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

1931-1969
 

Moishe Oysher


 


Born 8 March 1906 in Lipkan (Lipkany), Bessarabia. Descended from a long line of cantors, the seventh cantor in the family. On his mother's side--craftsmen.

As he told Chaver Paver (Gershon Einbinder):

"The apprentices of my carpenter grandfather, Mekhl Nyegrinets, (from the townlet of that name) sang Yiddish folk songs as well as labor songs, and I absorbed those heartfelt tunes, and they are lodged in my blood. And it was from my father, [who was] called 'Zelik the Pole' in Lipkan, and from my [other] grandfather, who was called 'Yosl the Pole,' that I inherited my cantorial abilities."

Because his father Zelik immigrated to America in O.'s early years, he was raised by his grandfather and was known in town as "Moishe Mekhl Nyegrinets' grandson."

He studied with elementary religious teachers who were delighted with his ability to chant the prayers, while he also sang with a cantor, later entering the [non-religious, secular] "Habima" [The Stage] school (where the parable writer Eliezer Shteynbarg taught), sponsored by rich young people desirous of acting in the Yiddish theatre, who established a small stage there. O. appeared there while still a small child, in several roles in Steinberg's "The Berditshever Rabbi in the Heavenly Court," and was greatly encouraged by the author.

O. spoke about this in his conversation with Chaver Paver:

"If I were not to tell you about Eliezer Shteynbarg, the famous poet and parable writer who influenced my entire life, the story of my childhood would not be complete. Eliezer Shteynbarg, my rabbi, my poet, my leader, my booster, my challenger, my first acting and musical director. He provided me with the key to Yiddish and Hebrew literature. Eliezer Shteynbarg had written a musical play for children...so I, naturally, because of my voice, played the eponymous role of Reb Levi Isaac, as well as of the main devil and a bunch of other roles."

O. wrote a detailed account in his article in the June-July edition of Yidishe Kultur [Yiddish Culture, literary journal of the left-wing YKUF], "My Teacher Eliezer Shteynbarg and His Play About Reb Levi Isaac of Berditshev," in which he excerpts lengthy sections of the play.

In 1921 O. joined his father in Canada. En route he lost his boyish voice. Because his father was unemployed, O. had to find work: first as a restaurant dishwasher, then in a laundry in Brighton. Finally his voice returned and he began to sing in a number of literary-dramatic clubs. He became acquainted with the actor Wolf Shumsky and traveled with him to Winnipeg, Canada, where he acted in the latter's Yiddish theatre for two seasons, debuting in Solotorefsky's "The Woman Convert."

In 1924-25 he was granted non-member privileges in the Yiddish Actors' Union and played in the Montreal Yiddish Theatre (director -- Isidore Hollander), while also directing a drama group at the local Jewish Cultural Center, where he produced works by [Moishe Leyb] Halpern, [H.] Leivick, [Moishe] Nadir and others. In the summer of 1928 he appeared on Yiddish radio broadcasts in Philadelphia, where his parents had settled, and was recommended by Hillel Vikhnin to the Yiddish theatre directors in New York. In 1928-29 he acted in Brooklyn's Hopkinson Theatre (manager Louis Weiss), and in 1929-30 with Florence Weiss in Newark (manager Bernard Elving). In 1930-31 he acted with Florence Weiss in the Lyric Theatre, and on the 7th of November 1931 he became a member of the Jewish [Hebrew] Actors' Union. In 1931-32 he acted for Anshel Schorr in Philadelphia, where he abandoned his performances in mid-season and set out touring across the American hinterland. 1932-33 -- for a short time in Thomashevsky's Gaiety Theatre. According to Chaim Ehrenreich, Thomashevsky admired him and called him "my dear little son" and considered him to be his successor in his major roles, such as "The Yeshiva Boy," "Bar Kokhba" and others.

Again, O. toured the hinterlands, returned to New York and concluded the season at the Amphion Theatre. During a half-season, 1933-34, he was both manager and actor at the Amphion, then touring again in outlying areas and traveling with Florence Weiss to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he produces plays previously staged in America: "A Night in Paris," by Lash and Olshanetsky; "The Great Celebration," by Moishe Oysher (under the pseudonym Ben Zelik--son of Zelik) and Wolf Shumsky; and "The Path to Love," and "The Little-Girl Thief," by Isidore Lillian.

O. then made guest appearances in Uruguay and Brazil and returned again to touring all three South American countries.

 Zalmen Zylbercweig, who visited Argentina in 1936, relates that O.'s appearances two years earlier were still being spoken about by Yiddish theatre-goers, and that the songs he sang in the operettas were still being sung in Jewish homes, especially "Khasidish [Hasidic] in America" and "A Zemerl" [A Little Tune] that O. sang as a duet with Florence Weiss and which were later recorded.

Upon returning to America, O. became a frequent guest on Yiddish radio, which had been growing significantly. He appeared at the Lyric Theatre in Kalmanowitz-Rumshinsky's operetta "That's Loving," and in 1935 he became the cantor at the Roumanian Synagogue in New York. As one of the first actors to transfer from the stage to the pulpit [Yiddish: bine ariber tsu bime], he encountered, at first, many great difficulties. Great controversies and tumult arose among the more pious worshippers of the synagogue and its directors, but the sweetness of his praying, the perfectly traditional modes of his cantorial singing, quieted his opponents who were converted into followers.

O. began to switch from the theatrical boards to the synagogue's and vice versa. Thus he often appears on Second Avenue and in other Yiddish theatres.

In June of 1942, at Chicago's Civic Opera House, there was an extraordinary "star" performance of "Bar Kokhba," with the following participants: Moishe Oysher as Bar Kokhba, Mikhal Mikhalesko as Eliezer, Menakhem Rubin as Papus, Betty Simonoff as Dinah, Celia Adler as Caesar's Wife, Ludwig Satz as Caesar.

O.'s fame as cantor and soloist grew ever greater in the Jewish world, and he was more and more frequently engaged in both capacities across America, Canada, Europe, South America, South Africa and the Land of Israel, everywhere achieving huge success.

His voice also brought him to the world of film, both in Yiddish and English, where he plays the leading roles in the sound-films "The Cantor's Son (My shtetele -- Little Town -- of Belz)," Dovid Pinski's "Yankl der shmid [Jacob the Smith]," [English: "Overture to Glory"] produced November 1, 1938 in New York's Continental Theatre in a specially prepared adaptation by the author under the Collective Film Producers, directed by Edgar J. Ulmer, assisted by Yosif [Joseph] Dymow and Ben-Tzvi Baratov, music by Jacob Weinberg. In February 1940, at New York's Cameo Theatre, there was the opening of the sound film, "The Vilna City Cantor," ["The Little Householder of Vilna"] by Ossip Dymow [based on Mark Arnstein's play of the latter name], dialogue by Jacob Glatstein, directed by Max Nosseck, music by Alexander Olshanetsky.

 As to his acting in "Yankl der shmid," Ab. Cahan writes:

"...Moishe Oysher is known as a cantor, and he sings as a cantor almost throughout the talkie, and that doesn't work. If he had only quietly and infrequently introduced cantorial devices, that would be all right. As it is, however, I don't believe that his singing will have the success that it might have had. As to his character portrayal, there's nothing good to say. A young blacksmith wanders about, a dandy, wearing fine, shining little boots. What appears is not a smith, not a dandy, not a singer. But--as long as it pleases the crowd, as long as they enjoy it and laugh."

T. Beilin writes [of "The Little Householder of Vilna," film title: "The Vilna City Cantor"]:

"...Therefore the film achieves success with its acting and especially in its singing scenes, left entirely in the hands of Moishe Oysher. In the film his voice is much stronger and more powerful. Both in his cantorial work, presented with specifically Jewish sweetness, and in the arias of Moniuszko's opera, 'Halka,' his singing rings beautifully with voice-metality. And he is no less fine in the dramatic scenes of the Vilna little householder's pain and suffering.

" Regarding his film acting in general, Dr. N. Swerdlin writes:

 "A separate chapter is M.O.'s pioneering in the field of Yiddish film. True, the movies were primitive and were not always on a required artistic level, but they were a novelty and the Jewish audience was entranced by the Yiddish language in the mouths of the heroes... His latest movie was produced in Hollywood [New York and Berlin] as 'Singing In The Dark'...It was difficult to consider the film as much of a success with the exception of Moishe Oysher's singing, which was paternal."

 

Moishe Oysher as a cantor, in a Berlin synagogue, in the film, "Singing in the Dark"

Using the name Walter Lawrence he sang "Russia Is Her Name," music by Jerome Kern, on the soundtrack of the film starring Robert Taylor, and, in 1954, together with Joey Adams, he made the sound film, "Singing In The Dark," in which he acts in English and sings some songs in English and Hebrew.

Around 1943 -- according to Ehrenreich -- O. signed a contract with Fortune Gallo to appear with the Chicago Opera (actually a touring company: San Carlo Opera Company) as Eliezer in Halevy's "La Juive" and in Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci." He began to study the roles with Azloaf Peshia and was predicted to have a successful career as an opera singer, but he suffered his first heart attack and the plan had to be abandoned.

For several years O. appeared with huge success on radio station WMGM.

Beginning in 1954 O. has been the cantor of the Pines synagogue in South Fallsburg [N.Y.] O. sang the following songs that were recorded:

  • "A zemerl"

  • "Chasidic in America" (together with Florence Weiss)

  • "Yankl der shmid" (music by Jacob Weinberg)

  • "Dem pastuchs khoylem" (music by Jacob Weinberg)

  • "Ma tov"

  • "Gott iz einer"

  • "Dus keshenever shtikele"

  • "Grine bleter"

  • "In mayn shtetl"

  • "Hinter boymer"

  • "A din-torah mit gott"

  • "Amar, amar" (music by Moishe Oysher)

  • "Halel" (in Yiddish and English, with the Barry Sisters, music by Moishe Oysher), and the liturgical numbers:

  • "Midas horachamim"

  • "Al horoishoinim"

  • "Hium hrt oylem"

  • "Av horachamim"

  • "Kiddush far yom-tov" (with a chorus)

    And the albums:

  • "Moishe Oysher Seder Album" (narrated in English by Barry Gray) that contains:

  • "Kiddush"

  • "Ho Lachmo Anyo"

  • "The Four Questions"

  • "Blessing of the Moror"

  •  "Khi lu noh"

  • "Chad Gadya" (with Abraham Nadel's chorus, under the direction of Abraham Ellstein)

  • "Eliyahu hanovi"

  • "Hallel"

  • Moishe Oysher's Kol Nidre album ["Kol Nidre Night with Moishe Oysher"] (narrated in English by Barry Gray), which contains:

  • "Or Zorua Latzadik"

  • "Ya-A-Leh"

  • "Al Daas Hamokom"

  • "Omnom Ken"

  • "Kol Nidre"

  • "Ki Hinei Kachomer"

  • V'Nislach"

  • "Shma Koleinu"

  • "Maariv"

  • "L'Dovid Mizmor" ["The 24th Psalm of David" ]

    With the Abraham Nadel Chorus, under the direction of Abraham Ellstein), and "The Moishe Oysher Chanukah Party," (narrated in English, by O.'s daughter, Shoshana), which contains:

  • "Happy Chanukah"

  • "Cirba"

  • "Blessing of the Candles"

  • "Reg'n"

  • "Ani Mamin"

  • "V'lirushulayem"

  • "Drei Dreidele"

  • "Moat Tzur"

  • "Sh'ma Yisroel"

    Soloist--Marilyn Sternberg [Marilyn Michaels], under the direction of Abraham Ellstein

A.Z. writes, regarding the Chanukah record:

"The religious and traditional approach toward Chanukah naturally occupies the major role in the record, and its liturgical portions resound with power and pathos. But the folk-music aspects were not overlooked. The prayers interchange with a group of Yiddish songs...sung by Oysher with charm and temperament...But over it all there dominates Moishe Oysher's succulent, resonant voice with its rich color and authentic nuances...a voice that has entranced the masses of Jewish listeners. It is a pity that this last chord was struck so prematurely."

And Chaim Ehrenreich writes:

"Moishe Oysher poured his heart into this album, along with his artistic singing -- artistic, because it is so vocally pure and tastefully selected. There is the style of the cantor plus that of the folk song, plus that of Hasidism...Many of the things that Moishe Oysher sang on the recording are pearls of many years' standing in his repertoire. They will now be a part of our record-culture and recorded repertoire. Moishe Oysher's tenor voice is rich and warm and colorful. In this record it attains a depth and a celebration that affect the listener to the deepest depths of his emotions. You will not forget his 'Ani Ma'amin' [I Believe, a confession of faith] and you need not be ashamed of the tears you will shed..."

O. put great weight on the final recording of his Chanukah album. In reference to it he declared these words to Chaim Ehrenreich:

"There is a rumor that I am not well, and that my engagements have diminished. When you write about this record, people will lose their fear. When you hear the record you will know how my voice is doing. I have never been in better voice than now.

And in a telephone conversation with Dr. N. Swerdlin, O. declared that:

"He will do something important with his new Chanukah record... O. began to develop something that he later described as a new theory of his...In every country in which Jews happened to live in their long exilic road...they were also influenced [by the surrounding population] in the matter of melody and this was reflected in cantorial music. During the years that Jews have lived in America...the influence of American music has not been a minor one.. .His Chanukah record is, accordingly, a first attempt, a pioneering effort that will succeed with Jews and have a good influence on the American-born youth. He asked...that we not be shocked by the blending of traditional melodies with jazz... O. told of his future plans that included a further series of records."

Recognizing his illness, having suffered several heart attacks over time, on the advice of doctors he accepted very few invitations to concertize or perform cantorial duties during the last period of his life. Yet, in June of 1958, he appeared in concert at New York's Town Hall and prepared in the final days of December to appear at the National Theatre and planned to settle in a warmer climate: Florida or California.

Zalmen Zylbercweig, who visited him at his home in Scarsdale, N.Y. in mid-October 1958, reports that O. kept grabbing at his heart and -- it just happened to be a happy occasion, his thirteenth wedding anniversary -- and spoke only of death. Every topic led to a single climax -- death -- and he expressed his joy at being lucky to have so devoted and understanding a wife and a gifted daughter whom he had raised in a truly Jewish spirit.

O. again suffered a heart attack, a very severe one this time, and was taken to the hospital in New Rochelle where, after several days, he died on November 27, 1958.

O. was survived by his wife, Theodora, a pianist who often accompanied him in concert; their daughter Shoshana, who was the narrator of the Chanukah album; his sister Fraydele, a Yiddish actress and singer, and her husband Aaron Sternberg, a choral member of the Metropolitan Opera and a cantorial director.

According to his will, his funeral was truly Orthodox, and the only eulogist was Rabbi Chaim Porille of the Roumanian synagogue where O. had begun his cantorial career.

O. was buried in the Cedar Park cemetery of the [Labor Zionist] Jewish National Workers Alliance; Two-thousand people attended the funeral.

Sh. Rozhanski characterizes O.'s singing at a concert in Buenos Aires in this manner:

"...Even when he interprets cantorial music and projects the traditional mode of prayer with rich voice methods, he, Moishe Oysher, is extremely theatrical. He possesses a ton of effects in his singing. Hasidic stylistics and Romanian pain are bound up in his temperament, linked and embedded, both when he sings cantorial melodies and when he sings folk songs. The actor always accompanies him. Slender, with fiery eyes, romantic, Moishe Oysher can make use of his figure. At times he is too Jewish, accompanying himself with gesticulations and hand-movements as he sings, moving about and hardly able to keep standing in place. In contrast with all the classical outer forms of platform singing, he feels himself to be free on-stage, as an authentic actor...Between one song and another, between one prayer and another, he converses with the audience, announcing the next song, making some comments that are needed, especially for certain cantorial tunes; he also permits himself to be close to the audience, tossing in a folk-saying and a joke, a little story, a gesture, a wink -- he addresses his public per du [in the familiar voice]...In general, Moishe Oysher ranges in the higher notes, because that is where he shines, he amazes, where he seizes ovations from the audience...He is not the cantor with the thin voice of a lamb. He is the cantor of cries and lightning-bolts -- he thunders and flashes...It is simply amazing that a baritone can sing such high notes, challenging heroic tenors. His timbre is broad, with much warmth. His voice resonates in one's heart. But Moishe Oysher is never satisfied with that and always allows himself to be accompanied by the actor, the role-player."

The musicologist Israel Rabinowitz writes: "...His strength as an actor lay not so much in his acting as in his singing. He was blessed with a marvelous tenor-voice of the finest timbre and was naturally musically talented. The cantorial genre lay in his blood and he noshed on it mightily from his childhood on...At the same time, he was enchanted with the footlights of the stage and from the very beginning it seemed to him that he could bind the two art forms -- cantorial and acting -- into one 'heavenly match'...When he finally found the courage to stand before the ark it never occurred to him that this might mean a farewell to the theatre. To the contrary, he figured that adding the theatrical to the cantorial would be welcomed both by the crowd and by God...So convinced was he that there is no contradiction between prayer and theatre that when anyone publicly challenged him -- as this writer once did -- he would disdain the critic as someone who didn't know what he was talking about.

"Basically, Moishe Oysher, the cantor-actor was a typical product of the specific mishmash in which the Jews in these [i.e. Western] lands live in the process of seeking spiritual pleasure...Moishe Oysher, who came here from his Bessarabian Lipkan as a child (?), was so thoroughly under the influence of the "confused sources" in the local surroundings, that he failed to see where the contradiction lies. But, in any case, his singing was heartfelt. It was so both at the pulpit and on the stage. He possessed all the necessary 'tools' for it. In some of his films, such as Der vilner balabesl [The Young Vilna Householder -- film title: The Vilna City Cantor], the cantor-actor combination served him quite well, as it did in certain dramatized songs from the folksong genre. He was the darling of many Jews whom he impressed not only with his golden voice but with his handsome appearance. Jews will long listen to certain of his records, especially those that have the stamp of genuine, not overly theatrical folksong.

And the cantor and writer Yardeini writes:

"...There aren't many like Moishe Oysher wandering the streets -- neither among Jews nor the other peoples of the world. He was, to speak truly, a raw and partly-tamed talent, but yet a talent in the fullest sense of the word. He had, before all else, a phenomenal voice, a baritone with a tenor timbre, a fiery temperament, theatricality -- and above all: a tremendous desire to sing."

 Dr. N. Swerdlin characterizes him thus:

"Oysher had much theatre-blood, a seething temperament, but more singer than actor. His roles were almost always connected with singing. As a cantor he quite quickly moved into the front ranks. As the 'singer of his people' he appeared in concerts of Yiddish folksongs and gratified the listener. M.O. was a warm folk-person and therefore he was so suited to heartily interpret his people's songs."

Chaim Ehrenreich deals in greater detail with O. as a singer, actor, person and Jew:

"He was a great singer -- a singer with a wonderful voice...His roots, embedded in Lipkan, were never severed. He was a folk-person, but his personality was actually complicated, full of contradictions and psychic labyrinths and entanglements -- an extraordinarily interesting person. M.O. was the born bohemian artist; if a person appealed to him and they shared a goblet of 'lekhayim,' he was love and goodness personified. In addition, he had a rare sense of humor; he was able to laugh at himself. Mostly he laughed with others, not at them. As a singer, Moishe Oysher gave of himself to the fullest -- and beyond the fullest. He was not a disciplined artist. He allowed his temperament and his feelings to play too great a role...It was this undisciplined behavior that finally undermined his health...At a concert he could sing for hours on end, song after song, aria after aria, cantorial things, unsparing of his own energy. He never falsified nor fooled, but opened all his vocal sluices and allowed the golden melodies to flow from his throat to the highest note, even after he already knew that he was not well and had to be frugal and contained...He Americanized himself quickly, learning the English language. However, he remained a completely Jewish person...He spoke English, for example, only when he had to with people who would not understand his Yiddish. He enrolled his only daughter in the Mamaroneck Yeshiva and was proud of the fact that she spoke Yiddish. Moishe's wife, Theodora, is native born. Moishe spoke Yiddish with her."


M. E.

English translation: Hershl Hartman, 2018.

  • [--]-- --Biography in "Di yidishe velt," Philadelphia, 30 June 1928.

  • Hillel Vikhnin-- Musik notisen, dort, 6 July 1928.

  • Dr. L. Herbert-- Dem khazans zin, "Der yidisher kemfer," N.Y., 12 January 1938.

  • Ber Green-- Dort, vu men makht dem film, "Yankl der shmid," "Morgn frayhayt," N.Y., 11 July 1938.

  • A. Lerman-- "Mayn shtetele belz," "Unzer ekspres," Warsaw, 22 Sept. 1938.

  • Kh. Gutman-- Di naye muvis fun der vakh, "Morning Journal," N.Y., 7 Nov. 1938.

  • Ab Cahan-- Dovid pinski's "yankl der shmid" als yidishe toki, "Forward," N.Y., 12 Nov. 1938.

  • Joel Entin-- "Yankl der shmid" als film, "Der yidisher kemfer," N.Y., 25 Nov. 1938.

  • Kh. Verimkroyt-- Tsvishn shotens, klangen un farben, "Da"ts," Buenos Aires, 14 April 1939.

  • Kh. Verimkroyt-- "Yankl der shmid": A shener folkstimlekher yidisher film, dort, 25 Sept. 1939.

  • L. Fogelman-- Di naye yidishe muvi, "Der vilner shtot khazn" in kemeo teater, "Forward," N.Y., 14 February 1940.

  • N. Buchwald-- "Der vilner shtot-khazn"-- a gut gemakhter film, "Morgn frayhayt," N.Y., 15 February 1940.

  • Jacob Mandel-- Der vilner galebesl, "Der yidisher zhurnal," Toronto, 15 February 1940.

  • William Edlin-- "Der vilner shtot-khazn"-- a film, vos kon zikh gleykhn tsu di beste oyf brodvay, "Der tog," N.Y., 16 February 1940.

  • Efrim Auerbach-- "Der shtodt-khazn," a film fun yidishn folks-patos, "Morning Journal," N.Y., 23 February 1940.

  • Sh. Zamd-- Chicag hot nokh aza min "bar kokhba" farshtelung nit gezen, "Forward," Chicago, 19 June 1942.

  • Gershon Einbinder (Khaver-Paver)-- Moishe oysher fun lipkan iz in holyvood gevorn valter larens, "Morgn frayhayt," N.Y., 22 June 1943.

  • Moishe Oysher-- Mayn lerer eliezer shteynbarg un zayn shpil fun r' loy yitzkhak fun barditshev, "Yidishe kultur," N.Y.,  June-July, 1944, pp. 52-55.

  • Zalmen Zylbercweig--Nokh 14 yor kumt itst vidr moishe oysher kayn argtentine, "Da"ts," Buenos Aires, 16 June 1948.

  • Sh. Rozhanski-- Moishe oysher a teatralisher khazn-isher virtuoz un zinger, "Da"ts," Buenos Aires, 12 July 1948.

  • H.K.-- Moishe oyshr, nit lang fun zid-amerkie, fl-ht kayn england, "Forward," N.Y., 26 Nov. 1948.

  • M. Yardeini-- In der velt fun khazanut, shul un templen, "Forward," N.Y., 11 May, 27 July 1951.

  • Aaron Shuster-- Lipkan fun amol," Montreal, 1955, pp. 49-50.

  • Chaim Ehrenreich-- Moishe oysher's rekordirter, "Khanukah-party album," "Forward," N.Y., 28 Nov. 1958.

  • Chaim Ehrenreich-- Moishe Oysher gesht9orbn in elter fun 51 yor, dort.

  • [--]-- Moishe oysher, barimter khazn, zinger, geshtorbn, "Tog-morz"sh," N.Y., 28 November 1958.

  • Dr. N. Swerdlin-- Moishe oysher-- aktor, khazn un folks-zinger, dort, 2 Dec. 1958.

  • Chaim Ehrenreich-- Moishe oysher-- der mentsh un der kinstler, "Forward," N.Y., 3 Dec. 1958.

  • A.Z.-- Moishe oysher's khanukah-rekord, "Morgn frayhayt," N.Y., 9 Dec. 1958.

  • Israel Rabinowitz-- Notitsn iber tog-fragn," "New York Weekly," 30 Dec. 1958.

  • M. Yud [M. Yardeini]-- Muzik in teater dort.

 


 

 

 

 


 

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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 3, page 2407.

My thanks to Hershl Hartman, for his assistance in this 2018 translation.
 

Copyright @  Museum of Family History.  All rights reserved.