Mamaloschen musicale &mdash CDs bring give new life to classic Yiddish show tunes

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Everybody zing!

Two new CDs from the Milken Archive explore the wide world of Jewish music, and prove at least some billionaires aren’t tone deaf.

Lowell Milken, brother of famed (some would say notorious) junk bond king Michael Milken, has taken a love of Jewish music to great heights.

Milken founded the Santa Monica-based Milken Archive of American Jewish Music in 1990 to research and record Jewish musical history, but its most ambitious achievement is only now getting off the ground. The archive, in tandem with Naxos Records, plans to release 50 compact discs over the next couple of years, representing more than 200 composers and upwards of 600 works.

These aren’t mere reissues of recordings from the Victrola era (though there will be some of that down the line). Rather, Milken is mostly going for a musical makeover that would put the “Queer Eye” guys to shame. Most of the pieces in the series have been newly orchestrated and re-recorded, catapulting them straight into modernity.

A sampler disc, “Introducing the World of American Jewish Music,” features 19 eclectic selections. A little too eclectic. On paper, it might sound cool to juxtapose Dave Brubeck’s noisy oratorio “Gates of Justice” with Cantor Bentzion Miller’s pious rendition of the “Sheyibbaneh Beit Ha-mikdash.” But it doesn’t quite work.

Many pieces on the sampler are breathtaking, including Robert Stern’s minimalist choral work “Adon Olam,” Abraham Kaplan’s transcendent “Psalms of Abraham,” and Sholom Kalib’s take on the Sheva Brachot (the seven wedding benedictions.)

But others fall flat. An excerpt from Paul Schoenfield’s viola concerto sounds like ersatz Erich Wolfgang Korngold, while a suite from Joseph Achron’s garish “Golem” proves that having a Jewish subject doesn’t necessarily make a musical work interesting.

The most delightful tunes — “Hudl Mitn Shtrudel” (sung by Bruce Adler) and “Mayn Goldele” (a duet performed by Nell Snaides and Robert Bloch) — come from the Yiddish theater, which produced some of best American music nobody knows about.

Luckily, Milken plans to change that with the release of “Abraham Ellstein: Great Songs of the Yiddish Stage,” one of those 50 new discs. Though the album’s 16 songs were born long ago on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, they’re surprisingly modern, lively enough for today’s Broadway stage.

Many are by the American-born and Juilliard-trained Abraham Ellstein, one of the great Yiddish stage composers. But others equally gifted are also represented. As the liner notes point out, most original orchestrations have been lost, but top reconstruction orchestrators like Ira Hearshen and Paul Henning turned in spectacular arrangements throughout. They are the real stars of this recording.

Most tunes were written when Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers and Berlin ruled Broadway. Tracks like the tango-flavored “Oygn” and “Abi Gezunt,” show Ellstein (and his frequent lyricist Molly Picon) was comfortable with the Broadway idiom.

Every track is delicious, thanks in large part to the singers, who come from conservatory, musical theater and cantorial backgrounds. Each is dynamite.

Best of the lot include soprano Snaidas’ wrenching performance of “Zog, Zog, Zog Is Mir,” the irresistibly cornball romantic duet “Du Shaynst Vi Di Zun,” the heartbreaking “Der Dishvasher,” and the galloping classic “Di Grine Kuzine.”

The songs describe as vividly as a Ken Burns documentary the life of Jewish immigrants in early 20th century America. Their disappointments, their love affairs, their money struggles, all are accounted for in this delightful set.

All of which begs the question: why hasn’t some shrewd Broadway producer yet brought to the stage a revival/revue comprised of songs from these Yiddish musicals? Based on great songs on this new Milken Archive set, such a show would surely reap a harvest of Tony Awards.

Even if no one picks up on this million-dollar idea, the disc stands on its own. The music is glorious, while Yiddish, as sung on this set, shows itself to be a truly expressive and easy-on-the ear language.

Billy Crystal once called Yiddish a language of “hocking and spitting.” Funny line, but as this album proves, his view of the mamaloschen as a dead language is dead wrong.

Introducing the World of American Jewish Music” and “Abraham Ellstein: Great Songs of the Yiddish Stage” are available from the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music on Naxos Records.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.