At synagogue luncheons around the country, there is much anxiety about the state of American Jewry. Most Jews don’t keep the Sabbath or regularly attend synagogue, and fewer and fewer can read Hebrew. And, as someone will kvetch every now and then, practically no one speaks Yiddish. Amidst these reports of the Jewish community’s demise, it takes some chutzpah to put on Di Goldene Kale (The Golden Bride), a 1923 Yiddish operetta. Would it play to an empty house?
Jewish immigrants and their children flocked to Yiddish-language theater in the early 20th century, but the productions fell out of fashion in the 1940s and have seen few revivals since. Yet despite its seventy-year absence from the stage, Kale has much in common with contemporary entertainment classics. Any Seinfeld or When Harry Met Sally fan will find Kale surprisingly familiar. Among other standard elements, there are jokes about financial insecurity, gripes about the stress of schlepping around New York, and sets of loving, but rather clueless, parents. Even the language is surprisingly intelligible: American English has assimilated many Yiddish words and certain Yiddish cadences have found their way into American comedians’ accents (don’t worry, there are subtitles too). Yiddish operettas may be dead, but their legacy lives on stage and on the screen.
If the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene’s resurrection of Di Goldene Kale (which ends January 3) is any guide, there’s no reason for the Yiddish operetta to live only through its descendants: the original is very entertaining in its own right. The lyrics are clever, the tunes upbeat and catchy. And as far as this production goes, the performances are lively and sharp. The entertainment value of this Kale is sufficient reason to buy a ticket. But, from the politics of American immigration and capitalism to questions about Jewish communal identity, the operetta gives viewers a lot to think about, too.
The basic plot is as silly and complicated as those of traditional European operas and contemporary American sitcoms. It’s a mish-mash of old-world romance and new-world adventure, centering on the exotic experience of going to America and becoming a new person. The play begins with a wealthy father and his American son returning to the shtetl in Russia to find a wife. The prospective bride in question—the golden bride—has recently come into money herself thanks to a large inheritance, and is in high demand among the shtetl boys as a result. Alas, the two petit rentiers have fallen in love with other, poorer people rather than with each other. Their parents prove to be surprisingly understanding, but the real trouble comes when the golden bride, who already has a true love, promises to marry whichever suitor can locate her long-lost mother. Beyond perhaps being opportunities for Freudian analysis, such plot devices are ultimately unsophisticated. Luckily, they serve as a canvas for the discussion of more substantive topics.
Though Kale starts out with simple lessons from the shtetl, it becomes richer and more prescient once the characters reach America. From the beginning, the characters are conscious of the ultimate emptiness of money, despite their greediness. The shtetl innkeeper sings:
“A little wife, beautiful as gold, charming and pious,
Kisses her rich, old man and hugs him,
With her little fingers in his pocket she searches for…the dollar.”
The message couldn’t be clearer: the desire for material prosperity corrupts even the most sacred relationships. True for the shtetl, true for New York, NY. But the latter has put many more dollars in many more pockets.
The second act portrays the corrupting influence of America as more complex and less strictly material—and thus, more dangerous. At the wealthy father’s mansion in New York, one of the unwed couples discusses how they hope to be famous actors one day. The lovers decide to test their talents, playing an estranged husband and wife. It’s a clever meta-theatrical moment: he pretends to be a drunk, and angrily asks for a divorce. She pretends to be pregnant. When her mother walks in on them, the pair stay in character and the mother fails to see that it’s all a farce, believing that her daughter is indeed married and about to give birth. The scene is comical yet awfully dark, harkening back to a lyric from Act 1 about the fast-paced and unanchored American society: “In America, in two weeks’ time you fall in love, you get married, you get divorced, and you get married again.” Such commentary is undeniably prophetic: the institution of marriage looks distinctly unstable today. And, as a much-discussed 2013 Pew study demonstrates, intermarriage is quickly weakening the bonds of the Jewish community. (Notably, four in ten respondents said having a good sense of humor is “essential to their Jewish identity”).
The experience of watching this play in 2015 is heartening and disheartening at once, and it requires an imaginative recreation of a context now largely lost. The opening number, for example, is about how everyone wants to make money. The song is funny and, given anti-Semitic tropes, pretty edgy. But almost all immigrants came to America looking to get rich, and Irish and Italians were once considered money-grubbing, too. The focus on money probably has less to do with a specifically Jewish experience or self-parody than the aspirations of all foreigners who arrived on these shores. The stereotype has stuck around for Jews in a way it has not for other groups, but only in part because the anti-Semitic caricature of the Jewish moneylender has such a long history. It is also the price of Jewish comedy’s success; everyone today has heard a self-mocking Jewish joke.
The play’s political context is even more distant, yet all the more poignant to revisit. Jews have traditionally sought to forestall the destructive effects of materialism by advocating an alternative to the market economy. A reminder of these political tendencies comes toward the end of Di Goldene Kale in the form of an anthem about a “new Russia”. The song seems out-of-place today, but in the 1920s and 30s, talk of a “new Russia” would have seemed consistent with a play looking to reassure its audience that life in both the old and new worlds was headed in the right direction. It wasn’t, of course, but early audiences did not know that. Nor did they know that just a year later, in 1924, the Johnson–Reed Act would effectively close America’s doors to new Jewish immigrants. Part of the impetus for the Act was the widespread suspicion that Jews were Soviet spies—fears which were, with only a few exceptions, groundless. Crowds of boisterous immigrants once sang along to a communist ballad in a crowded Lower East Side theater, but everything about that scene is gone: the poverty of the Jews, their close-knit community, their knowledge of Yiddish—and the world’s hopes for a communist Russia. A modern viewer, looking back over a cold war and a world war, observes that the play was far more prophetic about families than it was about the future of nation states and economic systems.
The communism vs. capitalism debate is mostly over in American politics, but the immigration debate still rages. For its part, Di Goldene Kale still has something to say about the immigrant experience. The United States is a nation of immigrants, a place where persecuted peoples may freely practice their religions. But America has also been a place where groups lose core parts of their heritage. Anti-Semitism and suspicions of dual loyalty have done far less to shrink the Jewish community in America than the assimilationist pull of an open society. As Jean-Paul Sartre observed in Anti-Semite and Jew, the liberal democrat accepts the Jew, but only by denying the sincerity of Jewishness. The dynamic may be less acute in America than it is in highly secular France, where Jews and Muslims alike are viewed with suspicion. But it remains a tenet of the American experience all the same. It is better to be accepted than to be rejected, but the cost of acceptance may be one’s own identity.
Di Goldene Kale is the story of the anxieties and dreams of the American Jewish diaspora, some of which have changed, but some of which have stayed the same. Comedy provides a safe way to explore subversive ideas and spin out scary scenarios, assured as we are of a happy ending. In 1923, Immigrants feared American society would corrupt their children, and the ending of Kale is meant to dispel those fears. The little play-within-a-play mentioned earlier does the same: at the end of the performance, no one is pregnant and no one is getting a divorce. Fears of the community’s demise are legitimate (and rather fun to mock), but premature: the foundation of Jewish life—marriage—remains intact.
In many ways, these immigrants were right to be worried: like all Americans, Jews have become materially wealthier but less embedded in strong communities and less committed to religious observance. Jewish history since Kale apparently confirms many of the fears about marriage and cultural cohesion. Yet doesn’t the success of this revival also challenge them? The National Yiddish Theater’s lighting is state-of-the-art, its costumes and sets of high-quality, its players well-trained. Money (the pursuit of which, contra Marx, reflects our preferences more than it shapes them) can buy all these nice things, it’s true. But it didn’t have to, and no one had to purchase tickets. At least for now, a not-insignificant number of Jews are still here, they still feel anxious, and they still get the jokes.