Polish Jewish Cabaret: a library of wonderful but forgotten Yiddish songs of the 1920s - 1930s. Have a listen!

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Ola Lilith in Joseph Rumshinsky's "Dos meydl fun Varshe" (The girl from Warsaw)

Yiddish theater star Ola LilithThis blog post would be a book if I let it. I've been fascinated with Ola Lilith since I first heard of her. I wrote the Wikipedia entry on her. She was born in 1906 and as a young singer worked in the Polish language cabaret Kvi Pro Kvo where it was suggested she abandon her birth name (Lolya Tsederboym, in Polish Laja Cederbaum) and take up the spicy stage name she is remembered by.

While working in Polish-language clubs, she met her partner Władysław Godik, an older man who'd been touring Europe as a master of ceremonies. He convinced her to learn Yiddish and join him and others in founding what became the first and most famous Warsaw Yiddish nightclub (kleynkunst venue) Azazel in 1925.

She and Godik grew famous and left Azazel to tour Europe. In 1931 she was brought to America by Joseph Rumshinsky who wrote in his autobiography about the tussle he had with her. She despised the trashy melodramas popular in the USA, he was convinced that the biting, witty, minimalist style of "kleynkunst" would bomb on Second Avenue.

When I started negotiating with Ola Lilith about playing theater, I found out after meeting with her a few times that instead of my drawing her towards theater, she was bringing me closer to the kleynkunst stage

With inspiration she talked about Polish theater, where she played in "Kvi-pro-kvo" and afterwards became a capable member and also one of the founders of the Yiddish kleynkunst stage "Azazel."

When I began speaking with Yosl Edelshteyn, the manager of the Second Avenue Theater, about kleynkunst theater, he looked at me and said: "What, you've been grabbed by the insanity too? What good is kleynkunst to me? Will you be able to pay the expenses of such a big theater with kleynkunst?"



When Ola Lilith happened to tell me she was unable to speak any Yiddish before she met Willy Godick, because she was raised in an assimilated house, not so much from her father's side but from her mother's side, I engaged with Menachem Bareisha and Benjamin Ressler, both well acquainted with Warsaw life, and commissioned a piece about assimilated life in Warsaw. We named it "Dos Meydl fun Varshe."

The number "Varshe" gave Ola Lilith the opportunity to characterize life in the colorful city of Warsaw; with it she won the confidence and respect of the whole public.

I had earlier read about the song "Varshe" in memoirs by Mordechai Yardeini. In "Morgn Frayhayt" in 1978 he recalled:

Ola Lilith: with her first performance she took the audience. One saw her talent, and what a talent! All agreed the Yiddish theater in America had received a new star. Second Avenue and the "Cafe Royal" buzzed like a beehive; everyone talked about the new actress who had been brought from Warsaw by the two artist (bosses) of Second Avenue, Joseph Rumshinski and Menashe Skulnick.

Warsaw... Even if she just sang that one song, Warsaw, she would have remained in the memories of Jewish theater-goers and theater lovers. But to be able to sing a song with so much nuance - a la Edith Piaf! - that's what's remembered from Ola Lilith's song Varshe.

And there's also no doubt that Ola Lilith personified the spirit of the song, that no other actress could have painted the picture - I don't just hear, I literally see before me every wrinkle, every facial expression that accompanied the song. It was a synthesis of song and acting of the first order; a rainbow of colors, mannerisms and manifestations, together with the voice, the hand gestures, in which lay an ocean of acting talent and charm.

She didn't need any (props): a tug of the shoulder, a wave of the hand, a wink of the eye, a twist, and you saw before you a lifelike figure, a fresh and lively portrait of a person... Clever, sharp, always with the right word on her lips, with wise thoughts, raised in two cultures, with Yiddish and Polish, both stages, first the Polish and then the Yiddish, from a big city, good with words, with fine manners, aristocratic and yet folksy, a fine person in her speech and behavior... everyone loved her and wanted her company.

Go on to Part Two ...

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