December 13, 2018

Myron Gordon and Samuel E. Goldfarb: A musical bridge between father and son

Every Jew worth his weight in latkes knows “I Have a Little Dreidel,” aka “The Dreidel Song,” but Myron Gordon knows the holiday ditty better than most. That song, written nearly 90 years ago by his father, Samuel E. Goldfarb, has become both a family legacy and a bridge to a kind of personal healing.

“I heard all these songs while my father was composing them, and they had a certain meaning for me at the time,” said Gordon, 95. “Subsequently, I realized that these songs had a very almost sad and nostalgic feeling.”

Now the popular Chanukah tune is the title track for “Dreidel I Shall Play,” a collection of Goldfarb’s children’s songs and liturgical music. Working with veteran Los Angeles musician and producer Craig Taubman, the New York-based Gordon co-produced the album to contribute to the Jewish community, but also as a way of coming to terms with a painful part of his past that included being abandoned by his father.

“I finally decided, after all these years, to try to listen to the songs in a different way that would not have so much yearning and nostalgia to them,” Gordon said.

Under new arrangements that span barbershop quartet, folk and accoustic, the tracks most certainly sound different. Some of the 16 tracks on “Dreidel I Shall Play,” which were written between 1918 and 1927, are considered standards of the Jewish American songbook. Others are lesser known. 

Goldfarb wrote the melody to “Shalom Aleichem” and “B’sefer Chayim” with his older brother, Israel. And he collaborated with playwright and lyricist Samuel Grossman, who wrote the words to “The Dreidel Song,” on a number of holiday tunes, including the Passover songs “The Burning Bush” and “The Ten Commandments,” and the Purim tunes “I Love the Day of Purim” and “A Merry Purim Song.”

Goldfarb was born in Poland but immigrated to New York at the age of 4. He started learning piano at age 10 and frequently worked with his older brother when Israel was a rabbi at Brooklyn’s Kane Street Synagogue. In 1918, when Goldfarb was the head of the Department of Music at the Jewish Bureau of Education, the brothers put out a book of “Friday Evening Melodies.” That same year, they published the two-volume “Jewish Songster,” a collection of Jewish liturgical and secular songs in Hebrew, Yiddish and English that would become standard in schools and synagogues. 

Gordon, his sister Ruth, their mother, Bella, and Goldfarb. Photo courtesy of Jewish American Songster

Gordon remembers his father singing and playing several of the songs at home, but the music also calls up memories of a childhood from which his father was largely absent.

In 1929, Goldfarb left his wife and two children, moving from New York to Seattle, where he started a family with another woman. Gordon, who was 9 at the time, saw his father infrequently over the next several decades. During one of his father’s visits, however, he taught his 7-year-old granddaughter, Tamar, “The Dreidel Song.”

The nostalgia was mixed with bitterness, said Gordon, who changed his name from Goldfarb in part to distance himself from his father. 

“I’m sure my father liked me, but I think in the back of his mind, he knew he was going to be leaving, and he knew that he wanted to avoid perhaps getting too close to me,” said Gordon, who had a lengthy career in private practice as a clinical psychologist. “I think that in terms of teaching me these songs, he just sang them to me and I’m sure I learned them at his knee. I know the songs. No one else could have taught them to me.”

The musically prolific Goldfarb, who died in 1978, earned recognition during his life, but when he moved West, he settled into a lower-profile role, directing the music program at Temple De Hirsch in Seattle. According to his son, Goldfarb was in no position to call attention to his past achievements. 

“He had to conceal that period of his life because he was in effect concealing his divorce from my mother,” Gordon said. “It’s my theory that his career really fell down a few notches. He did a little composing and he did a lot of arranging songs for the children and for the temple, but it’s my theory that because he had to bury this part of his past, he did not proceed with all cylinders.”

A couple of years ago, when Gordon discovered a box of his father’s memorabilia, he came across letters, songbooks and even 78-rpm gramophone records that were still playable. He decided that the music was ripe for reintroduction within the Jewish musical canon, and contacted Taubman, a veteran musician and producer, who operates the multicultural arts center Pico Union Project near downtown Los Angeles and is the co-founder of the Friday Night Live services at Sinai Temple.

Taubman knew several of the Goldfarb songs, but hadn’t been aware of their origins. Although intrigued, he still wasn’t certain he wanted to be involved in the project. 

“I said, ‘Why me?’ And more importantly, ‘Why you?’ ” Taubman said. “ ‘Why are you doing this? The songs are more or less out there. Why do you want to do it again?’ ”

Once Gordon shared the back story about his father’s life and career, however, Taubman was hooked. 

“As I got deeper and deeper into the story, it was so clear that Myron wasn’t outing his absentee father,” Tubman said. “This was about making peace and closing the loop for him. That, to me, is the fascinating story.”

Taubman lined up friends and colleagues,and recorded the album in Los Angeles. Participants include Rena Strober, Alberto Mizrahi, Rick Recht, Daniel Cainer and Theodore Bikel. The recording of “Little Candle Fires” was one of Bikel’s last recordings before the famous singer and actor died last year.

The CD kicks off with the 1927 recording of “I Have a Little Dreidel” with Goldfarb at the piano and Arthur Fields on vocals. On Track 2, Taubman cuts loose with a rockabilly version of the same song. “Dreidel I Shall Play” contains songs for Passover and Purim as well as liturgical music. In the CD’s liner notes, Gordon recounts the story of his family and his father’s musical legacy. 

Because the Goldfarb brothers originally wrote the songs to help Jewish children learn more about their heritage, Gordon hopes that the reimagined versions serve the same purpose for contemporary Jewish children. Just as important, by revisiting these old songs for a new audience, Gordon has reached a place of healing.

“I guess you could say that by putting them out, I discovered a part of me that was kind of forgiving and understanding of my father’s situation,” he said.