By Loeffler, James
Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought , Vol. 47, No. 1
In his 1902 play, the kreutzer sonata, yiddish playwright Jacob Gordin presents an intriguing scenario: two klezmorim, Efroym Fidler and son Gregor, emigrate to New York. The son goes on to become a successful classical orchestral musician and teacher, while the father struggles to make a living playing music and complains bitterly of restrictions on his craft: "I, an old klezmer, must stand for an examination to see if I can be a klezmer, must bring in twenty-five dollars so I may be a klezmer, and when I am already a klezmer, must stand on the line, until someone will declare me klezmer . . . I am already forty years a klezmer, I want to eat, I don't have twenty-five dollars. . . ."(1) What makes it so difficult for the father to survive playing music? It is, of course, the Jewish musicians' union, which labels him a scab for not paying its exorbitant entrance fees. Yet before the play's end the older klezmer is reinvented again. He enters to reveal that he has quit the union and opened his own music school on Houston Street, joining the ranks of the well-paid capitalists.(2)
What are we to make of this chain of events, especially given that we hear so little from later immigrant klezmorim about the role of the union in their lives? Is Gordin's portrayal an accurate critique or a melodramatic mischaracterization of the union as it existed then? By the end of World War I, New York's Jewish musicians already were integrating themselves into the mainstream union locals of the American Federation of Musicians, but the drama of this collective move obscures the preceding stage of their own labor history.(3)
There is much speculation as to the activities and experiences of klezmorim before World War I. But short of saying that klezmorim found work in the Yiddish theater and at weddings, restaurants, and cafes on the Lower East Side, we really know little else about the pre-recording, pre-World War I community of klezmorim in New York. To some extent this chronological gap stems from a lack of information - sources are rare and the wave of klezmer oral history began too late to catch survivors from this period. But it is also characteristic of a certain trend in Jewish-American history, that of canonizing certain cultural epochs and institutions at the expense of others. Few remember that before the Jewish Daily Forward (1897) there was a good twenty years of Yiddish journalism in America or that before Ellis Island there was the even more notorious immigrant processing center known as Castle Garden. So too is it with the first generation of American klezmorim. The interwar recording age of American klezmer music is well documented and promoted as the classical period, the Golden Age.(4) What follows is a brief attempt to rescue another early Jewish-American institution from historical oblivion - di rusishe progresiv muzikal yunyon no. 1 fun amerike - the first Jewish musicians' union in the United States and the foundation of the interwar Golden Age of New York klezmer music.
Destined to become the single most important force in the lives of Jewish immigrants within the next decade, during the 1880s the Jewish labor movement was still struggling to gain a foothold in the community. Organizations such as the Russian Progressive Union, the Central Labor Union, the Knights of Labor, the Socialist Labor Party, and even the Libertarian Socialists (anarchists) each made several unsuccessful attempts to organize Jewish unions throughout the early and mid-1880s. The birth of a Jewish musicians' union owed everything to the establishment of what was to be for decades the foremost institution in New York Jewish politics: the fareynikte idishe geverkshaftn, or United Hebrew Trades (hereafter UHT). Conceived and initiated in October 1888 as a federation of Jewish unions, the UHT quickly found that it would have to take the lead in creating unions itself or else remain "a mere shell."(5) So in early 1889 the UHT launched an aggressive organizing campaign. …