Molly Picon, embodiment of All-American Yiddishkeit

This is a special guest post by my friend, Alan Hait

Although she began her career on the stage in Yiddish theater, over the span of the 20th Century Molly Picon became a true star with universal appeal: across nations, languages, cultures and religions. Her life events are somewhat familiar to me because in many ways they parallel those of my grandparents in particular, and the American Jewish experience in general.

Molly was born in the United States in 1898 (like my grandparents) to parents who immigrated from near Kiev (present day Ukraine; as did my own great grandparents). While her native language was American English, she picked up Yiddish from her mother and the other immigrants in the neighborhood (like my grandparents). Although she was born in New York, at an early age she moved to Philadelphia (my grandparents were born and lived their whole lives in Philadelphia) and maintained some of the unique accent of that city her entire life. Her first performing experiences were at Yiddish theaters in Philadelphia, including the famed Arch Street Theatre (where my grandparents used to go as kids), which featured melodramas, musicals, and even translations of Shakespeare and other classics, all performed in Yiddish.

Under the tutelage of her husband, Jacob Kalich, a talented Polish-born Yiddish actor, producer and playwright, Molly grew into a huge international star of the Jewish, and later mainstream stage. She moved with “Yankel” to live in Poland where she “perfected” her Yiddish. (This is one point of diversion from my grandparents, both of whom spoke flawless “High Class” Yiddish according to the Lithuanian or “Litvak” standard. Although Molly grew up in a “Litvak” tradition, she spoke and performed in the “Galitz” or “Poylische” Yiddish dialect, which my grandparents described as “like listening to fingernails on a blackboard.” This was the result of having been tutored by a Polish-born husband and performing in Polish Yiddish stage and film productions.)

Molly Picon and Jacob Kalich, Vienna, 1923
Molly Picon and Jacob Kalich, Vienna, 1923

Molly was a unique personality and a bona fide scene stealer who could do it all: singing, dancing, musical performance, drama, but especially comedy. Many modern observers see the Yiddish show business experience today as being in a dead language whose speakers have all vanished. To a considerable extent, Yiddish is the soul of a vanished world. But what a world! Although spoken by European Jews, it was the day-to-day vernacular of a very familiar world. It was used in commerce and in trade. It was used in newspapers and journalism. It was used in the marketplace and by masters and by their servants. It was used to make love and to tell a dirty joke and to curse your enemies out in spectacularly colorful (and filthy) style. It has been said that not only did the Jews choose Yiddish, Yiddish chose the Jews. It was the secular, everyday language of a vibrant, vital society.

Yiddish was also the bridge between the religious life (conducted with utmost seriousness in Hebrew) and the everyday hustle bustle of the world. In America and elsewhere, Yiddish was the bridge that immigrants used to embark upon a new life in a strange new world. Yiddish theater, films and newspapers explained this new world in ways that were accessible.

Molly Picon was a key element in the entertainment-based element of Jewish integration into the New World. Her persona was not that of a confused or discontented immigrant who couldn’t figure out America and modern ways, and who never mentally left the “shtetl” or the Lower East Side ghetto. No – Molly was a thoroughly American performer who – usually in humorous or musical ways – demonstrated ingenuity, pluckiness, female initiative or good old-fashioned American know-how in her characterizations. She even went so far as to indulge in gender-bending, convincingly playing a young boy in the film Yidl mit’n Fidl (1936)

Jidl Mitn Fidl (Yiddle With His Fiddle) 1936
Yidl Mitn Fidl (Yiddle With His Fiddle) 1936

Throughout the early part of the 20th Century, Molly was a stage success, in her own act or with theater troupes, across North America, South America, Europe (London, Paris, Warsaw) and even Africa. Before the Second World War there were significant Yiddish-speaking populations in every major US and Canadian city, as well as in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Cape Town and Johannesburg.

In order to better reach the enormous Yiddish speaking population in Europe, Molly and “Yankel” (diminutive for Jacob) began producing movies in Poland. Many of these, as well as other Yiddish language films of the 1920s and 1930s, are available or are being restored by the National Center for Jewish Film. (The NCJF recently released a digitally restored version of the musical Mamele (1938), a loose interpretation of the Cinderella story, which includes Molly singing what became her trademark song “Abi Gezunt.” It was the last Jewish film to be made in Poland before the Nazi invasion.)

After the war, Molly and “Yankel” made performance tours to displaced persons camps in Europe, performing in Yiddish, to give these Holocaust survivors hope and a few laughs as they awaited freedom to settle in Palestine. With the inevitable decline in demand for Yiddish language performances, Molly (being an American girl) easily was able to switch to English and found roles on Broadway and in TV shows originated in New York. (Her two appearances as “Mrs Bronson” on Car 54, Where Are You? may be among the funniest of that very funny series.)

For the rest of her life, Molly found excellent suitable roles, usually in a character part, on stage (Broadway’s Milk and Honey and the London production of A Majority of One) and in major films (Come Blow Your Horn (1963), Fiddler on the Roof (1971) , For Pete’s Sake (1974) and even The Cannonball Run (1981)). She also wrote an autobiography and made regular appearances on the major talk shows of the day. Even at the end of her career, she was a gifted storyteller, mimic and effervescent presence on stage. Here is a wonderful interview from The Mike Douglas Show in 1980 with Molly, George Jessel and George Raft.

One of her more interesting TV appearances, in my opinion, was another interview she gave in 1980 on Israeli TV at Hanukkah. Here she was, an American-born star of the Yiddish theater, appearing on TV in the Jewish state, before a Jewish audience and host, speaking in Yiddish (which neither the host nor audience could largely understand) and the host speaking in English (because Molly didn’t speak Hebrew). It was not only an illustration of how integral to Zionist ideals Hebrew – not Yiddish – was to the Jewish state, but how utterly and thoroughly American Molly was, in speech and style and attitude. (She spoke of her first performance in Palestine in 1922 to a Yiddish-speaking audience, and where she met Chaim Bialik, the greatest early Hebrew-language poet in what is now Israel.) Here is that interview. (It’s actually quite funny if you understand Yiddish; she goes to English later on)

Molly made enormous contributions to Yiddish and mainstream entertainment, and served as an important bridge of understanding for Jewish immigrants to “Di Goldene Medina” (The Golden Land, America) to feel at home in their adopted homeland – as Americans.

Molly Picon (February 28, 1898 – April 5, 1992)


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