By Myron Gordon, Ph.D.
Everyone knows the Dreidel song. Even non-Jews. Some listeners assume it’s a centuries-old Yiddish folk song that came from shtetls in the old country, but in fact the music was composed in New York in 1927, by Samuel E. Goldfarb, a pioneering Jewish American songwriter and music educator, with lyrics by his frequent collaborator, Samuel S. Grossman. Few people today know much about the other Jewish music that Goldfarb composed. But I do, because “SEGy” (as his New York intimates called him) was my father.
I’m Myron Gordon (formerly Myron Goldfarb), now 95 years old. The second-born child and first-born son of Samuel E. Goldfarb and Bella Horowitz Goldfarb.
A few years ago I came across an old box of memorabilia in my basement. Along with many of my father’s letters, it held copies of his artistic works from the 19-teens and 20s that long ago passed into obscurity. Booklets containing liturgical songs, children’s Bible songs, holiday songs and songs about the Holy Land, and several extremely rare 78-rpm gramophone disc recordings that emerged slightly cracked from their tattered paper jackets, the scratchy sounds of which took me back to another world and time. Rediscovering these lost objects rekindled vivid memories from more than 85 years ago.
It’s 1927. I am seven years old. We are in the tiny living room of our apartment in Arverne, Queens, a salt breeze wafting through an open window. A menorah sits on the mantel, next to a photo of our family. Mother and sister are off in the kitchen. Dad is at the piano, wearing a gray sweatshirt. I smell his cigar. I sense that he wants me to memorize this music, which I am doing…
Two years later, Dad would be gone. He’d abandoned his wife of 13 years, Bella, his 12-year-old daughter Ruth, and me, as well as a very large extended family, his many friends and collaborators, and a successful music career in New York, in order to be with another woman, three thousand miles away. “Take care of yourself and be a man,” he wrote me from the train as he departed. Two months later, the stock market crashed and the country sank into the Great Depression. We had to fend for ourselves. Both parents felt so ashamed, they tried to conceal the truth from me by saying he was away on business. For years, my father’s only contact with me was through an occasional handwritten letter. I saw him again on just a few occasions—once, during the war, when I was in my Army uniform, visiting him in Seattle, he introduced me as “a friend,” and another time, 30 years later, he dropped by my home in Forest Hills to play the piano and sing versions of the Dreidel song with my seven-year-old daughter, Tamar. His absence left a deep void in my life. I changed my surname as part of my separation from him. But I never forgot him or his music.
My personal story of my father, Samuel E. Goldfarb, begs to be told just as some of his other children and grandchildren have told the story of his later life in Seattle. The sad predicament of his abandonment of his family in New York when I was nine. It wasn’t till after his death in 1978 that I very slowly began to get clear of my emotional impasse. Gradually over the years, my youthful yearning gave way to a less troubled connection with his music. Listening to it in the last few years, I’ve finally been able to enjoy the joyous melodies without succumbing to the other associations his work had summoned for me. Eventually, no longer feeling bound by a child’s futile phantasy, I came to think: why not crystallize my new experience of father and son with a CD of his music? After considerable effort, I came into contact with someone who would enable me to realize that dream.
Our magnificent producer of Jewish music, Craig Taubman, immediately recognized how rich and exciting these songs could be when cast in today’s diverse musical spirit. Craig’s brilliant adaptations, so true to the original, should be widely appreciated now. He’s given us an extraordinarily wide range of genres and styles, and captured so much of the Jewish spirit. And the wealth of wonderful performers and recording artists he’s assembled has given my father’s songs – and me – new life!
With belated empowerment I wish to grant Samuel E. Goldfarb due credit for these long lost songs. I’m also offering a legacy of his Jewish music to present and future generations. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Samuel Eliezer Goldfarb (1891-1978) was born in Sieniawa, Galicia, Poland, to Nathaniel David Goldfarb and Malye Goldfarb. The family immigrated to New York in 1895, taking up residence in a packed tenement on the Lower East Side—the place in America where most Jews lived, the center of Jewish American culture. He grew up as the sixth of eleven children in a large orthodox family. Money was scarce, but they had their worship–and music. Every Shabbat and other holy days they all sat around the table, singing Shabbat zemirot, or family songs, in harmony. At age ten Sam’s relatives somehow scraped together enough money to give him weekly piano lessons. His elder brother, Israel Goldfarb (1879-1956), a graduate of the Institute of Musical Art (now The Juilliard School), the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University, and a cantor with a fine baritone voice, taught him to read and write music.
After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School, Sam took courses in musical theory and composition at Columbia. When Israel took over as rabbi at Brooklyn’s Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, the younger brother assisted him in services and also performed in other temples across the Lower East Side, spreading the power and beauty of Jewish liturgical music to appreciative worshippers. When he was about 24, Sam’s parents arranged for him to marry a 19-year-old neighborhood girl, Bella Horowitz, who also was one of eleven children. Bella’s father, Samuel I. Horowitz, was a partner in the thriving matzoh bakery, Horowitz Brothers and Margareten, located on the Lower East Side), and her aunt, Regina Horowitz Margareten, was known as “the matriarch of the kosher food industry.” As their two large families became intertwined, the newlyweds took up residence on one floor in Israel Goldfarb’s brownstone in Brooklyn Heights.
Friday Evening Melodies & The Jewish Songster
In 1918 during the Great War the Goldfarb brothers completed a book, Friday Evening Melodies, by composers Rabbi Israel Goldfarb and Samuel E. Goldfarb, Head of the Department of Music, Bureau of Jewish Education, bearing the copyright by Rabbi I. Goldfarb and S.E. Goldfarb, 1918. Advertised as “collection of liturgical songs and prayers, skillfully arranged, composed or adapted for voice and piano,” it contained five of the six liturgical songs now included in this music CD. One of these original compositions, “Shalom Aleichem,” would go on to become one of the most beloved Jewish liturgical melodies of the 20th century, sung in every movement of Judaism and in many traditions.
In 1918 the Goldfarbs also came out with a bigger compilation—The Jewish Songster, the path-breaking two-volume collection of Jewish liturgical and secular songs, presented in Hebrew, Yiddish and English—that became a staple of every Jewish American synagogue and school. Later reissued in successive editions, the work’s popularity spread throughout the Jewish world and helped to establish Israel Goldfarb’s status as the “father of Jewish congregational singing.”
Six of the songs in our collection are the product of the brothers’ collaboration. Despite the fact that some of the brothers’ early publications list both of them as the composers and copyright holders of the songs, others from the same period credit only Israel for two of those compositions. So in the interest of family harmony and early historical evidence, we credit Israel as the composer of “Shalom Aleichem” and “B’Sefer Chayim” while still including both of them in our collection. We have done our best to scrupulously credit all of Sam’s collaborators just as we credit each of the performers and other contributors on the album. History requires it.
SEGy’s interests weren’t limited to liturgical music. He also embraced the popular secular music of the day. The Yiddish theaters on Second Avenue were flourishing, and he played piano for the silent movies and hung around the neighborhood’s fabled headquarters of American popular music songwriting and publishing. Tin Pan Alley represented a brash new style of urban music that was taking America by storm, turning out ethnic novelty songs and ragtime, along with 32-bar love songs that relied heavily on internal rhymes and punning. These influences as well are evident in some of the music we have included in the CD.
I was too young to know what was happening, just three years old when Dad, apparently in love with a younger woman and contemplating divorce, suddenly took me, my mother and sister west to Reno, Nevada. Newspaper ads from those days announce that Samuel E. Goldfarb, “the noted pianist from New York City will play his rendering of ‘Gypsy Airs’ and ‘Tarantella’ at the Majestic Theater on Friday and Saturday nights.” Or that he would accompany soprano Eloise Harris as they perform to the Jazz age silent picture drama, “What’s Wrong with the Women?” What must his orthodox relatives have thought about that?
It still hasn’t sunk in to me that Reno in those days was the divorce capital of the western world, where New Yorkers like Mary Pickford went to “take the cure.” (Nevada’s six-month residency requirement was half that of other states, but the catch was, it had to be uncontested.) Yet it seems that Mother must have held on, because we all stayed together in Reno, as she kept house, tended the children, and taught Hebrew School to bring in extra cash, while her parents continued to support them financially. After a year-and-a-half in Reno, we all packed into the Studebaker and returned to New York where we continued to live together as a family—at least for a while.
Bureau of Jewish Education
From 1925 to 1929 Dad held a salaried position with the Bureau of Jewish Education of New York. Selected by its visionary director, Dr. Samson Benderly, to serve as the organization’s music director, Sam worked with a corps of talented and progressive educators seeking to reform and enrich Jewish education. Benderly wanted the children and grandchildren of immigrants to preserve their Jewish identity as they made their way in American society. Sam seemed an ideal choice for the task. He had a winning personality, talent, experience, and a deep connection with Jewish music. Never letting go of his Jewish roots, the ambitious young composer sought to keep alive existing Jewish musical traditions amid the popular new American sensibility of the day, in ways that would foster integration yet maintain core Jewish culture. (Just as this CD seeks to do.)
While working for the Bureau, Sam collaborated with a brilliant lyricist and playwright, Samuel Schlomo Grossman (1893-1930). Born a rabbi’s son in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Grossman had been educated at the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Grossman was a talented writer with a theatrical bent, who was fluent in Hebrew, Yiddish and English, and he was one of the organizers and first general manager of Maurice Schwartz’s renowned Yiddish Art Theatre on Second Avenue. He’d turned out a stream of Jewish plays and operas as well as songs. Together the two Sams wrote an operetta, The Jews in Egypt, as well as many children’s songs. It was Grossman who penned the words to the Dreidel song, which was first recorded in 1927 with Goldfarb the composer at the piano and Arthur Fields, one of the most popular singers of the day, as vocalist.
The Dreidel Song
There was a lot of Jewish history behind dreidels. The dreidel is associated with Chanukah, a holiday celebrated since 165 BCE, commemorating the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks for religious freedom. Also celebrated is the miracle of an eight-day flame in a small flask of oil in the rededicated Temple. As modern Jews know it, the dreidel began when the medieval Germans adopted the ancient Roman teetotum for gambling. Rabbis, seeking a fun-activity for the joyful holiday created a Hebrew version of this four-sided top (with players rules to win nothing; win all; win half; put in) and formulated an ingenious acronym for each of the four letters, spelling out, “A Great Miracle Happened There.”
What’s lesser known is that when the song was written, in the 1920s, a variant of dreidel spinning had recently swept the country as a gambling craze known as “put and take,” which wasn’t limited to Jewish kids, so that in those days, the object generated even more excitement. There were many songs and movies involving Put and Take back in those days.
Looking back today, I can see the Dreidel song as a metaphor for SEGy’s life at that point. On the horns of his dilemma over his love triangle, which choice should he make? Should he keep what he had or risk it all?
Grossman turned out to be a tragic figure. About the same time that Goldfarb made his final dreidel move, leaving his wife and children behind, Grossman suffered the loss of his son in an auto accident and he plunged into a deep depression, ending a few months later when, out of work and bereft, he leaped to his death from the sixteenth story of Philadelphia’s Statler Hotel. (His daughter, Judith Merrill, later went on to become a famous science fiction writer who also penned a marvelous autobiography, Better to Have Loved, with her granddaughter, Emily Pohl-Weary.)
After fleeing the family, Goldfarb headed to the west coast and married the other woman. From 1930 to 1967, he directed the music program of Seattle’s largest Reform Jewish congregation, Temple De Hirsch, now the Temple De Hirsch Sinai. The senior rabbi when he arrived was Samuel Koch. It’s said that Goldfarb enhanced the temple’s educational curriculum and brought traditional Jewish values to the prayer service. He introduced one of the finest temple choirs in the United States and taught piano to generations of aspiring musicians. Rock historians have also noted that Samuel Goldfarb oversaw a performance space in the temple’s basement, where on one occasion he yanked from the stage an unconventional guitarist named Jimi Hendrix for his wild playing. The temple continues to be commemorate his long years of service.
SEGy seldom returned east, but on one occasion in 1962, he finally entered my home in Queens and sat at the piano with his vivacious seven-year-old granddaughter, Tamar. The three of us joined in singing versions of “I have a little dreidel…” It was the tune he would always be called upon to perform—a reminder of an earlier and joyous time, a lost and hidden identity, a song about the little dreidel game he’d played.
Myron Gordon (1920- ) received his BSS in social science and master’s degree in clinical psychology from the City College of New York, attended the Seminary College of Jewish Studies and received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from New York University. He served in the Army in World War II, was in private practice for over 50 years and retired as an associate professor at Queens College, CUNY. He was awarded two post-doctoral certificates from the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health. He is married to Jetta Hendel Gordon and has two children and four grandchildren.Buy