Yiddish Sounds From the USO


By Masha Leon

Published July 21, 2006, issue of July 21, 2006.
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One of the honorees at the June 7 USO of Metropolitan New York luncheon at the Pierre Hotel was philanthropist Francine LeFrak, an award-winning theatrical and television producer whose productions have earned Tonys, Emmys, Peabody Awards and more. Introduced by MSNBC anchor Rita Cosby, LeFrak paid homage to her father, “Sam LeFrak, who built affordable housing so that GIs could have a roof over their heads, a concert hall at Queens College and the IMAX Theater at the Museum of Natural History.” Stephen Scheffer, chairman of the USO of Metropolitan of New York, recalled that the first USO center opened 65 years ago in Times Square to “help make New York a home away from home for the men and women of our armed forces.” Also on the dais was 1993 USO Woman of the Year Joyce Randolph, who played Trixie Norton on the TV series “The Honeymooners.” The program ended with Stacie Wells (Miss USO 2006) and USO troupe members Kristie Coombs and Kelly Wilson singing The Andrews Sisters’ World War II hits “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy From Company B” and “Bei Mir Bist du Schon.”

* * *

During lunch, I told the USO trio that “Bei Mir” originally was written in Yiddish. In 1937, composer Sholom Secunda and lyricist Jacob Jacobs sold the rights to “Bei Mir” for $30. Two months later, The Andrews Sisters recorded the song for Decca Records, first in Yiddish and then with English lyrics by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin. Secunda, composer of more than 1,000 songs and operettas, was then earning $75 a week as music director of Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theater. By 1961, when the rights were returned to Secunda and Jacobs, the song had earned more than $3 million in royalties. According to a 1980 report from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, it continued to earn at least $60,000 annually, with the bulk coming from Japan. Secunda, who for 30 years served as musical director of the Concord Resort Hotel, was also closely affiliated with the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring and often conducted its chorus. The USO entertainers were shocked to learn that “Bei Mir” was a hit in 1938 Nazi Germany until it was discovered that its composer and lyricist were Jews. Still, it was sung in 1942 in Nazi-occupied Paris (see the 1980 French film “The Last Metro,” starring Catherine Deneuve). No less surprising than Irving Berlin having written the American classics “White Christmas” and “God Bless America,” the composer of “Bei Mir” was born in the Ukraine in 1894. The tune has become a Yiddish American classic via the USO and other venues, and it continues to entertain American troops — and civilians — all over the world.

* * *

“I was fortunate that someone took notice that I loved learning,” said Tracy Chapman, an honoree at the June 9 luncheon of A Better Chance (ABC), an organization that, since 1963, has opened up educational opportunities for academically gifted young people of color. Chapman, a Grammy Award-winning artist, told the crowd at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel that she had been walking “through a white [Cleveland] neighborhood from school [when] I was attacked by an older white teenager. A young man aimed a gun at me. Only then would my mother let me, at 15 years old, live for three years in Wooster School in Danbury.” Jennifer Raab, president of Hunter College of the City University of New York, said she was honored to “receive an award named for the legendary Benjamin Mays, son of former slaves, [who became] president of Morehouse College, [and this event had] changed the lives for countless students of color. ABC and Hunter know that if we create opportunities for our minority youth to excel, these young adults will flourish. At age 12, I was given my own better chance when I was admitted [via] a competitive exam to Hunter College High School. We lived in [Manhattan’s] Washington Heights. The schools were not very good. We had little money, and my widowed mother struggled to make ends meet. I was warned by friends that if I left the neighborhood to attend an all-girls school on the Upper East Side, I would end up as a man hater and a snob. I understand the gratitude ABC students and alums feel.” After introducing me to her 91-year-old mother, Lillian, Raab told me, “My grandfather went from Warsaw to South Africa, to England then to America, where he founded a stationery and printing company. And he was a Forward reader.”

* * *

In keeping with the “A Night in the Gardens of Spain” theme of the June 13 Israel Sephardic Education Foundation anniversary dinner, held at The Pierre, the Sol y Sombra flamenco dance ensemble entertained the guests. The table centerpieces were huge bowls of red roses with black-lace fans tucked inside. Lily Safra was the event’s honorary chairwoman. Safra co-founded the ISEF in 1977, along with her husband, the late Edmond Safra, and Nina Weiner, the ISEF’s president. With actress Kathleen Turner as emcee, the evening’s live auction elicited animated bidding for such prizes as $2,000 computers for “students who are the first in their families to pursue a higher education,” and for “a $10,000 windfall for doctoral students to study abroad.” Ambassador Daniel Ayalon lamented “the price we pay [because] of the gap between the haves and the have-nots… youth that cannot participate in the full potential of life.” Weiner touted the foundation’s vision “to bridge the economic and educational gap to [offer] young people from poor and neglected backgrounds good educations. We have enabled thousands of bright young people to become active participants in Israel’s growth and prosperity, and be role models for thousands who still remain behind.” Leon Levy, born to Sephardic parents who emigrated from Turkey but whose ancestral home was Spain, received ISEF’s Lifetime Award. During World War II, Levy served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in the Pacific Campaign. A past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, he is also honorary lifetime president of the American Sephardi Federation. In the dinner journal it noted, “In 1992, on the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, he represented the United States as one of the 10 recipients from around the world who accepted Spain’s gesture [of remorse] — the Prince of Asturias’ Concorde Prize — on behalf of the Sephardic communities of the world.”

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