Picon spoke to their souls Event: Celebrating a beloved actress -- and the culture of the yiddish language.

October 14, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Molly Picon, a beloved American actress who died in 1992 at age 94, liked to tell a story about breaking into show business at the age of 5 in Philadelphia.

After singing and dancing for streetcar passengers, she passed the hat and collected $2. Later the same day, she got $8 for her first vaudeville performance.

Molly's mother was happy; after all, Philadelphia had three theaters. Molly's grandmother disagreed. Book her into streetcars, she said, there are more of those.

Picon, an actress who made her early fame in Yiddish theater, first in New York and later on stages in Baltimore and elsewhere, will be honored Sunday at a gathering marking the 100th anniversary of her birth. The celebration is being sponsored by 150 fans of Yiddish who meet monthly to keep the ancient Jewish culture alive here.

Yiddish of Greater Baltimore will hear its founder and president, Sylvia Schildt, a Baltimore free-lance advertising writer, talk about Picon's life and career in Yiddish and English.

"Molly Picon was so tiny -- 4 feet, 9 inches -- but she had so much energy and probably didn't know how strong she was," says Schildt, who saw the actress perform on Broadway. "She acted, she wrote songs, she sang, she was in film, she did radio -- she did it all."

Also on the free Picon program, (7 p.m. at the Bibelot bookstore at Woodholme shopping center) is Irwin Kramer, an antiques dealer and Judaica collector who will present some memorabilia from Picon and her husband, Yankel Kalich.

Clips from two Picon movies -- "Yidl Mitn Fidl" ("Yidle with the Fiddle") and "Mamele" ("Little Mother") -- and a sing-a-long of Picon songs will also be featured.

A native New Yorker who was raised in Philadelphia, Picon managed the Molly Picon Theater in New York, toured displaced persons camps after World War II and moved to English language roles when the Yiddish theater declined. She also performed in films and television.

Picon was popular in Baltimore, playing the Hippodrome, Ford's Theater and the Palace and appearing in behalf of Jewish causes.

Marking her birth is a natural for Yiddish of Greater Baltimore, which began meeting four years ago to promote Yiddish language, literature and culture. Men and women, old and young, including some non-Jews, attend the group's monthly meetings for a variety of reasons, Schildt says, including curiosity, a sense of nostalgia and love of the language.

Yiddish is a 1,000-year-old language that began among Jews who lived along the Rhine River in Germany. It is considered a vibrant, changing tongue, Germanic in vocabulary and grammar, but flavored with many Hebrew and Aramaic words and phrases of Slavic and other origin.

Schildt grew up in New York speaking English outside the home, but Yiddish at home with her Lithuanian-born parents. She lectures on Yiddish, has published a volume of Yiddish poetry and has taught the language.

"Between extermination, assimilation, repression, suppression -- Yiddish was supposed to die," says Schildt, referring to events including the killing of millions of European Jews in the Holocaust, Soviet pogroms that claimed many Jewish intellectuals and Israeli policies against Yiddish.

"In fact, even many Jews believe it to be a dead or dying language," she says. "But it refuses to quit.

"I don't think the future of Yiddish is in doubt. What I worry about are the treasures of secular Yiddish -- the folk songs, literature, stories, novels, journalism. It's a richness of ideas ... if it goes, it's a great tragedy.

"When it comes to passive Yiddish, you've got lots of takers. But for the active Yiddish -- the formal study and learning the words in Hebrew characters -- the takers are fewer."

Schildt's own experiences are a case in point. The culture group she founded draws up to 175 people each month, but two continuing education courses she was scheduled to teach at Baltimore Hebrew University this fall were canceled for lack of pupils.

Nevertheless, Schildt contends Yiddish is returning. More Yiddish speakers today are young people who grow up in Orthodox Jewish communities or are studying it in universities around the world, she says. The Klezmer music revival has also fanned interest.

By happenstance, the timing of the Baltimore tribute coincides with the opening this week on Broadway of "Mamaloshen" ("Mother Tongue") a revue starring Mandy Patinkin singing Yiddish songs. The show, which opened yesterday, is scheduled to play the Belasco Theater, 111 W. 44th St., through Nov. 7.

Schildt says anyone interested in Yiddish can find an important source of information at the National Yiddish Book Center. The center, in Amherst, Mass., is a huge lending library of Yiddish books located in the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Building, financed by the Baltimore foundation of the same name.

Other sources are YIVO, the Jewish Scientific Institute in New York, which is a center for scholars; and a Web site, Virtual Shtetl at http: //sunsite.unc.edu/yid-

dish/shtetl.html.

Yiddish gathering

Yiddish of Greater Baltimore usually meets the second Sunday each month at Bibelot Woodholme. Meetings are conducted mainly in Yiddish, with English and some Russian translation. Call 410-298-4765 (evenings) for more information.

Pub Date: 10/14/98

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