother used to express all her feelings in singing. But his mother's musical career went further than his father's. His mother was quite the teacher of singing. God forbid not for money! Wives, girls, the ordinary Jew, used to come to Slava (my mother's name was Slava) to should sing and really learn the songs of Elyokem Tsunzer, who they often used to hear at weddings, such as: "In this lies the happiness of blessing," "What I see

 

Moshe Mendl and his wife Slava, the parents of Joseph Rumshinsky.

 

through the window, it flies like the dove." My mother felt quite like a professor. Despite this, that my parents were not professional musicians, I nevertheless  was born into a "musical atmosphere." With my entire studies later in music schools and with music professors, I had my composer's career, thanks to my parents, whose nigunim (religious melodies) I had absorbed as a child in the cradle.

As I have said earlier, during the first couple of months of my life an extraordinary case occurred, which they spoke about for years in our home. Just as my mother was a busy woman, she always searched for other sources of income: a caretaker for Yatkes, a marriage broker, who used to lend money and take a percentage, according to the law. Were all the children that my mother had given birth to be abandoned? Such was the case with me. I was taken to an orphanage in a small town, Podbrzezhe, not far from Vilna. The term that was agreed upon for me to be detained was for a year's time. There was a very natural case with the mother. She passed me off in the third month that I was with her. Fearing for breaking the agreement, she left me on the doorstep of our house, and indeed on Friday, so that no one would notice. The entire house woke up from my crying, and when I was seen on the ground, wrapped in a heavy blanket, I was carried into the house. I became ill with longing for my mother, and indeed from the illness I remained a "sidon." [baby not yet able to walk]. It is a childhood disease in which the little ones become thin and weak and the calf fat. I was kept in the sand for up to six years, in a basket filled with sand, and there, in the sand, I spent my earliest youth, my childhood.

Everything that happened to me with the mother, I do not remember. This is what I heard, but from age three until I was a child of six, when I left the sand, I remember everything. It has inscribed itself in my memories of my entire life.

For the entire three years, that is, ever since I began to understand, it has been a great tragedy for me. I was not noticed by anyone. I was no more than a grain of sand.  But I ... I understood everything well, I saw and considered everyone thoroughly, so much so that I still remember some facts from that time, as if it would have only happened yesterday. I noticed as I, who one day more and more, mer last at home, and not when the workers, the fur-hat boys , who know that I could now write my memoirs. They, the workers, used to keep me on a big table, where they worked. I sighed and spoke to myself. My mother used to have lots of trouble from me, because they could not keep a servant because of me. I remember they had to bring in a maid, out of necessity. She heard the workers sing, and she said to my mother: "I miss it. I will stay here." When she turned around and noticed me in the basket with sand, she said: "What is this?" -- pointing at me -- "This is yours?" ... My mother answered: "He does not whisper, unfortunately." Then she shouts: "I forgive you!" With these words, she ran away. Such scenes used to play out a lot in our house on account of my failure.

As a child of five or six, I understood all this, especially when I used to hear the children's voices and their laughter in the summer, and in the winter when they used to play with the sleds, but the saddest times for me used to be on Saturday night, until sundown. Then all the lights went out of the house, no candle had been lit yet, it was almost dark, and he, or the one who used to have to stay in the house for me, used to be unhappy and look at me angrily, knowing that she or he could have been outdoors by now. All of this used to make a very, very sad impression on me. But I seldom cried, because of who am I, that I should cry? A good child need to cry. But I had a feeling that there will still come a time when everyone would love me.

It was expected on a certain Saturday, Aunt Chiene would come, that she had already come from her dacha (summer residence). She, Aunt Chiene, was my mother's sister, who grew tall like my mother, used to be majestic, used to speak a good Russian and was a modern, pious Jewish woman. My Aunt Chiene often used to send chatchkes (toys), confections. It used to make me sick because she came quite rarely. I loved her, and at the same time I was afraid of her. It is likely that she used to come so rarely because of me, and now the entire family expected Aunt Chiene.

On the Sabbath, at three o'clock in the afternoon, they took me out from my basket with sand, and I was put on the floor in the corner, and everyone was waiting for Aunt Chiene.

When my Aunt Chiene came to us and entered the house, everyone was all around her. She then looked like Berta Kalich (in "Maria Stuart"), whom I would see years later. Her black, silk, summery clothes made her appear even more majestic. No one noticed me. I was sitting in a corner, as if I was a broken stool that they no longer needed. When everyone had calmed down and sat down, people could already see me. When my aunt saw me, she turned to my mother [and said]:

"What makes something 'yoshtshik'?" And my mother answered her with a wave of her hand and said only: "Ekh!," as if she wanted to say that there will come no good from him ... and immediately my aunt turned to me:

"Yoshtshikl, how long will you sit like this?" -- and stretched out both hands and said: "Get up, you've sat enough, come here to me."

I was sitting far from my aunt, and my aunt said again: "So, Yoshtshikl, I'm waiting for you, come here to me."

I gave myself a lift up, my mother ran to me so I wouldn't fall, but when my mother approached the place where I was sitting, I was already on my aunt's lap. There was a cry, a laugh, a joy mixed with tears of joy. Each held me in their hands, one from the other. I tore myself away and ran from one to the other.

Since that Saturday afternoon, I no longer sat and also did not walk, but "ran," as if to run away from the lost time that I was sitting in a basket with sand. And I indeed ran away from the lost time, that three years later, that is to age nine, until I became the soloist of the Vilna city synagogue with the Vilna cantor Kohn, I already was known as "Yoshke der noten-freser (Yoshke, the Note Glutton?)." Then I had already read notes like a pious Jew says "Ashri." For me then, no difficult notes existed, and I went in Vilnius and around Vilnius with my extraordinary alto voice, and my quick reading of the most difficult notes. As was already said, they knew me as "Yoshke der noten-freser."

I became a student in the Vilna Music School with Treskin, who was a part of the Peterburg Conservatory, where I learned piano and harmony (the musical grammar), and there in the school indeed was the teacher of the violin Malkin, who was later Jascha Heifetz's first teacher. Already as a seventeen-year-old youth, I became a conductor with the greatest cantors, later a conductor in the Russian operetta, and then I became the first conductor of the Lodz "Hazamir," where I staged oratorios and various difficult and easy song numbers, until I was told in 1902 that I had to go into the military, but I did not want to be a soldier, and I left for London, England.

From the first minute London did not appeal to me due to its constant darkness, as the call it the "fogs." Nevertheless, I was in London for two years. There I studied with Professor Frout (sp), one of the greatest music authorities. With him I studied composition and orchestration. He was an expensive teacher, who was also well-paid. I knew that someone was paying for my music lessons, but I did not know who was paying. Later I found out that it my music lessons were paid for by the Jewish-English writer Israel Zangwill, whom I had met at literary lectures, and also had visited with him at home.

As was already said, I did not like England, and in the month of June 1904 I arrived in New York. My first director in the Yiddish theatre was Jacob Adler. I wrote music for his dramatic productions. Mostly I received applause from my music to "Elisha ben Abuyah." Also I wrote the first modern operetta, "Shir hashirim (Song of Songs)," also a comedy, "Dos meydl fun der vest (The Girl of the West)," and later for Juvelier and Prager a genuine, Yiddish operetta, "A yidish kind (A Jewish Child)," and for Bessie Thomashefsky, music for "Chantshe in amerike (Chantshe in America)."





 

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