Great Songs of the Yiddish Stage, Volume I: ABRAHAM ELLSTEIN & Other Songwriters of His Circle. Songs by Ellstein, Meyerowitz, Schwartz, Trilling, and Doctor. Simon Spiro, tenor; Elizabeth Shammash, mezzo; Amy Goldstein, soprano; Robert Bloch, tenor; Bruce Adler, tenor; Joanne Borts, mezzo; Nell Snaidas, soprano; Benzion Miller, tenor; Vienna Chamber Orchestra; Barcelona Symphony-National Orchestra of Catalonia/Elli Jaffe.
Naxos 8.559405 (B) {DDD} TT: 62:33

Second Avenue revisited. Yiddish is a dying language, although at one time it thrived. To a great extent, it perished in the Holocaust and in the American diaspora. Indeed, after World War II, the public library in my home town of Cleveland, Ohio, had the second-largest collection of Yiddish-language material outside of Buenos Aires. There was a large reading contingent among Cleveland Jews. My father, however, belongs to a generation that -- beyond certain phrases that also appear in general English and even in the most assimilated Jewish families -- speaks no Yiddish at all, and he passed this along to me. I'm hard put to find even a Yiddish newspaper outside New York. But there were poets, novelists, playwrights, songwriters, columnists, and belle-lettristes all writing in what was once the lingua franca (you should pardon the expression) of the Jewish world. Today, we look on the equivalent of Ozymandias's monument.

I learned German in school, and it didn't take me long to make the connection between Yiddish and jüdische Deutsch. Even though Yiddish was spoken by Jews throughout Europe and took on some of the vocabulary and even grammar of the "host country," a good deal of it derives from German. Leo Rosten's Joys of Yiddish is still one of my favorite books, and I keep it in a handy place, just to dip in now and then. The Yiddish corner of the world fascinates me. Although I still can't speak or write the language at all, I've gotten myself to the point where I can translate short bits of poetry, as long as they're not too complex.

Consequently, I grow nostalgic for something I never knew first-hand. The Yiddish theater, flourishing along and around Second Avenue in New York, in particular seems a rich source of material - with such stars as Adler, Carnovsky, Muni, Skulnik, and Picon. The "theater" included not only stage, but also vaudeville, burlesque, radio, records, and even movies. I managed to see Skulnik and Picon on Broadway (and in English), but on the basis of what this CD offers, probably at nowhere near their full star-power wattage. I also in the Sixties acquired marvelous Theodore Bikel LPs of some of the same material, but those discs appear to be long gone. Kudos to the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music (founded by Lowell Milken) and to partnering Naxos not only for a multi-CD series but for keeping pop music in the mix.

What is this stuff like and do you have to be Jewish to care for it? To answer the second question first: no more than you have to be Viennese to enjoy Schubert. Asking what it's like is also asking what the pop music in general of the time was like. The Yiddish stage had operettas, Broadway-style musicals, vaudeville "numbers," songs written directly for radio and records. Some of it was based on Central European folk music, melodic-minor scales, even cantorial chant, and so on (think of Smetana's "Moldau"), and some of it incorporated the dance-band rhythms of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley. Furthermore, you had both songwriters and composers (those who could write things other than melody, lyrics, and chords) working on the Avenue. Ellstein, for example -- along with Sholem Secunda, one of the most successful composers of the Yiddish theater -- wrote opera, cantatas, and orchestral arrangements of liturgical music. If you know Jan Peerce's "cantorial" recordings, you probably have heard Ellstein's work. Ellstein was nothing if not versatile. His songs range from the klezmer-like "Der nayer Sher" ("the new wedding dance") to the Russian folk-ballad/tango "Oygen" ("eyes," lyrics by Molly Picon) to the Viennese-y love duet "Ich vil es hern nokh amol" ("I want to hear it again") to the Kernian "Ikh zing" ("I sing," lyrics again by Picon) to the almost-jazzy "Abi gezunt" ("as long as you're healthy," lyrics yet again by Picon).

The sensibility of the music and the lyrics may prove too sentimental for some. It lacks the irony of a Lorenz Hart and the big-city sensibility of someone like Ira Gershwin or Irving Berlin. It usually strives for a quality known in Yiddish as "haimish" ("homey") -- as if you were talking to your most intimate friends or even to your family. With your family, you can indulge your sentimental side without fear of getting slapped for it. Within the limits of this sensibility, however, songwriters achieved not only variety, but sophistication and poetry. Take just the first verse of Molly Picon's "Ikh zing":

King Solomon sang to his Shulamit a love song,
And just like Solomon, my love,
I bring my song to you.
I sing my Song of Songs for you.

What the translation doesn't convey is the lovely blend of sacred and secular diction -- for example, "Song of Songs" is actually the Hebrew (not Yiddish) "Shir ha-shirim." And, of course, any time you can successfully work in the Song of Songs, you immediately heat up a love ballad.

I'd be lying if I tried to sell these songs as musically memorable as Gershwin, Rodgers, Berlin, or Arlen, but at their best, they lay a claim to one's personal jukebox. The original orchestrations have almost all been lost, and the ones here sound a bit grander to me than what might have actually pertained -- larger orchestra, more strings, and so on. But, what the hey? The Yiddish theater in my head is idealized anyway, and the new scorings have been carried out with taste and resistance to the temptation of turning everything into Strauss's Four Last Songs.

The performances are nothing short of terrific. The Milken Archives have done things up with a ribbon and a bow. Nothing chintzy here. The singers all know how to put over a song, and, amazingly, all of them (including the "comic" singers) sing on pitch. To single any one of them out does an injustice to the ones you don't mention. Tenors Simon Spiro and Robert Bloch both can put across the Ardent Young Man, while Spiro also reveals a talent for comedy in "Der alter Tsigayner" ("the old gypsy"). Elizabeth Shammash, Nell Snaidas, and Amy Goldstein play the ingenue in love, each from their own point of view. Tenor Benzion Miller and baritone Robert Abelson tug at the heartstrings, depicting, respectively, an immigrant wondering about his small town back in Europe and an old man working as a dishwasher, thrown out by his grown children -- a Jewish Lear. Bruce Adler, a terrific comic singer, does the Yiddish mega-hit "Ikh bin a 'Boarder' bay mayn Vayb" ("I'm a boarder at my wife's"). In fact, my only complaint is that he doesn't do all the verses (did reasons of "propriety" enter into this decision?). Elli Jaffe, leading a Spanish (!) orchestra, provides clean, close, and lively accompaniment.

One of my favorite Naxos discs. I'm on the lookout for volume 2.

S.G.S. (March 2004)