|Chapter 1 -||The Old World|
|Chapter 2 -||The Crucible|
|Chapter 3 -||The Writers - The Goldene Medina|
|Chapter 4 -||The Press|
|Chapter 5 -||The Yiddish Theater|
|Chapter 6 -||Finale - The Streets of Gold|
|Chapter 7 -||Summation|
Paris, 1943. The war with Hitler is closing, and Paris belongs to the Americans. We are cheered and wined, but we may not dine in their restaurants, for the French are rationed and it is said that they are eating horses now. But how can a G.I. be in Paris and not taste their gourmet cooking? So here am I, wondering how to satisfy this dilemma when I see a Frenchman walking towards me. My stilted French registered a zero in communication, pantomime not much more. In complete desperation, I dropped a familiar Yiddish word “essen” and “Voila” I hit the jackpot! That one word made us kinsmen, made us two of a world-wide “mispoche.”
Now, many years later, while the meal I had is completely forgotten the memory of the incident is still with me. Today, with the decimation of the European Jews, the Russians who have suppressed not only the language, but the religion as well, plus our American assimilation and the Israelis who have made Hebrew their national tongue, who speaks or writes Yiddish anymore?
We Jews have a history of wandering--thousands of years of wandering. Babylonia, Rome, Africa, Spain, the lowlands of Europe, France, Germany, Poland, Russia--and lets not forget the Orient. Intermixed with our wandering years are inquisitions, crusades, expulsions, pogroms, ghettos, but we survived. And for whatever reasons our historians maintain for this survival, that little Jew in Paris affirms my survival theory. For it was Yiddish that was the glue that bound us; it made every Jew a brother of every other Jew in this world.
Yiddish begets Yiddishkeit. Yiddishkeit is a distillation of the Jews' hardships, our Diaspora, our Torah, our Talmud, our ghettos, our traditions and even our personal superstitions. If this is “Yiddishkeit,” it was our language, the Yiddish language that makes of us an identifiable recognizable, ethnic people. We blend in with all nationalities, we are tall, short, blond, dark--and in order to blend in further we conveniently don't speak Yiddish (if our third generation even knows how) and change our names, Bennie becomes Bryan, Sammy becomes Scott and Weiss becomes White.
Take the classic story of Augustus Schoenberg, a prosperous German Jew. Schoenberg, of course in German means “beautiful mountain”. Moving to Italy and for whatever his personal reasons were, he changed it to “belle monte”--again beautiful mountain. Coming to the United States and acquiring huge investments and real estate, this time anglicizing it, he became Augustus Belmont. By now you will recognize Mr. Belmont by the famous racetrack that bears his name. The desire for acceptance into the gentile world, is, as we know, not uncommon today, as it was not uncommon even centuries ago.
Assimilation and the erasure of Yiddish--and Yiddishkeit went with his ambition. No language can be abstracted from a nation's history. In the ancient Holy Land, before the Roman conquest, Hebrew and Aramaic were the basic tongues. After the Roman victory, in 70 A.D., when the Hebrews were fleeing, they took with them a knowledge of Greek as well. They escaped across North Africa as far west as Spain, settling in Libya, Morocco, etc., integrating into the countries and absorbing the native languages. The Rabbis, always aware of assimilation, desperately tried to maintain the language of the now remote Holy Land, but for commerce and survival itself, the principal necessity was communication. The Jews had to use the language of their new homelands and it may be noted here that they still used the Hebrew characters in their new language writing from right to left.
With the Muslim conquest of Spain the Jew had some new found security and stability. So from about the 8th century on more and more Jews were conversing and writing in an adapted Spanish and Arabic language known as “Ladino” or “Judezmo” but to the scholars, notably Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) this was a bastard tongue. His treatises were written in Arabic, again with the same peculiarity, using the Hebrew alphabet, and again from right to left.
However, by the year 1200 the Christians had reconquered Spain and now the persecution of the Jews began in earnest, persecutions sanctioned by the Church and state. Those who were not burnt alive in this “auto de fe” were forced to convert to Catholicism. These “conversos” or “marranos” (Spanish for “Swine”) were still under suspicion, so in order to make their conversion seem more authentic, they replaced Judezrno with Spanish thus making it the tongue of the Marranos. This language Spanish change transformed the entire ethnic character of the Spanish-Sephardic Jew giving the Sephardic culture and liturgy it~ distinctiveness as compared with the Ashkenazi Jew, an obvious example of language influence. With the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, which coincides in the theory that Columbus was of Jewish descent, the Jews fled to North Africa, to Turkey and to the then Spanish colonies in Holland. There, in Amsterdam was a great flowering of Jewish literature, an integration of Spanish and Ladino, which they took with them and the Dutch language. Many Jews from Spain, on their way to Holland, chose however to settle in France, where before these Spanish refugees came, Jews had been living since the 9th century, peacefully and in complete acceptance. Of course, consistent with the tradition as people of the Book they had established a Hebrew academy at Troyes.
It was there that one of Judaism's most notable scholars, who, till this day is studied by Rabbinical students, wrote commentaries on the Old Testament Solomon Ben Isaac (1040-1105) better known by the abbreviation of “Rashi.” He translated the Hebrew words into Judeo-French (Laoz which was the secular language and writing in this language continued the tradition of using Hebrew characters and of course still from right to left. Aside from his commentaries he dealt as a wine merchant, but in his business dealings he used Roman script, with the Jews, Hebrew. What clearly emerges is the adaptability of the Jew to accommodate to a new country, yet with the retention of language traditions.
As the Jews settled in France, many continued northward into the Rhine areas of Germany. With peaceful neighbors surrounding them they soon were involved in trade and with community support, academies of study sprang up in Worms, Speyer and Mainz. This lack of hostility and the Jews reputation of superior business acumen possibly led to a strange religious situation, for while all other non Christian religions were banned, the Hebrew religion was tolerated. Once again, as in other lands within several generations, the Rhenish Jews had adapted a dialect of their own, converting middle high German into Hebrew characters. This language took hold instantly. It was called first Ivri-Teutsch (which means Hebrew translation) then Judan-Teutsch, finally “Judish.” While Hebrew still remained the Holy-tongue, “Judish” became the exclusive language of commerce and daily discourse. The utility of a single tongue for all European Jews made “Judish” a common language, not only for the Ashkenazi Jews, but the Sephardic Jews as well.
Now a sad era enters into the history of the Jews. With the Crusades at the end of the Eleventh century, the Church in Europe, became a militant force. The Crusades offered the feudal lords glory and valor in their march to the Holy Land and the “Holy Grail”. For the peasants who joined, it was a huge adventure and an opportunity for pillage and riches. And at whose expense? The Jews! Now the European Jews lived in an island of fear from raping, destruction, synagogue burning as never before. The Jew truly became an outcast, an alien in his adopted home lands. The feudal lords were by no means finished with these despised Jews--the ghetto was their solution for extracting more tribute from them. Even the guards assigned to keep them walled in, expected monies from the prisoners. To the Jews, this was not the best of worlds, of course, but in their compliance they also turned their social and cultural lives inward. Yiddish, with its Hebrew alphabet now became the recognized language of communication. For the ghetto Jews were aware that the Christian world was almost totally ignorant of this language, so it offered an esoteric privacy and seclusion. But the ghettos were not sufficient for the Christian world and about 1215 C.E., a forced expulsion from the Germanic lands was decreed--banishment from the lands and homes they had so long lived in.
It was in the East, in Poland, with their rudimentary and feudal economy failing that an invitation went out for Jewish entrepreneurs to establish businesses. Throughout Europe the word quickly spread that here was a haven, a place to escape to from the hostility of the West. So followed a wholesale migration of Rhenish Jews, taking with them whatever effects they could, but most importantly, their Yiddish tongue.
It is necessary for our study of Yiddish to understand the world the Jews lived in then. Not only was Hebrew the Holy tongue reserved for prayer, but an educational wall divided the sexes. The movie “Yentl” with Barbra Streisand notwithstanding, it was completely unheard for a woman to be able to read from a prayer book, much less to attend a Yeshiva. But great credit must be due to our ancient mothers, for this chauvinistic attitude did not deter or suppress their desire for learning, and the birth of our Yiddish literature is due solely to them.
There was then, living in Italy in 1507, Elijah Levita who translated into Yiddish a series of Italian Folk Tales which he called the “Bove-Buch” or “Bove-Mayses.” The women were enchanted by these stories, as our women today (men as well) love romantic tales. So it was that this one book was read by so many that we think that the title “Bove Mayses” finally became corrupted into Bobe-Mayses--tales told by Grandmother. Another author, who created even a greater impact on Yiddish literature for his translations from the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Megillah of Esther was Jacob Ashkenazi and now our lady-folk, denied Hebrew and Bible study, had an open door through Yiddish. Ashenazi's books became standard Sabbath Bible-reading. However the scholars still demeaned Yiddish as a “Jargon” tongue, for actually it was not till the 19th century that Yiddish formed its own grammar, case, and gender.
With the arrival of the 14th century, the Jews in Poland had proliferated greatly, and the relationship with the Polish hierarchy was such an amicable one that King Boleslaw, the Pious gaive his personal protection to all the Synagogues, plus equal citizenship status to the Jews. To add to this fortune, Casimer the Great permitted the Jews to rent their own self-contained and governed towns, an idea that met with total acceptance, for the memories of former days were still warm. This was the birth of the “Shtetl” as we knew it. But hardships seem to always be the destiny of the Jew. For the next two centuries their fate was poverty and despair had the Jews equated misery with religion, Judaism would have terminated there.
The Orthodox Rabbinate, always alert to any defection of religiosity, held steadfastly to the discipline of the Talmudic Rule and discovering new strategems to keep the flame alive. They found this from the “Book of Zohar” (the Book of Splendor) from the Spanish Thirteenth Century--The Kaballah. It offered mysticism and magical concepts to discover God. It was full of cryptic formulae producing ecstasy and exaltation. It had a messianic message and it offered the followers a method of bringing to them the Messiah, so long awaited for.
So it was when the Jews were caught up in the Christians' 30 year war (1618-1648) that the year 1648 was singled out by all three faiths: Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism. for a singular event. And so it was in that year 100,000 Jews were killed by Chmielrietsi and Polish Cossacks. And since, so the tales go, that the Messiah will appear only after great suffering, “He” did come!
He came in the body of Shabbatei Zevi, born in Turkey, trained in the Kaballah, announcing that God had given him supernatural powers and that he was the Messiah! This amazing news that the long awaited deliverer of the Jews had come was met with an astounding fervor. All over Europe they sold their properties, abandoned families, and came rushing to march with him to the Holy Land. When they arrived in Constantinople, the Sultan, impressed with the numbers of “Shabbatheans”, as His disciples called themselves, had Zevi arrested and gave him a choice of conversion to Allah or execution. The falseness of Shabbatei Zevi and his conversion shattered and demoralized the Jews all over Europe.
But this was not the end of their messianic fervor for it only encouraged other false messiahs notably, Jacob Frank (1746-1791). Announcing that he was the heir to Zevi and the True One, it was his aim to join all the churches into a grand unification and that thru erotic pleasures, God would reveal himself. The exoticism of his rituals resolved into sexual orgies and as Shabbatei Zevi had done before in 1750 he had himself and 15,000 followers baptized as Catholics, settling down to a life of magnificent opulence, with his followers in Germany.
Historians today must wonder at the Jewish fortitude of those times. Poverty, squalor, the deception of those messiahs, the hostility of their neighbors forcing them to wear yellow stars, herding them into ghettos locked in after dark, even the number of children permitted by princely decree. This was the Jew's life in Germany. Poland and Russia were no better for him, for there, fear and pogroms were a constant threat to survival.
Not a messiah in those dark days appeared, but a thinker and a reformer to alleviate their lowly status. In appearance he was not the heroic halo'd savior, but a slight hunchbacked, even stammering little man. His name was Moses Ben Mendel (1729-1786), and so precocious as a child that he became a rabbi at 14 years of age. The despair, the social academic isolation of the Jew appalled him all his formative years. He studied the German language and mastered it with excellence, composing philosophical essays and treatises in this language so that he became the talk of the intellectuals, for Jews of that era did not engage in secular writing, much less, in the language of the gentiles. Even Frederick the Great discussed this amazing Jew! He envisioned his personal success apparently as a possibility for all Jews of Germany, for the barrier against secularity chained the Jew to ignorance and advancement, he said the Jew must remain a Jew, but he must compromise with his present world. The Hebrew names must go! Moses Ben Mendel now is Moses Mendelssohn. Yiddish must go! For it is a stigma, an identifiable, a demeaning vilification, to elevate the status of the Jew, to bring him into the world of science and medicine, to educate him with all the Germans, this was his aim.
“We must educate,” he said. This is the way to open the doors for our people. In 1778, with the encouragement of the Ber1in Jewish community he started the “Judishe Freishule” teaching German, literature, science and mathematics as well as Hebrew and the Talmud. In all the subjects the language was German. The Orthodox in Germany were vehemently against Mendelssohn's school for they saw the loosening of all the traditions that had kept the Jews as one folk.
The enthusiasm for this enlightenment was so great, that in the short span of one century, Yiddish in Germany was an historical fact and so thoroughly were the German Jews absorbed in this integration process that the succeeding generations produced men like Heinrich Heine, Freud, Buber and Einstein, and it is a recorded fact that a third of every Nobel prize was given to a German Jew in literature and research. Mendelssohn originated one of the most daring, and successful linguistic accomplishments in our history. What he did not know, was the Mr. Hyde of the Doctor Jekyll he created.
In masses greater than anyone anticipated, the Jews, with their intellectuality, now were in the universities and in the academic world, but unable to withstand the seduction of complete acceptance. Conversions and baptisms made their integration complete, so that even Mendelssohn's family, in the third generation, Felix Mendelssohn most notably, were no longer members of the Jewish tribe. The rabbis, those holding fast to Orthodoxy, not unaware of the success of Mendelssohn's ideas, now attempted to stem this major flow from Judaism. They realized they must update the archaic structure of their synagogues and rituals for these enlightened Jews of a new generation. Their sermons were now in German, the prayer books were in German and even references to a return to the Holy Land were erased. Music was brought in, organs installed, choirs to make the services more palatable, the women pulled down from the balconies, were seated with the men--all in emulation of the Protestant Church.
Coincidentally with this Jewish reformation was an arising Germanic nationalism and this made more intense their desire to be part of this forming nation. Yiddishkeit in all forms was anathema to them, symbolic of an ugliness they were escaping. So entrenched were they in their Teutonism they developed a class hatred for the “ost Juden” the Polish, Russian Jews who were fleeing from the Czar, seeking refuge in the Germany whose hospitality had reached to the widest areas of their world. It is recorded, the drastic measures these nouveau-Germans took, attempting to halt their influx into Germany. Today, now that the Holocaust is behind us, magnifying the unity of Judaism, the vanities and the internal enmities seem superficial. The dream of Moses Ben Mendel was the catalyst that hurled the Jews into the nineteenth century, the springboard of intellectualism, and giving birth to a new child, the Reform synagogue; and this all started with the abolishment of Yiddish.
Perhaps we owe an enormous debt to the ancient Hasidim, for in the Ukraine, where more than half of the Russian Jews lived, their faith and survival were strengthened by following the rituals prescribed by the Baal Shem and the latter “Tzaddikim.” The Baal Shem's message was what the masses of Jewry needed for those crucial times. “God is everywhere and anyone learned or unlearned has the power to approach “Him”. “The path to heaven,” they said. was lined with cherubim and angels, singing and dancing for the glory of God!” One must therefore be filled with joyousness! Coming, when death itself was the only peace a Jew could find, the acceptance of this ecstatic dogma was instantaneous and overwhelming. The masses flung themselves to the teachings of the Baal Shem. He was elevated to the status of “Tzaddik”--(a holy man). The Rabbinate called this heresy, a defection from the ordained traditions followed for centuries, with the most vituperative denunciations coming from the most esteemed Yeshivas of Vilna. “This is heretical to all our beliefs” cried Rabbi Elijah Ben Solomon, the Gaon, “and I hereby excommunicate you and all your followers”--the Baal Shem and his Hasidim were now a sect unto themselves. The bitterness of this internal academic struggle simply reinforced the Baal Shem and his Hasidim to pursue their own form of prayer and rituals. Yet there was another facet, which was as much, or even of greater importance to the masses of Jewry--the use of Yiddish in the Yeshivas. The Talmudic scholars of the day--in the academies and the Yeshivas, avoided the use of Yiddish, for to them it was a debasing language, necessary for the common (Proste) peoples. The journalists as well, the writers of treatises, commentaries, and topical interest, utilized a highly Germanized text, in the belief simply, that not only was Yiddish a bastard language, but doomed in this modern society of Alexander II of Russia. Now the chains of oppression were being lifted from the Jews for he was a liberal monarch who had relaxed many of the restrictions prevalent in the anti-Semitic society of Russia and Poland. The freedom would soon turn into disaster, for with the accession of Alexander II to the throne, the swords of the Cossacks were unsheathed once again. The Jews were pushed into villages of the monarch's choice, restricting their work and issuing decrees meant to reduce their population, namely a death decree. The journalists, the intellectuals who had been creating all the lofty words like “equality” and “enlightenment” now faced a plunge into the darkness of a virulent bigotry, yet they were not unaware of their vocation as writers and what they must report to their Jewish brothers. They knew the Shtetl Jew as an insular person lacking worldliness--what did he know of the thinking current in the cities, the wave of socialistic ideologies, the Dreyfus scandal, for instance, in France, or Herzl's Zionistic writings? How about the eugenic race theories now being discussed? The only with access to all this revolutionary thinking were these writers, these Yiddish writers. One writer in particular writing with the pseudonym of “Mendele Mocher Sforim” (Mendele the Book Seller”) in the journal “Hamelitz” wrote an allegory of the Shtetl-Jew. Shalom Abrarnovitch, for that was his given name, was, as were most of the journalists of that day, an ultra-liberal writer. In using the indirectness of the allegorical, his “Kleine Menshele” denounced the restrictive educational practices of the rabbis, the parochialism of their attitudes in a changing world, the superstitions, the ignorance, the wall of insularity, self-imposed, on the Shtetl-folk. This the masses understood, this broad and obvious satire and caricature of them, brought to them all the provincialism of their lives. It was a literary revolution for the popularity of Sforim's story, reaching so many of Yiddish speaking people created a respectability for Yiddish writing. A torrent of writers followed in his footsteps, so that there was soon a Yiddish publishing industry and now there were many, many editions of Yiddish writers available to so many never reached before. The itinerant peddlers who before had only sold religious objects and household sundries now carried books. Following Mendele's fiction was Shalom Abramovitch (1859-1916) who, like Mendele was a “maskil” and intellectual writing in Hebrew for serious discourse. Still under a cloud of image retention, he took a name which every Jew knew and used “Shalom Aleichem”, From his first Yiddish publication “Two Stones” he was to become the benchmark of all that was Yiddishkeit to writing. These were the years of escapement from the Czar, the years of family disintegration, of generational disenchantment of emotional conflicts in the Jewish homes. Shalom Aleichem saw all this with a clarity the writers preceding him did not see. Following “Two Stones” came “The Pen Knife” and of course “Tevye the Milkman”, pinpointed the struggling younger generation, unable to accept the dictums of fathers and mothers. So many of us who either read “Tevye” or saw “Fiddler” will recall Tevye--the Jewish everyman, debating with God, torn emotionally by the rejection of his children the destruction of traditional values. This was a Jewish era of turmoil, in fact, entire Western Europe was in flux and the Jews were caught up in the whirlpool of change and America beckoned and the Jews who were living in the United States were reaching out for their families. Jewish welfare agencies provided “ships carten” and the trickle became a tide of immigrants--to the goldene medina!
Where are the Streets of Gold?
In the 33 years between the assassination of Alexander II and the First World War, approximately one-third of all East European Jews left their homes in Russia and Poland. They fled from Serfdom, Pogroms. The little children fled from army conscription as stable boys and ultimate death, they fled singly, they fled in organized groups, they fled carrying Torahs, with books and sentimental things in their sacks. A refugee, Mary Antin describes: “America was in everybody's mouth, businessmen talked of it over their accounts, the market women discussed it as they shopped from stall to stall, people who had relatives in America went around reading their letters, the children played games at emigrating.” The Orthodox Jews had a different perspective of life in America. “You are heading for a corrupt and sinful land”, they said. “They worked on Sabbath, they eat treyfe flaish, only there can you remain true and pious Jews!” Still they went, the Jews. The hardships they would endure could only free them from this intolerable yoke. Had they foreseen what lay ahead, surely the faint hearted would have turned back. There were many with legal passports, and many more with none. So they were at the mercy of smugglers, crossing them into Austria and to Germany. These simple people, naive in the ways of the world, their first glimpse of another country for the first time in their lives were prey for the smugglers who assisted them, for rapacious, thieving peasants they encountered, and even for heartless fellow Jews. The German authorities with an over-zealous lack of enthusiasm and suspicious of the sanitation and health of these refugees, conducted rigorous, even humiliating inspections on every train load disinfecting them and labeling every man, woman and child. Here is a woman's account: “On a great lonely field, opposite a solitary house, and inside a large yard our train pulled up at last. A conductor hurried us into a large room, where men and women inspectors, dressed in white received us. Parents lost their children, the little ones crying.” The Germans shouted commands at us “Shnell! Shnell!”. Our things were taken from us, these strangers driving us like dumb animals. Children we could not see were crying in a way that suggested terrible things to us. A great kettle was boiling on a stove, our clothes were taken off us, our bodies rubbed with a slippery substance. A shower of water was let down on us without warning and again the command, “Shnell, Shnell,” to dress ourselves. Some of us had our monies stolen, some of us were quarantined for weeks behind a huge prison wall. We slept on floors. There were roll calls every morning, every evening.
In the port cities, an entire army of thieves awaited to fleece them: keepers of hostels, railroad employees, ships officers, the crews, the ticket agents. The lodging rates were exorbitant, their baggage stolen, tickets to wrong destinations and useless; conmen, sharpers, white slavers, money changers, short changing them, thugs in shadows strong arming the old. The European Jewish agencies were overwhelmed with cries of distress. They helped with whatever services they could, advising the emigrants in advance of the pitfalls awaiting them, and insuring advance steamship tickets from American relatives.
In 1903, steerage from Bremen to New York was $34.00 not counting the cost of travel and the necessary bribes for officials. By selling whatever they could, somehow these Jewish emigrants scraped together the money. And if they arrived penniless in New York, no matter, the streets were paved with gold! A writer, Morris Raphael Cohen, later told of his journey on the “Darmstadt.” “We were huddled together in the steerage like cattle; my mother, my sister and I sleeping together in the middle tier. We did not eat the ship's food, for it was unkosher and we only asked for hot water, into which my mother would put a little brandy and sugar to give it some taste. The journey was 14 days and towards its end, our bread having been consumed we asked for bread from the ship. It was soggy, inedible.” A United States congressional committee, investigating steerage conditions in 1910 had this to say: “The filth and the stench, the inadequate ventilating conditions created an unendurable atmosphere. The small wash rooms were never cleaned, the toilets filthy and not always working, everything was dirty, sticky and offensive.” With time, and by the turn of the century, conditions were improved. On the larger ships, like the Kaiser Wilhelm, there was even singing and dancing , so we are told. It is pertinent to understand the impact of this mass migration of the Yiddish language, for more than any other transition, here in the new world, verbal, and especially written Yiddish came to a full flowering. With freedom of religion, freedom of education and opportunity, by the early 1900's, these immigrants were now an established and ethnic people. They worked as butchers, grocers, dry goods dealers, bakers, and carpenters. In the garment industry they became a major work force. The Americanization of these people did not absolve them from the bonds of their Yiddishkeit, and contrarily, their language was now indeed, Yiddish; their newspapers, Yiddish. What was common to the Jews, aside from being Jewish, and speaking Yiddish, were the memories of the lands they had left behind. If they sought out other emigrants from the same shtetlich, it was the desire to keep alive the past. In time “vereins” or “landsmanshaftn” were formed--in actuality, these were benevolent or aid societies, and the meetings, before or after the business, were nostalgic, with Yiddish flowing. They were tailored for the needs of a new people, in a new land, and indeed, many of their services were years ahead. There was money set aside for the sick and needy. A business man, or a housewife could borrow money to tide over a meager weeks pay. There were death benefits, burial money for members, and even social security, for strikes and layoffs were not uncommon in those days, as they are not today. One memorable service was performed after the Holocaust. By them, a yizkor book (memorial book) in memory of Shtetlich people, and the Shteltich from which they had come. Hundreds of volumes were published, listing names and photographs and their histories. There is one from the town of Volkovisk, which in 1910 had 8000 Jews. The 900-page book contained sociological and historical facts, pictures of rabbis, shoemakers and housewives. Here are people and memories these American Jews have not forgotten.
The Jew arrived in America with a sack slung over his back and even if he had a bulging suitcase, he most likely left behind many of his possessions. He also left behind many traditions of gentility for the new world demanded work, hard work and long hours to put bread on the table. So it was, that in the beginning the Yiddish writers definitely did not resemble Goethe or Tolstoy. It is important to remember that these immigrant writers were basically of the same stock as the people they were writing for. They were unsophisticated, just out of the “Sthtelich.” They were ungrammatical, but in what they wrote, the readers saw their own lives, saw the tenements, the wretchedness of the sweatshops. Here is a poem by Morris Winchevsky “The youngest is out selling, the second cries laces all day. The oldest comes by in the dark hours and bargains her body away!” The gifted Morris Rosenfeld, working in the sweatshops, who describes his grief, for the long hours permit him to only see his child when asleep. “The time clock drags me off at dawn, at night it lets me go. I hardly know my flesh and blood. I work without rhyme or reason. Produce and produce and produce without end; for what? For whom? I don't know, I don't wonder. Since when can a whirling machine comprehend? Away rush the seconds, the minutes, the hours; each day and each night, like a wind driven sail; I drive the machine, as the eager though eager to catch them, I drive without reason--no hope--no avail. The clock wakes our senses and sets us aglow and wakes something else. I've forgotten, don't ask me! I'm just a machine, I don't know, I don't know!”
Nor were these poets alone in inscribing the life of those traumatic years. So many of these are now relegated to forgotten dusty bookshelves but there were so many great ones like Mani Leib, Landau, Reuben, Iceland, Reisen, Opatashu. It's possibly only academic, but co-incidentally with the advent of impressionist painting, when young creative people were releasing themselves from archaic traditionalistic thinking, a group of immigrants started a magazine called “De Yunge” (Youth). Old world Yiddish was not for them. They deleted Germanisms, Hebraisms. They dreamed of a purity of Yiddish, expressionistic and colorful. They sought a musicality in their verse, a loftiness in prose. These were not aristocrats or scholared linguists--Mani Leib was a shoemaker, Landau, a house painter, Levick a paperhanger. But the dreams were there. So there were dozens, hundreds of papers published and many of these indigent writers even took from their meager earnings to print what they had to say. Who read them? Who bought them? The working man saved his pennies for the shoes his children needed and the elite had their own concerns. It took time and now the Jews, about World War I were more comfortable and possibly a little more affluent. The American Jews were now exposed to international Yiddish writers like Shalom Asch, I.B. Singer and Opatashu. These writers, removed from the “Kliene Menshule,” syndrome were now involved in class struggle, personalities and relationships and secular eroticism, subjects never broached by Mendele, or Shalom Aleichem. There were thieves arid swindlers in Joseph Opatashu's novels, heroes who could curse and fight, drink and whore. Their models were the old world masters like Flaubert and Turgenev: Styles in literature change, for the reading public is a fickle entity. And so, today, these novels seem almost provincial, but some, like Mozart's music are benchmarks of great literature, namely: Sholom Asch's “Three Cities”, Singers “The Brothers Ashkenazi”.
A “recollection” written in 1910: “Everyone reads a Yiddish newspaper, even those who know little more than the alphabet. There are seldom many books in the average immigrants home, but the Yiddish newspaper came in everyday.” “After dinner our family would leaf through it, page by page, and sometimes my father would read some interesting items out loud. Not to take a paper is to confess you are a barbarian.” For ordinary Jews who worked in the shops or ran little stores, the Yiddish paper was their main, perhaps their only tie, to the outside world”. In this one succinct paragraph, the writer sums up the influence and necessity of the Yiddish press to the Jewish populace. The first Yiddish newspapers were by today's standards, feeble enterprises, reflecting mainly the old world and concerned largely with social and religious items. One of the earliest was “The Yiddishe Tseitung”, “The Yiddishe Gazeten,” and “The Yiddishe Post.” Since, at times there were no regular delivery systems, as we have today, especially for the Jewish printed press, they were placed in kosher butcher stores and groceries. In that era of socialism the “Freie Arbiter Shtimhe” directed its message to the working class, never quite reaching the circulation of “The Yiddish Tageblahtt,” whose strong message of traditionalism was favored by its readers. The labor unions, extremely radical in those formative years had no real contact with the immigrant laboring masses thru the daily or weekly press. For the writers were either too esthetic or too mired in invoking memories of the past. Recognizing the need for a new voice and combining both ideologies plus a radical socialistic stand, Abraham Cahan and Morris Hiliquist founded what was to become the foremost Jewish newspaper in the United States, and the world, tuned into the entire range of Jewish sensibilities, from its basest sensationalism to the highest cultural attainments. From the start of its publication in 1897, it was Abraham Cahan at its helm. Born in 1860 in Vilna, the son of a “Cheder Melamed” and a radical thinker even in his youth, he arrived in New York in 1882. As most newly arrived immigrants did, he studied English at night school and his highly motivated radical thinking soon found him writing short pieces for the “Arbeiter Tseitung”. It was as editor of his own newspaper, “The Forward,” that his activity for the spiritual gratification and the material necessities of his readers became so evident. His biographers described him as irritable, vain, and imperious. But no one acknowledged his intuitive sense of journalism. He used every tactic, every facet to make his paper sellable. Scandals, sensations and slanders made the front pages. Inside were the columns that appealed to the families: Were Jewish children taking music lessons? Were lonely Jewish girls committing suicide? Were the Yentas (busybodies) getting rich and fancy and moving Westside? Fathers! Learn baseball to play with your sons! He aimed also at the intelligentsia with essays by Leon Blum and other serious writers and printed fiction by the leading Yiddish writers then current; Sholom Asch, Reisen, Rosenfeld and the Singer Brothers. There was soon no question of the journalistic dominance of the Jewish daily, “The Forward”--and Abraham Cahan now ranked supreme and practically a household word. But the most notable of his journalistic achievements was yet to come. In a competitive Yiddish paper, the editor, to fill a few empty columns, had published several of his readers' letters. The genius of Cahan projected the newsworthiness of this for the immigrant readers and it was thus that the “Bintel Brief” (a bundle of letters) was born. Pouring in were stories of grief, poverty, illness, abandoned wives--a worker in a raincoat factory tells of a 13 year old employee, earning $2.50 a week, who is docked 2 cents for coming in 10 minutes late, a factory girl, breadwinner for 8 in her home tells of the amourous advances of a married foreman--What should she do? A man confesses he scabbed a strike--”My conscience bothers me!” “Editor! Please help me decide this issue--I am a cantor and I no longer believe in God!” To editor Cahan's credits, his answers were tactful and shrewd and most often humane in their worldliness; he advanced good sense, dignity and the value of manners. And so this “Bintel Brief” with its gossipy tone and the paternalism of Cahan penetrated into every Jewish living room and kitchen. It was the soap opera of its day, it made for discussions and pros and cons, and it in truth, made its Jewish readers aware of being a part of one “mispoche”. Nor was this all. Can you believe a Jewish comic strip? Gimpel Der Shadkin (The Matchmaker). A nosy little guy, with striped pants, top hat, who kept trying to marry off the most ill-matched half of the world to the other. Let's not forget “Yente Telebende,”. the epitome of the Yiddish busybody. “The Forward” had so far out flanked its competitors, that to speak of Yiddish journalism is to speak of “The Forward.” The gentile press was of course not unaware of the profits potentially here. William R. Hearst sprang in with the “Yiddishe Velt” and there were other attempts, all short lived. One Yiddish paper however does deserve mention--The Day. It appealed to a more literate reader and it provided news with a detached, comparative objectivity, and of course; in emulation of “The Forward,” it had its own version of the “Bintel Brief,” calling it “Men and Women.” It had also the then disputed Queen of all serial soap operas, Sarah Bronstein Smith. A steady loss of readers forced its demise in 1971.
It is a maxim of show business to end with a flourish, so, it is fitting that the last word on Yiddish should be, what was its most halcyon period, its greatest flowering of verbiage, the Yiddish theater. Consider that the written Yiddish word is basically individualistic, that reading is a one-person effort. The Yiddish theater, as a mass entertaining enterprise became a world of Yiddishkeit, never approached by any other media. It created in the theaters enclosure, a family, a mispoche of Jews, including the players, who became one with the audience, for everyone got into the play. For the immigrant Jew this was their release from the dreariness of the tenements, the sweat shops. They cheered, they laughed, they ate during the show and there were time when they had to be held back not to attack the villains! Celia Adler wrote in a memoir that at a performance of “The Jewish King Lear”, a man in the theatre overcome by her father's performance, (Jacob Adler), a man rose from his seat, ran down the aisle, shouting “To hell with your stingy daughter, Yankel! Spit on Her! May she choke, that rotten daughter of yours!” The audiences wanted heroes bigger than life, dramas awash with tears. They relived the lives from which they fled; they found a renaissance of their Yiddishkeit here in their adopted country. This was not the theatre of the elite, the bourgeoisie -- they ate, and talked, and greeted friends twenty seats away.
(Author's note: I recall as a child, with my mother attending the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia. This was all true here, but more reserved.)
This Yiddish theater was in reality a “Johnny come lately” in our history. The shtetl Jews were a morally disciplined people, given more to religiosity, and the occasional itinerant players or entertainers who visited were suspect of low culture and looseness. The theater had a great parent in the synagogue: the solemnity of Torah reading, the theatrics of the cantor on the High Holy Days, the Purim shpiels.
For the record, it was Abraham Goldfaden, the writer of “Rozinkas and Mondlen,” who organized a group of wandering minstrels and wrote a play for them. This was Rumania, 1876 and it was his play “The Sorceress” which initiated the Jews of New York to theater. The impact of this show, whatever merit it had was not important, so astounded the Jewish populace, that in a few months a Yiddish repertoire theater began performing on weekends, mainly musical comedies written by Goldfaden. He established a format that endures today, though the Yiddish theater is now almost an historical relic.
He was at times great in his creative world, yet unabashedly theiving tunes from great composers like Offenbach and even cantorial chants. The eastern European types he sketched in his plays were the ultimate Jewish stereotypes: The buxom women, the nitwits, the stern patriarchs.
Soon there were rival companies, writers who often sketched an entire play in one day, relying on the thespians to ad-lib the in-between lines. It was a field day of pillaging, of lifting from Shakespeare (the Jewish King Lear) to Goethe, delving into the mystical (the Dybbok) the bible (Judas Maccabeus, Bar Kochba), bending the dramas and characters into modern times and even, if there was an unforeseen lapse somewhere, an actor would stand out and deliver an impromptu speech on whatever: the plight of the Jews, for instance, and with the entire company and the audience singing a Hebrew or Yiddish song. The audiences never failed the actors. They relished ever detail and shouted for encore after encore. They loved the “stars” -- took them to their hearts and it was a rare bar mitzvah or wedding that the entire company of actors did no attend.
Nor did their interest in a show flag, for they relished lengthy performances. A show that started in the early evening, at midnight found the audience still fervent, to the drop of the curtain.
An extract from the Philadelphia Record, 1891, describing “The Exile from Russia”, says: “It was a tragic musical melodrama, or an operatic realistic drama, with a terrific climax in which three of the leading characters die a violent death, followed by a comic duet.”
“The play starts with a scene in a Moscow tavern, where the Jewish owner is forced to dance by the tipsy Russian patrons, who then oblige by dancing on their own. The hero, Ossip, with a wealth of black bushy curls and a face pallid from ardent study (Author's note: this was indicative of a pious yeshiva bocher) debates about converting to Christianity.”
“In later scenes of Russian life, the gentile heroine, the daughter of a Russian general, declares her love for Ossip, if he will convert. Ossip decides to leave his faith. When a pogrom breaks out, Ossip hurries home to lead his family to safety, but they spurn him. They want no help from an apostate. The drunken soldiers beat the Jews quite realistically, including Ossip.”
“After more shooting and stabbing, the play ends in New York, with an historical coda. A parade of New York's foreign citizens appears, dressed in red, white, and blue, wearing red flannel yachting caps, headed by a brass band playing “The Stars and Stripes.” As if this were not enough, a tableau is formed: the stars and stripes wave side by side with scarlet socialistic banners!”
The Streets of Gold
Since Abraham of Ur, till their arrival in the United States of America, the Jews had never in their long and wandering history, experienced the liberty of freedom of expression, the opportunity of entrepreneurship as occurred here in the beginning of the 20th century. Now, all their creativity, and their zeal of enterprise, galvanized into a seemingly huge rocket; exploding into the skies, shattering into a brilliance that would electrify the world.
No longer was it a stigma to being Jewish, or so it seemed. In a world where immigrants spoke Polish, Italian, and Russian, Yiddish was just another native language. The vitality of the Jew found him now in drugstores, groceries, as shoemakers. In New York, in the east side alone there were candy stores, saloons, lunch counters, as well as doctors and dentists and lawyers. The real profession, not being barred to them as were some, like banking, found the little businessman saving his pennies and dollars, first as a lessee, then a landlord, and some owning huge blocks of tenements and downtown complexes. The more astute, or fortunate perhaps, became the nouveau riche among the east side Jews.
Louis Borgenicht, a peddler, and Jack-of-all-trades, became known as the King of children's dresses. Oscar Berman was the Crown Overall Manufacturing Company, Messing, the international manufacturer of lingerie; they became junk and rag tycoons and the Luria Brothers, headed the largest scrap iron and steel company in the country.
More known, and more famous, were the Yiddish Hollywood moguls, who were never really comfortable speaking English, men like Carl Lamelle, Sam Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, and Jessie Lasky, starting with the nickelodeon and the magic lantern to change the entertainment industry forever.
Even with the miracle of the movies, there was still anti-Semitism, whether latent or overt. Banks and some corporations kept the Yiddishers out. The Ivy League schools of higher education had their quotas of admissible Jews. The most candid admission of discrimination was the New York Telephone Company, which, under no circumstances employed Jews.
Entertainment needs entertainers, showmen and show women. So the east side streets spewed out little street smarties, wise guys and gals, mimicking the people they knew best, like Eddie Cantor and others, standing on street corners or in saloons, singing, parodying, passing the hat -- the likes of Georgie Jessel, George Burns.
Eddie Cantor, a master of pranksmanship and skits, soon discovered his grimaces and eye rolling caused so much laughter. Sophie Tucker found that singing “Mein Yiddishe Mama” invariably caused tears to flow and Fannie Brice, with her Yiddish-English, would come on stage in a Madame Dubarry pompadour wig and proclaim with a heavy Yiddish accent, “I'm a bad vomen, but I'm good company.”
These children had heavy loads of talent. Born as Jews, their environmental Yiddishkeit never left them. They were Jews and they never portrayed themselves otherwise, and as they matured into celebrities, they took their Jewish “shtik” with them.
They were never self-conscious about being Jews, and if they satirized their Jewishness, it was not meant to demean. Factually, they were proud of what they represented, and it was rare for any American-Yiddish show person to refuse a request for a benefit performance. To quote Fanny Brice again, “I never did a Jewish song that would offend race.”
From the 1900s on, Jewish show people passed on a tradition by using an occasional Yiddishisrn in their skits. In 1934, Al Jolson's movie “Wonderbar” had snatches of Yiddish words, Goucho Marx invariably lapsed into his famous side whispers of Yiddish, Sammy Cahn translated a Yiddish song “By Mir Bist Du Sheyn” into English and made a tremendous hit record by the Andrews Sisters.
There was also Jack Carter, Jackie Miles, Jan Murray, and the most recent avid user of Yiddish in all forms being Sid Ceasar, whose memorable lampoons were:
Who can forget the Shmohawk Indians, and the Chinese cooks making kreplach? And into the present with Mel Brooks, “Blazing Saddles” and the Indian chief who bursts into pure Yiddish!
It was an ordinary letter, depicting the wine merchants business problems and his domestic affairs, and it could have been written yesterday, so topical was its content.
Is it possible that the Yiddish language has a parallel here? That some day thousands of years from now, an archaeologist will read something in Yiddish to a classroom?
The apparent demise of Yiddish makes this an obvious finale to many a scorner of this language. Who speaks it today?
Who reads the Yiddish books anymore? Well there are some who do, some still in Israel not many in Europe and maybe in New York, there are still the remnant of the pious who hold on to the Shtetl traditions.
There are those also with little knowledge of its historic background, the richness of its literature and the impact it had in translating the Jew to the Gentile world, plus the formative fashioning of this same Jew throughout his life span.
There is little doubt that the cynic has credibility, for, to the third generation of American—Jewry it is a vestige of a yesteryear.
It is grandfathers and grandmothers wedding day photo, maybe a Yiddish letter or two put away in the attic, or sealed in a paper carton in the basement.
This article out of necessity was greatly condensed and touched only a few highlights of importance as Shakespeare so aptly put it. “The evil that men do lives after them—the good is oft interred with their bones.”
Let this not be the fate of the Yiddish language —— for should the internment occur, let us look back at Yiddish as a fallen hero, a strength when needed, his arms embracing all Jewry, creating a cohesiveness -that held them fast till the day the Holy Land was regained!
Joseph Robert Goren