A classic Yiddish operetta, revived for a new generation

“For a German Jew, Yiddish is beneath contempt,” musicologist Michael Ochs told JTA. “German Jews tend to think of Yiddish as bad German. The only use we had in our family for it was to make fun of it.”

So it is more than a tad ironic that it was Ochs, whose family fled Nazi Germany for New York in 1939, who rediscovered the “Di Goldene Kale” (“The Golden Bride”), the 1923 Joseph Rumshinsky operetta that spoke to the hopes and dreams of immigrants. It’s the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s latest offering — and its first production in its new home here at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, adjacent to Battery Park.

How this brilliant but virtually forgotten musical went from obscurity to full-scale production is the result of several coincidences combined with some diligent detective work.

“The Golden Bride” originally played at the Second Avenue Theater, filling its 2,000 seats for 18 weeks before touring the country (including places like Omaha, Nebraska) and overseas (Buenos Aires and Manchester, England). It was one of 14 Yiddish productions at the time on Second Avenue, known as the Jewish Broadway.

The title character, Goldele — a presumed orphan raised by the local innkeepers in a Russian village — discovers she had a rich father who passed away and left her a sizable inheritance. This makes her a sought-after bride. Though secretly in love with Misha, the innkeepers’ son, she promises several suitors she will marry the one who finds her long-lost mother. Goldele then departs for the United States to live with a wealthy uncle and quickly acclimates.

It’s easy to see why this story — even though Ochs describes it as “typically implausible” — resonated with audiences at the time. Many were from Russia themselves, and almost to a person they were immigrants who were getting used to a new land and language. The time frame of the production is shortly after the Russian Revolution, when many hoped a new Russia would be a more tolerant place.

Last revived in 1948, the show likely would have stayed hidden thereafter in the mist of Yiddish history were it not for a 1984 meeting in Boston of the Society for American Music. At the time, Ochs was the Richard F. French Music Librarian at Harvard’s prestigious Loeb Music Library. He found a large but incomplete manuscript of “The Golden Bride” score while scouring the stacks for material he might use in an exhibit tied to the meeting.

“I’d never heard of Rumshinsky,” Ochs said. “The music was excellent. What struck me was that this composer nobody ever heard of outside of people familiar with Jewish music had composed 90 to 100 operettas. Who knew?”

“The librettist was a woman [Frieda Freiman] who gave credit to her husband [Louis] to get her work produced,” he added. “There is no question she wrote the original libretto.”

After the meeting, the score returned to the library stacks and presumable anonymity. Ochs left Harvard in 1992 to become a music editor at W.W. Norton, from where he retired in 2002. But “The Golden Bride” wouldn’t let go. He’d made a copy of the score and now, in retirement, “wondered if I can translate this,” he said. “It started out really as a language project.” 

“I was never thinking in terms of a full-scale production,” Ochs added. “I was just thinking of getting this published, and that alone would have been pretty nice.”

So he sent a proposal to the American Musicological Association to see if they would be interested in a paper or book on the operetta as part of its Music of the United States of America series. When the association expressed enthusiasm, Ochs started additional research.

His first stop was YIVO, the Institute for Jewish Research in New York, which housed the librettist Freiman’s papers. As luck would have it, there he met the late Chana Mlotek, doyenne of the Mlotek family of Yiddish music experts and the organization’s musical archivist. The moment she heard about the project, the Yiddishe mama suggested Ochs call her son Zalmen, the Folksbiene’s artistic director.

Ochs didn’t have an opportunity to initiate the call — Zalmen Mlotek rang the next day, presumably ordered by mama.

“I wasn’t aware of the existence of the material,” Mlotek said in a separate phone interview. “But I was very familiar with a couple of the songs, the famous duet ‘Mayn Goldele.’ It was a big hit and sung in every generation since then.”

Mlotek was interested immediately; he and Ochs went into research mode. Scraps and bits of the original were scattered at Harvard, YIVO and UCLA, where heirs of Rumshinsky donated his papers. Ochs and Mlotek gathered the pieces and reconstructed the play.

“Our intention was to present it in a way that was as close to what we imagined it would have looked and sounded like in 1923,” Mlotek said.

At the same time, however, the pair realized “The Golden Bride” dealt with very contemporary themes.

“While the purpose of our presenting it was to show an example of one of the mainstays of the Yiddish Theater in its heyday, the fact that it deals with the idea of immigration, of coming to a new country and believing in the dream that one can make it — yeah, that’s a universal theme,” Mlotek said.

The show is artfully co-directed by the Folksbiene’s Bryan Wasserman and Motl Didner. Given the size and limitations of the set, Merte Muenter’s choreography and staging are superb. The cast is extraordinarily talented — Goldele, played by the opera-trained Rachel Policar, is a standout — and infectiously enthusiastic.

The wonderful songs also reveal the very Jewish roots of the American Songbook.

“Rumshinsky, in his autobiography, writes about how he went to visit a friend and he heard someone next door playing something from one of his operettas,” Ochs said. “Who was it? A young George Gershwin. He regularly attended Yiddish theater and of course it influenced him. When he wrote ‘Summertime,’ he even asked if it sounds too Jewish.”

The Golden Bride runs through Jan. 3, but it may soon come to an opera company near you. “The Golden Bride” has been “curated in a way it can easily be used by an opera company, whether you have a Jewish audience or not,” Mlotek said.

“Super titles make it irrelevant that it’s in Yiddish; in fact, it makes it more interesting,” he said. “There is interest from young people and cultured people to examine and taste what this culture was and is.”

With the Center for Jewish History debt free, its founding chairman steps down

One night back in 1985, businessman Bruce Slovin was walking home from a corporate board meeting with a lawyer named Joe Greenberger when Greenberger asked him about his involvement in the Jewish world.

Slovin responded that he wasn’t at all active, so Greenberger invited him to attend the next board meeting of YIVO, the research institute in New York on East European Jewry and Yiddish.

Slovin, who had recently lost his grandfather and father, attended the meeting and found himself spellbound.

“There was sitting my grandfather and father, who had just died—another Shlomo and a Yaakov,” he said, invoking his father and grandfather’s names.

“They were smoking with cigarettes like this”—he said, making an overhand gesture with his own Parliament cigarette. “They would drink schnapps after they had the board meeting. They were great storytellers. My father and grandfather were alive again.”

The flash of nostalgia set Slovin, a Brooklyn native, on a course that led to his joining the board of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and ultimately becoming the founding chairman of the Center for Jewish History in New York.

The center is a partnership of five historical organizations: the American Jewish Historical Society, the American Sephardi Federation, the Leo Baeck Institute, the Yeshiva University Museum and YIVO. It features the largest repository of Jewish historical artifacts in the Diaspora, with an impressive building near New York’s Union Square that contains 100 million artifacts and documents, and a library with half a million volumes.

More than 250 people gathered May 10 at a dinner to fete Slovin, 75, as he steps down as the center’s chairman.

The gala, held on the occasion of the center’s 10th anniversary, served as an opportunity to recognize the New Yorker’s lead role in the long, bumpy road to creating the center and putting it on sound financial footing.

An event that raised $1.2 million for the center also featured the unveiling of a stone plaque engraved with Slovin’s profile that will hang in its lobby.

“There would be no Center for Jewish History without Bruce Slovin,” Michael Glickman, the center’s chief operating officer, told JTA.

After attending that first board meeting in 1985, Slovin was shocked to discover that the documents in the YIVO archives were not well preserved.

“I saw these records degrading. There was no proper humidification, the warehouses were a mess,” he said. “We were broke all the time; that’s all we could afford.”

Slovin, then the president of MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings and of the Revlon Group, was soon installed as YIVO chairman. He began to push the often-resistant board to sell the building and move to a lower-priced area.

Greenberger, however, was thinking bigger: He suggested bringing in other Jewish organizations.

The idea for the Center for Jewish History was born.

Between 1994 and 2000, when the center opened to the public, Slovin had raised $67 million using strategies that many at the gala joked were “unique.”

“He came to my office and asked me for money,” Simon Ziff, whose name now adorns the center’s Ackman & Ziff Family Genealogical Institute, told JTA at the gala. “I’m not a big giver, but Bruce is tireless.”

“I was astounded by the amount of time he put into this venture,” added Ted Mirvis, co-chair of the board of trustees for Yeshiva University Museum and secretary of the center’s board of directors, at the gala.

Slovin, who received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Cornell University and a law degree from Harvard, had honed his ability to raise money as a child. He was so adept that eventually he was banned from a fundraising competition for planting trees in British Mandate Palestine because he won so often.

Despite his prowess, the center faced consistent financial difficulties. In 2007 there was controversy over a proposed takeover by New York University of the financially troubled center.

More recently, the Forward reported that Slovin was asked to step down from the YIVO board amid a string of painful layoffs. Slovin described the story as untrue and “dead wrong.”

The center also faced accusations of mismanagement and detractors who questioned its very raison d’etre.

Among the critics was Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and a prominent historian of American Judaism. Sarna repeatedly called for the center to be dissolved into its constituent parts.

But Sarna, among others, reconsidered his position with the announcement in January that the center had raised more than $30 million in 15 months from 22 donors—allowing it to wipe out its debts for the first time.

In February, Sarna called the center one of the most important Jewish archives in the world.

“Now that it’s financially viable,” he said, “it’s perfectly clear that it has found a place.”

Slovin points to the academic’s endorsement as a benchmark for the center.

It is this relative peace from debtors and critics that has allowed “everyone to relax a little bit,” he said, and made him comfortable with stepping down as chairman.

The chair will pass to William Ackman and Joseph Steinberg, who together led the recent capital campaign and were its largest donors.

While he will remain on the center’s board and as YIVO’s chairman, Slovin plans to focus on his business, the real estate and financial holdings company 1 Eleven Associates, as well as bringing in more scholars to the center and writing its history.

“Bruce doesn’t claim to be a scholar,” Mirvis said, “but he understands the needs of scholars.”

Hearing this, Slovin smiles wryly.

“I’m just smart enough to understand the need to have a history,” he said. “As a people as valuable to human kind as the Jewish people are, it seemed dead wrong not to have as much of history as we can save—and we have tons more work to do.”