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At first glance, Rumshinsky and Isidore Lillian’s love duet, Shloymele, malkele from the 1937 musical production Dos galitsiyaner rebele (The Little Galician Rabbi), to a book by Louis Freiman and Shlome Shtaynberg [Steinberg], presents a perplexing scene that is bound initially to raise one’s eyebrows. The lyrics appear to reveal a brother and sister openly expressing romantic love for each other. Yet, without knowing anything whatever of the story line, one thing is certain: Shloyme and Malke are not really brother and sister. For all the crudeness of Second Avenue at its worst (which this play was not, despite its shortcomings), nothing so hideous as incest would ever have been considered. What these lyrics tell us is that these two have become “crazy [meshuge] for each other” only upon confirming that they are biologically unrelated, and that until then, their strong quasi–brother/sister relationship had been confined (or, for future pseudo-Freudians, repressed) to the level of friendship.
The script for this musical, which was produced at the Yiddish Folksteater, has not been located as of this writing. But a rare consensus among reviewers was that—notwithstanding the amateurish press advertisement as “the success above all successes” and “the greatest and most beautiful of all Yiddish operettas”—the plot and story line were among the weakest, most implausible, most incongruously juxtaposed (“a mishmash of situations and types from other Second Avenue pieces”), and least coherent of all Second Avenue shows.
What we can ascertain about this musical from secondary documents is that it concerns a Hassidic rebbe’s son (the rebele, or “little rabbi,” who we assume is heir to his father’s court) who was somehow separated in childhood from his family and his home. His young adult identity is later assumed by a survivor of a shipwreck in which the actual rebele, Shloyme, is thought to have been drowned, and it is the imposter who returns home as Shloyme to the rebbe’s court. He is accepted and “welcomed back” by the family, and he becomes close to the real Shloyme’s sister, Malke. But they are close on a brother-sister plane, which, for him, grows into an attraction on another level, since he knows that Malke is not his sister. There is the suggestion that he has resisted his impulses for as long as he could. By the time this song occurs in the action, the truth has obviously been revealed. She seems to have begun to suspect it already, so the mutual feelings might at least subconsciously have begun to develop. She is briefly torn between not allowing these feelings to surface and surrendering to them, but now that it is clear that there is no biological relationship, she needs little persuasion.
In the end, the real Shloyme, who has in fact survived the shipwreck and been taken in by Second Avenue’s favorite fantasy, Gypsies—which provides the stage opportunity for the romanticized Gypsy motifs, music, dance, and visual paraphernalia the audiences so adored—surfaces and returns home. The result is a doubly “happy ending.”
All reviewers had praise for Rumshinsky’s music, even though Der Tog referred to it as good music adorning an unappetizing story. “Here, in this piece, the music is everything.” Once again, Rumshinsky had demonstrated even to the severest of critics of the play that he had not lost “his craft in composing colorful music for the stage”—of which Shloymele, malkele was one of many numbers.