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Recently I came across an unexpected clip from the Tonight Show from 1955 featuring a swing version of the Yiddish song, “In mayne oygn bistu sheyn” (you’re beautiful in my eyes), sung by a duo called the Burton Sisters.
The recording was surprising to me for several reasons. First, it’s really good, and I’m not particularly a fan of swing music. Secondly, while the Yiddish sounds contemporary to my ear, the English lyrics haven’t aged as well. Usually, when I listen to bilingual Yiddish/English songs I have the opposite reaction, feeling that the English lyrics make the Yiddish sound dated. And finally, I wondered: who are the Burton Sisters with their elegant dresses and how did they end up performing in Yiddish on the Tonight Show at a time when it was rare to hear anything on American TV that wasn’t in English?
The Burton Sisters (born Rose and Evelyn Goldman) were raised in Philadelphia. Their mother was an immigrant from Ukraine who spoke little English and their father — an American Jew who understood little Yiddish. Despite the language barrier, the pair fell in love and the girls learned to speak Yiddish from their mother and gained a love of music from their father.
Theater impresarios found gigs for the duo in Philadelphia’s Yiddish theater scene and later on Second Avenue – New York’s “Yiddish Broadway” and in the Catskills. The Burton Sisters, however, hoped to have a Hollywood career and become famous singers on mainstream American radio. And for a short period, they came close. They were never anywhere as famous as the Andrews Sisters or the Barry Sisters but they toured the US, appeared on the radio and released several singles. And, of course, they charmed viewers of the Tonight Show.
There’s surprisingly little information about the Burton Sisters online. If you know more, please email me at Kutzik@forward.com.
Jordan Kutzik is the deputy editor of the Yiddish Forward. Contact him at email@example.com.