I am a huge fan of Rodgers & Hammerstein, as anyone who reads this blog knows. But despite the Jewish backgrounds of both Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single Jewish character in their musicals. At least on the surface. I’ve droned on in several posts about the hidden Jewish elements in some of their plays. But what would you say if I told you that the songs from their biggest hits were originally written and recorded in Yiddish? Behold the wonders of Gordon MacRae’s Curly Goldberg and Shirley Jones’ Laurey Weissmann:
Okay, fine, I put that video together myself. After my last post, I better be careful about my claims or no one will ever believe anything I say! The Rodgers & Hammerstein songs in that clip were sung by a man named Seymour Rechtzeit (pronounced—and later spelled—Rexite) who for many years had a radio show in which he and his wife, Miriam Kressyn, translated and sang popular American songs in Yiddish.
I became obsessed with Seymour after hearing him sing on the Yiddish Radio Project, a superb NPR multi-part series that won the Peabody Award in 2002. You can hear some more excerpts of Seymour’s work here. I can’t tell you how often I listen to the CDs of this series and Rechtzeit is my favorite. When I first heard him I wanted to jump on a plane and visit him in his creaky old New York apartment filled with old photos and recordings. He literally invited anyone who was listening to do so, and I’m sure he would’ve talked my ear off for hours with wonderful stories from his days as “The Yiddish Crooner” and his career in Yiddish theatre including a long stint as President of the Hebrew Actors Union.
When I looked Seymour up in the newspaper archives, I was bowled over by the account of how, at nine years old, he so charmed Congress with his singing talents that he got them to reverse the quota of Jews from Poland that were allowed into the U.S. that year in order to get the rest of his family into this country. He was then invited to the White House to sing for President Calvin Coolidge. I was also surprised to find out that he appeared with Yiddish Theatre icon Dina Halperin, a family friend of ours, in her U.S. premiere in 1938. Oh, how I would’ve loved to have talked to him and heard every one of his countless recordings. Alas, Seymour died at the age of 91 shortly after the NPR series aired. Damn it. I pray his photos, scrapbooks, and recordings were donated to an archive that will preserve them forever.
When I was a kid and actually surrounded by Yiddish-speaking people, I couldn’t have been less interested. My great-grandparents, about whom I’ve written often, spoke mostly Yiddish until they died in the 1970s, but I couldn’t be bothered by their Old World ways. Why did I not appreciate all of the living links to such amazing history until it was too late? Is that always the way? Is it too much to expect young people to understand the richness and the gifts of the older generations?
This weekend Leah appeared in a short avant-garde play that culminated a two-week summer camp called the Art Thieves Conservatory. It was like guerilla theatre and I loved every second of it. A traditional version of “Hansel and Gretel” begins when all of a sudden Leah and her fellow campers stormed the stage in jump suits and threw the actors off the stage along with their costumes, scenery, and lights. Armed with only flashlights and props they made while on the stage out of newspaper, foil, and tape, they put on their own revolutionary version of the Hansel and Gretel story. At one point, the actors blurted out the names of the previous generations in their family until they couldn’t go back any further. Hearing her pronounce the names of her great-great grandparents, Itshe Meyer and Alta Toba Korolnek, from that stage sent shivers up my spine. Leah can’t help but be aware of her ancestors for all I blather on about them (and the fact that many of them stare at us from our dining room walls during every meal).
I hope that both she and Charlie take an interest in their family background, whatever form that takes. I never gave the older generations in my family much thought when I was young, and now I realize what treasures they were during that never-to-be-repeated period (at least among American Jews) when the immigrants from the Old Country lived side-by-side with their totally assimilated descendents who were growing up in such a remarkably different way than they had in the shtetls of Poland and Russia.
Here’s another short piece about Seymour Rechtzeit. Oh, how I wish he and the other popular Yiddish personalities of the day were still on the radio, I’d be a devoted listener!