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October 20: The Barry Sisters

Lawrence Bush
October 19, 2016
Claire Barry (Clara Bagelman, left in photo), who with her younger sister Merna crossed over from the Yiddish musical stage to international fame as the Barry Sisters, was born in New York on this date in 1920 (some sources say October 17). "In the 1950s and ’60s," writes Joseph Berger in the New York Times, "their recordings of 'Papirosen' (about a ragged and hungry urchin begging passers-by to buy his cigarettes), 'Mein Shtetele Belz' (an immigrant’s lament for a forsaken village) and 'Roumania' (an immigrant’s more spirited lament for a forsaken country) would be played in thousands of Jewish homes, often by immigrant parents and grandparents at family get-togethers. If the sisters occasionally teetered on the edge of schmaltz, they drew tears nonetheless." The Barry sisters also brought elements of sequin-gown glamor to their act, and introduced American songs, translated into Yiddish, to their audiences. Those audiences included Las Vegas clubs and television watchers of Ed Sullivan and Jack Paar, and a loyal following among Jews in the Soviet Union. Claire outlived Merna, with whom she recorded eleven albums, by thirty-eight years, and was still singing in the 21st century. To hear them, look below. "When the Andrews Sisters had a national hit with 'Bei Mir Bist du Schoen' in 1937, Claire decided that they should Americanize their first and last names to broaden their appeal. Clara became Claire, Minnie became Merna, and the name Barry was picked out of a phone book." --Joseph Berger

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.