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The incipit shma yisro’el would normally indicate a recitation of the Judaic credo affirming God’s unalloyed essence of unity. Rumshinsky’s song discussed here, however, Shma yisro'el, is not a liturgical rendition, but the heartrending plea, invoked with religious fervor, of a love-smitten Jew for divine assistance in pursuit of the woman he loves. This is one of the principal tenor vehicles from the popular three-act romantic musical comedy Di khaznte (The Cantor’s Wife), to a book and libretto by Boris Thomashefsky, who also wrote the lyrics to Shma yisro’el, as well as other songs in the show, and starred in the initial production at his National Theater in 1918.
Overall, this musical illustrates the popularity at that time—especially in Thomashefsky’s productions—of religious and liturgical themes as a composite frame of nostalgic reference. The show is suffused with entertainment-oriented liturgical and quasi-cantorial numbers, which Thomashefsky perceived would resonate emotionally with his immigrant audiences even though they were mostly nonreligious in terms of observances—especially the Sabbath. Even this proclamation of romantic love, Shma yisro’el, is clothed in liturgical references.
The first act is set in a small shtetl in Galicia, in the home of Sheyndle Greenwald, the widow of the town hazzan. She is the mother of four successful sons who have pursued careers in separate cities: Gedalye (played by Thomashefsky), the only one to have continued his father’s calling as a hazzan; Yakov, a theatrical impresario in America with his own theatrical and operatic venues in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York; Shloyme, a conductor at the Paris Opera; and the youngest, Nokhum, a Russian opera star. On a return visit from America, Yakov persuades the entire family—assembled at their mother’s home for a reunion—to emigrate to America and accompany him on his return to New York, where he is opening yet another opera house. Gedalye has never recovered from the tragic loss of his wife and one daughter, but he has a second daughter, Rokhl, who is also known as Regina. Having been abroad for her education, she has never met her paternal uncles. When she arrives at her grandmother’s home before her father arrives, and she meets Nokhum, the two are quite taken with each other—and he is especially smitten with her. But when she realizes that he is her uncle, her enthusiasm fades.
In Act II, the entire family is on a New York–bound ship, on which there is also an aristocratic Austrian—and presumably Christian—woman, Madame Dadei. With her is her son Dadei, a young opera singer who falls for Regina—and she for him. But her own reservations about marriage with a non-Jew are intensified by the expected objections of both families. Her father’s heart, say her uncles, would be broken to see his daughter abandon her heritage. For her part, Madame Dadei accuses Regina of being a cheap enchantress who connived to ensnare a young man of means; and in a tirade that smacks as much of anti-semitism as of social contempt, she tells Regina’s uncles that a family such as theirs should more appropriately have been traveling in steerage, not first class. What she learns after those insults, however, is that her son is scheduled to sing at the opening of Yakov’s new opera house—under Shloyme’s baton, no less—and that Nokhum happens to have been the tenor who replaced him at the Kiev opera.
Act III is set some months later in the Greenwalds’ new luxurious home in New York, just before Passover. Regina and Dadei have not seen each other for a while, although Dadei has spoken to Sheyndle of his persisting love for her granddaughter—but to no effect in enlisting her aid, since she reminds him politely that a union between a Jew and a Christian is not acceptable. Meanwhile, Nokhum’s love for Regina is also undiminished, and when she confides to him her lingering confusion and ambivalence about Dadei, seeking his advice, he responds by restating his own undying love for her. But she is unmoved. As his niece, she simply cannot return those feelings or entertain thoughts of marriage (even though, from a halakhic, or Jewish legal perspective, marriage between a niece and her uncle is not prohibited and was neither unknown nor considered incestuous). Left alone onstage after her exit, Nokhum sings the impassioned Shma yisro’el, in which he pours out his heart to God, imploring Him to grant this one wish—Rokhl’s heart and hand—in consideration of his lifelong steadfastness.
Just prior to the Passover seder, Dadei telephones and, identifying himself only as a stranger in town without a seder to attend, asks for an invitation. Since it is obligatory to provide a place at one’s seder for a Jew who is left without one, he is told to come. When he arrives, just after the seder has begun, the family is obviously taken aback at recognizing him. He once again openly declares his love for Regina and, in the first of two typical Second Avenue revelations, declares that he is, in fact, not a Christian but a Jew! His mother (obviously a Jewess by birth) long ago completely assimilated and not only renounced her Judaism, of which she is ashamed for its social consequences, but adopted the disguise of an Austrian—probably Viennese—Christian lady of social standing. She has always counseled her son never to reveal his true roots. His revelation backfires as Regina declares that if—knowing that he was really a Jew—he could not love his people and his heritage, then he could never truly love her, since she is an inextricable part of the whole.
Since the time for convenient revelations has come, Gedalye reveals that Rokhl is not his biological daughter, but an orphan he adopted as a child, so that Nokhum is actually not her uncle after all. All of which means that Rokhl need no longer be put off by Nokhum, to whom she was so favorably inclined in the first place. The family gives their blessing to the union, should those two choose to marry. When Madame Dadei storms in, furious that her son has been induced to reveal their Jewishness on the Greenwalds’ account, the boomerang comes doubly back to her when she learns that her son has been rejected because he was complicit in denying their Jewish identity and when she sees that the family is celebrating not only the seder but Rokhl and Nokhem’s anticipated engagement.
One can imagine that Madam Abramowitz, who played the role of Madame Dadei in the original production, might have received the customary boos from the audience at her curtain call—not for her performance, but as the “villainess” of the evening.
Even absent profundity, and with typical exaggeration, the play reflects a number of Jewish immigrant themes, concerns, desires, and situations of the day: upward mobility; maintenance of tradition and shunning intermarriage; contempt for negative assimilation (viz., denial of Jewishness); stilted and deliberately de-Judaized names in the service of affected modernization; loyalty to collective Jewry as a people; Zionist references in some of the other songs; and tensions between general and more narrowly circumscribed Jewish pursuits in a modern world.
Di khaznte remained one of Thomashefsky and Rumshinsky’s most popular and most often revived shows over the next two decades, with many succeeding productions in which various elements were adjusted according to new sensibilites and current events, including topical references and lines, and additional musical numbers. As a result, the archival evidence includes an unusual number of variant scripts, drafts, and fragments, with many insertions and cut-and-paste amendments, which can complicate reconstruction efforts. A typescript that was used for a production in the 1932–33 season contains an added line in pencil for Gedalye, just before the curtain on Act I: “May God protect us from Hitler and bring us in peace to the Land of Israel.” But whether that line applies to that season’s production, to a subsequent one using the same script version, or to both, is uncertain.
The play was subsequently translated, revised, and produced by Harry Thomashefsky, Boris’s son, in an English adaptation that was retitled The Singing Rabbi for its run at New York’s Selwyn Theater in 1931. Despite its substantial plot and character revisions to suit a different audience, it is usually considered one of the first—if not the first—Yiddish musicals to be presented in English on a Broadway stage.