Pepi Littman, Pepi Litman (Part 1)

Pepi-1I fell in love with Pepi Littman’s voice in the 1990s, before I could understand a word she sang.  Professor Martin Schwartz used to play me Yiddish 78s from his collection, & he had almost a dozen Pepi Littman sides from 1910 or so. We both loved her vitality & power, & Mordkhe laughed at her jokes as they flew by. He’s a really smart guy, & I’m not, & he decided to teach me, for which I’ll always be thankful.

During my first winter in New York, on the way home to SF after KlezKamp, I visited the YIVO reading room: a beautiful high-ceilinged chamber lined with books, which you could read at polished old tables under green-shaded lamps. I had just enough Yiddish to sound out the title of the 5-volume LEKSIKON FUN YIDISHN TEATER, & to look up Pepi Litman’s name in the index.

A thrill to find her there. A tottering antique librarian photocopied the article for me & I brought the pages home to California. No scans in those days, no digital copies; it was hard copy or nothing. I kept them with me in my carry-on bag.

Over the next year, lonely & at loose ends, I sat on the back porch & puzzled out the text of that Pepi Litman article. I think that everything about Pepi on the internet (there’s not much, really) came from this one entry in the LEKSIKON FUN YIDISHN TEATER (New York, Elisheva, 1937.) Here’s a partial translation. [[Double brackets are my additions; otherwise punctuation is as in the original]]:

     Pepi Litman [Peshe Kahane] [born c. 1874 — died 13 Sept 1930] Born about 1874 in Tarnopol, Eastern Galitsye, to poor parents. In her youth worked as a maid in the home of future actor Max Badin’s parents. Having a beautiful voice, she got involved with the Brodersingers, appeared with them in pubs & inns, & wandered with them across Galitsye & Romania until she met the director Yenkl Litman, whom she married in Tarnopol.

     Litman learned various songs & rhymes, with which she “took the audience by storm.” In a short time she became a household name among the public and reached the top of the wandering Yiddish vaudeville troupes. Litman often appeared in German resorts, where she expressed herself with the rhyming couplets “Yizmekhu Moshe” from “Dem Rebns Havdule,” which she interpreted in an original way, full of double entendre. When she sang her couplets, both Jews & non-Jews used to sing along. She also became very popular with non-Yiddish audiences in Hungary in “Di Peptsia.” Shortly before the [[First]] World War, Litman came to Warsaw & appeared in Julius Adler’s adaptation of the operetta “Itzikl Vil Khasene Hobn” [according to the Odessa Mascot, “Der Kales Kholem.”]. With this she truly took the local theatre-going public by storm.

     Due to the outbreak of war, she travelled to Russia. During the [[First]] World War she performed in Odessa, where she was a favorite of the Yiddish masses & also popular in local literary circles. She was often met as a guest in the homes of David Frishman & Mendele Moykher Sforim, who gladly had her for the sake of her songs.

      1917—Litman performed in Iasi, Romania & in the same year returned to Odessa, where she appeared in large theatres. After the Bolshevik revolution she continued to play in repertory theatre, though this was eventually banned. 1928—Litman returned to Poland, travelled on to Vienna, then played Karlsbad, Marienbad, returned to Poland, & then back to Vienna. There, in great poverty, having become ill, she was laid up for some time in the Rothschild Hospital, where she died on the 13th of September, 1930. Her burial was arranged by the Vienna Yiddish Artist’s Union, & the Kehilla donated her cemetery plot.

The LEKSIKON also gives eyewitness accounts:

     Sh. Hokhberg describes her thus: Pepi Litman, with her lusty acting & especially with her folk-inspired singing, striding the stage in men’s trousers with a Galitsian Khosid’s fur hat, almost always evoked a sense of homey recognition in a Yiddish audience. Despite her lack of schooling, in company she gave the impression of an educated woman, since she spoke several languages well. Pepi Litman, despite her artistic milieu, was religiously inclined, as shown by her observance of blessing the candles on Friday nights, avoiding non-kosher foods, & upholding the religious customs which were expected of a Jewish woman.

      According to Jacob Mestel, who knew Litman personally & often met with her wandering vaudeville troupe, Litman was almost the only Yiddish-character “chansonetke in Khosidishe trousers.” In sketches, her short, chubby figure appeared plump, even clumsy. But when she entered the stage as a “Khosid,” every nerve blazed; her deep, slightly ‘covered’ alto was as caressing as a tender cello; & with her “charming vulgarity” she lit the crowd on fire. In fact it was Litman, & not her husband, who led her vaudeville troupe.

I’ve also run across one English-language review, from Feb 12, 1910: “A Yiddish Cafe-Chantant” published by M. J. Landa in The Jewish World. It seems M. J. Landa saw Pepi sing in the back room of a cafe in Lemberg, instead of going to a show at Gimpel’s, the “permanent” Yiddish Theatre. Landa wrote:

     She was the ‘star’ of the program, & her appearance as a single turn was heralded by a jubilant chorus from the alcove [[where the other performers were seated]]. The moment she stepped on the stage, dressed as a Galician youth, with skull cap & ringlets, the whole atmosphere of the room was different. It was dominated by a personality. Her voice revealed itself in a manner which startled me.

      Frankly, I do not think I have heard a female comic singer with a voice of greater power & possibility. I preferred it to the cultured voice of the lady in a black evening dress who crooned operatic airs with ease & effect, & afterward wheedled members of the audience into buying her portrait postcards. Pepi Littmnn’s voice is a rich, clear mezzo of operatic fullness & breadth & there are moments when it is quite thrilling. At others, again, it sounds almost harsh — this when she is engaged in repartee with her audience. She banters & expostulates with her hearers, always good humouredly & seems to take as much delight in her singing & in her patter as they do. She is the incarnation of the joyous spirit of the Jew, with moments of pathos & sentiment. Listening to her singing of “Shabbos After Table” & “Kol Yisrael Chaverim,” & also an amusing ditty about the Messiah coming in an automobile, I forgot that I was in Galicia—forgot the horrible depressing poverty with which I had been surrounded for some days….Pepi is an actress & she can give point to her lines, using her voice at times in a way that reminded me of Marie Tempest….She would prove a draw in London. I told her so in a brief conversation after the performance. She has been to America with her husband but not to England. Looking back on my Galician tour, she stands out in my memory as responsible for the only moments when I did not feel oppressed by the hopeless economic condition & apathy everywhere I turned.

For more about Gimpel’s Lemberg Yiddish Theatre, please check out the work of Michael Aylward & Michael Steinlauf, & the amazing liner notes of their Gimpel’s compilation:

More later!