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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 27: March 2, 1953

Aaron Lebedeff. -- They say about him that he did not enter but danced to America.
-- Molly Picon  in Lodz. -- She excites the audience with her charm.


He did not come to America, but that he danced in -- so they say about Aaron Lebedeff.

His first name is Aaron, which is due to his seriousness when he sings a song. And the second name is Lebedeff, due to the him always being lively. So they say about him, as soon as they see him play.

Never in his life was he a manager of a theatre, but he always was the manager on the stage.

Except for clothes, he does not like to change, not even his Litvak language. But it has always been forgiven that he was a Litvak. His appeal covered everything.

He never copied anyone, except himself.

People said about him that he was always romantic, but seldom deceived.

He came from Pinsk, Minsk and Dvinsk and celebrated Romania in song.

When one may call out Liovke Molodietz, they turned to Aaron Lebedeff.

The Italian opera singer maintains that the opera stage belonged to them. Every opera singer, not Italian, thought of them as a stranger.

The Yiddish stage caught on with Ukrainian, Romanian, Galician and Polish Jews. A Litvak was as trifling to them as to a pious Jewish pig. Not so the Litvak, like his "loshen (tongue)." When it was heard that there was a Litvak comedian in Russia, it was an unusual occurrence for everyone. The American actors who guest-starred in Russia, Poland or Lithuania, spoke and told about the Litvak comic.



At the start of the 1920 season, there were murmurs in the Yiddish theatre world that the Litvak comic could be found in New York. They even said to us that he was with me in an operetta on Second Avenue. He entered into the theatre unnoticed, and then he came out. Before appearing on the Yiddish stage, he first visited every Yiddish theatre, and even the English. He studied when and who it lacked.

On a Wednesday night they announced: The Litvak comic Aaron Lebedeff in "Liovke Molodietz." There was a coldness, a wakefulness at the beginning of the performance. The stage, put together from old scenery, the same nine musicians in the orchestra. And until the groom was expected, the Litvak comic, the Liovke Molodietz, the performance looked like a theatrical production in the province. But when Liovke Molodietz jumped in, he immediately brought with him in his first appearance, a great exposition, the most costly scenery, a large orchestra. Because Liovke Molodietz is you, the people, you will be able to overcome all these obstacles. And they embraced him like an old acquaintance. It's not me -- not you -- not a new actor, a new star, it's you, a good brother, he's ours, you sing, you dance.

Aaron Lebedeff the first night of his appearance, not only acted, but he danced and sang for the fourteen to fifteen hundred people who then attended the performance, yet I felt, sitting in the theatre, that the applause, the laughter, stormed the entire Yiddish-American theatre public in America.

Leaving the theatre, I still felt the excitement of the public, that what took the big stars thirty to thirty-five years, the Litvak did in one evening.

Since then, since that evening, the greatest events have taken place before our eyes. Whole kingdoms have fallen. Modernism has already become classical. An airplane already has the same effect as a carriage at home. The greatest electrical lighting already looks like a kerosene lamp from home. Atomic power is already spoken of as an ordinary event. But Aaron Lebedeff is still on the stage as the young, fresh, eternal Liovke Molodietz. And although in his years (kein ayin hora, i.e. without the evil eye), he already sang his grandfather's sleep songs to his grandchildren, he is still in all the heartfelt students who sings so plain and simply, popular to his girl; thus, the girls, oy, the puppies, or -- "Oy, I like she; Oy, oy, oy, I like she." They see him go on the stage, in the streets and in the coffee house, because it never gets old, and he will remain the eternal Liovke Molodietz.


In 1921 I traveled to Europe with Isidore Edelstein, the son of the manager Yosl Edelstein. It was said that it was a pleasure trip, but if there was a chatchkele in front of the stage, we would bring it to America. Ever since I left America, I've been longing for a Yiddish word and a Yiddish nigun (melody). In London I heard a fancy English being spoken. In Paris, people were fancied under the nose of the French. In Berlin, I have to say that, besides their music, I have always hated the Germans. I hated their precision and their soldierly stubbornness.

In Holland they were very friendly people, but watery. Somehow they had a face, the Hollander, as if they were composed of "water with cheese." But on the way to Warsaw I felt that I drew near to my own; I already heard the Warsaw Jews speak, almost like notes, with a shriek and a song. I am overjoyed with their Yiddish, mainly with their singing of every word. And what smells good to the gentile, smells good to my Jewish street. I have heard that they find joy with Molly Picon, who is now playing in Lodz, and with the "Dybbuk," which the Vilna Troupe already had played for a long time in Warsaw. And it made me angry that I did not travel first to Lodz, and then to Warsaw. But I lost. My ticket was direct to Warsaw.

Meanwhile the train remained standing, and the conductor called out: "Lodz"; I cried out: "Isidore! Take your satchel, we we're stopping in Lodz."

Isidore Edelstein, naturally, did not have any particular feeling for Lodz, but seeing my enthusiasm for Lodz, he agreed to get off, and sooner or later, we were already at the Lodz train station.

It flies by in my recalled memories from some twenty years back: Lodz, the city where I was a more complete conductor; Lodz, the city where I studied with others and also learned so much; Lodz, where I laid the foundation stone for a Yiddish choir for the entire world, "The Lodz Hazomir." Such singing as the Lodz Hazomir sang I have never heard up to today. Finally, we settled into a droshke (carriage), with a Polish coachman, and I was afraid that soon I would fall out of the carriage by all the shaking and throwing of the droshke on the way.

I did not see close to twenty people walking barefoot, and they did not wear just torn shoes, but indeed bare feet, with naked feet on the hot stones and pits, and not only children, but also the old men and women. It made a horrible 

impression on me, but soon were entering Piotrkowska Street, and it became a little friendlier to the heart. I saw beautiful Jews, modern clothes, and fine Hasidic clothes. People are running, people are fleeing, people are waiting, we are already in the "Grand Hotel," which was built with Polish pianist-concertist Paderewski's money. I noticed in the lobby of the hotel this small box with a wire turret, where the posters are located, which show where and what is being played in the theatres. And I read that the American artists, Molly Picon and Jacob Kalich, area already playing a week long in the operetta, "Yankele," with music by Joseph Rumshinsky.

I asked myself: When did I write music to an operetta "Yankele"? But I am highly satisfied that today I will see Molly Picon play for the first time, for although they come from America, I did not get to see her play.

I also heard that in Philadelphia's Arch Street Theatre there is a dresser, Mrs. Picon, who is a lovely woman who has a talented girl, Molly. The New York stars who used to travel to guest-star in Philadelphia talk wonderfully about the smallish Molly. Later Molly played English vaudeville; and a Yankel Kalich, who has had literary ambitions and was a fierce Zionist, a friend of the famous writer Borukhov; that he became a Yiddish actor, that he took up stage direction, writing and producing plays, and that this Yankel Kalich married Molly Picon. He opened a theatre in Philadelphia and often used to come to New York to see me, that I should give him my beautifully written operettas.

This is all that I heard about Molly Picon and Yankel Kalich, being in America. And today I want to see Molly Picon play for the first time in a play, "Yankele," with my music that I had not written for her.

And indeed soon I noticed Yankel Kalich emerging from an elevator in a coat with a fur collar, with the appearance of a Hasidic rabbi. And after him went a girl with a red coat, with two large, Jewish eyes.

We immediately recognized each other: We caught up, it became a joy. Yankel Kalich told me that he knew me because he knew that I could be found somewhere in Europe. Speaking of which, I find that the American-born Molly Picon is a tasty toy. They already knew that I could be found in Lodz, because when I arrived at the theatre, there were already waiting for me, singers, actors, members of the choral society, "Hazomir," and others who were known. I felt that I would never leave Lodz again -- and the entire twenty years that I had been gone from Lodz disappeared in a half of a day.

Yankel Kalich was right when he announced "Yankele," with music by Rumshinsky; because throughout the entire performance of "Yankele" my music was heard, which I had created over the last twenty years. I heard music from "The Broken Violin," "Mazl Tov," "The Cantoress," "The Rabbi's Melody." Though I had written the music for various operettas, nevertheless Yankel Kalich cleverly adapted all of the musical numbers, in such a way that besides me, no one else knew that the music was heard in other plays.

What matters is Molly Picon's playing, that I had only once in my life seen such proximity from the stage with the public. This was only with the genial Sigmund Mogulesko. Molly Picon is simply ingrained in the hearts and souls of the public. Through the entire performance, the public feels what parents feel about their own, a successful child. She is "our" Molly, "our" girl ... and nevertheless she was playing a natural, far from the public. She did not speak to the audience and did not look down on them -- just as if the public for her did not exist. Although she then was so young, she already demonstrated a wonderful stage technique and refinement.

When the successful, fine performance of "Yankele" had ended, we all went off to the restaurant of the "Grand Hotel." There the entire company gathered, and the Belgian counsel, Vandercook, who used to come to virtually every performance of Molly Picon, sung for us "The Messiah is Coming, the Messiah is Already Here."

I was very upset that Molly Picon and Yankel Kalich did not travel with us to America, because two weeks earlier Isidore Edelstein signed a contract with the German-Jewish soubrette Mathilda St. Clair. However, I felt that it would not be long for Molly Picon to become a future star in America.


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