A Yiddish Song-and-Dance Man Sings His Own Story

By Nahma Sandrow

Published October 31, 2003, issue of October 31, 2003.
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What a Life! The Autobiography of Pesach’ke Burstein, Yiddish Matinee Idol

By Pesach’ke Burstein with Lillian Lux Burstein

Syracuse University Press, 224 pages, $34.95.

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Pesach “Pesach’ke” Burstein, the popular Yiddish song-and-dance man, set out to tell his own personal story. On that level, “What a Life! The Autobiography of Pesach’ke Burstein, Yiddish Matinee Idol” is a cheerful account of his roles and hits, his show-business relationships and his trademark fancy whistling. But since he was whistling through the same half-century that brought Bolsheviks, Nazis and the mass dispersal of European Jewry, that’s all here too: the chaos and danger, panic and hustling, dislocations and resettlements, and the occasional triumphs of decency, friendship, wits and luck.

Burstein’s adventures began when he ran away from his boyhood home in Russia to go on the stage. In Vilna in 1916, he and his company, voices quavering with fright, performed for Bolshevik invaders strapped with rifles and ammunition. The commissar, an officer in the Soviet secret police, protected them and even found them food while locals starved. When the soldiers moved on to evade a German counter-invasion, the actors had to follow in the snow, performing their way across Poland, surviving on Kerensky rubles that they’d sewn inside the lining of a hat. In one village, their stage was a wardrobe overturned flat on the floor; their orchestra, the only piano in town.

The famous Yiddish actor Boris Tomashefsky brought Burstein to New York, where he too became a star, traveling back and forth across the United States and Latin America. But 1937 found him back in Europe, in Antwerp, hesitating between a gig in Vienna and one in Lodz, Poland. Luckily Lodz offered more money; had he gone the other way, he would have been caught in Austria when Hitler entered several weeks later. He toured Poland so successfully that he rented a big Warsaw theater for the 1938-1939 season. Who knew that this would turn out to be Poland’s last Yiddish theater season ever?

In fact, Burstein also paid rent for the same theater for the 1939-1940 season. Only the urging of the American consul, a non-Jew who had met him in Philadelphia, convinced him to leave, “just for the summer.” Ships to New York were packed, but his mazel worked again and got him a cabin; the chief steward remembered that he had entertained the passengers on a crossing five years before. While Burstein was still at sea, Hitler’s army marched into Poland; the company manager, who stayed behind to keep an eye on the scenery and costumes, was never heard from again.

Burstein followed his audiences around Eastern and Western Europe, North and South America, South Africa and Israel. To satisfy them, he performed not only in Yiddish, but also in Russian and Polish, and over the years he learned to be funny in English, Spanish and Hebrew. Wherever he went, he ran into people he had met in other times and places. And he was greeted warmly, not just for his whistling, but also as an emissary of Yiddish popular culture, a link with other far-flung Jewish communities.

Half a century after the Bolsheviks, Burstein was still trouping in dramatic situations — only now he traveled by jeep, entertaining Israeli soldiers behind the front lines in the Six-Day War.

In this story, his second wife, Lillian Lux, and their twins, Michael and Susan (Motele and Zisele), are the principal supporting players. There are occasional walk-ons by celebrities, including the Yiddish poet Itsik Manger and an adolescent Jerry Lewis. Burstein doesn’t analyze the people he knew or the events he lived through. He doesn’t look deeply into himself, either. We know him from his actions. We get a devoted family man, practical, plucky and buoyant, proud of his own hard work and not shy about taking a bow. He did his best, made his decisions and, when necessary, shrugged, tipped his hat and cut his losses. Not so incongruous an emblem for the Jewish people, at that: light on his feet, trunk always packed, with no cushion against adversity except his family and his own determination to keep on whistling.

The book is illustrated with photographs. But the best illustration of all is a glimpse of Pesach’ke in action. The original cast recording of his last and perhaps greatest show, “The Megile of Itsik Manger” (also featuring Lux and their son Michael), is available on CD. “Der Komediant,” an award-winning documentary about the Bursteins, is screened periodically, though it has not yet been released for rental.

Nahma Sandrow is the author of “Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater” (Proscenium, 1986).

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