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Alexander Olshanetsky

Alexander Olshanetsky  Biography

Alexander Olshanetsky (1892–1946) was also among the most prominent and prolific Second Avenue composers and conductors, and one of the musically most sophisticated exemplars of the Yiddish theater. He was born in Odessa, the Ukraine, where he had both a traditional Jewish and a modern Western-oriented gymnasium education. As a boy, he sang in synagogue choirs and began violin studies at the age of six—learning several other instruments as well.

He then played in the Odessa Opera orchestra and toured with them throughout Russia and Siberia, after which he became the choral director for a Russian operetta company.

While in the Russian army as a regimental bandmaster, he traveled to Kharbin, Manchuria, in northeast China, where he encountered a Yiddish theater group whose conductor was Peretz Sandler—later the composer of the famous song “Eli, Eli.”

When Sandler emigrated to America, Olshanetsky replaced him in Kharbin and also began writing Yiddish songs and music for Yitzhak Kaplan’s play Tsurik aheym kayn tsien (Going Back Home to Zion).

After touring Siberia, Japan, China, and India with another Russian operetta company, he returned to Kharbin in 1921 to find all Yiddish theater gone.

In 1922 Olshanetsky emigrated to the United States, where his uncle Hyman Meisel (eventually his father-in-law too, when he married his Yiddish actress-singer cousin, Bella Meisel [Mysell]) already lived.

Olshanetsky had some initial involvement with the Yiddish Art Theater and then traveled to Cuba to direct a theater company there. When he returned to New York, he served successively in two Yiddish theaters (the Lenox, in Harlem, and the Liberty, in Brooklyn), before “graduating” to the more prestigious downtown National Theater. And in 1929, after many successful operettas of his own, he rewrote some of the music for Goldfaden’s classic Bar khokhba for its radio debut.

From 1925 on, throughout the 1930s and until his death, Olshanetsky’s name was ubiquitous throughout the Second Avenue world, and his operettas played in nearly all its major theaters. He also became the first musical director of the Concord Hotel.

Some of the most sophisticated cantors of the time considered him among the very best choirmasters in terms of understanding the special sensitivities of cantorial idioms and rhythmic freedom. He wrote a small amount of liturgical music as well—unabashedly theatrical in character and style—which remains mostly unpublished. Olshanetsky had a particular gift for elegant melodic lines and a well-developed dramatic sense. He was able to fashion these elements into vehicles that spoke to popular taste. Joseph Rumshinsky, his senior colleague but also a commercial rival, wrote in his memoirs that Olshanetsky understood innately the musical yearnings of the immigrant Jewish masses and introduced both “dreamy romances” and a perceived Russian Gypsy idiom to the American Yiddish theater. His last operetta was Ale viln khasene hobn (Everyone Wants to Get Married).

4 thoughts on “Four Divine States of Mind”

  1. I am reaching out to you on behalf of Saiph Stars, a non-profit organization developed for children battling illnesses, providing them with resources such as videos, songs, games, magazines, etc. to entertain and inspire them while undergoing treatments during their long hospitalizations.
    BH, we have a wide range of performers, singers, storytellers such as Yakov Shwekey, Mordechai Shapiro, Ari Goldwag, Baruch Levine, YBC, Uri Davidi, Rabbi Ashear, Rabbi Lish, Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, Rabbi Erps, Rebbee Hill, Rabbi Pesach Krohn, and many more who have joined our project by allowing us to use their material. In addition, subscriptions such as Mishpacha, Binah, The Circle, Spotlight, JWOW have all joined our project as well BH. All the material will be uploaded to locked iPads and is streamed thru the Saiph Stars App designated to be used by these children.
    We would love to include your material as it would mean a lot to the children.
    Please check out our website for more info at http://www.saiphstars.com.
    It should be a tremendous zechus for you! Looking forward to hearing from you soon!
    Shulamit

  2. Felice Glazer says:

    I was just sitting at my piano looking over a very old book of songs called the songs we sing by Harry Cooper Smith. I got this book when I went to Anshe emet Sunday school in Chicago. That was in the late forties and fifties. This book is falling apart but I love it and will never part with it until I pass away. Something today just made me decide to look up the name of Harry Coopersmith and that’s how I found this site.

  3. Philip Joseph Brody says:

    Joseph Brody was my great grandfather. Murray Brody was my grandfather and Joseph Brody was my father. I am Philip Joseph Brody born in Queens N.Y. My halfbrother Brian is a saxophone player. Unfortunately I think musical talent skipped me. My great grandfather died before my father was born. Unfortunately my father died around 59 years old. I’m about to be 52 so hopefully I won’t pass before my time.

  4. MARTY KUGLER says:

    Is there any way that I can get the lyrics to Semour Rockoff’s song “Der moiled vet zein.” I know about half the words, but I no longer have the record. I’ve been searching for the lyrics for over 40 years. Thanks, Marty Kugler maak68@gmail.com

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