For over seventy years, Molly Picon, star of Yiddish theater and film, delighted audiences with her comic song and dance performances. While her career began in vaudeville and flourished in the Second Avenue theaters of New York’s Lower East Side, Picon later performed on stage and in Yiddish and Hollywood films for Jewish and non-Jewish audiences around the world. Her engaging persona and powerful performances helped keep Yiddish culture alive by bringing it out of the shtetl and into mainstream American culture. Although Picon always played assertive characters on stage, for many years she struggled to be taken seriously as an independent woman and actress. Ultimately, however, she emerged as an icon for second generation American Jews and helped her audiences appreciate their immigrant past and forge new American Jewish identities.
Molly Picon was born to Clara Ostrick and Louis Picon, in a tenement building on New York’s lower east side. Before Molly was three, her restless father moved his young family to New Jersey and Chicago before finally settling down in Philadelphia. His sporadic work could not support the family, and it was Clara—or Mama Picon – that kept the family alive by working as a seamstress for the Yiddish Theater.
Molly grew up in a Philadelphia flat shared with her grandparents, mother, sister, and nine cousins. Her mother Clara supported the family by working as a seamstress at Kessler’s Theater. She recognized her daughter’s gift early in life and entered Molly in her first talent show at the age of five. On the way to the show, a drunk on the trolley car, seeing her dressed in one of her mother’s beautifully crafted costumes, asked to see her act. She collected two dollars in coins for her preview performance. She also won the talent show’s first prize: a five-dollar gold piece. When she arrived home, “Grandma nodded her head and said quietly, ‘Clara, there are maybe five or six theaters in Philadelphia. Better you keep her on the trolley cars!'”
Molly Picon spent her youth onstage performing spunky song and dance routines in all-American amateur nights, local Nickelodeon Theater acts, trolley cars and the Columbia Yiddish Theater. Although she wanted to stay in school, she was exhausted from performing at night and then going to school each morning. At sixteen, Picon left William Penn High School to pursue a full time stage career. She was eventually cast as Winter in The Four Seasons, a traveling vaudeville production.
After six months on tour, The Four Seasons arrived in Boston to a city paralyzed by the influenza epidemic. The only theatre that remained open was the Boston Grand Opera House, which offered Yiddish Theater. Picon, looking for work, answered an advertisement for an ingenue placed by the director and producer Jacob “Yonkel” Kalich. He hired her on the spot and her “commitment to both Yonkel and the Yiddish Theater had begun.” Picon looked up to Kalich, a Polish immigrant who had quit rabbinical school to join a traveling acting troupe. He was seven years her senior, better educated and more experienced. The two fell in love and got married on June 29, 1919.
On Friday, August 13, 1920 Picon wrote in her diary: “My baby came into the world dead. Peculiar that a perfect love should bear dead fruit.”
Picon became pregnant and delivered a stillborn baby girl in August, 1920. She was devastated and felt that she had failed Kalich, “dismally in what all women do so naturally. In addition to my sadness at the loss of the baby, there was the severe blow to my vanity. When my doctors told me [I] could never bear another child, the blow was severer still. Never again would I be so sure of myself when Yonkel said, ‘You can do it, Picon.’ ”
After their baby’s death, Kalich took Picon to Europe to expose her to the European stage and enhance her reputation in America. “The Yiddish I spoke was completely bastardized, and part of our plan was for me to learn correct Yiddish with its soft, guttural European accent.” She performed across the continent—in Vienna, Kishnev, Lemberg, Jassy, Bucharest, London and Paris—to rave reviews in original acts she and Kalich had written. The relationship that she formed with these audiences and her new understanding of Yiddish culture laid the foundation for the rest of her career. Those theatergoers and their American relatives, children and grandchildren would return again and again to see Picon perform. By the time she returned to the United States two years later, her fame had already preceded her.
In the early 1920’s Picon’s career took off. At 4’11″, weighing less than 100 pounds, she created a unique presence on the Yiddish stage. Playing parts written for her by her husband, Picon was cast almost exclusively as young girls who either dressed or behaved like insouciant young boys. Audiences loved the transgressive behavior that became signature Molly Picon. Between 1921 and 1925, she created some of her most famous stage roles in plays such as Yonkele (Little Yonkel), Tzipke, Shmendrik (Loser), Gypsy Girl, Molly Dolly, Little Devil, Mamale (Mommy), Raizele, Oy is Dus A Madel (What a Girl), and The Circus Girl. Picon would return to many of these roles later in her career. Often exaggerating that she played Yonkele—the story of a little boy who desperately wants to make this world a better place—“more than three thousand times.” Picon identified strongly with many of the roles she played on stage.
Picon made her film debut in European productions. Otto Freister filmed her first film, Das Judenmadel (The Jewish Girl), in Austria in 1921. The following year, she starred in another Yiddish production, Htet eure Tochter (Watch for Your Daughters). While these films have not survived, Sidney Goldin and Jacob Kalich’s 1923 Viennese production of Ost und West (East and West) has become the first surviving Yiddish film. This hilarious depiction of a feisty secularized American Jewish girl visiting her traditional relatives in Europe satirized the gulf that lay between American and European Jewry.
In the midst of the Great Depression Kalich bought the Folks Theater at 12th Street and 2nd Avenue and grandly renamed it the Molly Picon Theater. The opening marked a dramatic comeback from the serious losses he and Picon suffered in the 1929 stock market crash.
In the early 1930s, Picon continued to reach new audiences at home and abroad. She and Kalich traveled extensively, performing throughout Europe (to “touch base with [their] Yiddish roots”), South America, and South Africa. In 1932, the couple visited the renowned author and poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik, in Palestine. Publicly challenging the community’s “Hebrew only” policies, Picon performed exclusively in Yiddish. “At that time, Palestinians were adamant about speaking only Hebrew. Yiddish was outlawed, and very often-bloody fights occurred between those who spoke only Hebrew and those who spoke only Yiddish.” Between her international travels, Picon continued to delight audiences at home. In 1934, she began broadcasting her first radio show. Taped both in Yiddish and English, the show, first sponsored by Jell-O and then later by Maxwell House, exposed her to an ever wider American audience.
In 1937, Picon and Kalich filmed Yiddle Mitn Fidl (Yiddle with his Fiddle) in Poland. Yiddle is the story of a young girl who dresses up as a boy so she and her father can earn a living as traveling musicians. Kalich’s first Yiddish musical, the film not only explores the by now familiar themes of cross—dressing, but is a genuine attempt to document urban and rural Eastern European Jewish experience.
Picon and Kalich returned to Poland in 1938 to film Mamale (Mommy). This musical comedy was the last Jewish film made in Poland before the Nazi onslaught. At forty, Picon plays a young girl of twelve whose mother dies and leaves her to take care of her large and unappreciative family; a role she had created on stage ten years earlier. The film took on special poignancy as she and Kalich struggled to capture the endangered shtetl culture on the eve of WWII.
The success of Picon’s Yiddish films led to broad enough name recognition that at 41 years old, she was cast for the first time as a mature and sophisticated Jewish woman in Sylvia Regan’s Morningstar. Picon’s increasing independence and her desire for a more equitable relationship with Kalich created tensions in their marriage. After a brief separation, they were able to reunite as personal and professional equals for the first time.
During WWII, Picon performed at army bases all over the U.S. and Canada in an effort to boost morale. “I sang to 1,400 boys at Camp Ritchie in Maryland, and it was thrilling. I played the Portsmouth Navy Base, the seaman’s canteens and the USOs. In between, I did vaudeville at the Greenwich Village Inn, with shows at 9:00, 12:00 and 2:00a.m. I’d crawl into bed at four in the morning, then wake with a headache that lasted all day…How did I stay sane?”
Picon and Kalich adopted their first child, George Weinstein, in 1941. Matched with this Belgian Jewish orphan through The foster care agency, an organization designed to help the child victims of war, George was already a teenager at the time of his “adoption.” He remained in London, where Picon and Kalich underwrote his education until the family was reunited in 1949.
In 1954, they adopted their second child while performing in Israel. Meira, the daughter of Picon’s deceased stepbrother by her father’s first wife, was also fully-grown at the time of her adoption. The couple adopted their third child, Dov Steiner, in 1965. While all three of their children were nearly adults at the time of their adoption, Picon and Kalich were deeply invested in their children’s well being. They visited with them frequently and kept up a close correspondence throughout their lives.
Despite the decline of Yiddish—speaking audiences, Picon’s career continued to flourish. In 1942, Kalich responded to the demographic change and wrote his new musical, Oy Is Dus a Leben! (What a Hard Life!), in both Yiddish and English. A biographical piece that chronicled Picon’s childhood and romance with Kalich, the play was a huge success and became the first Yiddish play ever to reach Broadway. Picon considered it her “biggest moral and financial success.”
When the war ended Picon and Kalich brought their morale—building efforts to European displaced person camps. As frequent performers in prewar Europe, they felt personally connected to what was left of European Jewry and recognized the deep need of survivors for yiddishkeit, joy and little personal pleasures. “Everyone laughed at the idea, saying that all the [displaced persons] needed was food and medicine. But I felt that if I were a woman deprived for seven years of a lipstick or a nice piece of glitter, those would be the things I longed for-and so we packed them. All were new, no leftovers, and we wrapped them in gay, colorful paper.” Traveling at considerable peril to their own lives, Picon and Kalich were the first entertainers to tour D.P. camps after the war.
Picon and Kalich were active fundraisers. They frequently performed benefit shows to support causes such as The Children’s Fund, Cerebral Palsy Fund of America, and The state of Israel. In 1954, Picon was honored for her work for the state of Israel and received a plaque from the United Jewish Appeal. That same year, she made her first trip to the Jewish State. She toured the country holding benefit performances for organizations such as the Jewish National Fund and Magen David Adom, the Israeli ambulance service. While in Jerusalem, Picon was invited to sing for the Israeli Knesset (Parliament). Making a strong statement about the preservation of Yiddish language and culture, she entertained almost exclusively in Yiddish throughout her stay in the Hebrew—speaking country.
As the Jewish-American presence in the entertainment industry expanded, Picon became seen as an “ethnic actress.” Hoping to expand her reputation on the non—Yiddish stage, she performed in a successful London production of Majority of One. Upon her return to the United States she was cast as an Italian mother opposite Frank Sinatra in Neil Simon’s screen adaption of Come Blow Your Horn. Receiving an academy award nomination for her performance in her first Hollywood film, Picon then went on to star in her first Broadway hit: Milk and Honey. At 64 years old, she also published an autobiographical tribute to her mother and grandmother, So Laugh A Little!
In 1971, Picon returned with Kalich to Europe to film Hollywood’s English version of the musical, Fiddler on the Roof. Although the Europe they remembered was irrevocably gone, they once again helped recreate a sense of shtetl life on the big screen. Kalich’s health had already begun to decline and this was to be his last screen performance. Shortly after their return from Yugoslavia, Kalich fell gravely ill. A temporary recovery freed Picon to star in For Pete’s Sake with Barbara Striesand. Soon after the filming was over, however, Yonkel suffered a relapse and Picon flew home from California to attend to her beloved husband. She spent the next three years nursing her dying husband. “I turned down every offer, and took a new role: Florence Nightingale.” Kalich died of cancer on March 16, 1975.
Returning to work after Kalich’s death was especially difficult for Picon because so much of her career as well as her personal life was intricately tied to her husband. Picon was also beginning to experience the effects of a mild case of Bell’s Palsy connected with Alzheimer’s disease. Nevertheless, at 81 years of age, Picon created and toured with her one-woman show, Hello Molly. The show traced her long and loving relationship with the Yiddish Theater and gave her an opportunity to remain connected to her beloved audiences.
In 1980, Picon published her autobiography, which focused on her life long devotion to Yiddish Theater and culture. In the introduction, the distinguished actress Helen Hayes remarked: “Picon [once] said to me, ‘People have called me the Jewish Helen Hayes. I hope you don’t mind.’ To which I replied, ‘Not if they’ll allow me to be the shiksa Molly Picon.’ After reading this book, I think I had a nerve. ” The same year, Picon received a Creative Achievement Award of the Performing Arts from B’nai Brith and in 1981, she was elected to the Broadway Hall of Fame. In 1985, The Congress of Jewish Culture awarded Picon a “Goldie” for her lifetime contributions to Jewish culture and art. She accepted the award wearing a tuxedo in tribute to the many years she dressed in little boy’s clothes on stage.
Picon continued to perform well into her eighties. She died on April 6, 1992 from Alzheimer’s disease at 94 years of age. Molly Picon’s substantial contributions to Yiddish language and culture have been immortalized on print and in film and are increasingly valued as recent Yiddish revival efforts bring them to life for a younger generation. Organizations such as YIVO and the National Yiddish Book Center continue the efforts of women like Molly Picon to preserve the rich legacy of Yiddish language and culture.
Source: Jewish Women’s Archive
11 Songs Performed by Molly Picon
Am Yisroel Khai2:53
Heat Of The Desert4:02
Nasser V. Rabin3:10
Reunion With The Reserves6:12
Sharm Al Sheikh4:17
Yerushalayim Shel Zahav5:26