Page 166 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 50

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whole satellite industry surrounding the Yiddish theater: special
publications dedicated to the Yiddish stage, sheet music, and
somewhat later, gramaphone records. Because they d idn ’t know
that their favorite songs were already available on the mass mar­
ket, or because they could not yet afford the price of
The Yiddish
many immigrants copied out their own song books.
This mine of information on the repertoire of Jewish immi­
grants on the move from shtetl to city and Europe to America
has hardly been touched, though such handwritten heirlooms
are surely in the possession of people reading these very lines.
From the three such song books that I have had occasion to
study and from the little bit of research done in the Soviet Un­
ion, one thing is overwhelmingly clear: The song lyrics that Jew­
ish immigrants, male and female, committed to writing were
not venerable and anonymous but recent and of known au thor­
ship.30 Like co-eds going off to college with their cassettes and
CDs, Jews leaving the Old World for the New took the newest
sounds along with them because they and only they captured
the pace and wrenching price of change.
To survive that perilous crossing, Yiddish songs now needed
to have institutional backing. Old-style
like Zunser
cut rather pathetic figures on New York’s Lower East Side, if
Hutchins Hapgood’s
Spirit of the Ghetto
is reliable testimony.31
When Hapgood met him, circa 1900, Zunser was working as
a printer in Rutger’s Square. For the benefit of his Anglo-Saxon
visitor he could still chant his “dirges,” swaying back and forth,
with a melancholy “common to all Jewish poets.” Not so for
another former
from Minsk, Shloyme Shmulevitsh, alias
Samuel Small, who quickly learned the ropes and eventually
wrote over five hundred songs for the American Yiddish stage.
Like his famous
Shmulevitsh had already published
some of his songs before coming to America. He too called them
“folksongs,” capitalizing on the new fashion. But while the aged
Zunser was already relegated by Hapgood to the sorrowful gal­
lery of ghetto dreamers, Shmulevitsh was able to pick up on
his old partnership with Shomer, whose name was synonymous
30. See
vol. 2, ed. Z. Skuditsky and M. Wiener (Moscow: Emes,
1936), pp. 326-56. All the song books I worked with were copied out by male
immigrants to America who were versed in Hebrew, Yiddish, and some Russian.
31. Hutchins Hapgood,
The Spirit o f the Ghetto,
ed. Moses Rischin (Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967), pp. 91-98.