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
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
He did not come to America, but that
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
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
I SEE MOLLY PICON
ACT FOR THE FIRST TIME
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."
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
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
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