In memory of the Beilis Trial: “Beilis Not Guilty, Jews Guilty” (circa 1913). From YIVO Collections. 
The dramatic postcard above is a commentary on the notorious 1911 Beilis Trial, which escalated the already rampant anti-Semitic sentiment in tsarist Russia. In a case strikingly similar to the that of the Trial of Trent almost 400 years earlier, it revolved around blood libel.
Menahem Mendel Beilis, a Ukrainian Jewish brick-factory worker, was accused of blood libel after the dead and mutilated body of a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy named Andrei Yushchinsky was discovered near the factory. A lamplighter testified that he had witnessed Beilis kidnapping Yushchinsky near the factory, and Beilis was arrested on July 21, 1911. 
In the words of the Jewish Virtual Library, despite clear evidence that a criminal gang had committed the murder,

the reactionary antisemitic organizations led by the “Black Hundred” [the reactionary *Union of Russian People”] pressured the antisemitic minister of justice, I.G. Shcheglovitov, to conduct the investigation of the crime as a ritual murder. Accordingly, the chief district attorney of Kiev disregarded the police information and instead looked for a Jew on whom to blame the crime, through whom the entire Jewish people could be publicly indicted.

While Beilis languished in prison for two years waiting for a trial, newspapers circulated the story throughout the Russian Empire, which led to anti-Semitic campaigns against many Jewish communities. Many Russians then believed that Jewish people engaged in ritual murder of Christians, a slander upheld by the Catholic priest and self-proclaimed “Talmudic expert” Justinas Pranaitis during Beilis’s 1913 trial.
The case against Beilis fell apart when the lamplighter confessed to having been intimidated  by police officers, and when it became apparent that Pranaitis knew little about the Talmud. Beilis was acquitted, and eventually immigrated to America. Particularly in the United States, critics censured the sham trial for its anti-Semitic motives, masked as a search for the boy’s murder. 
The creator of the postcard above seems to be similarly angered. The image depicts the tsar letting Beilis go free, while at the same time restraining a man labeled “the Jewish people” with a ball and chain of “blood libel.” The Tsar is telling Beilis, “Go, Mendel. You’re free! Rejoice with your American friends but I won’t waste any time in getting even for your acquittal with your left-behind Russian brothers.”

In memory of the Beilis Trial: “Beilis Not Guilty, Jews Guilty” (circa 1913). From YIVO Collections

The dramatic postcard above is a commentary on the notorious 1911 Beilis Trial, which escalated the already rampant anti-Semitic sentiment in tsarist Russia. In a case strikingly similar to the that of the Trial of Trent almost 400 years earlier, it revolved around blood libel.

Menahem Mendel Beilis, a Ukrainian Jewish brick-factory worker, was accused of blood libel after the dead and mutilated body of a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy named Andrei Yushchinsky was discovered near the factory. A lamplighter testified that he had witnessed Beilis kidnapping Yushchinsky near the factory, and Beilis was arrested on July 21, 1911. 

In the words of the Jewish Virtual Library, despite clear evidence that a criminal gang had committed the murder,

the reactionary antisemitic organizations led by the “Black Hundred” [the reactionary *Union of Russian People”] pressured the antisemitic minister of justice, I.G. Shcheglovitov, to conduct the investigation of the crime as a ritual murder. Accordingly, the chief district attorney of Kiev disregarded the police information and instead looked for a Jew on whom to blame the crime, through whom the entire Jewish people could be publicly indicted.

While Beilis languished in prison for two years waiting for a trial, newspapers circulated the story throughout the Russian Empire, which led to anti-Semitic campaigns against many Jewish communities. Many Russians then believed that Jewish people engaged in ritual murder of Christians, a slander upheld by the Catholic priest and self-proclaimed “Talmudic expert” Justinas Pranaitis during Beilis’s 1913 trial.

The case against Beilis fell apart when the lamplighter confessed to having been intimidated  by police officers, and when it became apparent that Pranaitis knew little about the Talmud. Beilis was acquitted, and eventually immigrated to America. Particularly in the United States, critics censured the sham trial for its anti-Semitic motives, masked as a search for the boy’s murder. 

The creator of the postcard above seems to be similarly angered. The image depicts the tsar letting Beilis go free, while at the same time restraining a man labeled “the Jewish people” with a ball and chain of “blood libel.” The Tsar is telling Beilis, “Go, Mendel. You’re free! Rejoice with your American friends but I won’t waste any time in getting even for your acquittal with your left-behind Russian brothers.”

Row of Jewish-owned stores near Great Synagogue, Lumobl, Poland (now Ukraine), 1925. (Collection of Photographs and Measurement Drawings, neg. 23441. Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw. All rights reserved. Image courtesy the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress).
The prevailing image of the shtetl is the one in Fiddler on the Roof: a small, dirt-poor, strictly Jewish village. But shtetls in Eastern Europe could be diverse in both their size and their inhabitants, since the term simply refers to a small town with a predominantly Jewish population and Jewish institutions, especially schools and synagogues.
Shtetls were usually small enough to foster a close Jewish community—albeit one that often simmered with disagreement and resentment due to economic hardships. Its residents would know one another well, and—as in Fiddler—people sometimes acquired informal nicknames based on jobs or appearance: Avrum the Hernia, Chaim the Redhead, Moishe the Icon. 
Christian society wasn’t entirely absent from the shtetl. Gentiles lived in and around shtetls, particularly rural farmers whose lands abutted the shtetl limits. They played a large hand in the town economy, bringing their produce to sell in the weekly market.
But with the exception of these nearby farmers and a loose network of other shtetls in the region, each community was an exceedingly isolated and self-sufficient unit. Jews took on roles and occupations that made the community tick—tailors, religious leaders, teachers, innkeepers, shop owners, businessmen, contractors, shoemakers, carpenters and more. You can read a longer discussion of shtetls, including their history from their first origins through World War II, at the YIVO Encyclopedia. Incidentally, the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof celebrates its 50th anniversary this year—and we’re in the midst of celebrating Molly “Yente the Matchmaker” Picon in a series of posts dedicated to the astonishingly versatile performer whose career spanned decades, mediums and continents. Anatevka lives on. 

Row of Jewish-owned stores near Great Synagogue, Lumobl, Poland (now Ukraine), 1925. (Collection of Photographs and Measurement Drawings, neg. 23441. Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw. All rights reserved. Image courtesy the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress).

The prevailing image of the shtetl is the one in Fiddler on the Roof: a small, dirt-poor, strictly Jewish village. But shtetls in Eastern Europe could be diverse in both their size and their inhabitants, since the term simply refers to a small town with a predominantly Jewish population and Jewish institutions, especially schools and synagogues.

Shtetls were usually small enough to foster a close Jewish community—albeit one that often simmered with disagreement and resentment due to economic hardships. Its residents would know one another well, and—as in Fiddler—people sometimes acquired informal nicknames based on jobs or appearance: Avrum the Hernia, Chaim the Redhead, Moishe the Icon. 

Christian society wasn’t entirely absent from the shtetl. Gentiles lived in and around shtetls, particularly rural farmers whose lands abutted the shtetl limits. They played a large hand in the town economy, bringing their produce to sell in the weekly market.

But with the exception of these nearby farmers and a loose network of other shtetls in the region, each community was an exceedingly isolated and self-sufficient unit. Jews took on roles and occupations that made the community tick—tailors, religious leaders, teachers, innkeepers, shop owners, businessmen, contractors, shoemakers, carpenters and more.

You can read a longer discussion of shtetls, including their history from their first origins through World War II, at the YIVO Encyclopedia. Incidentally, the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof celebrates its 50th anniversary this year—and we’re in the midst of celebrating Molly “Yente the Matchmaker” Picon in a series of posts dedicated to the astonishingly versatile performer whose career spanned decades, mediums and continents. Anatevka lives on. 

From Vaudeville to “Fiddler”: (Re)introducing Molly Picon, the “Jewish Charlie Chaplin”

We’re delighted to kick off a series close to our hearts: the story of Molly Picon, for decades a household name in Yiddish theater and vaudeville, then a Broadway star, performer with the USO and radio personality—not to mention Yente the Matchmaker in Fiddler in the RoofSome called her ”the Jewish Charlie Chaplin”; others, “the Jewish Helen Hayes.” We think she stands grandly on her own. 

Former Center for Jewish History intern Sarah Ganton follows the story of her life as told through the archives of the American Jewish Historic Society, one of the five partners of the Center of Jewish History. Join us in celebrating this remarkable, vivacious, and endlessly talented woman. 

image

Autographed headshot of Molly Picon, undated. From the Collection of the American Jewish Historical Society.

In 1943, approximately forty years into Molly Picon’s long and storied career, Louis Nizer wrote of her: “I suspect she is the Joan of Arc of the Yiddish Theatre. She is the glorious, heroized personification of her people’s joy and tears, their song and dance, their versatility and charm. That is why she is their darling. They pay her tribute because she is a living tribute to them.”[1] Though modern audiences may only remember her as Yente the matchmaker in the hit film Fiddler on the Roof, it is obvious from her collection of papers in both the AJHS and YIVO that she was much more than that.

Molly Picon was born in New York on either February 28 or June 1, 1898. In her autobiography, Molly!, she writes, “Various records list me as having been born either February 28th or June 1st. Naturally, I celebrate both dates.”[2] Her father, Louis Picon, was in fact married to both her mother, Clara Ostrovsky, and a previous wife in his home country of Poland, and thus was not present for much of Molly’s and her younger sister Helen’s childhoods. Clara, known as Mama Picon and her daughters soon left New York to move in with her parents, living in a home with two grandparents, the Picons, and eight or nine of Molly’s cousins.

By her own description, Molly was “a small skinny kid who loved to kibbitz with the neighbors.”[3] While her mother sewed costumes for the Columbia Theater, Molly kibbitzed away, learning song and dance routines from her neighbors and performing duets with her mother in their living room. Present at one such performance were actors from a Yiddish theater troupe for whom Clara was fitting costumes, and they convinced Mama Picon to put her daughter on the stage.

Mama Picon sewed Molly a fancy new dress and off the duo went on the trolley car to the Bijou Theater, where amateur night was every Friday night and children could perform for talent scouts. But Molly’s first professional performance, like much in her life, was anything but ordinary. On the trolley car she and Mama Picon encountered a skeptical drunk, and little Molly proved right then and there that she was a force to be reckoned with: “I got up in the car and did my whole act…Then the drunk took off his derby and passed it around to the people in the car and collected two dollars in coins, which he gave to me. So I consider that my first professional performance.”[4] Molly went on to win Amateur Night at the Bijou Theater in effectively her second professional performance, earning a five-dollar prize and a new stage name: Baby Margaret. Baby Margaret soon became the consummate vaudeville professional, singing in English and Dutch, dancing traditional Russian dances, playing whatever child’s part came her way in plays at the Columbia Theater, and, notably, playing Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin in both Yiddish and German.

She was young yet, but Molly knew she had found her lifelong career: “Something inside me shone bright and clear, and I knew I would stick to the theater all my life…as the wardrobe mistress’ daughter, I got a love of the stage because there I could make believe I was all the things I could never be in real life.”[5] Indeed, Molly would leave high school after two years to tour on the vaudeville circuit full time, where we will catch up with her in the next post.

Sarah Ganton is a former intern at the Center for Jewish History. 

Sources:

1.  Louis Nizer, writing in a program for a reception honoring MP, given by the Ladies Welfare League of the Yiddish Theatrical Alliance at the Molly Picon Theatre, 1943 (AJHS MP Papers, box 50 folder 1051). Link to the finding aid.

2. Picon, Molly with Jean Grillo. Molly! An Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980. pg. 109.

[1] Louis Nizer, writing in a program for a reception honoring MP, given by the Ladies Welfare League of the Yiddish Theatrical Alliance at the Molly Picon Theatre, 1943 (AJHS MP Papers, box 50 folder 1051)

[2] Picon, Molly with Jean Grillo. Molly! An Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980. pg. 109.

[3] Picon, 14.

[4] Picon, 15.

[5] Picon, 20.