Thursday, November 11, 2010

Fiddler on the Roof and imitating Chassidim and foreigners for laughs in 1916.

Here's a 1919 ad for a production of Tevye der Milchiger, "Tevye the Milk Man" by Sholom Aleichem, which was made famous 45 years later as the musical Fiddler on the Roof. I thought it was interesting because of the costume since it is very close to the era it depicts.

The ad was in the Yiddish Tage-blatt. Below is a really interesting letter printed in the English section in the February 22, 1916 issue. The first part of the letter, from a young lady named Jennie Kattler, concerns the paper's criticism of something which was said at a Harlem Zionist Society meeting, stating that this society "does not know what Zionism means."

Not so interesting, but what is very interesting is that the paper must have condemned the entertainment at the meeting which featured a performer who did impressions of Jews, which the newspaper found offensive. So Jennie writes a "but everyone does it defense," saying that "As to the comment, that among true Jews there should be no imitation of one of our race, we very often see, at very Jewish gatherings the imitation of the "Chasidim" and "Yeshiva Bocher." These are always taken as a joke, and at no times, as an insult to the Jewish people. We also, very frequently take pleasure in imitating the speech of the foreigner. . . . should have taken the above facts into consideration, and should not, as our wise men have said, המלבין פני חברו ברבים כאלו שופך דמים.

Ouch! The editor responds that it's just not funny, nor is xenophobia.

As for Jenni Kattler, I could find no information, except that I very much doubt that this is her, since this one was born in 1881 and died in 1979. According to her letter she was too young, in 1916, to be a member of the Harlem Zionist Society.

For the letter,


  1. Where does one find yiddish newspapers on the web?

  2. This particular one is archived in the Archive of Americana "American Historical Newspaper Archives."

  3. Looking at old census records, I find a Jeannie Kottler in the Bronx in 1920, who would have been 18 in 1916.

  4. Interesting to read.
    What a lovely story (I mean the broadway play and the movie)
    The song "Tradition" still rings in my ear.



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