-- Yet Does Not Know a Note of Music!

He Plays His Own Leading Roles,

Gets a $40 Salary and Found Time to Write

The "Jewish National Hymn"

A 1911 article written by ALMER C. SANBORN


There are probably few musical composers who would be willing to sign a contract with a theatre manager in which they agreed to furnish one original operetta a week, play the most important role in it, conduct all the rehearsals and write from five to a dozen songs to be sung by the vaudeville actors who appeared on the program following the operetta. Most of them would refuse such a proposition on the ground (sic) that they wanted a little time to eat and sleep. And if any of them had that happy faculty of getting along without sleep and I thought seriously of taking the job they would certainly hold up their hands in anguish as soon as they heard that the remuneration was only $40 a week.

There is one man in this country, however, who has signed a contract to do that very thing. He has bound himself to write the music of one operetta a week, to conduct all its rehearsals and play the principal role twice a day. In addition he has agreed to furnish the other actors with all the new songs they need for their different acts from week to week. There is no mistaking the fact that it sounds impossible, but David Meyerowitz performs that miracle every week, and on Saturday night receives his check for $40. Add to this the fact that Mr. Meyerowitz cannot read music, that he has never heard more than three or four operas in his life, and his accomplishment becomes one of the most astounding things of modern times.

Every one who hears his music calls him a genius, but that is only for want of a stronger term. The word "genius" has been much abused in recent years. It has been promiscuously applied to persons who had unusual talent and an extraordinary ability for developing it.

But it is no misuse of the word to apply it to David Meyerowitz. He is now a man of thirty, and has been in this country about eighteen years. He was born in Russia. He did not grasp a violin and play Bach's Two Part Inventions violently when he was two days old, as many prodigies are said to have done. He did not even come from a musical family. No one knew that he had any music in him. He did not even know it himself until he was forced to circumstances to bring it out. He left Russia when he was about twelve years old. He had no money and he needed it to travel. He needed a great deal, in fact, for he had set his heart upon coming to America, and it takes more than a boy of twelve can earn by manual labor to make that voyage.

As he traveled he sang. Sometimes he would stop and sing to a group of children. He sang them some of the old Russian folk songs, and now and then a Yiddish ballad that his mother had sung to him. Those were the songs that were nearest to his heart just then when he was leaving home striking out for himself, bound for a strange land. They meant so much to him that he put his whole soul into the rendering of them. He sang them more to keep up his own spirits than anything else, but they moved those who heard him, and they threw him coins as he passed by.

Often he stopped at an inn with no money to pay for food and lodging, and then he would sing to the landlord. He would sometimes compose the words and music of a song about the landlord or his wife or his pretty daughter. This invariably amused them and they always took him in and gave him shelter. It was only by singing so much that he arrived at the idea of composing his own music. It rather amused him to make up




music; it became a sort of pastime. It relieved the monotony of his trip. It never once occurred to him that he was doing anything unusual. He supposed that anyone who can make up music if he wanted to. And that was the way he came to America. He improvised a song about the captain of a vessel that was bound this way and got his passage free. He sang to the steward and got his food.

At last he landed in New York with fifty dollars in his pocket, and the discouraging prospect of eking out a living in a strange land. It would have been discouraging to most people, and many give up under the strain. But David Meyerowitz was always optimistic. He sings his way through life and is seldom downhearted. He found many of his compatriots in the Lower East Side section of New York and he went to live among them. He found there a sort of "cafe concert," where people sat and drank soft drinks, while on an improvised stage at one end singers and dancers did turns for whatever coins those seated at the tables were willing to throw them.

Meyerowitz gained admission there and sang for the amusement of the drinkers, sometimes his own songs and sometimes a popular hit of the day by some well-known composer. He soon saw that his own songs were just as well-received and sometimes better received than those of his more learned contemporaries. So he relied mostly on his own compositions. In this way he rose or fell entirely on his own merits. It was an uncertain lie, rather hit or miss, but he enjoyed it and continued to do the same thing for several years, until at last the cafe concert was changed into a music hall.

It is now the Grand Music Hall, a Yiddish variety theatre, at the corner of Grand and Orchard Streets in the very heart of the East Side of New York City. Meyerowitz is still there, but he has risen from the position of singing for pennies until he is now the the composer of all the theatre's operettas, the writer of all its songs and its principal actor. He no longer depends on the generosity of the audience. He gets a stated salary of forty dollars a week. But what is forty dollars a week for the amount of work he does? One even wonders how he finds the time to accomplish all that he does. Read the schedule of his average day:

  • At 6 A. M. he rises and eats his breakfast.

  • At 8 A. M. he usually goes to the theatre to rehearse the operetta for the next week and to arrange the orchestration of a new operetta with the conductor of the orchestra.

  • At 12 M. he eats his lunch.

  • At 1:30 P. M. he returns to the theatre to dress for the matinee performance.

  • At 2 P. M. the performance begins.

  • At 6 P. M. he eats dinner.

  • At 7:30 P. M. he returns to the theatre to dress for the evening performance.

  • At 8 P. M. the evening performance begins.

  • At 11 P. M. he goes to bed.

Probably you are wondering when he composes his operettas and songs. His day is entirely occupied with the other things he has to do. Of course, there are only twenty-four hours in a day and his time is all accounted for. The answer is that Mr. Meyerowitz is a master in the art of the conservation of time. He composes his operettas and songs in all the spare moments he has during the day, and even while he is doing something else. While he eats, he is working out in his mind the air of a new song. He insists that while he sleeps melodies are running through his head which he can sing as soon as he awakes in the morning. He gets all the necessary tunes in his head and then when he has a forenoon that it is not necessary to spend at the rehearsal he and the conductor of the orchestra arrange the partition.

It was said at the beginning that he does not know one note from another and that is literally true; it is impossible for him to read a piece of music, no matter how simple it may be. And now you undoubtedly want to know how he can write music without knowing how to read it. As a matter of fact, it is not exact to say that he writes music; he merely composes it. He has it all in his head. When he has finished his operetta, he takes the libretto and sings his airs as he reads the words to the conductor. The conductor transcribes the music as he sings it and then arranges the partition for the different members of his orchestra.

That is how David Meyerowitz furnishes one operetta a week to his manager, and that is why he is called the "music incubator." For the last eighteen years he has been doing nothing but draw music from his brain.

He knows nothing of books and art. He is really unlettered. He is indifferent about the theatre and the opera house. He lives in Delancey Street, scarcely a block away from the music hall to which he devotes his time. He eats regularly at Sach's restaurant, only two blocks down the street. He never leaves the neighborhood where he has lived since he came to this country. But he has the extraordinary streak of melody in his make-up; he is sentimental; he is oriental in his manner; and everything he composes has an original swing to it.

"Without a Mother," published in 1915.
Composer and Lyricist David Meyerowitz.

Photograph from the Library of Congress. Meyerowitz on cover.


Meyerowitz has already written thirty-six complete operettas and several hundred songs. Everything that he has composed has had an immense success among those who have heard the compositions. But few of them ever reach the outside world. Meyerowitz does not seek fame. If he be successful in the little world about him, that is all he asks. Some of his songs, however, have become known outside and they all attained instantaneous success. It was he who wrote Thomashefsky's "success-ballad," "Isroelik Kum Aheym," Jacob P. Adler's "Gott und Sein Mishpot is Gerekht," and the song which is sung by Bernard Bernstein, the comedian, entitled "Kol Yisroel Kabarim."

Meyerowitz never published any of his works. He did not know that they were worth publishing. But once in a while someone from another theatre dropped in at the little Grand Music Hall, heard his music, and knew immediately that it was worth publishing. They proceeded to find out who the composer was. They were directed to Meyerowitz. They asked him how much he wanted for the song they had heard. He didn't know. He had an idea of the prices for musical compositions. They offered him ten dollars. he accepted it eagerly. That is the price he has got for all the songs that he has sold. It is interesting to compare with the rumor that the publisher who printed "Isroelik kum aheym" made $5000 on the operation.

The sum may not be correct. But it is certain that he made a large amount of money, for the popularity of the song was immense. It became, in fact, the Jewish national hymn. Many of his songs have been placed on phonograph records. Almost every one

has heard some of them. Never a day goes by that a hurdy-gurdy in every large city in the land does not play one of them. Meyerowitz receives ten dollars apiece for these successes and turns them out in his sleep.

He is just beginning to understand their real value. The rumors that others are building $5,000 houses on the profits from his songs have opened his eyes. He is learning what a fortune his gift his to him.

Writing music is not an effort for him; he simply does it in his spare moments. Let him insist on a contract with his publisher and a written promise of reasonable royalties and his fortune is made. There is no chance for piracy of his music. It is not written; he has it all in his head. He could not write it if he tried. All he needs to do is refrain from singing until the contract is signed. It is impossible to steal his music from him.

If you wish to prove the value of Meyerowitz's music, you have only to go and hear it. He is always on hand at his theatre every week with a brand new operetta, and everything in it is original. Meyerowitz cannot make over another's work, for he cannot read it. His work unquestionably justifies the use of the word genius with regard to him, and he might also rank as the busiest man in New York.


The song "Ohn a Mame (Without a Mother)" was recorded by Yiddish actress Anna Hoffman in June 1917 in New York. Victor recording. David Meyerowitz (1867-1943) also wrote the famous song, "Vus geven iz geven un nito (What Was, Was, and is No More.)" You can hear Miriam Kressyn sing this song on this website (be sure to turn on your speakers before clicking on this link, as the song begins to play upon the opening of the webpage.)

You can read David Meyerowitz's biography from Volume 2 (1934) of Zalmen Zylbercweig's "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre."

On the right you can read the lyrics to the song "Ohn a Mame," words and music by David Meyerowitz. You can also see the musical score for the song here. The lyrics appear on the left in transliterated Yiddish, on the right the words appear in Yiddish fonts.

"Without a mother." "There is no one truer than a mother. Do not let her die of a broken heart." Source: Heskes, Irene, Yiddish American Popular Songs 1895-1950.




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The Museum of the Yiddish Theatre is a division of the Museum of Family History.

Article from the Times-Dispatch, Richmond, VA, February 11, 1912. Original copyright from The Morning Telegram, 1911.

    Sheet music of "Ohn a mamen" courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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