“Bay mir bistu sheyn” may very well be the most famous of all Yiddish songs. It was the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers’ most popular song of 1938. Renditions have been recorded by the Andrews Sisters, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, the Barry Sisters and Rudy Vallee, among other musical luminaries.
Yet until recently, only a handful of theater historians were aware that the song — whose title means “In my eyes, you’re beautiful” — originated in the Second Avenue Yiddish theater of the 1930s.
Even fewer people knew what the play that launched this massive hit was about. Indeed, many casual listeners didn’t even know that the words of the title were anything more than gibberish, or some form of Americanized German.
In fact, the original song was in Yiddish; the popular versions maintained only the Yiddish of the title, substituting English for the rest.
Thanks to the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music, that’s all changing.
The Los Angeles-based institution has unearthed the back story to this iconic song and many others, and has set it down in the liner notes to its three-CD set of Yiddish theater songs — along with a new recording of the piece as it might have sounded when originally sung at Brooklyn’s Rolland Theater in 1932.
It’s one of more than 600 works, ranging from popular to liturgical to classical, newly recorded by the archive.
Founded in 1990 by Lowell Milken, chairman of the Milken Family Foundation, the archive is an effort of international scope to record, preserve and distribute American Jewish music that might otherwise be lost, and to accompany it with written historical documentation. Most of the music has never before been recorded, archive staff say.
On Nov. 13, in conjunction with the United Jewish Community’s General Assembly, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Jewish Community Foundation and the Milken Archive are sponsoring a concert of Jewish music at L.A.’s Disney Hall that will include a Yiddish theater review. Among the performers will be Theodore Bikel, Leonard Nimoy and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Later in November, the archive will release “Great Songs of the Yiddish Stage, Vol. 3,” the 50th CD release since the archive’s inception. “The Milken Archive Deluxe Box Set,” a collection of these first 50 discs, will be available at the archive’s Web site, www.milkenarchive.org.
“These American mostly immigrants wrote unbelievable music that, yes, had been lost or ignored or forgotten,” says Maestro Gerard Schwarz, music director of the Seattle Symphony and of the Eastern Music Festival, and conductor emeritus of New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival. “What the Milken Archive did for all of us musicians is reminded us of this great music that we either never knew or forgot.”
“The Milken Archive is unique,” adds Schwarz, who has conducted on 20 or so of the archive’s releases and will be holding the baton at the Nov. 13 concert. It has “in a major way affected the way we think about cultural life in the United States.”
The music and its history sometimes are easily accessible to archive staff; other times, less so. Take the case of Jacob Weinberg, a Russian composer who later in his life moved to America.
“Nobody would even know his name anymore,” says Neil Levin, the archive’s artistic director. Yet Weinberg was among a group of early 20th-century Russian artists and intellectuals striving to create a new, classical Jewish music based on authentic Jewish musical provenance.
Weinberg, who wrote piano concertos based on Jewish themes — including the avodah section of the Yom Kippur service — was nearly confined to history’s dustbin, Levin says, until the archive uncovered a handwritten score in a Haifa archive. Now Weinberg’s music, newly recorded, can be heard on two archive CDs.
As for “Bay mir bistu sheyn,” which was written by composer Sholom Secunda, researchers discovered booklets about the play from which it was plucked — “M’ken leben nor m’lost nit,” or “One could really live but they won’t let you” — in the basement of a New York museum.
Along with the aid of other historical materials, they were able to piece together the basic plot of the show, which the album notes say was “decidedly weak, even for typical Second Avenue fare.”
Still, Levin says, knowledge of the lost Yiddish plays of Second Avenue “is important sociologically and historically.”
It was “a whole Jewish culture,” he says. “And not only a Jewish culture — a whole chapter of American culture.”
In addition to its musical recordings, the archive has videotaped several thousand hours of oral histories by actors, composers and other Jewish artists, some two-thirds of whom have died since recording their stories. It also is developing a comprehensive music curriculum based on its research.
Among the big names that have appeared on Milken recordings are jazz legend Dave Brubeck, Bikel, guitarist Eliot Fisk, the Julliard String Quartet and conductor Sir Neville Marriner.
The archive also has established partnerships with a number of other organizations, including the University of Michigan; the BBC, which has coproduced three albums; and German National Radio, which has coproduced 10.
Shortly before speaking with JTA, Schwarz and Levin returned from Germany where, along with a German orchestra, they recorded music from Kurt Weill’s pageant, “The Eternal Road,” which meshes tales of historical Jewish heroes with the story of European persecution.
The project required what Schwarz calls “tremendous detective work.” The music-drama was staged in 1937, but no authoritative score remained; Weill’s own orchestral score has been missing for years, Levin says.
Using surviving piano and orchestral sheet music along with records from the show’s director, reviews and other sources, the archive, alongside the Kurt Weill Foundation, was able to piece together the score for the recording over several years.
Though the archive’s liner notes say the dialogue from the show that spawned “Bay mir bistu sheyn” is nothing to write home about, here, at least, is the summary of the long-lost plot, from the CD booklet:
“Jake, a shoe factory worker who is fired for union organizing activity, is in love with the owner’s daughter, Hene. In response to her concern about the endurance of his commitment to her, he sings ‘Bay mir bistu sheyn’ to her at some point in the first act. Despite a series of predictable attempts to thwart the marriage, they are, of course, wed in the end.”
Now, after their 74-year honeymoon in obscurity, Jake and Hene can — tenks Gott! — live happily ever after.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.