The Moniuszko Singer: The Secret Polish History Behind the First Talkie
default, The Moniuszko Singer:
The Secret Polish History
Behind the First Talkie, 'The sole surviving photo of Yoel-David Levinsohn [sic]', reproduced in the Yiddish version of 'The Singers'; photo: National Library, center, biblia_moniuszko_.jpg
Does the story behind ‘The Jazz Singer’ have an eerily close analogue in Polish Jewish theatre?
Written a quarter decade before The Jazz Singer, Mark Arnshteyn’s drama The Singers (Pieśniarze), based on a true story, shares many similarities with the famous American movie. The Singers remains one of the most daring experiments in the history of Polish Jewish theatre and intercultural dialogue – as well as a reminder of the times when the great Polish cantors sang opera arias.
Dybbuk by Maja Kleczewska in the Jewish Theatre
From ‘The Jazz Singer’...
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Al Jolson in scene from 'The Jazz Singer', photo: John Springer Collection / CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images
The Jazz Singer (1927) is likely among the most famous movies of all time. Its claim to fame rests upon it being (supposedly) the first sound film or talkie, while it’s also known for its (less applaudable) use of blackface – but the plot, usually considered rather trite and melodramatic, has usually remained in the background.
The film was directed by Alan Crosland and based on a screenplay by Samson Raphaelson (whose short story and later play Day of Atonement served as its foundation). The story features a young boy, Jakie Rabinowitz, who grows up in a devout Jewish family in New York. Fascinated by the new emerging genre of popular music – to the dismay of his father, a hazzan or cantor of a local synagogue – Jackie runs away from home.
Years later, as Jack Robin, he makes a career of a jazz singer, performing in blackface. In one of the final scenes of the film, Jakie replaces his dying father to sing the Kol Nidre before the congregation – a powerful, if only symbolic return to tradition, as this will not stop Jakie from going further down his chosen path.
Kol Nidre - Al Jolson, The Jazz Singer (1927)
This story of determination in fulfilling one’s dreams, but also oppression and social injustice, was also based on the true story of the film’s leading actor, Al Jolson. More importantly, perhaps, this plot shares some general, but interesting similarities with an altogether different story – one told far, far away and significantly earlier, somewhere in Eastern Europe. This one is called The Singers, or The Ghetto Singers.
… to ‘The (Ghetto) Singers’
Written in 1902 by the Polish Jewish playwright and journalist Mark Arnshteyn (1878-1943), The Singers – also known also as The Ghetto Singers, or Der Vilner Balebesl (as his own 1908 Yiddish translation of it was called) – tells the story of one Yoel-David Levinstein, a brilliant cantor of the Orthodox Jewish community in Vilnius. Drawn by an inexplicable power, Yoel-David decides to leave his community and instead pursue a career as an opera singer in Warsaw. He leaves his wife and children and, undiscouraged by his father (also a cantor), travels to Warsaw – where he embarks on a successful run in the Warsaw Opera.
As the play makes clear, this decision, as well as Yoel-David’s long-time fascination with opera singing, goes back to his childhood – which was spent near the manor of the great Polish opera composer Stanisław Moniuszko. (This part of the story was certainly Arnstein’s own invention.) Despite efforts by the composer, who saw and encouraged the boy’s great talent, the family decides that the boy should not see Moniuszko anymore.
Part of the reason, too, is a Polish girl named Ira, an orphan staying with Moniuszko at the manor, with whom the boy shares a strange mystical bond, manifested through music. In any case, Yoel-David’s parents consider both Ira and Moniuszko a bad influence on Yoel-David. They manage to isolate him, before the girl and composer eventually leave for Warsaw.
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Years later, Yoel-David seeks out Ira in Warsaw. As their old feelings are revived, he becomes more entangled in this new situation. Summoned by his community, and feeling torn between a sense of loyalty and a true artistic calling (as well as his feelings for Ira), Yoel-David eventually decides to return to Vilnius. A broken man, he loses his only gift – his voice – before giving his last, awe-inspiring performance.
As the author of the play suggests, the story of Yoel-David was actually based on the life of a legendary 19th-century Vilnius cantor, who is said to have been destroyed by his success on the Warsaw opera stage. This probably refers to Yoel-David Yashunski, who died in the year 1850. Known as Baal-beysl, he was only 13 years old when his art was regarded with greatest esteem by the representatives of Polish musical establishment – Stanisław Moniuszko included. This was in keeping with the almost legendary status of cantors in Poland, who enjoyed great popularity and esteem not only among the Jewish community, but also among the non-Jewish musical elites.
While the similarities between the Polish play and American film may be primarily thematic, with important shift being opera and jazz as the genres favoured by the protagonists, it is still worth of noting that Al Jolson (aka Asa Yoelson) was born and grew up in the region of Kaunas – not far from Vilnius, where the plot of The Singers plays out.
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Building a bridge... over the 'Chinese wall'
The Singers premiered in Łódź in October 1902 and was the earliest play by Arnshteyn (known as Andrzej Marek in Polish) to win wider recognition. It was also the first in a long row of his plays with the goal to fulfill a programme or mission, as the author understood it, ‘to build a bridge between Polish and Jewish societies' on the basis of dramatic art.
This, however, was not easy. As one of the Polish critics of The Singers noted on its premiere, ‘the [Jewish] relations were separated from our society as if by the Chinese wall’. Despite the obvious lack of knowledge and, in many cases, mutual interest between the two groups, Arnshteyn was deeply convinced that not only did they share many common features, but ‘had influenced one another - especially in the realm of art’. As the artist argued in an interview:
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If the soul of the nation is reflected most faithfully in its literature, then both these souls – the Polish and the Jewish – meet, as if two faces, in their literatures, beholding their reflections in one source. It has become the task of my life to bring those faces closer together, so that they can finally recognise their wondrous fraternal semblance! Their divine origin, one and the same. It was said, after all, that ‘all God’s children have wings’.
— Trans. MG
For 40 years (with the important exception of the decade spent in the US and Russia, from where he returned in 1924), Arnshteyn remained faithful to his programme. In Poland, he all but single-handedly ran a mission of reconciling the two nations through art. He endeavoured to achieve this through his work as a writer, playwright, director and translator.
Arnshteyn wrote for the stage in both Polish and Yiddish. He went on to translate the masterpieces of Yiddish theatre – including H. Leyvik’s The Golem, S. An-ski’s The Dybbuk and Jacob Goldin’s Mirele Efros – and staged these himself at Polish theatres. Some of his productions, like The Golem (1928), which was performed on the circular stage of a Warsaw circus, were firsts in the larger history of Polish theatre.
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Poster for the film 'The Dybbuk', pictured (in white): Lili Liliana, directed by Michał Waszyński, 1937, photo: Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
Arnshteyn’s work was also instrumental in developing Yiddish cinematography. He was the author of screenplays for Mirele Efros (1912) as well as Michał Waszyński’s 1937 The Dybbuk. The latter is generally considered to be the greatest masterpiece of Yiddish cinema.
In 1929, Arnshteyn said:
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I dream of an artistic platform that would allow for a systemic and fair propaganda of peace, tolerance and mutual love among people, without regard to what God they pray to or in what language they articulate their sorrows. I dream of a stage on which the lofty spirits would fight backwardness, ignorance and hate in all their manifestations.
— Trans. MG
As the scholar Eugenia Prokop-Janiec put it, Arnshteyn was ‘one of the most active advocates of Jewish art in the Polish language’ – an idea, however, which never fully materialised, meeting with significant resistance from both Jewish and Polish sides of the cultural spectrum in Interwar Poland. As Michael Steinlauf noted:
Though critically acclaimed, these productions inspired controversy, including accusations in the Yiddish press that they were undermining Yiddish theater and encouraging Jewish assimilation.
Back to ‘The Singers’...
The Singers – a story of transfer (even if not fully realised) between these two cultural worlds – played a key role in this programme. Arnshteyn was particularly proud of this play and would return to it numerous times.
In a discussion with the great Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz, who considered the play ‘as being not sufficiently Vilnius’ (by which he meant that it was not ‘Jewish’ enough), Arnshteyn argued that the Jewish background of The Singers is purely coincidental. All those beards, synagogues, and even the language, he claimed, are part of the background – whereas what is really important is the image of an artist, for whom art is the beginning and end of all values. Arnshteyn was deeply convinced that with The Singers, he had created a truly universal work of art. But, as scholar Anna Kuligowska-Korzeniewska claims, in portraying an artist who relinquishes his family and orthodox community, Arenshteyn in many ways was writing his own autobiography.
'The Singers' in the Warsaw Ghetto… and in America
The Singers returned to the Polish stage of the Interwar period with great success. In 1931, it was played in Łódź and in Vilnius, in its author’s staging. It would play for the last time in the Warsaw Ghetto, where Arnshteyn had founded and run the Nowy Teatr Kameralny (New Chamber Theatre).
Playing high-brow, Polish-language repertoire, Arnshteyn’s was the largest and most ambitious of five Ghetto theatres. The last piece to premiere on its stage, on 28th March 1942, was The Singers. Staged some 40 years after its original premiere, it became, in the words of scholar Ruta Sakowska, a ‘true symbol of its author’s life and work’. This grim anniversary inspired Arnshteyn’s friends to to celebrate a jubilee of his artistic work.
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The performance was originally supposed to take place in March 1943, but was cancelled after only one of the invited actors had made it to the event (others were not able to leave their homes). Arnshteyn left the theatre ‘sick and broken’. According to most sources, he survived the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but was murdered soon after.
The ultimate proof of the timeless relevance of Arshteyn’s play is offered by yet another occurrence dating from around the same time. In 1940, in the United States, a German director named Max Nosseck made a film based on The Singers. Starring the great cantor Moishe Oysher, Overture to Glory became one of the last Yiddish-language films produced in the US. It’s also one of the rare chances to hear Moniuszko sung by the great Moishe Oysher – certainly one of the last in the great dynasty of Polish cantors who, like Gershon Sirota or Moshe Koussevitsky, felt equally comfortable in the religious and secular repertoires.
Overture to Glory/ Der Vilner Balebesl (1940) Clip
Written by Mikołaj Glinski, May 2019
Sources: 'Pieśniarze Getta' by Anna Kuligowska-Korzeniewska; 'Polish-Jewish Theatre: The Case of Mark Arnshteyn' by Michael Steinlauf