A malke af peysekh
A Queen for Passover
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Although it exudes the spirit of the vaudeville stage and music hall, Louis Gilrod’s A malke af peysekh (A Queen for Passover) was one of the numbers in the musical comedy Tants, gezang un vayn (Dance, Song and Wine), with a book by Harry Kalmanovitsh. It first played in 1922 at the Thomashefsky Theater in New York, with Aaron Lebedeff (who played the lead role and also sang this song), Bessie Wiseman (his wife), and Boris Thomashevsky himself. More than one songwriter had a hand in the show (with respect to both lyrics and music), which appears to have featured an especially large amount of music. Most of the music, however, was composed by Joseph Cherniavsky (1895–1959), originally a serious classical musician who had come to New York a few years earlier as a member of the Zimro Ensemble—an artistic Zionist-affiliated group that had been on a concert tour from Russia en route to Palestine. He remained in New York and soon became deeply involved in the theater as well as in vaudeville, in which he pioneered a purported fusion of popular Jewish music and jazz—his brand of “Jewish jazz”—by establishing Joseph Cherniavsky’s Yiddish American Jazz Band and bringing it on the vaudeville circuit.
Our information is too sketchy to know whether or not A malke af peysekh was written expressly for this show. Second Avenue was not always guided by artistic integrity, and insertions of independently written songs were motivated by various factors: a guaranteed ovation, the need to fill or liven up a lagging spot, or a song’s association with a particular cast member. Lebedeff’s performances, for example, are known to have elicited cheering demands from audiences that he sing one of his famous hit songs on the spot, even if there was no connection to the production in progress; and pit orchestras were often supplied in advance with those instrumental parts as a contingency. While A malke af peysekh was indeed one of Lebedeff’s renditions in this show, and souvenir copies of its printed folios were sold at the theater, there is no reference to it in any of the located scripts. How indelibly wedded this song was to Tants, gezang un vayn—especially for later productions—is therefore uncertain.
“It is difficult really to say what the show is about,” commented Abraham Cahan, the longtime editor of the Forverts (at its peak the most widely circulated of the several Yiddish daily newspapers in America). Certainly, Passover plays no part in this loosely pasted mélange of scenes and numbers. There is, however, ample content related to marriage, including the usual array of both stereotypical jokes and jibes from the male perspective. The Passover seder provides the backdrop to the singer’s ode to marriage and the benefit a wife would bring him as his “queen” at the festive table, completing for him the status of king in the household that tradition accords him at the seder. But the second strophe, in which he feels tricked into having to take in her two previously concealed children, is consistent with similar humor elsewhere in the show. A malke af peysekh was probably one of several “couplet songs” in the show. The publishers sought further mileage from its seder setting by subtitling it “A Passover Song” (actually “An Easter Song,” since immigrant-era Jews in that milieu commonly confused Easter with a proper translation of pesaḥ, sometimes identifying it as “Jewish Easter”).