Writer Stefan Kanfer on 'Stardust Lost.'
Writer Stefan Kanfer. His new book is âStardust Lost: The Triumph, Tragedy, and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theater in America.â Itâs about the glory days of Yiddish theater in the late 19th and early 20th century. Kanfer was a writer and editor at Time magazine for 20 years and is the author of many books including biographies of Lucille Ball and Groucho Marx.
Other segments from the episode on January 2, 2007
DATE January 2, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Stefan Kanfer, author of "Stardust Lost," talks about
birth, growth and legacy of Yiddish theater in Romania and New
York, as well as the rest of the world
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Actors Paul Muni, John Garfield, Zero Mostel and Walter Matthau; the acting
teachers Lee Strasberg and Sandford Meisner; and director Sidney Lumet were
all associated with Yiddish theater early in their career. Yiddish theater
was written and performed by and for Yiddish speaking Jews, largely in the
late 19th and early 20th centuries. It originated in Eastern Europe. Its
capital in America was the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where many Jewish
The Yiddish theater altered the history of Broadway and Hollywood and thus, to
a certain extent, America, writes Stefan Kanfer in his new book, "Stardust
Lost: the Triumph, Tragedy and Mishugas of the Yiddish theater in America."
Kanfer is also the author of books about Groucho Marx and the summer resorts
of the Catskill mountains. Kanfer has a personal connection to the Yiddish
The town that your grandfather was from, Iasi, Romania, you described that as
the place where Yiddish theater actually started. I didn't realize you could
actually trace Yiddish theater to, like, one town.
Mr. STEFAN KANFER: That's right. You know, nobody knows how the Greek
theater began or who its father was or even how the Shakespearan Elizabethan
theater started. But we know that the Yiddish theater began in a wine cellar
in Iasi, Romania, with a play by a man named Abraham Goldfaden, who really was
sort of the George Washington of the Yiddish theater.
GROSS: And so tell us about that first play.
Mr. KANFER: Well, it was what he later described as a hodgepodge. He was a
man who anticipated Irving Berlin by 50 years in that he couldn't read or
write a note, but he could sound notes out on the piano and somebody would
transcribe them. He wrote lyrics. He also wrote the books for these shows.
And although they--none of them very memorable at first, but he enchanted an
audience who'd never seen theater before. Jews were not really welcomed,
certainly not in the Russian theater. And besides, the rabbis frowned upon
such theater as, quote, "frivolous."
GROSS: So there hadn't been Yiddish theater before this play. Why not? I
mean, there's theater all over the world. Why wasn't there Yiddish theater?
Mr. KANFER: Well, before 1876--was when it began--we really had a kind of
restrictions on the Jews. Certainly the Czar Nicholas, the Roman officer in
general, didn't want Jews around, and certainly didn't want them in the
cities. So they were largely in what's called the Pale, these settlements far
beyond these places of urbanity where a theater thrived. And the Jews of
France and Germany and places where they were a little less restrictions, they
were also traditions of--Jewish traditions, which didn't allow or didn't
welcome Jews in theater. They felt that a Jew would become too assimilated
too quickly. That was not what they wanted; they wanted Jews to remain Jews.
And they would be polluted by what was called the Haskalah, the enlightenment.
But, of course, there was no holding back the enlightenment. The rabbis
were...(unintelligible)...in that regard. And sooner or later, it had to
happen. And it happened in a fairly liberal country, which Romania was then,
and a very liberal city, which was Iasi.
GROSS: So how did Yiddish theater spread after that first play in Iasi,
Mr. KANFER: That's a wonderful question because it was almost as if it were
a fire waiting to be ignited. What happened was the word of mouth was so
extraordinary that people began to pile into these little wine cellars, and
then suddenly, everyone wanted to be an actor. There were no academies for
Jews who wanted to study acting, so they just invented the form of acting.
They invented songs, they invented stories, they invented playwrights, and
they developed the theater out of nothing almost overnight, so that by the
late 19th century, it was blooming in Russia, even though there were
restrictions against it, and in France and in England, and eventually, when
the pogroms began, to be very heavy and torturous, the Jews arrived in New
York, as we know, by the millions by the time the immigration was over.
And since you cannot have a great theater without a great audience, they
formed that great audience.
GROSS: When the Yiddish theater came to the United States, as Jewish
immigrants came to the United States, and became very popular...
Mr. KANFER: Yeah.
GROSS: ...in Manhattan, in particular, what were some of the early narratives
of the Yiddish plays in the early part of Yiddish theater in New York?
Mr. KANFER: Well, believe it or not, they adored great plays, so they tried
to adopt Tolstoy, and they even adopted "Hamlet," and there's a wonderful
story that goes along with that. Boris Thomashefsky, who is the grandfather
of Michael Tilson Thomas, the conductor was sort of a rotund, very
self-involved impresario actor, thought the world of himself and, of course,
the women were crazy about him. I guess he cut a fine figure of two men, I
like to say. In any case, he decided that he was going to do Shakespeare. He
did "Hamlet," probably the fattest Hamlet that ever was, and he was adored by
the audience. And they applauded, applauded, applauded opening night. And
then they called, `Author, author!' He was mortified because he didn't know
what to do, and his wife Bessie pointed to one of the actors and said, `You go
out and say you're Mr. Shakespeare.' They spelled it S-H-E-K-S-P-I-R.
Shekspir. `You go out and say you're Mr. Shekspir.' And the actor wouldn't
do it. So she came to the apron of the stage and she said, `Mr. Shekspir
lives a long way from here in London, but he's very grateful for your
Anyway, that's the kind of theater that they had, was originally borrowed
theater from other sources, and gradually they began to develop their own
playwrights--some of them hacks and some of them quite brilliant.
GROSS: Now, you make a distinction between the more ambitious plays and
socially relevant plays in the Yiddish theater and the stuff that you describe
as shund, which is Yiddish for trash. What were some of the differences
between the two?
Mr. KANFER: Well, they used to shoehorn songs into everything, including
"King Lear." And there's a wonderful site--it's a true story--there's a
wonderful site that Brown University has. They have all of the Yiddish
theater song sheets. And they're quite beautiful. But you see that they had
songs for Tolstoy's "Resurrection," for example. I mean, just shoehorned it
in there. And so that even serious theater for a while had touches of shund.
But the real shund was kind of vaudeville. It was, you know, the couple meet,
the couple break up, the couple finally wed under the canopy, that sort of
thing, with songs and stories. Whereas the real theater, with playwrights
like Jacob Gordon, really discussed the hard life of Jews in the old world and
then in the new world, the idea of the sweatshop, the idea of social justice,
which was always burning hard in the Lower East Side, became the subject
matter of many a play.
GROSS: Now, some actors were unhappy having to do the more formulaic kind of
Yiddish theater, and you describe in particular David Kessler. And you quote
him as saying, "All day long I am a human being. I speak like a human being,
act like a human being. At night I must dress myself like a turkey, like an
idiot. If I went out in the street like this, people would throw stones at me
for a lunatic. Here, in the theater, they shout, `Bravo!'" So.
Mr. KANFER: Well, there were three great actors. He was one of them.
Kessler was a very important actor because he was a naturalist. He did not go
for the breast-beating and the forehead wiping you see in so much Yiddish
theater. And, indeed, you saw it at that point uptown in Broadway, as well.
He was a very serious guy, died in his middle years and left almost nothing
behind. He didn't have children, so he is almost forgotten now.
The second one--these are spiritual sons, really, of the founder and his--and
they're important on their own, but they would not really have happened
without Abraham Goldfaden. The second is Jacob Adler. And Jacob Adler is the
father of Stella Adler, the great acting teacher, taught Marlon Brando and
Robert De Niro and Melanie Griffith and many, many others. And Jacob Adler
was so powerful an actor that when he played Shylock, which is, after all,
Shakespeare's most anti-Semitic creation, it was a tremendous sensation, not
only in the Lower East Side but a producer named Daniel Frohman came down and
said, `Mr. Adler, I'd like to take this to Broadway.' And Adler said, `Look,
I know what I sound like when I speak English. I have a strong Yiddish
accent. I'll sound like a vaudevillian and a comedian, and I'm not going to
do it.' And Frohman said, `You misunderstand me, Mr. Adler. You will play in
Yiddish, and everyone else will play in English.' And that's exactly what
happened. If you can imagine such a thing happening on Broadway today.
Shylock was played in Yiddish, and "The Merchant of Venice," the rest of it
was played by English-speaking actors speaking Elizabethan English.
The third was Boris Thomashefsky, whom I've described before. But
Thomashefsky was important because he got things done. He knew how to raise
money. He was like a Hal Prince. He just knew how to find the theater and
make the presentation and was very, very popular for a long, long time. Died
broke, of course, as they tend to do.
GROSS: Now, now, I want to get back to the actor David Kessler. And he's the
one who said, you know, that, basically that if he looked and behaved on the
street the way he did onstage, people would think he was a lunatic. But he's
applauded for this onstage. He wanted to do a more naturalistic form of
acting. In order to do that...
Mr. KANFER: He did, but...
GROSS: ...he needed to find a playwright who could write plays that that kind
of more naturalistic acting would be suitable for. And he did find someone.
Who did he find?
Mr. KANFER: Well, Jacob Gordon was a more than great playwright. He was
somebody who was a real pioneer. He's almost forgotten now, but if you go
back and you look at those plays, and I've looked at many of them, they have a
sincerity and a, you know, a very direct reach to the audience. They don't
plea for sympathy. He's very realistic about how he handles characters. And
you could see that Kessler would fall in love with this kind of dialogue.
On the other hand, most of the audience didn't want to see naturalistic drama.
They wanted to see the exaggerated form. Kafka, who was--Franz Kafka, who was
a great Yiddish theater fan in Prague, loved the exaggerated performances. He
said, `One must aim high to hit the mark.' And they really loved that. But
Kessler was well ahead of his time in demanding believability. The others
kind of hammed it up, particularly Thomashefsky--or pastramied it up, I guess
you'd say. But he was just somebody that had the shopgirls in his corner, and
Kessler never was popular. I mean, he was certainly highly regarded and
respected, but he never gained the popularity that Thomashefsky did because he
played to the galleries.
GROSS: In writing about the Yiddish theater, you write a bit about Sholom
Aleichem, who wrote, you know, a lot of Yiddish plays and short stories and,
in fact, "Fiddler on the Roof" is based on one of his stories, "Tevye the
Milkman." And you quote a letter--you actually have the letter that Sholom
Aleichem--which was a pen name, by the way--wrote to the actor Jacob Adler,
trying to convince him to do a Tevye story onstage. Would you read an excerpt
of that letter for us?
Mr. KANFER: Yes, because I think it gives a great picture of what was going
on in the stage at that point. It begins: (reading) "Great master of the
stage, in my play you will find none of the effects on which the Jewish public
has, for so many years, been nourished. You will find no soul-tearing scenes,
no corpses in cribs, no demented women, no patriotic songs or nationalistic
speeches, no transient boarders seducing innocent maidens and no vulgar jokes.
You will only find a simple Jew, father of five daughters, an honest, clean,
wholesome and greatly suffering character who, with all his misfortunes, will
make the public laugh from beginning to end." Of course, he was right. That
was Tevye he was describing, but it took another 50 years before that Tevye
was acceptable to the American public.
GROSS: My guest is Stefan Kanfer. His new book about the Yiddish theater is
called "Stardust Lost."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Stefan Kanfer. His new book is called "Stardust Lost:
the Triumph, Tragedy and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theater in America."
You know, you've been talking a little bit about some of the friction within
the Yiddish theater about, you know, more serious and realistic plays vs.
more formula overacting, hyperemotional kinds of things. There was also,
apparently, some friction between Yiddish theater and vaudeville. From how
you describe it, it sounds like a lot of people--I mean, Yiddish stage really
looked down on vaudeville.
Mr. KANFER: Well, I think that's been the case with uptown as well. I think
vaudeville is a place where amateurs get started, and in those days, that was
the training ground for people who wanted to get into theater or who wanted to
get into--some point, into a higher show business, play two a day at the
Palace Theater, for example. But it was not legitimate. And the Yiddish
theaterists, snobs that they were, decided that legitimate was better than
vaudeville, and that you could have an Eddie Cantor but you couldn't have a
Jacob Adler on the same stage. So there was that.
And they also found, in vaudeville, a kind of cheap, easygoing anti-Semitism.
You know, there's a CD that's come out fairly recently called "Jewface," and
it plays a lot of those old playing-around-anti-Semitic kind of songs that
were very popular on the stage. The Yiddish theaters actors were appalled by
this. They took themselves seriously, they took their crowds seriously.
Often, the audience was more religious than the actors, but they respected the
religion, and they respected the idea of the culture, a high culture, and they
thought vaudeville was, I think quite correctly, was a lower down kind of
GROSS: Yeah. And the CD you mentioned, "Jewface," which is a CD of Jewish
ethnic comic recordings and songs from the early part of the 20th century, and
we'll actually be speaking later in the show to the person who put that CD
Mr. KANFER: Well, one of the songs is called "Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars," and
it's by Irving Berlin, who came from a Yiddish-speaking family, and certainly
was influenced by a lot of the Yiddish theater, but decided to go the other
way. Gershwin was another one. George Gershwin was offered a job playing
music in the Yiddish theater and composing for Yiddish theater for Boris
Thomashefsky, and Thomashefsky decided Gershwin wasn't good enough. And
Gershwin thereafter used to meet Sholom Secunda, who
wrote...(unintelligible)...all his life in the Yiddish theater as a composer.
And he kept shaking his hand and saying, `Thank you. If I hadn't been kicked
out that day, I'd be a composer for the Yiddish theater, and that's all I'd
GROSS: Well, it's nice to live in a time where you can embrace both. You
know, you can embrace, you know, the higher aspirations of the Yiddish theater
and the just kind of like fun and talent of vaudeville. You don't have to
Mr. KANFER: It's true. That's true, but vaudeville lasted a lot longer than
the Yiddish theater, in fact.
GROSS: Yeah, I guess that's true. And a lot of the vaudeville stars kind of
made it to movies and television and radio, yeah.
Mr. KANFER: There's only been a couple of crossover stars, you know, from
the Yiddish theater. One of them's Paul Muni, of course. It was Muni
Weisenfreund and was a superstar in the Yiddish theater before he became an
actor for the American stage and for films and a Academy award winner and so
on. And then there's people like Molly Picon, who people remember because she
was in "Fiddler on the Roof." And there a very few others. Walter Matthau
began as a kid; Sidney Lumet, the director, began acting as a kid and then
switched over. Very, very few. The Yiddish theater was rather exclusive in
GROSS: You know, you mention that very few of the stars of Yiddish theater
actually crossed over to the English stage or to, you know, to American
movies. But Yiddish theater did have quite an impact on American theater and
film. And you quote Marlon Brando, who studied with Stella Adler, who's the
daughter of the great Yiddish actor Jacob Adler. And Brando said, `If there
wasn't the Yiddish theater, there wouldn't have been Stella Adler. And there
wouldn't have been Stella Adler, there wouldn't have been all these actors who
studied with her and changed the face of theater, and not only acting but
directing and writing.'
Mr. KANFER: That's true. I think she, you know, she said that she had only
worked with two geniuses in her life on the stage, and one of them was her
father and the other was Brando. I think--there're many, many stories about
the two of them. One, she was teaching a class and she said, `OK, your
problem now, you're all chickens, and a bomb is about to hit. And do whatever
you think is right.' They would go around screeching and hysterically
clucking, and Brando just stayed there, sitting there, pretending that he was
hatching an egg, and she said, `What are you doing?' And he said, `I'm a
chicken, what the hell do I know about bombs?' You know, she knew she had
somebody lively right there.
I think she was a powerful influence, as was Lee Strasberg. Of course, the
two hated each other, but they both had seen Yiddish theater and they knew
there was something holy about the way the serious Jewish actors treated the
theater, and they wanted to bring that into the life of the American actor.
And also, they wanted to take the most realistic kinds of human problems and
bring them on the stage.
I mean, to me, there's no doubt that Arthur Miller wrote "Death of a Salesman"
with Jews in mind, and he allowed Joseph Buloff to do it in Yiddish. And when
it was done in Yiddish, most people felt that was the original and that
somebody else had translated it into English because it played so true to the
familial conflicts of the period.
GROSS: How else would you describe the impact that Yiddish theater had on
American acting, theater and movies?
Mr. KANFER: Well, I think, for example, just one aspect is a man named Jack
Gottlieb who wrote a book called "Funny, It Doesn't Sound Jewish." And it's
all about popular songs. And, of course, you expect it from Irving Berlin.
But Cole Porter, who was, you know, born in Indiana, who had absolutely no
connection with Jews at all when he was growing up but later on said to
Richard Rodgers, `Now I know how to write hit tunes,' and Rodgers thought that
was rather miraculous and said, `How do you do that?' And he said, `I'll write
them Jewish.' By which he meant the kind of mournful tone that you sometimes
hear in a song like (sings in Yiddish), so it's that kind of violin sound.
So I think that emanated from the Yiddish theater, those kinds of songs. And
I once saw a master class at Casal's, who was teaching
public...(unintelligible)...to cellists. And he was playing "Box
Unaccompanied"...(unintelligible)...wonderfully, and his student did it. And
my ear is not good enough. Sounded to me as if the student was wonderful and
Casal said, `No, no, no, no.' He made him do it again. `No, no.' And finally
he said, `No, no. Make more Jewish.' By which he meant, give that lamentation
that you see in the Yiddish theater, that you hear in Jewish music. So I
think that was a very strong influence, of course, later on seen in Leonard
Bernstein and all the popular songwriters from Gershwin and Stephen Sondheim,
all of them show this.
And then in the theater itself, the serious theater, once you've experienced
something like Paul Muni in, say, "Scarface," you're so profoundly influenced.
Al Pacino the, you know, 40 years later, he demanded to be in a remake. He
said it was almost surrealistic, that kind of acting was so powerful. And you
know that the Yiddish theater threw a long shadow over every living actor.
GROSS: Stefan Kanfer, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. KANFER: It's my pleasure, always.
GROSS: Stefan Kanfer is the author of "Stardust Lost: the Triumph, Tragedy
and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theater in America."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Jody Rosen, rock critic for Slate magazine, talks about
the anthology of Yiddish dialect humor recordings "Jewface" that
he put together, the history of the genre and its purpose
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Jody Rosen is a rock critic who has gone back to early pop--way
back--for his new anthology. It features 16 Jewish dialect novelty recordings
from the early 20th century. Rosen called the collection "Jewface" because,
like blackface performers of the same period, the Jewish performers of this
material often dressed in stereotyped ways, with fake big noses and old baggy
overcoats. Many of the lyrics reflect the stereotypes of the day, too, even
though most of the material was written and performed by Jews for Jewish
audiences. Some of the songs in this genre were written by Irving Berlin.
A few years ago, Rosen wrote a book tracing the history of Berlin's song
"White Christmas." Here's a track from "Jewface" recorded in 1908. It's
called "I'm a Yiddish Cowboy."
(Soundbite from "I'm a Yiddish Cowbow")
Unidentified Man: "I'm a Yiddish Cowboy," sung by Edward Meeker, Edison
Mr. EDWARD MEEKER: (Singing) "Way out West in the wild and wooly prarie
land, lived a cowboy by the name of Levi. He loved a blue-blooded Indian
maiden and came to serenade her like a tough guy. Big Chief Cruller Legs was
the maiden's father, and he bade to keep Levi away. Levi didn't care for
every evening with his bronco Buster--`Giddyup, giddyup!'--he'd come around
and say, whoa!"
"Tough guy Levi, that's my name and I'm a Yiddish cowboy! I don't care for
Tomahawks of Cheyenne Indians, oy oy! I'm a real life Diamond Dick that
shoots 'em till die. I...(unintelligible)."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Jody, how did you first discover this genre of Jewish dialect
recordings from the early 20th century?
Mr. JODY ROSEN: I was--about a dozen years ago, I was in graduate school in
London, of all places, but I, at the time, was interested in writing something
about Jewish songwriters and kind of the assimilation of Jewish immigrants. I
was pretty vague about it. But I spent a lot of time in the British library,
where they had enormous sheet music holdings. And I was kind of digging
through some songs one day, and I happened upon a song called "I Want To Be an
Oy-Oy-Oyviator," which was from, I think, 1915 or 1916, a time when there were
a lot of kind of topical novelty songs about airplanes and aviation. And this
was a sort of Jewish-themed variation on that. And so this really tickled me,
"I Want To Be an Oy-Oy-Oyviator." I thought this was the funniest and weirdest
thing I'd ever seen and assumed it was kind of a one-off novelty. But as I
began to dig deeper, I began to realize that this was, you know, just one of
hundreds, thousands, of songs that were written, that this was a full-fledged
genre that, you know, really the Jewish equivalent of blackface minstrelcy.
GROSS: Well, you know, America's, like, best-known and perhaps most beloved
songwriter, Irving Berlin, got started writing these ethnic songs. And you
include one of them on your CD, and the song is called "Cohen Owes Me 97
Dollars." How many of these kinds of songs did Irving Berlin write? Like,
where does it fit into his career?
Mr. ROSEN: He wrote lots of them. He was one of the kind of big and most
successful specialists in the genre. Of course, he wrote songs in all of the
ethnic genres. He did, you know, famously did blackface material, and did a
lot of these Jewish songs. But he also, you know, wrote songs like Italian
songs. Like, his first published song was called "Marie from Sunny Italy,"
which was written in 1907 and was an Italian number. He also wrote a number
called "Hey, Wop," to give you a flavor of, you know, some of the language
that was used in these songs. And, but anyway, yeah, he was something of a
specialist in the Jewish stuff, so he--one of his big hits from 1909 was a
song called "Sadie Salome, Go Home," which is about a kind of a Jewish, you
know, burlesque kind of striptease dancer woman, Jewish woman. And this was
the first big hit for Fanny Bryce.
And then there was "Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars," which he wrote several years
later in 1916, which was also something of a hit. And it tells the story of
Old Man Rosenthal, who's a Jewish businessman or kind of someone in the shmata
business, you know, in the clothing business, who's on his deathbed, and his
kind of dying wish is to see his son recoup his unpaid debt from other
businessmen because, after all, you know, he's Jewish and the joke is that,
you know, all they care about is money. And the kind of punchline of the song
is his son manages to get his $97 paid back and then, of course, Old Man
Rosenthal miraculously rises from his deathbed and, well, lives again. So the
recording on the record is by a wonderful singer called Rhoda Bernard, and one
of the joys for me in collecting this stuff has been to discover these, some
of them, real extraordinary singers who have just completely been lost to
history, and I especially like Rhoda Bernard. She's got quite a big, booming
GROSS: Well, let's hear some of "Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars," sung by Rhoda
Bernard, recorded in 1916 and featured on Jody Rosen's new anthology
"Jewface," which is a collection of Jewish ethnic recordings.
(Soundbite from "Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars")
Ms. RHODA BERNARD: (Singing) "Soon his son was sitting by his bed. `What's
the matter, papa dear?' he said. The old man said, `My son, before my days
are done, I want you to know: Cohen owes me $97, and it's up to you to see
that Cohen pays. I sold out lots of food to Rosenstein and Son on an IOU for
90 days. Levi brothers don't get any credit. They owe me for 100 yards of
lace. Now if you promise me, my son, you'll collect from everyone, I can die
with a smile upon my face.'"
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's "Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars," written by Irving Berlin and
featured on the new anthology "Jewface," which is a collection of Jewish
ethnic comedy recordings from the turn of the 20th century. And my guest Jody
Rosen is the curator of the anthology. He's a music critic who writes for
People will really wonder, listening to this, is this music, you know, is it
racist? Is it anti-Semitic? I mean, what is this music about? It's Jewish
performers self-stereotyping. Was this common of Jewish ethnic humor at the
Mr. ROSEN: Yeah, it was. You know, this whole genre that we call Jewface on
this record, at the time they were called Hebrew--they were referred to as
Hebrew dialect songs or Yiddish dialect novelty. These were songs that, you
know, partook of sort of age-old somewhat virulent anti-Semitic stereotypes.
The lyrical content often involves kind of moneygrubbing Jews and, you know,
sort of bumbling greenhorn immigrant Jews making fools of themselves. And
they were typically performed on vaudeville by so-called Hebrew comedians, who
put on a sort of uniform, dressed up in stereotypical garb. So they wore
derby caps that were pulled down tight across their heads so their ears jutted
out. And they had these enormous kind of fake noses that were enhanced with
what was called Jew clay in the trade, sort of putty. And they were ratty
overcoats. And the type they were playing was a sort of a Lower East Side,
you know, pawnshop owner or rag tradesman.
So it really was a sort of Jewish equivalent to blackface minstrels. You
know, Jewish minstrels, the act. The interesting thing about these, though,
is that while they were, on the surface, at least, quite anti-Semitic, they
were largely written by Jewish songwriters, the songs were published by
Jewish-owned song publishing firms, performed on vaudeville circuits where
Jews predominated, both as, you know, on kind of the business end and as
performers. And Jewish audiences loved them. There were campaigns organized
by certain parts of the Jewish community by kind of advocacy organizations
like the Central Conference of American Rabbis to try and kind of wipe out
this brand of entertainment. But there were editorials in the Jewish press
that denounced these efforts because they pointed out that it was actually
Jews who went and applauded and laughed and loved these things, these songs,
more than anyone else.
GROSS: Yeah, well, you know, in your liner notes you quote from the Central
Conference of American Rabbis, which was the reform movement's governing body,
and you say that in, you know, in the era of these songs, this group launched
a nationwide campaign to, quote, "drive this vile, outrageous and undignified
creature from the boards," the creature being this type of ethnic humor and
the boards being the theatrical boards. This music is still controversial.
There was a New York Times article about the anthology that you put together,
"Jewface," and in that article there was a quote from Kenneth Jacobson, the
deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League, and he said that a
project like this, quote, "gets very complicated. Our experience in this kind
of thing is that inevitably somebody will probably use this for not such good
purposes," unquote. So I'm wondering if you're at all ambivalent about, you
know, putting this stuff out there again and, you know, playing it on the
Mr. ROSEN: Yeah, I'd say slightly ambivalent, with an emphasis on
`slightly.' And, you know, sometimes when people come over to my house--I
collect not only the, you know, the hundred-year-old recordings on kind of 78
discs and wax cylinders, this stuff, but I also collect sheet music, which is,
you know, often very garishly illustrated sheet music with, you know, pictures
of Jews with big noses and such. So it's, I guess, a bit, yes, problematic.
On the other hand, I--this is part of history. And moreover, it's
fascinating. So my ambivalence is tempered a great deal by the fact that I
think it's important for both kind of Jewish history, for historians to
acknowledge complicated maybe not so morally clean-cut aspects of Jewish
experience and moreover, as a kind of music critic, and I suppose you'd call
me a music historian, although I don't want to, you know, get too grand about
it. I'm very interested in the issue of minstrelcy, generally, and the role
that ethnic pastiche and impersonation and minstrelcy has played in the
history of American popular music, which is an enormous role, and which only
(clears throat) pardon me, only recently, you know, scholars have really begun
to get their arms around because it's just been such--been viewed as such
troubling stuff. So for that reason, I'm excited to get this stuff out.
I should also add that I find lots of these songs incredibly sort of catchy
and charming despite of--and sometimes because of--their lyrical content. And
so I think this stuff is important, long and short of it is, and for that
reason I'm, you know, proud of the record.
GROSS: My guest is Jody Rosen. He compiled an anthology of Yiddish dialect
novelty recordings from the early 20th century called "Jewface."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Jody Rosen. He's a rock critic who's curated an anthology
of Yiddish dialect novelty recordings from the early 20th century called
Well, you know, the era of these like Jewish ethnic recordings is also, as you
were saying, the era of minstrelcy and blackface performance. And, in fact,
some Jewish performers performed in blackface, like Al Jolson and Sophie
Tucker. So it almost gets mindbending to think of all of the kind of bizarre
ethnic things going on in some of this music, and a great example of that is a
track on your anthology, which is called "My Yiddish Mammy," and--would you
talk a little bit about this track and what it makes you think about?
Mr. ROSEN: Yeah, well, the song--this recording on the record was from 1922.
It's sung by Irving Kaufman, another prominent performer of the era. It was
actually cowritten by three Jews, including Eddie Cantor, the great
vaudevillian. And it's, of course, a parody of Al Jolson's signature tune,
"My Mammy," which is, you know...
GROSS: Which he used to sing in blackface, right?
Mr. ROSEN: ...which he used to sing in blackface on bended knee, yeah. And
it kind of sort of is a Jewish-themed twist on the whole genre of songs which
pine for, you know, both the sort of the plantation and the plantation mammy
figure. You know, this was the era when the nation was suddenly transformed
into this kind of seething polyglot place. And there weren't only Jewish and
blackface numbers, there were, you know, Italian dialect numbers. There were
Irish dialect songs. There were ones that made fun of the native Yankee New
Englanders. There were Chinese theme songs. And there were frequently songs
that kind of made a joke of kind of miscegenation and racial crossover of
various sorts. And so this--"My Yiddish Mammy" is definitely a song in that
GROSS: Quote a verse, you know, a few lines from a song that you find
particularly interesting, and then we'll play it.
Mr. ROSEN: I like the lyric that goes, "I love my mammy, but she don't come
from Alabamy. Her heart is filled with love and real sentiment, her cabin
door is in a Bronx tenement." So my mammy, specifically in all the songs that
were about the sort of black mother figure down in Dixie, you know, sort of
valorized the mother and had images of, you know, the black woman in a cabin
on the plantation. And here, this is kind of winked at. But at the same
time, there's a kind of sincerity here, because this song's sung in 1922 and
there's, and you know, the kind of Jewish performer is remembering and
valorizing his mother, the immigrant from the old--from, you know, the Jewish
GROSS: And can I add one thing to that, that I think it's also satirical in
the sense that I think it's an acknowledgment that, for most Jewish immigrants
at that time in the United States, they were urban and they were from the
North and not the South. So the whole kind of like Southern mystique was
alien to so many of them, not part of their experience at all.
Mr. ROSEN: Correct. And what's interesting is that so many prominent Jewish
musicians--songwriters and performers--used that completely alien Southern
black imagery to kind of get their careers kick-started. You know, the first
big hit by the Gershwins was "Swanee."
Mr. ROSEN: About the Swanee River. Irving Berlin's first huge hit, the song
that made his career, was "Alexander's Ragtime Band," which, of course, talks
about the Swanee River. And there's a famous story about Jolson, who sang, of
course, about Swanee repeatedly in many songs finally seeing the Swanee River,
and being--he'd imagined some sort of like gushing river of Jordan, and he got
down there, and he's very disappointed to see it, you know, looked like just a
little trickling creek to him.
GROSS: Well, you've given us a lot to think about as we listen to this 1922
recording of "My Yiddish Mammy," which was cowritten by Eddie Cantor and
recorded by Irving Kaufman.
(Soundbite from "My Yiddish Mammy")
Mr. IRVING KAUFMAN: (Singing) "Down South where the Swanee River flows, down
South and where all the cotton grows, all of...(unintelligible). Some from
below that old Dixon line, but let me tell you 'bout that dear old mammy of
mine. I've got a mammy but she don't come from Alabamy. Her heart is filled
with love and real sentiment. Her cabin door is in a Bronx tenement. Believe
me, my mammy never heard about dear old black Joe. She's never been down
where the sweet magnolias grow. She don't play a banjo or ukelele, but her
lullaby's...(unintelligible). That's why I love my Yiddish mammy.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's "My Yiddish Mammy." We'll talk more with Jody Rosen about
compiling his anthology of Yiddish dialect novelty recordings after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Jody Rosen, rock critic for Slate magazine. He's put
together an anthology of Yiddish dialect novelty recordings from the early
20th century called "Jewface." Like blackface material of the same era, the
lyrics have a lot of stereotypes from the period. For instance, one of the
tracks on "Jewface" is called "When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band." Before
we hear it, let's see what Rosen would like us to listen for.
Mr. ROSEN: The song was written and recorded in 1906. It was written by a
trio of Irish songwriters and recorded by a prominent vocal duo of the period,
one of the most prolific recording duos of the acoustic era, of the, you know,
the recording era that preceded the advent of electrical recording, called
Collins and Harlan. They were kind of blackface specialists, but this was
their one--as far as I know, their one--recorded Jewish turn.
The song tells the story of a kind of Jewish John Philip Sousa-style band
leader whose nose is so big that he uses it as a conductor's baton. And it's
historically pretty significant because the first six notes of the chorus of
the song are identical to the first six notes of the Irving Berlin song "God
Bless America." And my theory is, Berlin, who was, at that time, Israel
Baline--he hadn't yet changed his name--was an 18-year-old singing waiter at a
saloon in Chinatown in New York City, heard the song and performed it as a
singing waiter. It was his job as a singing waiter to kind of keep up with
vaudeville hits and interpolate them into his little act and sing them for his
patrons. And so my theory is that he knew this song and some 12--a dozen
years later when he was, you know, a millionaire songwriter and first sat down
to write "God Bless America," he subconsciously, I believe, lifted the notes
straight out of "When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band" chorus and started it
right into the beginning of "God Bless America," the part that goes (singing)
"God bless America." (Talking) Forgive my singing. We hear those exact same
notes in the chorus, the beginning of the chorus of "When Mose with His Nose
Leads the Band." The lyric there is, A, B, then starts to play.
GROSS: Well, here it is, "When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band."
(Soundbite from "When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band")
COLLINS AND HARLAN: (Singing) "Come away, every day there's a band. Life is
gay when they play music grand. Where the noisy people come with their noisy
tum-tum-tum, loud enough to wake...(unintelligible). Happy Mose, he's
just...(unintelligible). When he leads the...(unintelligible).
(Unintelligible)...but the thing he won't refuse...(unintelligible).
(Unintelligible)...ripe old age. (Unintelligible)...I want to play.
(Unintelligible)...I go. Oy-oy-oy-oy...(unintelligible)..when Mose with his
nose leads the band."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: OK, that's a 1906 recording, "When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band,"
from the anthology "Jewface," which was curated by my guest Jody Rosen.
Jody, you put this together at a time, and we're listening to this at a time
when I think Americans are really trying to figure out, where is the line
between, like, self-deprecating humor and racism. And I'm thinking, in
particular--or anti-Semitism--I'm thinking in particular here of, like, the
"Borat" movie, which is probably in a category all by itself. But, you know,
as everybody knows now, Sacha Baron Cohen is Jewish, and he uses a lot of
anti-Semitic humor within the movie and used it within "Da Ali G Show" for his
character Borat to mock anti-Semitism, not to be anti-Semitic. But it still
upsets a lot of people, and I guess the best example of that is the song
"Throw the Jew Down the Well," which was sung on "Da Ali G Show." Borat sung
that on "Da Ali G Show." It was actually recorded at a bar for the program.
And the chorus is "Throw the Jew down the well so my country can be free. You
must grab him by the horn, then we have the big party." What's your reaction
listening to this, given that you've been trying to find these, you know,
early 20th century ethnic Jewish humor recordings, for 10 years you've been
Mr. ROSEN: Well, you know, there's an interesting connection because Sacha
Baron Cohen in, with "Borat," is portraying a kind of, you know, newly
arrived, greenhorned immigrant, who's mangling the English language and kind
of bumbling around the country, misapprehending the customs and getting
himself into all kinds of trouble in the process. Now, of course, Sacha Baron
Cohen's act is this wonderful, deeply satiric and very politically pointed
post-modern act, which is a world away from what the vaudevillians were doing.
Sacha Baron Cohen, he's obviously sort of using that song, "Throw the Jew Down
the Well," to expose anti-Semitism and to indict anti-Semites. What the Jews
who sang songs like "Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars" and, you know, "I'm a Yiddish
Cowboy" and "Under the Matzos Tree" and these other funny, crazy songs that
are on the "Jewface" compilation, they were, generally speaking, newly arrived
Jewish immigrants who were kind of first-generation naturalized Jewish
Americans. And they had a kind of precarious social status. And this was a
time in the country, you know, the kind of melting pot progressive era, when
there was an enormous amount of social pressure to assimilate and, indeed, a
huge desire on the part of so many immigrants, especially Jews, to assimilate,
and kind of cast off their, you know, the kind of trappings of their old world
identity and become American.
And what I think is very interesting about these songs is that, you know, the
audience and the performers kind of use them because in sending up the
greenhorn Jew, the old world Jew, by laughing at that Jewish type, the
audience has kind of asserted their own American-ness and their sophistication
and the fact that they've passed out of their own greenhorn phase and the fact
that they were now themselves, you know, a different kind of, you know,
GROSS: Well, Jody Rosen, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. ROSEN: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Jody Rosen is rock critic for Slate magazine. He curated the new CD
of Yiddish dialect novelty recordings called "Jewface."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
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