Yiddish Theater: Don’t Forget Molly Picon

Yiddish is not beautiful.  Harsh and gutteral, it makes you twist your face to get the sounds out. Many of its words are bastardized from German, Slavic, Polish, Hebrew, English, French, you name it.  And worse, Yiddish today is rapidly dying.  Millions of people spoke it  a few decades ago– the Jewish national tongue — but today it has grown largely irrelevant.  American Jews speak English, French speak French, and Israelis speak Hebrew.  Even the old Jewish Daily Forward, once the largest Yiddish-language newspaper in the world, still survives but now publishes also in English.

But Yiddish can also achieve beauty and depth.  It can be hilarious and harmonic, even if you don’t understand a word. The backdrop of countless family stories, its phrases live on in dozens of American slangs.  But disappearing with the language today is also our access, in original form, to an amazingly rich literature: books, theater, newspapers, music, and, yes, movies.  And that brings us to Molly Picon.

Molly Picon — born Malka Opiekun in 1898 in New York City’s Jewish enclave on the Lower East Side — loved comedy.  Look at her prancing around the kitchen in the film clip above from her popular 1938 hit Mamele.  (The subtitles are Polish, but that hardly matters.)  Molly Picon started acting at six years old and became star of the New York Yiddish stage of the 1920s and 1930s, pioneer of Yiddish film, and, later, as times changed, a lifelong familiar face of English-language TV and film  — including a regular spot on the 1960s show Car 54 Where Are You? (see clip below).


Molly Pico Theater in 1931.

New York alone had three daily Yiddish newspapers back in Molly Picon’s prime, the 1920s and 30s.  Its fourteen Yiddish stage companies — mostly huddled together on lower Second Avenue — produced everything from slapstick comedies to cabarets to sappy immigrant stories to Yiddish translations of Broadway hits and Shakespeare classics. With hundreds of thousands of Yiddish speakers in New York and millions more still living in pre-WWII Eastern Europe, theater troops from NY often toured Warsaw and vice versa.  It was big business and very profitable.

Molly Picon quickly became a favorite on Second Avenue.  By 1931, she and her husband — fellow actor Yankel Kalich — had enough money to lease the Yiddish Folks Theater at 12th Street and Second Avenue for her own productions.  (She had to leave later than year, though, when the owners sold it in foreclosure.  This was, after all the Depression.)  The building still stands today as a movie house.   (Click here to take a visit.)

She starred in one of the first Yiddish-subtitled silent films, 1922’s East and West, then in the 1930s became a favorite in Yiddish talkies.  She traveled to Poland to shoot what became her best known film, Yidl Mitn Fidl (see clip below), a sentimental comedy about a young girl disguising herself as a boy to join a group of traveling musicians, but then falls in love with another band member.

Molly kept acting her entire life — even after the Yiddish stage stated fading way in the 1950s.  She would appear regularly on pioneer TV shows from Dr. Kildare to Trapper john, M.D. to The Naked City.  Fittingly, she would win a role in the film Fiddler on the Roof as Yenta the Matchmaker.  She would live 94 years before Alzheimer’s disease caught up with her in 1992.

But I like her best as the young star of Yiddish stage and film in the 1930s, taking those hard-edged words and giving them warmth,  depth, and humor, even if you can’t understand more than a syllable.

BTW, two of Molly’s early Yiddish films are now listed on Netflix Mamele and Yiddle with his Fiddle.  Enjoy.