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by Joel Schechter
WHEN I DELIVER an introductory lecture on Yiddish theater at San Francisco State University, not all of the students in the class are Jewish, far from it; they come from a wide range of backgrounds and ethnicities. Once, after I finished discussing a few Yiddish actors and writers, a student asked me to explain the meaning of “putz.” I had not mentioned this word, which was perhaps the only Yiddish term the student knew, but he wanted to know more about it. Other more knowing students laughed aloud at the recitation of this off-color word for the male sexual member.
At the time, I had not yet heard about Yiddish actress Celia Adler’s response to that word in a conversation with actor and stage director Maurice Schwartz -- but once I met Selwyn Freed, Celia Adler’s son, who told me several wonderful stories about his mother and his own life among actors. Freed, who died at 99 in September, was a charming and intelligent man who became a doctor, not an actor, when he was young. He nevertheless had a repertoire of fascinating memories about Yiddish theater, and told me a story that gives the word pots (often spelled “putz”) a distinctive place in the history of Yiddish theater and labor movement activism.
IT SEEMS THAT about eighty years ago in New York, when Celia Adler performed leading roles at the Yiddish Art Theater, its founder and director, Maurice Schwartz, was not generous about actors’ salaries. Others in the company persuaded Celia to meet privately with Schwartz on their behalf and to ask him for a general wage increase. She was a distinguished stage artist, after all, and the daughter of the famous Yiddish actor Jacob Adler. Her colleagues at the Yiddish Art Theaterhought that if Schwartz would respect anyone’s appeal for a raise, it would be hers.
When Celia went into the director’s office, other actors stood outside, near the door, and tried to overhear the Yiddish conversation. They heard indignant shouting, and also may have heard Schwartz say: “Gelt viln zey? Mayn pots vel ikh zey gebn!” (Roughly translated: “They want money? I’ll give them dick.”)
Schwartz should not have spoken in such harsh language to Celia Adler. According to her son Selwyn, the actress herself never employed vulgar language, which is why, when she left the theatre director’s office, and actors outside asked what Schwartz had said, she told them: “I don’t know what he’s going to give, but we’re going to get something.”
Even in English, that punchline is funny, but the story doesn’t end there. Selwyn Freed informed me that this off-stage theatre dialogue subsequently became famous in the Yiddish-influenced labor movement. A leader of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union retold the anecdote to workers when they were going to open negotiations with management. This time, however, “We don’t know what we’re going to get, but we’re going to get something” took on a new, more optimistic meaning, because the ILGWU had considerable bargaining power and could win something substantial with a large number of prospective strikers backing the union’s demands. Not relying on language alone, or a single gracious woman to speak for it, the ILGWU could take to the street if necessary, and shut down garment production. Its collective strength produced more than off-color Yiddish street language in negotiations.
You won’t find this story in The Joys of Yiddish, where Leo Rosten cautions readers that “putz” is “not to be used lightly, or when women or children are around. It is more offensive than shmuck.” Perhaps a new glossary of Yiddish words will include the Celia Adler usage (or non-usage) of the term, and add that the word played a small, humorous role in Yiddish theater history and American labor history.
One other amusing story about Yiddish theater and union demands can be found in a section of Celia Adler’s autobiography, which has finally been published in English. The Hebrew Actor’s Union made demands on actors who would join it. After describing how her half-sister Stella Adler fainted during an audition (in Ophelia’s “mad scene”) for admission into this union, Celia quotes Chaim Ehrenrich’s 1927 Yiddish article on the challenges to management raised by such auditions: A theatrical manager watches the union entry “try-out of a young actress who is now playing in his theatre on a point of privileged favor granted by him. She executes a strong dramatic scene. He sheds tears. Kasten [a colleague of the Ehrenrich’s] suddenly pours into [his] ear: ‘Know why he’s crying? Next week, he’ll already have to pay her union wages, a considerable number of dollars over what he does now.’” So goes the war between art and commerce, generating tears and laughter.
Joel Schechter is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and author of Radical Yiddish, a collection of his essays and comics about American Jewish culture. His other books include Eighteenth-Century Brechtians: Theatrical Satire in the Age of Walpole and Messiahs of 1933: How American Yiddish Theatre Survived Adversity through Satire.