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In his memoir, Sounds from My Life, composer Joseph Rumshinsky (1879-1956) wrote: “The situation of the composer in the Yiddish theater in general is a sad one. The world can never get to know his better musical creations, because the whole score – in which the ensembles, serious duets, romances, and the better songs are found – seldom, indeed hardly ever, gets to print… And the saddest thing is, as soon as the operetta closes and leaves the stage, the full score withers and dies….”

Unfortunately, Rumshinsky was right. Many of the scores have vanished – but not all.

In The Thomashefskys, you will hear the music of shows that played the theater houses of the Lower East Side in New York and other American cities to which the Thomashefsky troupe traveled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To say these are rescued lost treasures is not an exaggeration. For ten years, The Thomashefsky Project has been searching out, reconstructing, and preserving these disintegrating scores. Extant fragments of musical manuscripts, discovered at various archives, have been pieced together and transcribed into a digitized music program on their way to becoming as true a reflection of the original works as possible. And as the manuscripts contained little or no annotation, it remained for Michael Tilson Thomas to bring them to life – to edit and arrange the material, according to his memory of how his grandmother Bessie Thomashefsky, uncle Harry Thomashefsky, and father Ted Thomas performed the numbers in the living room of his North Hollywood family home in the 1950s.

When The Thomashefskys premiered at Carnegie Hall in April 2005, several members of the audience commented that the music didn’t “sound Jewish.” This response may be due, in part, to sensibilities nurtured by Fiddler on the Roof – Broadway’s projection of Sholom Aleichem’s village of Anatevka – and to contemporary Klezmer arrangements. It may also be due to unfamiliarity with the basic nature of Jewish music, a secular and sacred heritage in development since early post-biblical times.

The Ashkenazic (East European) Jews, in particular, created a rich body of melody. They developed liturgical music with Hebrew and Aramaic prayer texts and, in all areas where Jews settled, their minstrels mingled with other music-makers, borrowing and adapting elements from each other. These traveling minstrels, called badkhonim (literally, ones who concoct, create, make known), were folk educators as well as entertainers and sang Yiddish songs imbued with meaning. As conditions grew harsher in Tsarist Russia, their songs also took on qualities of consolation and counsel.

European Yiddish theater was officially born only five years before Boris Thomashefsky emigrated to America. Abraham Goldfaden (1840-1908), generally regarded as the “Father of Yiddish Theater,” wrote and presented the first productions in Jassy, Romania, in 1876. Having himself been a badkhen for many years, he now set out to create a type of Jewish opera or operetta, for which he interwove music from synagogue chants, religious hymns, holiday songs, Hasidic tunes, Yiddish folk songs, Slavic melodies, and European grand opera arias. That such an eclectic recipe would almost immediately be labeled as “Jewish music” is not unusual. The history of Jewish music, as the history of Jewish culture itself, embodies the intermingling of traditional elements with new stylistic influences culled from the worlds in which Jews found themselves.

Boris Thomashefsky writes in his Autobiography that, as a boy of five in Kaminska, while learning liturgical numbers from his grandfather, the Talner Khasn, he was also singing Goldfaden songs. In America, a number of Goldfaden’s operettas became mainstays of Boris Thomashefsky’s early repertory, including Koldunye (often referred to as a Yiddish Cinderella story), the musical drama chosen by the enterprising 15-year-old for the first presentation of Yiddish theater in America (New York City, 1881). It also includes Shulamis, produced in Boston’s Music Hall in 1888 and featuring fifteen-year-old Bessie Kaufman, who had just run away from home to join Boris Thomashefsky and become a starke. Both Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky had great affection for Goldfaden and helped him in his waning years in New York. In 1907, to support the ailing Goldfaden, Boris Thomashefsky agreed to present his last play, Ben Ami, at People’s Theater. Rehearsals were still in progress when the Father of Yiddish Theater died. Bessie was at his bedside.

While Goldfaden’s operettas dominated the Thomashefskys’ early repertory, the composer Joseph Rumshinsky wrote the scores for the majority of Boris and Bessie’s later hits. Rumshinsky was 40 years younger than Goldfaden, born in Vilna the same year that Boris Thomashefsky premiered Koldunye in New York City. He thus came of age in the 1890s, when there was an already established Yiddish theater and Jewish popular music style. As Mark Slobin, author of Tenement Songs, explains: “It was also the heyday of pre-Revolutionary salon and cabaret music in Russia, and all these streams flowed through his musical life. Coming to America in 1906, Rumshinsky became the most prolific and influential of the operetta composers. He lived through the transition from the older European-based plots and musical styles to the advent of the lighter Americanized shows that set popular taste in the 1920s.”

The program assembled by Michael Tilson Thomas for The Thomashefskys enables us to travel the distance from Goldfaden to Rumshinsky, to stand on the threshold where sounds of Jewish music entered mainstream American life and gradually evolved into something new.

The themes of the Thomashefskys’ productions evolved accordingly over the years – from Biblical tales and nostalgic stories of the old country to the challenges and conflicts of acculturation. However, one must be cautioned not to go too far in labeling Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky in conformity with categories established by Yiddish theater historians.

Hundreds of manuscripts of dramas and comedies belonging in the Thomashefsky repertory have been found by The Thomashefsky Project, and a number have been translated. In comparing these productions and Boris and Bessie’s accomplishments in the context of the broader Yiddish theater scene, some conclusions about their unique contributions can be made.

The first is their dedication to socio-political causes. For them, the theater was a vehicle for social transformation. Between 1912, when Bessie Thomashefsky first appeared in Khantshe in America, to 1922, the end of her stint as owner of Bessie Thomashefsky’s People’s Theater, she produced and starred in more than a dozen plays dealing with women’s rights and struggles, such as suffragette causes and unwed motherhood. As the first Yiddish actress to publish her memoirs and own and operate her own theater, she taught by example. Boris Thomashefsky also never shied away from controversial issues and kept a close eye on current events in Europe. As evidenced by his chronicles of a 1913 trip back to Eastern Europe, his childhood memories of the pogroms were always with him. Until his death, he continued to write plays about victims of anti-Semitism, such as Alfred Dreyfus and Mendel Baylis. In 1933, while most Americans were oblivious to the impending danger of the Third Reich, Boris wrote two plays about Hitler.

Second, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky’s comic plays never lapsed into slapstick or buffoonery. They were quick to expose the foibles of their people, but they did so with affection, wit, and dignity.

Third, their daring programming helped to shape the course of American drama. By importing the works of Ibsen, Hauptmann, Ansky, Chekhov, Wilde, and other avant-garde playwrights, a bridge between the new European theater art forms and the American theater was built for a brief but momentous period.

And finally, whether due to personal magnetism, insight, ability to inspire, or entrepreneurial acumen, they attracted countless authors, composers, actors, musicians, producers, and designers. Together, this creative circle of talent produced plays and operettas that were pioneering products in every sense, reflecting new approaches to scriptwriting, musical composition, choreography, acting, directing, and scenic design. And although this phase of Yiddish theater was shortlived, its influence continued as its participants went on to Broadway, Hollywood, and elsewhere, helping to shape the development of American popular culture.

The story of Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, Yiddish theater, and the immigrant experience is vast and complicated. No doubt hundreds of tales and melodies still lie dormant among the materials accumulated by The Thomashefsky Project, waiting to be brought to life in the years ahead. Meanwhile, The Thomashefskys is, in the words of its host, offered to you as “an affectionate introduction.”

Linda Steinberg is Executive Director of The Thomashefsky Project.

Copyright © 2005 The Thomashefsky Project