Jun 11, 2021
The Yiddish and English-language actor and announcer Zvee Scooler was born in Kamenets-Podolsk in 1899, came to the United States in 1912, and was an active performer almost until his death in 1985. His most famous film role was the rabbi in the film “Fiddler on the Roof,” but he also portrayed East European rabbis in a number of other films, notably in the divorce scene of Joan Micklin Silver’s wonderful “Hester Street,” and a bit part in the hilarious French comedy “The Mad Adventures of ‘Rabbi’ Jacob.”
I may have seen Zvee Scooler during my childhood as the rabbi in the Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof. It’s hard to remember, because I was busy being disappointed that we saw Zero Mostel’s understudy Harry Goz as Tevye instead of Zero himself that day. I will never forget seeing Scooler as the Meshullach in the short-lived National Yiddish Theater’s 1980 production of “Between Two Worlds” (Ansky’s The Dybbuk), as he pronounced the dread words: “Es iz arayn in dem kind… a DYYY---b—uuu—k.”
Later, and most regularly, I recall him as the announcer of a Saturday evening Yiddish show on WEVD (“the station that speaks your language”), sponsored by the Home of the Sages of Israel on Willett Street on the Lower East Side. His pitch for donations to the Home was short and to the point. Listeners didn’t have to remember its full name. They were instructed instead, “shraybt ayer tshek tsu Old Rabbis.”
Although my wife Elissa and I later became regulars at his shul, the Community Synagogue on East Sixth Street between First and Second Avenues, we never got to meet him there, or to hear him called for an aliya by the full title on which he insisted: Tsvee-Hersh-Yosef ben Reb Dov Yankev Halevi, der Grammeister.
Indeed, perhaps his longest-running role was as the “master of rhymes,” presenter of a weekly original monologue on topics of the day that would interest a Yiddish-speaking radio audience. I never heard those live, but now I’ve had the pleasure of hearing several—first on CD, now on Spotify or Youtube, courtesy of Living Traditions. Several of those presented by Living Traditions deal with prosaic topics such as “Baseball,” “Vacation in the Mountains,” and even “Nixon, Dean, and Watergate.”
Yet one of them, recorded as early as 1947 when Scooler was presenting these monologues on a Philadelphia radio station, captured my imagination. I wanted to talk about it for many years, but knew I could only do so to an audience with some knowledge and love of Yiddish and a desire for more. Still, I managed to squeeze a few excerpts into a conference on Israel’s wisdom literature, which usually means books like Koheles (Ecclesiastes) and Job, both of which are cited in this monologue.
What’s the monologue about, you ask? What’s its title, at least? “Gor Nisht!” Nothing at all. To paraphrase both Scooler and the Book of Job, in this monologue he is tole yidish al bli-mo, he suspends the Yiddish language on nothing, doing the divine thing, creating ex nihilo, yesh me’ayin… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
For the most part, here it is: you can listen to Scooler’s bravura performance on Spotify here or in the video below, you can follow along with Mikhl Yashinsky’s excellent transcription and read Mikhl’s translation here. But I think you should listen to the recording first—even if your Yiddish isn’t so ay-ay-ay. And here are a few comments on the monologue that cumulatively, I think, make a good case for characterizing it as a significant (if ephemeral) example of Yiddish cultural creativity in America.
Zvee Scooler’s masterpiece on nothing at all.
- Note the multilingual references throughout, first of all in the announcement of various ways to say “nothing:” in Russian, English, Hebrew and then (a few lines further down) Polish, in addition to Yiddish. These “borrowings” from other languages are at once integrated into Scooler’s Yiddish and, at the same time, marked as distinct.
- A particularly American, and American Jewish, kind of individualistic practical attitude is expressed at points: “ikh bashlis shoyn! Shoyn! Oys!” (in other words, I’m not going to Philadelphia this week). Had he delivered the monologue a few decades later, he could have added, “fugeddaboutit.”
- The speaker suggests that he himself is nothing, in reporting his ruminations on whether to skip the journey to Philadelphia. Note the order of rhymes that ties this passage together: Philadelphia lived without me for a long time (bageyn); Philadelphia will someday certainly do without me again (gesheyn); I can take a break from Philadelphia now (geyn).
- Against the American individualism just announced, Scooler shifts affective modes, appealing to his listeners’ shared memories of cheder.
- Interestingly, these listeners (at least when imagined as children through his voice) are presumed to be Polish Jews—or, as listeners to my presentation of the monologue at Yiddish New York suggested, speakers of the standard Yiddish theater dialect.
- The classic nihilism of Ecclesiastes (Koheles) is presented by the monologuist as a cheder dialogue, a classic example of Yiddish as taytsh-loshn.
- The nostalgic recollection of childhood is interrupted with the stock English-language phrase, “to make a long story short.” The change of rhythm and language comes unexpectedly, bringing the listeners up short, grabbing their attention again, but at the same time also encouraging and rewarding their own bilingual skills.
- Natn-shebenatn had me stumped, but Mikhl figured out that it was a neologism, “a nothing from nothing-land.” This is another precise example of how Yiddish works: the combination of syntactic elements from one of its oldest components (the Hebrew “she-be,” from among) with a phonetically-modified borrowing from one of its newest (the English “nothing.”)
- Having uttered the name of Adolf Hitler once, rather than repeating it, Scooler refers to him as “dem Berliner, libe layt.” Just some two years after the end of World War II, that is, he uses a euphemism for Hitler while referring “balebatically” to his audience as “libe layt.” The juxtaposition serves at once to contain and domesticate the horror, and perhaps also as an ironic comment on German propriety.
- Some highfalutin nihilistic philosophizing in Yiddish (surrounding the topic of the carefully enunciated English word “the atom”) is punctuated by an abrupt “And that’s what I say!” Again, Scooler reminds his audience that they can at least aspire to the kind of virtuoso bilingualism that he displays here: rather than being trapped between two linguistic worlds, they can move freely between them. Even better, and perhaps more to the point for Scooler’s purposes, it sets up a rhyme with a nice, homey Yiddish idiom: “s’an oysgeblozn ey,” it’s an empty shell.
- Scooler goes on to mock those of his own profession, radio announcers, as hucksters peddling worthless goods: “We must conclude that they’ve said nothing, though they talk all day.”
- Then he moves on to a bit of anthropological fieldwork, or perhaps more accurately, to the role of a reporter getting the views of a couple of “men on the street,” sitters on a park bench. He presents their imaginary conversation as evidence of the salience of “gornisht” in American Yiddish conversation. In classic fashion, Borekh is a Litvik, and Zorekh (or “Zhorekh” as Borekh calls him) is a Polish Jew. Their conversation reveals that neither of them is working, and neither is impressed with their wives’ housekeeping or their children’s prospects. “College” and its resulting “knowledge,” it’s suggested here, are both equally dead ends. The one resource available is “relief,” what we call welfare today. And what does it take to go on relief? Of course, “Gor nisht.”
- In the next to last paragraph, Scooler quotes the book of Job to underscore his point about the centrality of nothing: God—or perhaps the monologist?— “suspends the world upon nothing.” Modulating his voice into something like a bal koyre’s chant, he insists, “today we have nothing, today we are nothing.” Perhaps, having kept his listeners’ attention without frightening them away, he is finally allowing a bit of genuine pathos as he reaches the end of his program. Again, the year is 1947, just after the groysn khurbn.
- And one final touch, his signoff: the monologist’s full Hebrew name, plus a surname, plus a stage name: Hamekhune der grammayster. The phrase “hamekhune,” roughly aka, recalls the standard text of a Jewish bill of divorce, which requires the listing of all the husband’s pseudonyms. Here, as Scooler parts with his audience, he also reminds them of his—and their—roots in an ancient and autonomous community.