Leo Zeitlin: Palestina

By Paula Eisenstein Baker

It is two weeks before Rosh Hashanah 1929, the Jewish New Year, and the movie show is about to start at the Capitol, one of New York’s huge “picture palaces.” Over the decade, the more than 5,000-seat Broadway theater has often programmed a minor work on Jewish motives to acknowledge the Jewish holidays, but this year, their choice is more ambitious: conductor Yasha Bunchuk raises his baton, and the eighty-man Capitol Grand Orchestra opens the program with Leo Zeitlin’s Palestina. For one entire measure, we hear nothing but a low A in the fourth horn, timpani, and tuba, with a pizzicato low A in the contrabass on the first beat. In measure 2, the cellos and bassoons play the A followed by B flat followed by C sharp, the last two notes outlining the interval of an augmented second (see p. 3 here). The same pattern is heard in measure 5 in the English horn and second violins, and the interval is repeated and developed throughout the opening section of the work.

This musical unit has never been unique to Jewish music, but it seems clear that Zeitlin considered it a signifier. He introduces it immediately in Palestina, a piece labeled as Jewish, indicating that he trusted that his listeners would identify the work as Jewish. (Zeitlin’s manuscript score is actually labeled Rhapsodie on Hybrew [sic] Themes; presumably the title was changed by the theater management.) One could argue that, even if Zeitlin himself did not consider the augmented second a uniquely Jewish signifier, he thought that his audience would hear it as Jewish. The interval appears in both the modes that he employs (the Ahavah rabbah and the Ukrainian-Dorian) and in each of the tunes that he develops in Palestina.

Another—even more explicit—Jewish musical signifier in Palestina is the imitation of shofar calls, the short musical elements blown on a ram’s horn in the synagogue before and during Rosh Hashanah and at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. In Palestina, these calls are played by unison French horns. Portions of the short phrases are heard at the end of the introduction and at other points of structural articulation, and Zeitlin labels them in the score (he also hints at the calls in several other spots). The sounds would have been unmistakable to anyone who had ever heard a shofar call.

So it’s pretty clear that the Capitol Theatre was appealing to a Jewish audience. Who made up that audience? Jonathan Karp of SUNY Binghamton put me in touch with Judith Thissen of Utrecht University, an expert on early-twentieth-century New York Jewish theater audiences. “The tradition of going out in celebration of a religious holiday started in the 1890s with the growing popularity of the Yiddish theatre,” Thissen writes. “In particular, [the holidays of] Sukkoth and Pesach developed into widely-advertised theatrical events, marking the beginning and the end of the high season in the Yiddish theatre district. . . . In the 1910s, the tradition of going out to the theatre or movies on Pesach moved uptown as the second generation discovered Broadway shows. This habit became so popular that managers of movie palaces and leading Broadway theatres took note of the holiday and began to program additional matinee shows, which they advertised in the Yiddish press.”

As Thissen and I investigated this holiday practice, it became clear that the picture palaces began their High Holy Day offerings as early as 1918. Samuel Rothafel, known as Roxy, may have been the one who originated the practice; when he was managing the Rialto Theatre, then the city’s largest movie palace, he had cellist Gaston Dubois perform Max Bruch’s Kol Nidre the week before Yom Kippur (New York Times, 15 September 1918, p. XXX1). In June 1920, Roxy took over presentations at the Capitol Theatre and brought the tradition with him: according to The Music News (1 October 1920, p. 20), Willie Robyn sang Kol Nidre in the theater that week. In 1923, The American Hebrew (14 September 1923, p. 459) noted that Roxy even eliminated the comedy picture at the end of the program to leave time for music: “The observance of Rosh Hashanah, which began at sundown last Monday night, has its counterpart in a portion of the music program of the Capitol Theatre. William Robyn, popular lyric tenor, sings Kol Nidre, the ancient Hebrew invocation, accompanied by the Capitol Grand Orchestra.”

Roxy left the Capitol in 1925 to begin creating his eponymous 6,000-seat theater, which opened in 1927, but the tradition continued at the Capitol at least through 1935, as we know from the WEAF records of the Capitol’s radio show. (Both the Roxy and the Capitol had radio programs that were broadcast from the stage or from a studio, and sometimes both; attention to the holidays continued regardless of the venue.) The tradition of integrating Jewish elements into the show was adopted at the Roxy Theatre the year after its opening and was subsequently adopted by Radio City Music Hall, Roxy’s home beginning in December 1932.

The heyday for both the Capitol and the Roxy was 1928–29, when their competition was at its peak. At the Roxy in 1928, Mana-Zucca’s Rachem, a highly dramatic work, was sung by the women of the chorus attired in white robes on the balconies of the theater while the men appeared on stage “in traditional costumes” (Jacobs Orchestral Monthly, November 1928, p. 46). The following year, a tableau representing the giving of the Ten Commandments was added (H. D. S[trauss], New York Telegraph, 6 October 1929, p. 3). The spectacle was stunning, no doubt, though not so appropriate for Rosh Hashanah as it would have been for the late-spring, early-summer holiday of Shavuot, which marks the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

In 1929 Zeitlin’s Palestina was played at the Capitol for the first time to both critical and popular acclaim; The Metronome (October 1929, p. 27) called the overture “exotically descriptive.” Billboard mentioned it two weeks in a row: on 21 September 1929, the reviewer J. F. L. wrote that “the Capitol Grand Orchestra, under the direction of Yasha Bunchuk does a new number, Palestina, that is appreciated.” And Variety complained (25 September 1929, p. 55) that “once more Yascha [sic] overworks the traps and the brass to the delight of Capitol payees.” WEAF playlists indicate that the theater repeated Palestina in November 1929, in April of the following year in honor of Passover, and again for the High Holy Days in September 1930 and September 1931.

The WEAF playlists (Red Network Master Books, History Files, NBC Archives, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress) were a rich source of information, but we also found material in the New York press, both Yiddish and English, and in trade papers like The Music Trade Review, Billboard, Zit’s, The Musical Courier, The Metronome, Musical America, and Jacobs Orchestral Monthly. Most recently, we did a systematic keyword search of the digitized Variety in the Media History Digital Library .

Our study (Thissen and Eisenstein Baker, forthcoming in 2017) makes it clear that the practice of going to the movies during the High Holy Days was widespread in the New York Jewish community during the 1920s, creating peaks at the box office not only on Broadway but also in high-class movie and vaudeville theaters in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. Although the holiday habit lost momentum during the early years of the depression, Kol Nidre and the sounds of the High Holy Days were heard on stage and radio well into the 1950s.

 

Paula and RobertPaula Eisenstein Baker, adjunct instructor of violoncello at the University of St. Thomas, Houston, found a copy of Eli Zion for cello and piano by Leo Zeitlin (1884–1930) in a Tel Aviv archive in 1988. After reattributing the piece (which had been misattributed to another man with an almost identical name), she continued to investigate the career and works of Zeitlin, a member of the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music founded in 1908. She and co-editor Robert S. Nelson (also shown in the photo) have published two volumes of Zeitlin’s works: Leo Zeitlin: Chamber Music (A-R Editions, 2009; N051) and Leo Zeitlin: Palestina; An Overture for the Capitol Theatre, New York (A-R Editions, 2014; A076).