Performing Community Part 3

Posted on April 2nd, 2018 by

Article by Avi Y. Decter, former JMM executive director, with Erin L. Titter, former JMM archivist. Originally published in Generations – 2003: Entertaining Maryland. To order a print copy of the magazine, see details here.

Part III: Popular Entertainment

Missed the beginning? Start here.

A wide range of community performances focused directly on popular entertainment. The Jewish Educational Alliance sponsored numerous clubs and groups that presented shows to the community. The JEA Orchestra, under the skilled direction of conductor Benjamin Klasmer, was organized in 1919 and for at least a generation was a major musical force in the community. Members of this early youth orchestra later joined the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and other professional ensembles. The JEA also sponsored the Maccabean Glee Club and the Meyerbeer Society, singing groups that helped to feed the nascent Civic Opera Company.

The Jewish Educational Alliance Orchestra with founder-conductor Benjamin Klasmer (center), 1920s. JMM 1977.24.1

The Alliance Players, a JEA dramatics club, began productions in the late 1920s. Led by noted director Harry King, the Alliance Players met weekly to read and critique plays, practice their theatrical skills, and prepare for performances in the community. In 1933, the Alliance Players appeared in performances at the Jewish Educational Alliance auditorium on Lombard Street, and at City Hospital, the Madison Avenue Temple, the Bolton Street Temple, the Council on Jewish Youth, and the Methodist Church on York Road. In addition to full seasons of one-act and full-length plays, the Alliance Players appeared on local radio for weekly broadcasts during the 1930s.[1]

The JEA Alliance Players in a production of “Crime and Punishment” with Doris Margulis and Bobby Adams, n.d. JMM 2001.24.4

The JEA sponsored numerous clubs, many of which also produced annual entertainments. One such group, the Shoshanna Club, which was active in the 1940s and ‘50s, developed musical revues and minstrel shows. Their 1945 production, Git on Board, was described as an all-girl minstrel show replete with “Mirth, Melody, and Mischigas.” Some of these JEA productions were popular dramas of the day; others were written by local authors on Jewish themes; and still others were parodies or pastiches that dew on mainstream entertainments. As former club member Rae Rossen put it, the club provided a “home away from home” that helped members to “grow culturally.” Whatever their provenance or form, these productions engaged Jewish youth in the challenging work of transitioning from a largely immigrant community in the early twentieth century to a primarily native-born, fully acculturated community by mid-century.[2]

In the postwar years, a number of community groups continue to present entertainments. One of the best-known of these is the Covenant Guild, a women’s philanthropic organization established in 1947. By 1953, the Covenant Guild had formed a Choral Group that began by entertaining at Guild meetings, then started performing for other organizations, using their performance fees for fundraising to bolster the Guild’s charitable giving. Inevitably, as the group matured, spouses and then children were drawn into performances, including the Guild’s full-scale annual shows presented at the Alcazar. Like other community groups, the Covenant Guild melds traditional Jewish values with contemporary, ironic styles to promote what historian David Glassberg calls “cohesion, continuity, and common purpose.”[3]

Critic Marshall Fishwick has observed that “America is not so much a nation or a people as a search.”[4] Community performances are markets along the path of the Jewish journey here in Baltimore. They affirm, challenge, and interpret the circumstances and values of generations and groups, mirroring experience and guiding future action. Community performances embody a collective imagery, reinforcing the communal identities of performers and audience alike.

The End.

 

[1] Associated Citizen, June 1933. Courtesy of the Jewish Educational Alliance Archives (at the JCC, Owings Mills) and JEA Archivist Bernard Cohen.

[2] Telephone interview with Rai Rossen, July 5, 2003. Interview with Bernard Cohen, July 8, 2003.

[3] Glassberg, American Historical Pageantry, p. 282.

[4] Fishwick is cited in Ima Honaker Herron, The Small Town in American Drama (Southern Methodist University Press: Dallas, 1969), p. xvii.

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Performing Community Part 2

Posted on March 29th, 2018 by

Article by Avi Y. Decter, former JMM executive director, with Erin L. Titter, former JMM archivist. Originally published in Generations – 2003: Entertaining Maryland. To order a print copy of the magazine, see details here.

Part II: A Long History

Missed the beginning? Start here.

Community performances have a long history in Baltimore, both within the Jewish community and beyond. Documentation of these performances is, however, relatively thin. In the Jewish contact, we know of programs, events, and presentations dating back to at least the late 19th century, but photographic evidence discovered so far carries the story only from the 1910s to the present.

“Biblical Pageant” – Sculptor Ephraim Keyser seated center, wearing a fez. JMM 1995.77.3

One of the earliest photos we have depicts a “Biblical Pageant” at the Maryland Institute around 1913, presumably a program organized by sculptor Ephraim Keyser, then a faculty member at the Institute. But the precise occasion, content, and audience remain obscure.

Members of the Clinton Club, including Shackman Katz, Bertram Oppenheim, Harold Miller, and Emil Rosenthal, c. 1921. JMM 1988.79.19

Jewish social clubs, such as the Clinton Club, organized by middle-class young men and women of German Jewish descent, are known to have produced a variety of entertainments including a burlesque on The   Merchant of Venice. Lester Levy reports in an unpublished memoir that during the 1920s the Junior Assembly, an offshoot of the venerable Harmony Club, created a playlet on Mah Jongg, which at the time was enjoying a craze throughout the country. In this show, Reuben Oppenheimer wrote the lyrics to a number titled “The Only Possible Place”: “You go out to dine and you’re feeling fine/ your tux’s a perfect fit. You meet a friend and you gallantly bend/ and you feel a terrible split/ A rip, rip, rip, a devastating rip/ You’re in an awful case. As you grab for a char, you can feel the cold air/ In the only possible place!” This kind of self-spoofing, like nicknames, simultaneously amuses and reinforces group identity.[1]

Hanukkah play featuring students at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, 1972. JMM 1992.108.53

Inadvertent entertainment is a frequent by-product of a common form of community performance – the school play, which parents and grandparents typically attend with mixed feelings of anticipation and dread. School plays, like other community performances, run the gamut. Some are staged by students, others by teachers, parents, and other amateur volunteers, and still others by professional performers. Plays in Hebrew and those on traditional Jewish themes like the Purim story are usually direct (and often didactic) in delivering their moral messages about the virtues of being Jewish and leading a committed Jewish life. For many years, The Associated Players presented a puppet show for children about “the squirrel who would not share.” The theme of philanthropic giving was pronounced and obvious.[2]

HIAS Purim party at Baltimore Hebrew University, 1992, with Rosalie Hollner as Queen Esther. JMM 1995.114.121

Children performing in a Hebrew play at the Jewish Community Center, 305 W. Monument Street, n.d, JMM 1995.98.40

Other kinds of performance assert the importance and persistence of Jewish identity within pluralist, polyglot America. In the Bicentennial year 1976, for instance, the Jewish community was invited to present the essentials of “Jewish American” life at a festival staged at the Inner Harbor. The vehicle chosen for dramatizing the vitality of Maryland Jewish life was “Café Tel Aviv,” where performances of Israeli song and dance celebrated a primary theme of Jewish history and tradition – Zion as the Jewish homeland. In an earlier generation, performances in Yiddish by groups like the Yiddish Folk Theater served a similar function, maintaining continuity with Jewish culture in Europe.

Israeli folksingers at Café Tel Aviv, Jewish American Festival, Baltimore, 1976. JMM 1992.205.56

Within the Jewish community, particular organizations promote the interests of sub-groups, communities within the community, as it were. Congregations, for instance, promote their special position and group solidarity through various kinds of performance. Chizuk Amuno Congregation, long a leading Conservative synagogue in Baltimore, has sponsored numerous performances over the years. Beginning in 1931, the Chizuk Amuno Brotherhood presented an annual play at the Maryland Theatre. Most productions were community theater at its purest, with scripts by local amateurs. The 1933 production, in contract, featured a Broadway hit from 1930 (Mendel, Inc.), written by David Freedman, a writer for noted comedian Eddie Cantor.

Murray Slatkin and Selma Berkow are shown in an episode of the “Eutaw Place Scandals,” a musical revue written by Fred Katzner, which will be presented at the Maryland Theatre by members of Chizuk Amuno congregation, March 1935. JMM 1984.12.5

In 1971, on the occasion of the congregation’s 101st annual meeting, “The Chizuk Amuno Theatre” presented The Building Bug, a farce in one act. In this spoof of the congregation’s long history of dedicating a new synagogue every generation (1876, 1895, 1922, and 1958), Chizuk Amuno celebrated its own vitality and growth. One of several musical numbers went like this:

Contractor, contractor,

Build us a Shule

A Chapel that’s cool

A hip swimming pool

We want Beth Tfiloh and Beth El to drool

So build us a perfect shule![3] 

On another occasion, Chizuk Amuno feted its long-time cantor, Adolph (Abba) Weisgal. A cast of middle-aged men who had studied for their Bar Mitzvah ceremonies with the cantor performed in a musical revue, replete with canes and lapel buttons announcing them as “Adolph’s Boys.” Entertainments such as these mobilized the congregation while boosting morale.

Continue to Part III: Popular Entertainment

 

[1] JMM MS 77 Lester Levy Family Papers, Lester Levy’s Memoirs, n.d., Box 6, Folder 213.

[2] Telephone interview with Carole Sibel, August 13, 2002.

[3] Lyrics for The Building Bug were based on the book by Stanley I. Minch and written by Ronald Israel, Stanley I. Minch, Jerry Cohen, and Gwen Cohen. Courtesy of the Chizuk Amuno Congregational Archives and Congregational Archivist Jan Schein.

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Performing Community Part 1

Posted on March 26th, 2018 by

Article by Avi Y. Decter, former JMM executive director, with Erin L. Titter, former JMM archivist. Originally published in Generations – 2003: Entertaining Maryland. To order a print copy of the magazine, see details here.

Sam Allen (left) and Chaim Ani (right) perform in a Yeshivat Rambam Purim spiel, March 22, 2000. JMM 2011.40.467

Part I: Performing Community

On June 1, 2003, 400 community leaders gathered at the Woodholme Country Club for a farewell dinner to honor retiring Associated President Darrell Friedman. The event opened with a musical salute – a medley of songs delivered by The Associated Players, a group of community performers who had provided entertainments for Jewish organizations for thirty years. Accompanied by laughter, cheers, and applause, the Players celebrated Darrell Friedman’s sixteen years at the helm of The Associated. To the tune of “Who Taught Her Everything She Knows,” the Associated Players declaimed:

We hopped aboard and too a lesson from the pro.

You taught us everything.

Going’s now our fav’rite thing.

You are the reason that we glow.

 

You gave us dignity and pride.

You raised much money on the side.

No matter the task, big or small,

You as our president stood ten feet tall.

And they concluded their performance with a heartfelt rendering of “New York, New York,” telling Mr. Friedman that “Giving your all with love and care/You’re off to help Jews everywhere.”

This Associated Players’ performance is only one recent example in a long tradition of Jewish community performance. Back in 1922, for example, Baltimore Jews crowded Ford’s Theater to take in “The Passing Years,” a dramatized history of Jewish philanthropy from the 1850s to the 1920s written by Louis H. Levin, the executive secretary of the Associated Jewish Charities. The three-act play celebrated the then-new Associated – and the tradition of caring philanthropy within the Baltimore Jewish community.[1]

Performances by The Associated Players – and many other Jewish groups – resonate in varied ways. They express traditional Jewish values such as caring for others, reinforcing a sense of group cohesion and communal purpose. While reflecting a particular moment and circumstance, these performances also promote a course of action for the future, encouraging those assembled to adhere to Jewish ideals and to persist in their identity, philanthropy, and community commitments. In these ways, The Associated Players’ recent appearance is a paradigm of how diverse ethnic, religious, and cultural groups have engaged in “performing community” throughout the last century and more.[2]

The Alliance Club “Pirates Ball, 1928.” JMM 1992.231.299

Community performances are commonplace, varied, and ephemeral, both within the Jewish community and among other groups. They take place in local schools, congregations, clubs, and agencies, and they appear in many forms – pageants and cantatas, dramas and spiels, musicals, revues, and shows. Some shows emphasize popular entertainment, others focus on moral education, and still others promote cohesion or commitment to a cause. Some are painfully amateurish, others sparkle with professional polish. But whatever their artistic merits and entertainment value, they transmit ideas and identities to and from the community.[3]

Despite their importance, community performances are rarely the subject of serious or sustained attention, except, of course, among the families of those directly engaged in a production. Yet these performances do have meanings: they are heightened moments in the cultural conversations that help to define distinctive communities, episodes in an extended discourse about what it means to be distinctive and American.

Continue to Part II: A Long History

 

[1] Harry Greenstein, “I Remember…A Jewish Play That Packed Ford’s,” Baltimore Sun, November 18, 1956.

[2] David Glassberg, American Historical Pageantry: The Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century. (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1990).

[3] Rosemarie K. Bank, Theatre Culture in America, 1825-1860. (Cambridge University Press: New York, 1997), pp. 4-16, 19-22, and passim. See also David Krasner, A Beautiful Pageant: African American Theatre, Drama, and Performance in the Harlem Renaissance, 1910-1927. (Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2002), p. 1-11 and Tejumola Olaniyan, Scars of Conquest/Masks of Resistance: The Invention of Cultural Identities in African, African-American, and Caribbean Drama. (Oxford University Press: New York, 1995), p. 4 and 139.

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