Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre
Volume 8

SHORT BIOGRAPHIES OF THOSE INVOLVED IN THE Yiddish THEATRE
aS DESCRIBED IN zALMEN zYLBERCWEIG'S "lEKSIKON FUN YIDISHN TEATER"

 

Fraydele Oysher
 

Fraydele was born on 3 October 1913 in Lipkany, Bessarabia, into a family whose father was one of seven generations of cantors. She immigrated to Montreal, Canada, when she was eight years old, along with her father, her mother and her brother Moishe.

The children, both with magnificent voices and surrounded by an aura of religious music, were tutored in the chants of the synagogue. Moishe went on to a career as an actor and star of classic Yiddish art films, and was later America's legendary cantor known as "The Master Singer of His People".

Fraydele's first significant job was at the New York's Amphion Theatre, which was just across the Brooklyn Bridge. There she received a payment of eighteen dollars a week. The production was "alongside the Sheindele the Khazante".

Fraydele recalls: "I went there one day and there was a big crowd standing outside. Just my luck, I thought, it's a fire and I'll be out of work. I asked somebody what was going on and he said, 'There's a little girl that sings here...', and the crowd was waiting to buy tickets. 'That's me', I said, and I went in and asked for a two dollar raise."

 


When asked when she started on Second Avenue, she doesn't hesitate, "When they let me!" She was Second Avenue's Fraydele, "The Little Queen", "The Golden Girl", a large voice in a small body.

She fit perfectly into a favorite plot device: The Yeshiva boy who the audience discovers when it's time for the last act show stopper, is really a girl .... all this time before Streisand dreamed of Yentl. She was able to bring to the theatre the sound of the synagogue where it was a great novelty, and she was easily accepted, cleverly interspersed into shows written specifically for her vocal and comedic talents.


 

When Fraydele was a teen, the family settled in Philadelphia, and she found work in a pretzel factory, getting paid for every pretzel that didn't break. "Hating" the job, she begged her older brother Moishe to take her to New York.

She was an olive-skinned gangly kid who made her way on her own without the help of her immigrant parents. As a teenager, she was often rejected by her father for not having been born male, but she would eventually catch his attention when she was accidentally heard singing to herself one day. Recognizing her gift, grandpa Selig Oysher promptly began tutoring her in cantorial repertoire, and he then sent her out to "make a dollar". If you had asked her how it all came about, she probably would have said, "I had to make a living. When Papa heard me singing to myself one day by accident, he sent me to work right away."

Quickly, she caught the attention of audiences with her great "pipes," charisma, and guts. Her rise was meteoric and she became a star well before her brother, the legendary cantor/actor, Moishe Oysher.

She also was offered opportunities to sing as a female cantor in the synagogue, but times being what they were, she opted to remain on the stage. She didn't think of or refer to herself as a pioneer of feminism. However, long before the Jewish Reform movement came into being and women were embraced as rabbis and cantors in synagogues throughout the world, Fraydele Oysher was the woman who played the major role in paving this new road for women.

photo:  Fraydele Oysher in one of her roles, as a Yeshiva boy.

Fraydele's vocal and interpretive mastery of such diverse music as liturgical chants, theatre songs, and folk songs make the listener feel that they are hearing the piece for the first time.

Here, from the album, "Yiddish Soul", you will be moved as you listen to Fraydele sing the cantorial, "Habeit Mishomayim (Look Down From the Heavens)." 
 

In 1935, Fraydele married Harold Sternberg, a basso profundo opera singer of the famed Metropolitan Opera House. The following year she traveled with her husband, who acted as her leading man, to South America for their honeymoon, concertizing and playing her signature shows from Canada to Cuba. She was billed simply as "Fraydele". He also had appeared on Broadway in a number of George Gershwin shows, such as "Pardon my English" (1933), "Let Them Eat Cake" (1934); also "The Eternal Road" (1937).

Fraydele's biggest hits on the Yiddish stage had her masquerading as a boy who could officiate at the bimah, who in the last act would be revealed as being a sexy vibrant lady. Imagine this, the Yeshiva bucher, (boy student) played by Fraydele, revealing that she is pregnant in the last scene, and actually going into labor, as the Rabbi cries out to the congregation. "Gevalt yiden, der chazen gait tzu kint!"  Translation; "Oh boy, the cantor is giving birth! "

The audiences went wild, especially when such shenanigans were racy in those days, and inhabited by a magnificent cello of a voice, a natural comedic gift and a vocal range that touched hearts. She was the pioneer of liturgical music way before a woman ever dreamed of singing it. And in that respect, a feminist before the word was coined.

 

The first song Fraydele ever sung in public was Sholom Secunda's "A mameh is di beste freynd (A Mother is the Best Friend)".

Fraydele's personality was part Jewish mother, part Mama Rose, with a generous sprinkling of Dorothy Parker.

In the 1930s, she also performed on radio programs, on the Philadelphia stations WLTH, WEVD, WMCA WCAU, WFAN, WREX, where they each paid her five dollars for each fifty-minute segment.

Fraydele performed extensively throughout the United States, Canada, South America and Cuba. Some of the theatres she performed in were. in the United States: the Douglas Park and Civic Theatres in Chicago, Illinois; the Erlanger Theatre in Buffalo, New York; the Amphion, Tilyou, Lyric, 46th Street and Parkway Theatres (all in Brooklyn, New York) ;Town Hall, David Kessler's Second Avenue Theatre, the Clinton Theatre, the Yiddish Anderson Theatre, Avery Fisher Hall of Lincoln Center,  all in Manhattan, New York City; the Garden State Arts Center in New Jersey, the Town Hall, Northeast Bronx Cultural Center, the Bronx Art  and Windsor Theatre (Bronx); the Philadelphia Yiddish Art Theatre; in Massachusetts, John Hancock Hall in Boston, and the Shawmut Theatre (Roxbury); the Plaza and Cameo Theatre, in Miami Beach; and the Civic Playhouse in Los Angeles, California. In Canada, she has performed at the Monument National and Brebeuf Theatres, in Montreal; Masses Hall, in Toronto; and in the Playhouse Theatre in Winnipeg.

Many plays were written for Fraydele's special vocal and comedic gifts. The following is a partial list. "The Cantoress", by Louis Freiman, music by Joseph Rumshinsky; "Fraydele's Wedding"; "The Sacrifice of Isaac" by Avram Goldfaden, "The Little Queen", "The Cantor's Daughter"; William Siegel's "Golden Girl"; Avraham Blum's "Fraydele is Not a Girl", "A Cantor on the Sabbath"; "A Night in Paris!", an operetta in three acts by Isidore Lash, music by Alexander Olshanetsky.

Some of the other plays Fraydele acted in were: In January 1949 at the Clinton Theatre in New York City, Philip Laskofsky's operetta, "Her Father's Melody", also starring Vera Rosanko and Israel Rosenberg. In May 1951, she performed along with "seventy-five players and singers", in a testimonial to actor and director Israel Rosenberg, and manager of the Downtown National Theatre Oscar Green, marking their twenty-fifth anniversary with the theatre. In January 1953, Jacob Jacob's comedy, "Her Father's Bride", at Brooklyn's Parkway Theatre, which also starred Jacob Buloff and Aaron Lebedeff; March 1954, and "My Grandfather's Melody" at the Downtown National Theatre, with Henrietta Jacobson (co-starring Esta Salzman, Celia Budkin and Morris Tarlofsky).


 

One of her later stage appearances was on 19 October 1968, when there was staged at the Yiddish Anderson Theatre in New York City, the Yiddish musical "It's Never Too Late for Happiness" [book by Kalman Lipson, lyrics and adapted by Joseph Jacobs, music by Samuel Fershko, starring Fraydele, Bruce Adler, Max Perlman, Jacob Jacobs, Seymour Rechtzeit and Miriam Kressyn, Jacob Zanger, Leon Liebgold, Gita Galina, Thelma Mintz, and Diana Cypkin]. New York Times critic Richard F. Shepherd considered Fraydele "a welcome sight".

A great wit, she nurtured a proverbial family of entertainers -- her daughter, the singer and comedienne, Marilyn Michaels; her son Michael Sternberg (a singer, musician and composer), and her grandson, Mark Wilk (a writer, pianist and singer).

Fraydele eventually turned down offers to travel abroad when motherhood called, and even though she performed well into her seventies, doing commercials and concerts, she was in fact the mom who was the major force behind her daughter, Marilyn Michaels' career.

Fraydele passed away on 5 January 2004 in New York, New York.

From the album "Songs my Brother Moishe Sang", listen to Fraydele sing "Bam rebbins tish (At the Rebbe's Door)" with her daughter Marilyn.


Sh. E. from her daughter Marilyn Michaels.

  • Marilyn Michaels -- website, www.marilynmichaels.com .

  • The Cantors Assembly -- Journal of Synagogue Music, Vol. 32, 2007, pp. 72-77.


 

 

 

 


 

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Part of the new,  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre", Volume 8, by Steven Lasky.
Biographical information and photographs courtesy of Marilyn Michaels.
 

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