Rumskinsky: Di Goldene Kale (critical edition). Michael Ochs, eds. Middleton, WI: A-R Editions, 2017.

Reviewed by Hankus Netsky


“The American Yiddish theater, as it was known at the beginning of this century on through to the 30s, is today almost non-existent. Aside from Joseph Achron, it never had any contact with first-rate composers. Because it built on “debris” rather than the pearls of the Jewish folk song and because it hardly ever outgrew its almost primitive technique, listening today to the body of music it has produced is an embarrassing and painful experience.”1

Jewish music scholar Albert Weisser was indeed correct about one thing in his assessment of the demise of the American Yiddish theater; it was virtually non-existent by 1956 when he published the article quoted above. His appraisal of its quality was, on the other hand, based entirely on what, in retrospect, can only be considered a toxic form of intellectual snobbism. Indeed, almost from the day of its arrival on American shores, Yiddish popular musical culture, while warmly embraced by millions of Jewish immigrants, was shunned by the mainstream Jewish musical, religious, and academic establishment, doomed to the status of a banned pesticide whose use should be quickly eradicated by any means necessary. The result was a virtual moratorium on historical documentation, academic scholarship, or the publication of any kind of serious English-language volume dealing with Yiddish theater music—a freeze that only ended in 1982 when the University of Illinois Press published Mark Slobin’s landmark volume, Tenement Songs: The Popular Music of the Jewish Immigrants.

Despite all of this, composer Joseph Rumshinsky (1881–1955), the universally acknowledged “dean” of Yiddish theater composers, turned out a massive body of work that presents an unfiltered, unabridged, and staunchly proud version of the musical world of the Yiddish speaking East European Jewish immigrant. In Michael Ochs’ meticulously edited and recently published two-volume edition of Di Goldene Kale (The Golden Bride), a Rumshinsky collaboration with librettists Frieda and Louis Freiman and lyricist Louis Gilrod, we finally get a glimpse into this uniquely situated, and indeed, essential chapter of America’s Jewish musical heritage.

As Mr. Ochs, the former head of Harvard’s Loeb Music Library, tells it, he was actually not actively looking for this project at all; really, it found him. He first encountered the work while mounting a major exhibit at Harvard in 1984 and, after retiring from a second career as music editor at W.W. Norton in 2002, he felt an urge to take another look at it. “I started translating the words that were underlaid to the music. As a native German speaker who also studied Hebrew from an early age, I could pronounce out the words of the Yiddish text and pretty much get the whole meaning.”2

As he became more and more drawn into the work, all of the pieces fell into place. He located a Yiddish manuscript at YIVO (New York’s center for scholarly activities related to Eastern European Jewish heritage) and met with Chana Mlotek, the center’s print-music expert. She arranged for him to have lunch with her son, Zalmen Mlotek, the, artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, a century-old Yiddish theater company. With the impetus and the go-ahead to launch an actual production, he traveled to UCLA’s Rumshinsky archive, where he was able to obtain copies of all of the musical materials used the original production. The fully-staged version that the Folksbiene mounted in December of 2016 garnered numerous award nominations in multiple categories and drew renewed attention to the output of Yiddish theater composers as a body of work of significant musical merit that has much to tell us about the American immigrant experience.

The plot of Di Goldene Kale is not particularly unusual, and it would be eerily familiar to the 1923 Jewish audience since, in many ways, it revolves almost entirely around the subject of immigrant families.  It portrays the story of Goldele, an “orphan” in New York City, whose origins may have been that of a kidnapped teenage bride forced into a “show” marriage.  We soon find out she was raised by an innkeeper and his wife in a Russian shtetl.  The other principal character is a wealthy American cousin whose demeanor exemplifies both the riches and relative cultural poverty of the Golden Land.  Not surprisingly, “America”—that is, the United States—eventually turns out to be the favored destination of much of the cast. Along the way, we experience expressions of strong Yankee patriotism, ugly American greed, the collapse of ethical values, the idealism of the Russian Revolution, as well as encounters with virtually every Jewish stereotype of the time. These include: a matchmaker, a millionaire, a suffragette, eligible brides, undeserving (potential) male suitors, and even a well-known character from a previous Rumshinsky musical (Dem rebn’s nign; The Rabbi’s Melody). Shayke, who appears at a masked ball on the Lower East Side, serves for the sole purpose of reminding the attendees how much better Jewish life was in the Old Country.

The music, on the other hand, is extraordinary throughout the work, not only in its variety but also in its originality. Unlike the much-touted but weakly-substantiated “Jewishness” of America’s Broadway composers, when Rumshinsky wanted to express his Jewish roots he channeled them through a deep understanding of nusakh (Jewish modal expression), khazones (cantorial music), Yiddish folksong, synagogue choral music, Hassidic song, and Jewish wedding music. In a biographical passage outlining the composer’s training in such genres, Rumshinsky mentions that “in later years, I often made use of the beautiful cantillation melodies, a great source for a musician.”3

His relatively unique background enabled him to craft melodies that set the standard for virtually all of his musical compatriots in the Yiddish theatrical world. Given his extensive experience working in the mainstream operatic world, he was also adept at pivoting in any stylistic direction that suits the plot at any given time. Hassidic marches morph into music hall waltzes and gallops, Yiddish lullabies and religious melodies give way to sinuous love ballads. Along the way, we hear echoes of Mikhail Glinka, John Phillip Sousa, Sir Arthur Sullivan, Felix Mendelsohn, and Giuseppe Verdi alongside strains of popular music akin to that of Franz Lehar, Avrom Goldfadn, and even James Reese Europe.

One of the highlights of the edition is the inclusion of a fully orchestrated score, something even Rumshinsky never saw in his lifetime since he, like so many opera composers, orchestrated hastily as he wrote, conducting only from rudimentary piano-vocal sketch scores. Furthermore, Ochs also includes a brief history of the Yiddish theater, a full English translation of the Yiddish text, a plot summary, an insightful analysis of the work in its historical context, comprehensive biographies of the principal actors featured in the original production and the members of the creative team, a production history of the work, and reproductions of relevant historical ephemera, including facsimiles of pages of Rumshinsky’s original manuscript.

It should be no surprise to anyone, but is still perhaps a bit sobering to consider, that it took the active interest of the American Musicological Society to make this publication into a reality. We are seemingly still years away from the day when a Jewish academic institution or Judaic Studies department would take on such a project. Somehow, this essential part of our American Jewish musical and cultural heritage is still marginalized within a field that privileges more recent outgrowths of both Israeli and American Jewish culture.  Nevertheless, now that Yiddish caries neither the stigma of the immigrant nor the curse of the Jewish establishment, the Yiddish theatre has finally come to the attention of a larger audience. Recent successes range from a variety of Folksbiene productions, including a recent hit production of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, originating in 2018 and continuing to play off-Broadway well into 2019. In addition, Mark Slobin’s work bringing the collaborations of Avrom Goldfadn and Sigmund Mogelescu to life4 and the airing of a PBS special on the Yiddish theatrical world of the Tomashevsky family has reached audiences that otherwise might have never even heard of Yiddish theater.5

I can only hope that Mr. Ochs’s phenomenal accomplishment in producing this two-volume edition of Di Goldene Kale will be universally acknowledged as an essential step toward sparking an in-depth re-examination of the vast musical riches of a Jewish immigrant heritage that still awaits being uncovered.

[1] Weisser, Albert, The Modern Renaissance of Jewish Music, Bloch Publishing Company, Inc. New York, 1954. p. 156

[2] Ochs, Michael.  2016.  “How I rediscovered Di goldene kale.”  Digital Yiddish Theatre Project.

[3] Joseph Rumshinsky, quoted in Ochs, Michael.   2017.  Di Goldene Kale, Part 1.  Middleton, Wisconsin: American Musicological Society, p. xxxviii.

[4] For example, Slobin, Mark.  1994. David’s Violin.  19th-Century American Musical Theater, Volume 11: Yiddish Theater in America. NY: Garland Publications.

[5] 2012. PBS Great Performances: The Thomashefskys:  Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theatre.  DVD, Public Broadcasting System.


Hankus Netsky, New England Conservatory