Authors: Alisa Solomon
No work advanced the idea of the shtetl as the single, uniform, self-contained memory site for Ashkenazi Jews more than
Life Is with People: The Jewish Little-Town of Eastern Europe
(1952), Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog’s work of “salvage ethnography.” (The paperback edition was given a new subtitle—
The Culture of the Shtetl
—and featured a cover drawing by Chagall,
House in Vitebsk
.) The authors based their study on interviews with émigrés to America from all over Eastern Europe, most of whom had left as children (some of them originally from large cities)—and whose memories had been shaped and amended by their reading of Sholem-Aleichem and other Yiddish writers. Zborowski and Herzog’s work was also informed by their reading of Bella Chagall, Heschel, and Samuel. Touted as an authoritative, even scientific account, in truth the book presented “a composite portrait of a virtual town, not an empirical description of an actual one,” Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett notes. But it was widely and enthusiastically received (despite a few reviews pointing out discrepancies and errors) as a reliable record put down in the nick of time. It is still in print.
* * *
All these background resources notwithstanding, there could of course be no
without the Sholem-Aleichem stories themselves. When the first major volume in English—
The Old Country
—was released in June 1946, it entered the already entrenched mind-set that saw Sholem-Aleichem as representing a “world” and speaking from the grave for its murdered Jews. The volume of twenty-seven stories, translated by Frances and Julius Butwin and published by Crown, was “more than a book,” wrote none other than Ben Hecht, invoking this discourse in his review for the
New York Times
. It appeared just two months before he would stage his Zionist pageant
A Flag Is Born
, in which his Old World protagonist, a Holocaust survivor (played by Paul Muni), is called Tevya. Of the Butwin volume, Hecht said: “It is the epitaph of a vanished world and an almost vanished people.… All the Tevyas whose souls and sayings, whose bizarre and tender antics Sholom Aleichem immortalized in the richest Yiddish prose ever written—were massacred, six million strong, by the Germans.… In Sholom Aleichem’s books you can see all the ghosts,… not merely the report of a people. They are their historical farewell to a civilization that wiped them out.” The review was illustrated with an image from a Chagall lithograph: in front of a crooked line of pointy-roofed houses, a horse draws a cart into the frame and a fiddler rushes along, violin in hand, looking like he’s about to take a tumble. The
gave the picture a caption: “The Vanished World of Sholem Aleichem.” (Crown’s advertisements made a less lachrymose appeal, promising plenty of “fine, juicy humor.”)
With a spate of ecstatic reviews—many of them singling out the special charm of “Tevye Wins a Fortune,” the one dairyman story in the collection—the book climbed quickly onto the
New York Times
best-seller list and stayed there some three months. Right away, Crown signed Frances Butwin to a new Sholem-Aleichem project (her husband, Julius, had died while
The Old Country
was in galleys): a volume highlighting the Tevye cycle. Published in 1949,
presents seven of his adventures, “scattered” among pieces from other Sholem-Aleichem series, Butwin explains, to “indicate the lapse of time between the stories” as they had been printed, over decades, in newspapers. (A few years later, she translated
Almost right away, the Tevye volume was picked up for adaptation into a Broadway musical. In February 1949—less than a month after
came out—a playwright approached Crown for the rights to create a dramatization and his libretto soon caught the attention of a successful composer-lyricist team, who secured an eleven-month option on the material later that year.
But Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were busy adapting
Anna and the King of Siam
, among other projects, and they felt the Tevye script needed a huge amount of work, so the months whizzed past and by the summer of 1950 they had released their claim. The world never found out how the leading musical-comedy duo, both from German Jewish backgrounds, would have conjured Tevye’s world, a realm as foreign to them as
’s Bali Ha’i,
The King and I
’s Siam, and, for that matter, Oklahoma.
Right after Rodgers and Hammerstein let their option go, the illustrious producer Michael Todd scooped it up. Born Avrom Goldbogen to parents who had emigrated from Poland—his father a rabbi, no less—Todd may have had more affinity for the material and he reportedly raised the $100,000 budgeted for the show. But a production did not materialize. Todd was best known for staging slightly upscale burlesques whose gaudy sets were more dressed than the women gallivanting on them, so perhaps he couldn’t win the confidence of further backers and artists. Who could say how the showman who was represented on Broadway at the time with
The Live Wire
would treat the dairyman’s marriageable daughters? The plans went nowhere.
The playwright, one Irving Elman, did not give up. For several years, he and his agent, the formidable Edmond Pauker, sent the script to actors, producers, and directors, hoping to bring the “folk play with music” to the stage. (The music, for which Elman took credit, was an assemblage of well-known Yiddish tunes such as “Rozhinkes mit mandlen” [“Raisins with Almonds”], Avrum Goldfadn’s lullaby from his 1880 operetta,
.) Many who read the script declared enthusiasm for its warmth and humor, but almost all expressed reservations, too: “you need to take out all the animals,” “it feels so unwieldy as to be almost unmanageable,” it’s “sprawling, undramatic,” “too Jewish and too folkish for the general public,” not “commercial enough.” Leading Jewish actors—Menashe Skulnik, Joseph Buloff, Sam Jaffe, and Jacob Ben-Ami—would have been glad to star as Tevye, if changes they recommended were made to the script and if a producer could raise the funds.
Could be, the Broadway stage was not yet hospitable to Tevye in the early 1950s. The Jewish characters who trod the musical boards in the several years Elman tried to get his adaptation produced included the vaguely implied Jews cavorting in an upstate New York summer camp for adults in Harold Rome’s
Wish You Were Here
(implied only by virtue of the setting), and the Yinglish revues
Bagels and Yox
, proffering skits, songs, and vulgar comics scoring laughs based on the old scheme of playing in-jokes (the bits of kitchen Yiddish) for audiences who, in the dominant culture, anxiously regarded themselves as outsiders. One might also count Nathan Detroit in
Guys and Dolls
if you take his lyric—“I’m just a no-goodnik. All right already. It’s true. So nu?”—to clinch his Jewish connection. But generally, Broadway’s musical makers, though most were Jewish, were not yet putting overt Jewish characters front and center. The Great White Way had no room for puffed-up patriarchs of the Old World, with chickens in their yards and prayers on their lips. Such images could be embraced in books and records—objects brought into the private sphere (and part of the midcentury rise of consumer objects as confirmers and even conferrers of identity). Jewish radio shows could accommodate Tevye, too, as they were also enjoyed in the domestic realm. But in the more diverse, public arena of Broadway, Tevye may have been too risky a commodity.
The leaders of the Jewish establishment, at least, were not ready for such a prominent production: the tercentenary celebration of Jewish life in America that they organized in 1954 unfolded under the slogan “Man’s Opportunities and Responsibilities under Freedom.” Their aim, the initiating statement said, was to pay homage to the “American heritage of religious and civil liberty” and demonstrate “the strength of the American people’s commitment to the principles of democracy in our struggle against communism and other forms of totalitarianism of our day.” Aghast, the pioneering cultural pluralist Horace Kallen complained that this Jewish celebration didn’t have very much that was Jewish to distinguish it. That, in fact, was the point. The tercentenary celebrated how well Jews could blend into America, not the ways in which they stood out. And in popular culture of the period, Jews remained coded, cutesy, crazily comic, or downright “de-Semitized,” as Henry Popkin charged in a famous 1952 essay in
. Tevye had to cool his heels in the assimilating wings for another decade before striding onto the Broadway stage. Besides, Elman’s play (lost to posterity) was by most accounts simply not so good.
* * *
One precinct of Jewish American life, however, was ready to share Sholem-Aleichem’s characters on a public stage: the left. Communists, ex-Communists, socialists, and fellow travelers made their own claim on the
as the Cold War began. If one stream flows toward
in this period from the source of Maurice Samuel and the invention of the sentimental shtetl, another equally strong current finds its wellspring in radical culture.
Frances and Julius Butwin led the way. Both child immigrants from Eastern Europe, they found their impulse to translate Sholem-Aleichem “not in a postwar effort to salvage the ‘vanished world’ of eastern European Jewry,” according to their son, Joseph Butwin, but as progressives stirred by the Popular Front’s promotion of proletarian and folk literature. (For Frances Butwin, an additional catalyst was her upbringing in Charleston, South Carolina, amid the community’s self-conscious cultural renaissance, one of America’s “remarkable acts of memory and invention.”) Though by the mid-1940s, the alliance of Communists, socialists, industrial unionists, and bourgeois liberals in the fight against Fascism had long collapsed, the impact of the “cultural front” had not dissipated. Far beyond the party-line agitprop with which Popular Front art is commonly dismissed, much excellent work was ignited by the radical fervor of the 1930s and it shaped American culture well into the Cold War. Thanks to the Butwins, Sholem-Aleichem was part of this transformation.
Living in St. Paul, Minnesota, the Butwins found a “great friend, mentor, and comrade” in Meridel Le Sueur, author of the acclaimed people’s history of the upper Midwest
North Star Country
The Old Country
emerged from the same Popular Front exigencies—a valorization of “the folk” and the promotion of regional roots—after the Butwins had read Samuel’s
The World of Sholom Aleichem
and recognized some parallels. Their volume and Le Sueur’s, Joseph Butwin notes, were just two of numerous “country” books published in the 1940s in a vogue for American folkways. (
Deep Delta Country
appeared in a series published by Duell, Sloan and Pearce. Crown, meanwhile, was getting in on the boom with
A Treasury of American Folklore
A Treasury of Jewish Folklore
. The radio and recording industries also developed folk departments, which featured Yiddish songs among their vernacular regional musics.) The Jews, too, were (once) a folk.
The Butwins’ selection and translation of Sholem-Aleichem stories hardly pressed any of them toward an ideological doctrine; it was enough that the “little people” of Kasrilevke were a hardworking common folk, “lacking food, clothing, money and indeed everything but courage, faith and humor,” as the
Chicago Daily Tribune
reviewer put it.
The books inspired leftists to create stage and radio performances. The dancer and choreographer Sophie Maslow, known for her
Dust Bowl Ballads
, turned to Sholem-Aleichem to explore her Jewish heritage in a similar idiom, in what became her most famous dance,
The Village I Knew
(1950). In a series of seven scenes, it abstractly depicts rituals of shtetl life and events from stories in
The Old Country
. (She also drew on the visual imagery of Marc Chagall.) Maslow was from Brooklyn (with secular, socialist immigrant parents), so
was not in fact a place she “knew” firsthand; laying claim to it, the performance introduced a mode of identification that would characterize shtetl stagings to come, right up to
: it evoked nostalgia for a place one had never actually been.
When the writer Arnold Perl and the actor Howard Da Silva teamed up two years later to stage
The World of Sholom Aleichem
, their work, too, appealed to the sentimentality of a general audience, even as the two men were drawn to the material for its depiction of Jews scraping by under the boot of the czar. In Sholem-Aleichem’s stories, they saw the imperative for Jews, having experienced oppression, to proclaim solidarity with anyone facing injustice. More than that, they were fighting injustice by virtue of doing the play: both were blacklisted and out of work and they hired a company that was blacklisted, too. Sholem-Aleichem didn’t just provide some of their material; he was their red flag. At a time when mainstream Jewish organizations were purging leftists from their staffs, opening their files to HUAC, and, in the case of the American Jewish Committee, advocating the execution of the Rosenbergs, a team of unemployable, unrepentant leftists, at least some of them Party members (or former members), produced a surprise Jewish smash hit. While
was not drawn directly from Perl’s
World of Sholom Aleichem
or from the
Tevya and His Daughters
that he presented later, the Perl productions demonstrated that old Yiddish stories could find a sizable contemporary audience and make it happy.
* * *
Da Silva and Perl made an unlikely pair. The actor, ten years older, was a big, brash personality, not particularly tall, but imposing, built like a bulldog and sometimes snapping like one, too. Perl was short and wiry and, if not classically handsome with his round glasses and receding hairline, intensely charismatic—a charmer who dressed nattily and whose flinty, flirty eyes journalists noted as “piercing.” Where Da Silva sometimes came off as a blowhard, Perl captured everyone’s attention with his persuasive discourse. Where Da Silva often worked from gut feeling, Perl reasoned everything through. But the two men shared political convictions, a newfound love of
, and ferocious levels of energy, and they forged a theatrical partnership through which they could not only ride out but just about beat the blacklist.