Di Eybike Mame (The Eternal Mother): Women in Yiddish Theater and Popular Song, 1905-1929

Eybike Mame CD cover

Di Eybike Mame (The Eternal Mother):
Women in Yiddish Theater and Popular Song, 1905-1929
(Schott Wergo SM 1625-2; Mainz 2003)

Di Eybike Mame is first and only CD anthology of recordings featuring women of the Yiddish stage. This carefully edited production documents the enormous variety of music present during the period 1890-1930, from folksong to music hall and vaudeville, liturgical song to operetta and musical comedy. The booklet includes a detailed essay on Yiddish theater music and the role of women in Yiddish popular song.

Eybike Mame Extended CD Text

Article “Die Diven des jiddischen Theaters” by Rita Ottens

Despite prohibitions in traditional Judaism against the singing of women in the presence of men, biblical figures such as Miriam and Deborah stand for a female contribution to music within Jewish history. In the 20th century, singers like Sophie Kurtzer, Shaindele and Batsheva dedicated themselves to the Jewish liturgy. Ironically known as khazntes (lit. “cantors’ wives”), they were compelled to practice their art outside of the synagogue on vaudeville stages and remained exceptions to the rule – despite a stylistic closeness to the great male cantors such as Yossele Rosenblatt and Gershon Sirota. Yiddish popular songs depicted a great variety of women’s roles, including not only deceived girls, deserted wives and long-suffering mothers, but also suffragettes, adulteresses and eccentric spinsters. Its stars – often singer, actress, dancer and impresario all rolled up into one – charmed the Jewish world from Warsaw to Buenos Aires and played an important role in the expansion of gender roles. The singer and actress Bertha Kalish from Lemberg was compared favorably to the great actress Sarah Bernhardt, and Regina Prager’s voice could have held its own with that of an operatic heroine. Isa Kremer set new standards with her art song interpretations of Yiddish folksongs, the tomboyish Molly Picon wrote her own lyrics, and melodramatic Jennie Goldstein managed her own theater at the age of 16. Even today one encounters the odd 90 year-old retiree who is still enraptured by the sex appeal of Nellie Casman.

“this CD cannot be highly valued enough… “
(Jüdische Allgemeine Wochenzeitung)

“An extremely valuable documentation… A very informative and multifaceted booklet complements the production”.
(Neue Zeitschrift für Musik)

“Listeners interested in old recordings, and fans of Yiddish theatre, language and song, will love this CD.”
(Songlines)

“Althought the reception of Yiddish here in Germany is largely limited to that of klezmer and shtetl-culture, this CD is capable of vehemently correcting this one-sided impression.”
(www.klassik.com).

“In the 1890s, emotions ran high on the galleries of the Lower East Side theatres as fans fought battles over who of the two young prima donnas, Regina Prager or Bertha Kalish, was the better singer and actress. If you wonder what the fuss was about, you now have a chance to hear – and judge – these two legendary performers for yourselves. Two of their recordings as well as those of twenty-one other female performers have recently been released by WERGO. Produced and edited by Rita Ottens and Joel Rubin, Di Eybike Mame – The Eternal Mother: Women in Yiddish Theater and Popular Song 1905-1929, is their tenth production for WERGO’s Jewish Music Series.

In recent years, several compilations of historical recordings of American Yiddish vaudeville and theatre songs have been issued, most concentrating on later decades than Di eybike mame addresses. What makes the Ottens/Rubin anthology so unusual, besides its inclusion of a wider variety of song genres, is the fact that it contains some recordings from Europe and examples from the early days of recording. This means that even devotees of Yiddish theatre will recognize fewer of the performers’ names than on the rosters of the American Yiddish vaudeville compilations. After all, in some cases even Ottens and Rubin know little more than the names of the singers. But that should not deter us. On the contrary, we should simply allow ourselves to go on a richly rewarding aural discovery tour that takes us from Lemberg (today, Lviv in Ukraine) via London to New York and offers the wide spectrum of musical styles then in vogue in the world of Yiddish entertainment on both sides of the Atlantic: be it folksong, operetta, Estrada, vaudeville, or music hall tunes.

The title, Di eybike mame, Ottens and Rubin explain, “is an ironic play on yidishe mame clichés.” Although we can find several songs of suffering mothers such as “Di eybike mame” and “Vu iz mayn kind?” sung with a heart-rending krekhts by Lucy German and Jennie Goldstein respectively, the producers chose examples that demonstrate the wide variety of roles and songs female performers presented on stage. They reflected the joys and problems associated with love, courtship and betrayal; marriage, abandonment, and broken homes; motherhood and poverty; and work and unemployment; and included the traditional religious sphere (such as Helene Gespass’s “Lekht bentshn”) as well as newly won political rights (“Ale vayber megen shtimen,” sung by Clara Gold).

Those looking for familiar tunes and names may be gratified to find several compositions by Goldfaden (among them “Rozhinkes mit mandlen”) and Rumshinsky. Yiddish superstar Molly Picon sings the latter’s “Tsipke” and Lucy Levin, known for her role in Zayn vaybs lubovnik, presents a sassy rendition of his “Di Primadonna,” about a singer who knows how to escape the unwelcome advances of a manager. Less known today, despite her enormous popularity in her own time, is the European-based Broder-singer and vaudeville performer Pepi Littmann, whose anti-hasidic song “Oylom habu” is included here. Littman, who enjoyed the regard of the Yiddish literary circles in Odessa, was particularly successful in her cross-dressing role as a hasid.

It seems to me, however, that the highlights of this CD are Kalish and Prager, purportedly two of the greatest female voices on the Yiddish stage. Prager’s 1908 rendition of “Aria” from A mentsh zol men zayn reminded me of Rumshinsky’s words that her voice “had a dramatic, even, and rich sound that could easily change into coloratura and staccato and obtain the lightness and suppleness of a real lyrical soprano.” Kalish made her recording of “Shabes, yontef, un rosh khoydesh” from Goldfaden’s Shulamis in 1925, twenty years after she left the Yiddish stage to become a dramatic actress on the English-language stage. Still, her voice was rich and clear and full of emotion, which leaves me to wonder what it would have sounded like at the height of her singing career in the 1890s. But equally important to me was the discovery of Regina Zuckerberg’s voice (“Gebet far der khupe” from Di poylishe khasene). Unfortunately, little is known about this accomplished actress and powerful singer who was Boris Thomashefsky’s stage and life partner for well over two decades (she is not mentioned in the Leksikon fun yidishn teater).

The carefully researched, bi-lingual liner notes (in English and German) help to contextualize these recordings within the history of Yiddish theatre and provide brief bios of the singers and summaries of the lyrics. (expanded and updated version of these liner notes). They also give us a small glimpse into a vibrant early recording scene. Not only major stars tried to immortalize their voices but also performers about whom nothing is known today except for the recordings they left behind. Among them are Estella Schreiner (with Goldfaden’s”Dos fartribene taybele” from Ben Ami), Fanny Schreiber (“A bisl yoysher”), and Yetta Rubinstein, whose music hall song “Gevald, gevald Police” will stick in your ear whether you like it or not. Gespass, on the other hand, was apparently so popular in her day that, as Ottens and Rubin note, “her 1907 Beka discs had a pink designer label emblazoned with a facsimile of her autograph on them.”

Of the five songs recorded before 1910, three are from Lemberg and one each is from London and New York – a reminder that the Galician city was a significant center for Yiddish theatre around the turn of the last century. Indeed, a third of the performers in this compilation, among them the future New York stars, Kalish, Prager, Zuckerberg, and Zwiebel-Goldstein began their careers there, as did Gespass and Weinberg, who would be mainstays on the Yiddish stages of South-Central Europe.

The secular Jewish performance world that developed toward the end of the nineteenth century allowed women to leave their traditional gender roles behind in unprecedented numbers; they combined careers and children, lived public lives and, in some cases, became managers and directors of their own theatres or troupes. The biographies of these women – as far as they are known – also reflect an essential characteristic of Yiddish theatre: the performers’ wide variety of training and career experiences as well as their enormous geographical and cultural mobility, which more often than not straddled both continents as well as the Jewish and non-Jewish performance worlds. Several, like Kalish, Prager, and Zwiebel-Goldstein, sang in a Polish opera choir before joining the Yiddish theatre and moving to New York. Isa Kremer, whose rendition of “Dem rebns moyfsim” is included here, turned to performing Yiddish songs after having trained as an opera singer in Italy. Many of those who came to the U.S. in their youth or were born here had their training in vaudeville and moved back and forth between the English- and Yiddish-language performance scenes: Zwerling and Picon debuted on the English-language vaudeville stage before joining Yiddish troupes. Similarly, Annie Lubin and Nellie Casman kept alternating between English-language and Yiddish performance venues. Most European-based performers toured extensively on the continent and were regularly joined by their guest-performing, American-based colleagues who introduced audiences there to their new repertoire.

These twenty-three recordings stem mostly from the collection of Rubin and Ottens and have been digitally remastered by Christian Zwarg. They offer a rich cross-section of the early performance scene, and theatre historians and music lovers alike should welcome this new and important compilation. Thanks to modern technology, the quality of even the oldest recordings is good enough that the listener is not distracted by static or scratches. … I, for one, simply can’t wait for a second compilation.

(Dr. Nina Warnke, Vanderbilt University, originally published in Yiddish Theatre Forum, Vol. 03.006, 3 May 2004)

1. Helene Gespass, Lekht bentshn (Blessing the Candles) 2:40
2. Fräulein Rubinstein, Gevald gevald Police (Help, Help, Police) 2:49
3. Frau Pepi Littmann, Oylom habu (The World to Come) 2:48
4. Regina Prager, Aria from the operetta “A mentsh zol men zayn” (Be a Decent Person) 2:59
5. Salcia Weinberg, A brivele der mamen (A Letter to Mother) 3:13
6. Regina Zuckerberg, Gebet far der khupe (Prayer before the wedding ceremony) 3:44
7. Mme. Zwiebel, Bas Yerusholayim (The Daughter of Jerusalem) 2:59
8. Jeanne Feinberg, Rozhinkes mit mandlen (Raisins and Almonds) 3:46
9. Anna Hoffman, A kind un a heym (A Homeless Child) 3:18
10. Estella Schreiner, Dos fartribene taybele (The Exiled Dove) 3:00
11. Clara Gold, Ale vayber megen shtimen (All Women Can Vote) 2:56
12. Fanny Schreiber, A bisl yoysher (A Bit of Justice) 3:12
13. Bessie Weisman, Vu iz mayn Yukel? (Where is My Yukel?) 3:33
14. Nellie Casman, A brivel tsu mayn man (A Letter to My Husband) 3:08
15. Molly Picon, Tsipke 2:54
16. Yetta Zwerling, Yankele Karmantshik (Yankele “Little Pickpocket”) 3:01
17. Lady Cantor Madam Sophie Kurtzer, Kiddush 3:13
18. Mme. Bertha Kalish, Shabes, yontef un roshkhoydesh (Sabbath, Holiday and the New Moon) 3:22
19. Jennie Goldstein, Vu iz mayn kind? (Where Is My Child?) 3:32
20. Isa Kremer, Dem rebns moyfsim (The Rebbe’s Miracles) 2:39
21. Annie Lubin, Annie, ich shtarb avek nukh dir (Annie, I’m Dying for You) 3:31
22. Lucy Levin, Di Primadonna 3:26
23. Lucy German, Di eybike mame 3:30