Weisoso von Achashweires
(vayzuso fun akheshverus)
THE THOMAS LAMBERT YIDDISH CYLINDERS
The Mayrent Institute is now home to twelve cylinders recorded at the turn of the twentieth century that afford novel access to the earliest strata of Yiddish theater. Issued circa 1901 by the innovative but ill-fated Thomas Lambert Company, the recordings are yardsticks of Yiddish popular culture and of sound recording itself, which arose and matured simultaneously.
Exhibiting a European esthetic soon homogenized by American Yiddish theater composers, the cylinders also chart the transition from folk to popular music. Listening 115 years later, we are at once privy to premier Yiddish theater performers and recording artists alike—and to the DNA of a powerhouse theatrical tradition whose influence reverberates to this day.
THE OPERA: AKHESHVERUS
For his 22nd opera, the father of Yiddish theater, Abraham Goldfaden, returned to the genre’s bedrock, the purim shpil (Purim play), with a seriocomic take on the Book of Esther. Goldfaden’s Akheshverus (or Queen Esther: Biblical Operetta in Five Acts and 15 Scenes) premiered in Warsaw in 1885 amid heightened anti-Semitism following the assassination of the relatively lenient Czar Alexander II four years earlier.
As Zalmen Zylbercweig noted in his 1931 Lexicon fin yidishn teyater, rival theater companies took to and staged this seasonal offering annually. In 1887, on the coattails of its success, Goldfaden departed for America, where the first of his many recorded compositions was etched into history.
THE SONG: “VAYZUSO”
For reasons known only to him (but owing perhaps to sheer phonetics), Goldfaden chose to memorialize the ancillary character Vayzuso, one of nine brothers hanged alongside their father, Haman, for plotting against Queen Esther’s people.
As evident in the lyrics to the left from Di yidishe bine—an 800-page “jubilee edition” of articles, poems, and song lyrics compiled by Hebrew Publishing for the Yiddish stage’s 20th anniversary in 1898—Goldfaden’s Vayzuso is an amalgam of the theatrical stock braggart/fool and cuckolded husband:
I won’t argue with anyone about this
And, for sure, won’t deny
That where you go
In every land
They all know
Vayzuso is a fool.
In general, everyone considers
him good-natured and naturally nice
He is good
He doesn’t hurt anyone
Yes, loved everywhere
Before dealing with a cunning crook
A dog, a swindler
People would much rather deal with
Good old Vayzuso
Because Vayzuso is a fool
That’s why everyone loves him so
A young wife has a husband 60 years old
But she loves a younger man
So what kind of sin
That they talk
And they pet
Just like a couple of cooing doves
“I would come to your house often”
says the young man
“But if I were to kiss you
In front of your husband
He would become jealous”
“No problem, come into my house”
Comforts the wife
“Don’t worry about my husband
Because he’s just an old Vayzuso.”
In 1899, in keeping with the new trend of sheet music, Hebrew Publishing printed an instrumental folio of the opera. But the Mayrent Institute’s “Vayzuso” is the only known recording from Goldfaden’s Akheshverus.
If this artifact illuminates period style and regional accent, two technological issues lessen our experience of the performance. The recording horn’s sonic limitations could process only narrow accompaniment—in this case a small piano—as opposed to what might have been an ensemble or orchestra in theatrical productions. And since two-inch-diameter Lambert cylinders ran for two minutes and change, the recording artist cherry-picked among the original verses.
The published lyrics contain an outro the recording could not accommodate, in which Vayzuso entreats the audience:
“I’ve offered you no drama or comedy
and certainly no philosophy
and I haven’t hurt you.
For that at least,
I deserve your applause”
Some front-of–the-horn improvisation on the part of the perfomer preserves its essence, at least, and deserves attribution.
THE PERFORMER: DAVE FRANKLIN
“The king of comic singers,” according his 1903 Lambert catalog entry, Dave Franklin would likely rest in eternal anonymity if not for these resurrected recordings, subsequent success as a songwriter notwithstanding. One of his published compositions, “Shenkt a nedove” (“Give a Donation,” 1906), was reprinted in a year-end best-of by the Lower East Side music publisher Theodore Lohr, and continued as a minor mainstay in early popular repertoire before being displaced, like so much else from this era, by the snappier works of new American composers.
Who was Dave Franklin? His lush regional Yiddish accent (fun instead of fin) places him more from Central Poland than the eastern Ukraine or Russia of Goldfaden. Yet the pompadoured fresh-faced young man eyeing us from Shenkt’s cover belies a seasoned voice that reveals the transition from “traditional” or “cantorial” to “theatrical” singer.
Like quite a few pioneering Yiddish recording artists Franklin does not appear in Zylbercweig’s lexicon of Yiddish theater. And like many of them, i.e. the Barry née Bagelman Sisters, Franklin anglicized his moniker. Trading a Jewish king’s hallowed name for that of his breezy Americanized cousin, “Dave” opted for a surname that unfortunately blows his cover. (“Sung by the well-known comedian Dave Frenklin,” he proudly proclaims on the Lambert recordings.)
Franklin’s use of the sort of theatrical device that winds up the original lyrics indicates deep theater chops. “So, what do you think of Vayzuso?” he exclaims halfway in. Could Franklin have played Vayzuso in a production of Akheshverus? Might it even have been for Goldfaden himself?
These recordings, like some audio message in a bottle, have lain mute for over a century. Created for one community but now the legacy of a much later one, they allow passionate, visceral entry to a forgotten world.
As part of our mission to curate and disseminate this extraordinary archive of Yiddish culture, it is a privilege to elevate these recordings to their rightful place among the most important sound documents of all time. In partnership with Grammy Award-winning Archeophone Records, the Mayrent Institute will reissue the recordings later this year under the title Attractive Hebrews: The Thomas Lambert Yiddish Cylinders 1901-1903.
Henry Sapoznik, Director, Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture
Thanks to Scott A. Carter, David Giovannoni, Meagan Hennessey, Rich Martin, David Reinhold, Carrie Schneider, and Professor Bettina Warnke.