Sholom Aleichem: A Celebration


By Masha Leon

Published March 25, 2009, issue of April 03, 2009.
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“The greatest gift of the Jews to the Irish was corned beef and cabbage!” declared Pete Hamill, master of ceremonies at the March 17 celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sholom Aleichem, held in Manhattan at The Players. “There was no corned beef in Ireland. The Irish, who shared the Lower East Side with their fellow Jewish immigrants, learned to love corned beef at places like Moskowitz and Lupowitz on Second Avenue.” Among the guests at the event were Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the lyrics for “Fiddler on the Roof,” the musical based on Sholom Aleichem’s “Tevye the Milkman”; Theodore Bikel, who has played Tevye more than 2,500 times worldwide; Mike Burstyn, currently starring in “Lansky,” and Charles Osgood, host of CBS’s “Sunday Morning.”. Center stage was Sholom Aleichem’s 98-year-old granddaughter, Bel Kaufman, who introduced a clip from the forthcoming documentary “Memories of My Grandfather, Sholom Aleichem: From Odessa to New York,” in which she is the narrator. “I am the only one who remembers his voice…. He used to say that the tighter he held my hand, the better he wrote…. Before he died, he asked his fellow Yiddish writers, ‘To whom should I carry your greetings to the next world?’ He requested: ‘ want to be buried with the poor people so that their poor graves should honor me and my grave should honor them.”

Describing the evolution of “Fiddler on the Roof,” Harnick recalled that choreographer Jerome Robbins was obsessed with the story and that producer Harold Prince knew the Tevye story, which he had heard as a 6-year-old. It may have been Bikel who told the Sholom Aleichem tale of a poor man who promised a rich man eternal life if he moved to his town. “‘How is that possible?’ the rich man asked. Replied the poor man: ‘In the long history of our town, nobody rich has ever died there.’” Hamill recalled the early Yiddish “Shund” (lightweight-unsophisticated) theater, including “a version of ‘King Lear’ with a happy ending!” and “‘The Merchant of Venice’ where I was sure that Shylock was a Protestant.”

Hamill quoted Isaac Bashevis Singer, explaining, “‘I write in Yiddish because it has more vitamins,” and lauded the Jewish-Irish Lower East Side juxtaposition that spawned such Yiddish-speakers as Jimmy Cagney and former New York City mayor Jimmy Walker. Hamill said that he discovered Sholom Aleichem while “working in 1960 for Dorothy Schiff at the New York Post, then on Second Avenue and Third Street, for $108 a week.” He added: “In the Tevye stories, he is the listener [and] what I heard are the stories of my mother’s and father’s family who came to New York…. Writers began to learn from each other, and Yiddish had an impact” on New York media. As an example, he cited a past headline in the Spanish-language newspaper El Diario that read, “No Y Soy Schmuck!”

A number of years ago I was invited to speak about Sholom Aleichem and the Yiddish theater to a ladies’ auxiliary group at a Catholic church in Queens. I told my friend Penny Butler, the group’s president, that I thought the choice of topic was somewhat odd for this group. “Don’t worry,” she assured me, “they’ll love it!” Following a nondenominational invocation by the priest, I faced about 50 elderly Irish women. Beginning with Abraham Goldfaden and the origin of the Yiddish theater in Romania, its flowering on New York’s Second Avenue, its stars and scandals, I noticed that the women were smiling and nodding. I assumed they were being polite. Afterward, they came up to me, and each had a story or a memory of a specific Yiddish production she had seen, or a star whom she met or admired. How come? They all grew up on the Lower East Side. Their fathers, brothers and uncles had been New York City policemen who used to keep the then adoring crowds of Yiddish theater fans from becoming unruly. In appreciation, Yiddish theater owners would give them free tickets. As children and teenagers, these Irish women had been taken by their mothers, aunts and grandmothers to see Yiddish theater. Several could still hum a tune from some musical production — and a few still remembered some Yiddish expressions!


The March 19 opening night performance of the National Yiddish Theatre — Folksbiene’s “Shpiel! Shpiel! Shpiel!” trilogy by Murray Schisgal hit an emotional home run with the audience. “The Pushcart Peddlers,” directed by Motl Didner, has naive immigrant Shimmel (deliciously played by Michael Harris) inveigled into a get-rich-quick scheme in the vein of **Bernard Madoff* by banana peddler Cornelius (Stuart Marshall). Possibly blind flower seller and wannabe actress Maggie (Dani Marcus), whose wacky antics recall Carol Burnett at her best, becomes the deux ex machine who saves the day. In “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Crying,” directed by Gene Saks, tear-duct challenged Benjamin (I.W. “Itzy” Firestone) drives his wife, Judith (Suzanne Toren), to distraction with his lachrymose meshugas. But it was “74 George Street,” directed by Bob Dishy, that proved to be the evening’s surprise. With a possible nod to Bernard Malamud’s “Angel Levine,” the confrontation between a black man named Joseph (Tony Perry) and Marty (Harry Peerce), a white Jewish man who is visiting his former apartment, kept the audience engrossed as the two retraced a past they mysteriously shared. By the time the character played by Perry (whose newly acquired Yiddish earns him an alef) channels the cantor of yesteryear by singing “Avinu Malkeinu,” some in the audience were close to joining Firestone in eye dabbing.

Rounding out the evening’s program was troubadour Lisa Fishman accompanying herself on the guitar. Her wonderful interpretations of Yiddish songs included the delightful “Watch Your Step!” about the hurry-hurry, fast-moving, fast-talking life in this new land. As for the characters’ names in “Peddlers,” Schisgal no doubt took a page from Charles Dickens, who fabricated names to fit his characters. In Yiddish, Shimmel’s name means mold (as in farshimlte broyt — moldy bread). His last name, Schitzman, needs no translation — just say it quickly in English! Someone to whom s…t happens. As for Cornelius (the Madoff-like swindler), who envisions himself as a banana magnate, Schisgal must have had Vanderbilt in mind.

Don’t know about the Russian supertitles, but those of the English version for the Yiddish-impaired were more than adequate. Though there is always something nuanced or idiomatic lost in translation, the action onstage spoke for itself. Among the opening night’s guests were Schisgal, Didner, Dishy, Saks, Anne Jackson, Eli Wallach, Fyvush Finkel, and Kaufman, and her husband, Sidney Gluck. Pity it’s such a short run. You only have until April 5 to catch this dramatic trio at the Folksbiene.


“Who would have believed that comic book creators would become source material for doctoral delving,” Rabbi Isidoro Aizenberg said to the 300 guests at the February 17 private showing of the exhibit American Cartoonists, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, at Queensboro Community College. A scholar in residence at the college’s Kupferberg Holocaust Center, Aizenberg added: “We would kill to have had one of these books. In Argentina, there was no money to buy comic books in the mid-1940s, not for Jewish boys to read.” Arthur Flug, the center’s executive director, boasted: “My father had a candy store, and I had access to comic books. ‘Don’t tear them! Don’t stain them!’ he’d admonish. My mother believed only in reading from a book. No books with pictures, or you grow up to become a dunce and will never have a job!” Who knew? Keynote speaker, Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, author of “Up, Up, and Oy Vey!: How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero” (Leviathan Press 2006), found out there’s gold in them there “pictures.” A Lubavitcher with a sense of whimsy, a twinkle in his eye and a British lilt to his speech, and now rabbi at Pratt Institute, he recounted: “I was born in Manchester, England, reared in a secular home, got a B.A. in film history and then “merged the popular with the theological.”

“Goebbels denounced Superman in front of Hitler,” said Weinstein, who explained that the roots of comic book heroes tapped into biblical stories. “Superman. Super! Based on Moses. Moses becomes the savior of his people. Comes from Kal-El, the voice of God. Grows up in a foreign land, the Midwest, to save humanity…. Every one of us has a double identify — an external [that] we blend in, wanting to do good…. The first issue of ‘Captain America’ shows him smashing Hitler, the personification of evil, across the face. We fought the Nazis through comic books.” Weinstein said that Jerry Robbins created the character “The Joker,” inspired by the Catskills. “There is nothing more American than ‘Captain America,’ a wish fulfillment of what it means to be all-American in the eyes of immigrants. ‘The American Dream’ is a Jewish invention.”

The exhibit opening dovetailed with an awards presentation to Queensborough students who interviewed Holocaust survivors from Germany, Poland, Greece and Belgium. Most of the students were not Jewish and had known little of the Holocaust prior to the project. Each student explained how he or she was transformed by the experience and, in some cases, was “adopted” by the survivors. One survivor told the audience how after a family member had been executed outside of her town, she and a relative had dug a grave in which to bury him: “Three young Polish boys happened to come by. They looked, said nothing and left. Then, one of them returned and said: ‘You can’t bury him without saying a prayer!’ He took off his cap and then recited a Catholic prayer and left. I did not care that it was not a Jewish prayer.”

College president Eduardo Marti stated: “The Kupferberg Holocaust Resource Center” is remembrance… and a reminder that anytime we see any bullying action, we say something about it. If only the world had stood up, [the Holocaust] would not have happened.”

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