February 28: Molly Picon

220px-PiconYiddish actress and lyricist Molly Picon (Malka Opiekun) was born on this day in 1898. She first appeared onstage at age six, and was the sensation of the Yiddish theater world of Second Avenue by the early 1920s, following an acclaimed European tour with her husband, actor Jacob Kalich. (“The Yiddish I spoke was completely bastardized,” she later recalled, “and part of our plan was for me to learn correct Yiddish with its soft, guttural European accent.”) Picon’s films included East and West, about the New World-Old World culture clash in Jewish life, and Yidl Mitn Fidl, made in Poland, in which she disguises herself as a boy to make a living as an itinerant musician. She and Kalich were the first performers to tour Displaced Persons camps in Europe following the Holocaust. In 1954, she spoke passionately to the Israeli Knesset about the need to preserve rather than suppress Yiddish language and culture in the Jewish state.

“How can I tell all the people who have laughed and cried with me through seventy-five years in the theater, all over the world, when I was up and when I was down . . . how can I tell you how much your love for me has gladdened my heart through a wonderful life?” —Molly Picon

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Comments (2)

  1. When I was a child I saw Molly Picon in the play “Der Farblondzhete Honeymoon” (sic), in the Loew’s Palace Theater on East New York Avenue in Brownsville. The adult actors spoke Yiddish, but a little girl (the motherless daughter of the leading male character) spoke in English and was answered in Yiddish. I understood and swallowed it all–how the clever little girl acts as dea ex machina, correcting her father’s mistaken choice of a 2nd wife, manipulating matters so that their loyal and loving housekeeper (played by Molly Picon) having lost in the war her first husband and daughter (who would have been just the age of the daughter in the play) ends up as the father’s wife and the little girl’s devoted stepmother. I guess it helps to be 6 or 7 years old when you see a play like that. One interesting feature, which I later learned was not unusual in the Yiddish theater, was a sort of entre’acte, in which Picon and her leading man (whose name I don’t remember) appear as Father Abraham and Mother Sarah, in faux biblical costumes, and conduct a comic and serious dialogue in Yiddish. The adults in the audience enjoyed it more than I did. (I suspect it was far more sophisticated than the play.) I was just waiting for the little girl to oust the bad stepmother so that Molly Picon would triumph.

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