NEW YORK (JTA) — On her 96th birthday, Betty Rosenberg Perlov became a published children’s author, fulfilling a decades-long pursuit to write a book.
The Sept. 1 release of “Rifka Takes a Bow” capped a lifetime of creative endeavors for the nonagenarian great-grandmother .
“I am so happy about the book, so happy,” Rosenberg Perlov told JTA in an interview in her Brooklyn apartment. “I never thought I’d see this book published.”
Illustrated by Cosei Kawa and published by Kar-Ben, “Rifka Takes a Bow” is the story of a young girl born to a family of Yiddish stage performers. The story is based on Rosenberg Perlov’s childhood memories as the daughter of Israel Rosenberg and Vera Rosanko, popular performers who made Yiddish entertainment the family business.
The setting is New York City’s Union Square, home to many Yiddish theaters during the early decades of the 20th century.
Rosenberg Perlov was born in Toronto but grew up in Brooklyn with Yiddish as her only language. From early childhood, she spent her days at the Yiddish theaters where her parents rehearsed.
Her father was born in Poland to a prominent rabbi who settled in Montreal in 1919 and abandoned a rabbinical career for a life on the stage. Her Ukraine-born mother was known as the “Yiddishe shikse” because she sang in Russian.
“The Yiddish theater world was like a separate country,” Rosenberg Perlov recalls. “The people in it, they lived a different life, it was lively. It made me feel like a grown-up even when I was 5 years old.”
Rosenberg Perlov herself joined in the family business, performing with her parents in “Mentshn an Oygn” (Men Without Eyes), one of Yiddish radio’s most successful melodramas first performed live as a 12-part serial in the spring of 1941.
But Rosenberg Perlov ultimately chose the life of a homemaker, raising two children even as she continued to draw, paint, write and stage the occasional play for schools or a local synagogue.
Once her children were grown, she decided to return to school and, in the 1970s, earned a degree from Brooklyn College, followed by a master’s degree in speech pathology from New York University. She then worked in her field for the New York City public schools.
In 2002, Rosenberg Perlov participated in a revival broadcast of “Mentshn an Oygn,” which was brought back to life by the Yiddish scholar Henry Sapoznik, who digitally restored the original tapes Rosenberg Perlov had saved.
Sapoznik, the executive director of the Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture at the University of Wisconsin, said Rosenberg Perlov’s family were talented performers.
“She was a natural,” he said of Rosenberg Perlov.
Rosenberg Perlov first wrote a version of her book more than 20 years ago, but early attempts to find a publisher were rejected. Two years ago she got the green light to publish from Kar-Ben.
“I couldn’t believe this was happening to me,” she said of her reaction to the news.
“Rifka Takes a Bow” takes readers behind the scenes of a theater to backstage dressing rooms, where actors disguise themselves with beards and long mustaches and glamorous actresses paint on colorful makeup.
Kawa’s dream-like illustrations are richly colored and detailed, bringing the narrative to life with images of subway rides, Yiddish newspapers, theater marquees and a treat at an automat cafeteria, where a piece of cherry pie emerges from behind a glass door.
In one scene, a backstage adventure leads to Rifka standing before a large audience — a surprise she handles with grace — and is rewarded with a round of applause. The incident is based on a real-life experience in a Detroit theater where Rosenberg Perlov’s parents were performing.
“That’s a true story,” Rosenberg Perlov says.
The book is set during a time when the American Yiddish theater was at its most vibrant, according to Nahma Sandrow, author of “Vagabond Stars, A World History of Yiddish Theater.” Professional productions ranged from popular shows and family dramas to the avant-garde, Sandrow told JTA.
But the rise of Hollywood films and the Jewish community’s increasing assimilation led to the decline of Yiddish theater in the postwar years.
Rosenberg Perlov, now a grandmother of three and great-grandmother to two, takes satisfaction in knowing that she is passing down the legacy of Yiddish theater. Through the book, she hopes a new generation of children will learn about a largely forgotten era when Yiddish life was rich and cultured.
“The best thing about the book is when I think of my great-grandchildren who will read the book to their children,” she says, adding to the tune of “I Got Rhythm” by George Gershwin: “Who could ask for anything more?”