Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Golden Bride and Jewish-American Dreams

When I first heard the chorus to the song that was undoubtedly intended to be the Schlager--or instant hit--from the 1923 Yiddish operetta Di goldene Kale, I immediately tried to place the melody, as I was certain that I had heard it before. The overall sound of the operetta resembled Johann Strauss Jr. so closely that momentarily I wondered if it had been lifted directly, but if it was from a Strauss Jr. work, I was unable to identify which one. Instead, I suspected that I had simply heard the tune in the overture and it had stuck, as any good Schlager should. It wasn't until I was standing on the subway platform after the performance that I suddenly realized where I had heard it before: the melody was close (but not identical) to one of the options for the Jewish prayer 'Adon Olam' that is sung as part of synagogue services on Shabbat--as a quick YouTube search taught me, there are many, many options to 'Adon Olam,' including one that sounds like a paraphrase of 'Deep in the Heart of Texas.' The potential connection is intriguing: Jewish audience members whose activities were mostly limited within their community would be exposed to this melody in synagogue, then internalize it as a Schlager almost immediately. But this train of thought can also easily be derailed: what if they didn't know that 'Adon Olam' (prayer melodies are not typically written down, so it would be hard to verify this claim)? What if there is another familiar melody from the time? What if it is simply a successful Schlager?

The complexity behind my association of a Jewish prayer to an operetta Schlager reflects the complexity that underlies this seemingly simple operetta. Di goldene Kale is currently in revival by the National Yiddish Theater Folksbeine and is most certainly worth attending if you find yourself in the New York area. In its time, the work drew crowds not only in New York, but also on a tour of various American cities. It reflects a tradition that disappeared from stages as Yiddish disappeared from American Jewish homes: this belief was already present during the operetta's age, as one of the characters claims that to speak 'fancy,' they will have to learn English. Subsequent generations--particularly those who were second- or third-generation--preferred to speak fancy, and saw Yiddish as a detriment to their pursuit of the American Dream, which required a hefty amount of assimilation. Not so in Di goldene Kale, where the characters move fluidly from one culture to another, as evinced by their ability to speak a combination of English, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew depending on context.

This accretion can even be heard in the score, which draws heavily on operetta standards. The music is undoubtedly influenced by Strauss Jr., in particular his most popular operetta, Die Fledermaus (1874). Indeed, there are points during which Goldele, our heroine, sounds almost identical to Fledermaus' Adele, although the character parallels end there--unless Goldele's friend Khanele's interest in a stage career borrows from Adele's Act III 'Spiel' ich die Unschuld vom Lande.' As would be expected in a Strauss operetta, the characters waltz (and even announce that it's a waltz in case we miss that) and polka (again, announced), then end with the Schlager. The final scene takes place at Strauss-style masked ball: unlike in Fledermaus, where it is essential for the plot, here it takes place for almost no good reason at all.

One of Fledermaus' most memorable moments occurs when Rosalinde, dressed as a Hungarian countess, sings 'Klänge der Heimat,' a plaintive song about her 'homeland' to prove to the guests that she is of Magyar blood (even though she isn't). Di goldene Kale has not one but two numbers in which Misha, Goldele's love interest, expresses his love for his homelands. First, he sings a rousing song about the recent drastic changes that Russia has endured and how the future looks promising, even if the present is a challenge. I heard echos of Rosalinde's Hungarian song, particularly since both are show-stoppers, but then Misha went on to have a second 'Klänge der Heimat'-type number within the finale where he described his voyage around the world. First, he sang plaintively about his time in Palestine and his great love for Israel, at which point, naturally, the crowd of (Jewish) guests at the masked ball chimed in with him. Moments later, he declared his undying love for Mother Russia by singing a folk song (in Russian) and even performed a dance to seal the deal. All of this takes place at masked ball in America. Where everyone speaks Yiddish. Truly, there is no need to speak 'fancy' when one can speak in whatever language is needed.

Misha is not the only character who exhibits such cultural fluidity. Jerome, an American whose father, Benjamin, immigrated from the Russian shtetl featured in Act 1, speaks Yiddish with an American accent and barely knows his Hebrew letters. He extols the virtues of horse races and baseball. Yet when Shabbat falls, he sings Hebrew prayers with his Russian kin. He is a Jew first, then an American. These impulses do not come into conflict, but instead are allowed to co-exist peaceful with virtually every character.

Perhaps this lack of conflict is part of the idealism that envelopes the operetta as a whole. It is hard to miss the fact that every character who immigrates from Russia to America finds a way to not only succeed, but to succeed mightily. We know that Benjamin is a millionaire and that Goldele's father (now dead) also did well in America, so much so that she is now considered the 'golden bride' because of her inheritance (Goldele's wealth conjures up a reference to yet another operetta: The Merry Widow. In contrast to Hanna, who is happy to be single after her husband's passing, Goldele only wants to be married). Contemporary audiences must have found some way to reconcile this fantasy with their reality, one in which, as working-class immigrants, they would not have enjoyed such affluence. Why was this particular work so popular? What was its enduring appeal?

There may be another parallel here with Strauss Jr. operettas, which were immensely popular with recent immigrants to Vienna and, as Camille Crittenden has argued, offered models for learning the nuances of Viennese society. In Vienna, success required acceptance of Habsburg-German culture as preeminent and, by extension, assimilation. In Di goldene Kale, success has been repackaged in the form of the American Dream, best espoused by the character of Benjamin, who is a businessman in America, primarily speaks Yiddish, visits the Russian shtetl, and observes Shabbat.  In other words, this version of the American Dream requires almost no assimilation and can be achieved while remaining essentially unchanged. The happy ending here, then, is not simply Goldele marrying her beloved Misha. It is the society that surrounds her finding a way to both stay old and be new in America. So go right on ahead, and blend tradition with innovation. Heck, you can even sing 'Adon Olam' to the tune of 'Deep in the Heart of Texas.'

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