Albert Einstein with stars of the Yiddish theater
Playing at the Pioneer Theater in New York until the 28th, “Yiddish Theater: A Love Story” documents the efforts of Zypora Spaisman to keep Yiddish theater alive. As impresario and performer, the 85 year old holocaust survivor was determined to inspire a new generation to appreciate what was once a vibrant part of New York’s cultural landscape. Directed by Israeli Dan Katzir, the film is much more of a tribute to her dedication and perseverance than a study of a genre. That being said, there is enough historical context to at least help us understand why Spaisman’s struggle was an uphill one. Put succinctly, Yiddish theater died because Yiddish died.
Zypora Spaisman preparing to go on stage for “Grine Felder” performance
In addition to Spaisman, there are interviews with David Romeo, past general manager of the Yiddish Folksbiene Theater. Throughout the film, we see him knocking on doors of wealthy Jews trying to get donations to keep the theater going–mostly unsuccessfully. It becomes clear midway through the film that no matter how rich a cultural legacy Yiddish theater is, contemporary Jews have become so assimilated that they see no value in keeping it alive. Jewish identity for them mostly means the Hebrew language and the modern state of Israel. Yiddish symbolizes weakness, victimhood and the ghetto while Hebrew represents virility, success and power. Zionism was so anxious to destroy the cultural legacy of Yiddish that an organized campaign to stamp out the language was mounted not long after the state of Israel was created. In so doing, the Zionists demonstrated a kinship with Joseph Stalin who also tried to suppress the Yiddish language as well as the Russian-Yiddish theater.
Filmed seven years ago, the documentary is focused on performances of Peretz Hirshbein’s “Grine Felder” (Green Fields), a staple of Yiddish theater. As it turns out, this I was inspired to write about this play some years back:
Back in 1959, when I was a unhappy 14 year old in the Catskill Mountains with an unfashionable taste for poetry in a time of rampant materialism and conformity, the school librarian Gussie Kasofsky took an interest in me. Sensing that I needed reinforcement from the world of literature, she fed me books that made me feel less alone, including James Joyce’s “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man” and Colin Wilson’s “The Outsider”.
I knew little about Gussie except that she ran a bungalow colony called “Grine Felder” (Green Fields) that was named after a Yiddish play popular in the 1920s. Last night I saw a wistful movie based on the play on Channel 13, the public station in NYC. It tells the tale of a Talmudic scholar from the city gets a job as a tutor with a rural peasant family where he finds romance.
A scene from the 1937 Yiddish film “Grine Felder” directed by Edward G. Ulmer
This morning I did a web search on “Grine Felder” and made the most extraordinary discovery, something that ties together my own political beliefs with early Yiddish theater and the political and culture milieu of Sullivan County, where I grew up and home of the “Borscht Belt.” This resort area in the southern Catskill Mountains was not only a hothouse for the development of major talents like Danny Kaye and Sid Caesar, it also nourished left-wing culture at a time when Jews were an oppressed people in the United States.
About 10 years ago Phil Brown, a professor at Brown University and Sullivan County “landsman” began the first of a series of summer conferences on the Catskills. They have included notable talks by people such as CP veteran Phil Foner, who directed a band with his other brothers when the witch-hunt made it impossible for them to work at their regular jobs in the trade unions and the universities.
One of the other talks was on Gussie Kasofsky’s bungalow resort given by Martin Boris, author of three novels, including “Woodridge 1946.” Woodridge is my home town and I read this novel with keen interest about 20 years ago. Boris is also an expert on the Yiddish theater and is currently working on a biography of Maurice Schwartz, a major figure from that bygone world.
Boris points out that the bungalow colony was a favorite of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the great Yiddish novelist and short story writer. Singer had been introduced to the resort by his friend Zygmunt Salkin, a budding theater director. Salkin sought to involve Singer in a production at the bungalow colony of I.L. Peretz’s “At Night in the Old Marketplace,” a Yiddish theater classic. This was in the late 1930s, at a time when Yiddish theater had gone into a steep decline.
In 1937, the great author-critic Alexander Mukdoiny wrote, “The Yiddish Theatre is finished. It is no longer even bad theatre. It has no actor, no repertoire, no directors and no designers. Professionalism, talent and ambition are practically dead.”
According to Boris:
Zygmunt Salkin’s attempt at a solution that summer of 1938 was to gather a group of stage-struck youngsters and present them with his own English translation of the I.L. Peretz play, to be produced under Singer’s guidance. The practical part of his agenda was the free use by the troupe of a gathering hall in the bungalow colony known as Grine Felder (Green Fields). But this was no ordinary Catskill resort for the families of middle-class Jewish shopkeepers and businessmen who would come for a respite from Manhattan’s swelter. When Salkin and Singer arrived, Grine Felder had been for two years summer home to the most concentrated assemblage of Yiddishist elite anywhere on Earth. While other groups-artists, leftists, Bohemians-organized their own colonies, none equaled the caliber of talent at Grine Felder.
Boris characterizes the colony’s origins as “almost mythic”. In the autumn of 1936, a delegation from the nearby Mirth bungalow colony, a favorite of working class Communists from New York, had approached Raphael Kasofsky and Meyer Arkin, owners of the popular Avon Lodge a mile outside of Woodridge.
Representing 32 families dissatisfied with their present summer accommodations, the delegates asked the two owners to build them a modern enclave of approximately 40 units on 35 acres of unused Avon Lodge property. The group would then assume all aspects of managing the colony, from maintaining the grounds to collecting the rents and paying the owners’ fees.
By the next spring, the spanking new colony was ready for occupancy. Its name would be Grine Felder, after the enormously successful play and movie by Perez Hirshbein, who was among the colony’s founding fathers. At the eleventh hour, however, Hirshbein decided to remain at Mirth, out of loyalty to its owner.
What Boris does not mention is that Meyer Arkin was sympathetic to the Communist Party. I took piano lessons from Henrietta Neukrug, who was part of his “mizpuchah” (extended family). She was an outspoken Communist who kept copies of Soviet magazines openly displayed in her living room in the 1950s, which took a lot of guts. Arkin’s Avon Lodge was where Sid Caesar first performed in public. As a member of the hotel’s kitchen staff in the 1940s, Sid and others put on socially aware plays and skits in the hotel theater, including works by Clifford Odets.
Among the regulars at Grine Felder were playwright David Pinski and Mendl Elkin, one of the founders of the Bronx’s Unzer Theatre, and Nahum Stutchkoff, author and playwright, whose radio series Tzores bei Leiten (“Trouble Increases”) ran for 20 years on WEVD in New York City, “the station that speaks your language” and whose call letters honored Eugene V. Debs.
Refreshments would be served after musical performances at Grine Felder, and the conversation would turn to the fate of European Jewry; and general issues facing the left such as the German-Soviet Pact of 1939, which badly splintered the left. Some of the bungalow colony’s guests were undoubtedly Communists while others were social democrats, including Samuel Charney, who wrote under the name “S. Niger”. He was an editor, journalist and historian, who founded the Zionist Socialist Party and was president of the Shalom Aleichem Folk Institute, Charney was considered the dean of Yiddish literary criticism.
Meanwhile, Isaac Bashevis Singer prevailed over all of the proceedings. In his memoir “Lost in America,” he recalls that each bungalow was named for a Yiddish writer or Socialist leader: Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman.
Grine Felder continued for almost 50 more years. In 1973 a neighboring ski lodge bought the colony and ran it for five years; eventually it fell into bankruptcy. Finally, the town of Fallsburg took the colony in lieu of unpaid taxes.
Someday the complete story of the intersecting worlds of Yiddish theater, Sullivan County resorts and leftwing politics will be told. It will include the details of the life of Paul Muni, born Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund, who performed in the Yiddish theater as Muni Weisenfreund before moving out to Hollywood and becoming a major film star. Until McCarthyism destroyed his career, Muni was one of the acting world’s outstanding leftwing voices.
It will show how Romanian Jewish performer Aaron Lebedeff’s stage antics influenced Danny Kaye, who got his start in the Catskill Mountains resort hotels. In October 1947, when HUAC had called its first ‘unfriendly’ witness, the communist screenwriter John Howard Lawson, and actors including Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Danny Kaye, traveled to Washington to lobby the committee.
John Rankin, a Mississippian member of the committee, complained:
They sent this petition to Congress and I want to read you some of the names. One of the names is June Havoc. We found that her real name is June Hovick. Another is Danny Kaye, and we found that his real name was David Daniel Kominsky…There is one who calls himself Edward Robinson. His real name is Emmanuel Goldenberg. There is another one here who calls himself Melvyn Douglas, whose real name is Melvyn Hasselberg. There are others too numerous to mention. They are attacking the Committee for doing its duty to protect this country and save the American people from the horrible fate the Communists have meted out to the unfortunate Christian people of Europe.
In fact, many of these Jews were connected to the world of the Yiddish theater, especially Edward G. Robinson who, like Paul Muni, was often featured in gangster movies. Melvyn Douglas was married to Helen Gehegan Douglas, who was red-baited by Richard Nixon in his first successful electoral bid during the 1950s.
When this story is written, it will clearly benefit from the research now archived at Phil Brown’s Catskill Institute archives.