Yiddish life in New York City in the 1960s captured in photo exhibit at Yiddish Book Center
Lisa Newman, director of communications at the Yiddish Book Center,talks about the show,"Caught In The Act:photographs of Yiddish New York in the 1960s" which consists of photographs by Arnold Chekow.
Photo of noted Russian poet Kadya Molodowsky from the show, Caught In The Act: Photographs of Yiddish New York in the 1960s" which consists of photographs by Arnold Chekow.
Photo from the show "Caught In The Act: Photographs of Yiddish New York in the 1960s" captures three men singing in Washington Square in 1971.
From the show "Caught In The Act," photographs by Arnold Chekow of Yiddish life in 1960's New York City
Lisa Newman, director of communications at the Yiddish Book Center,talks about the show, "Caught In The Act."
Catherine Madsen, the bibliographer at the Yiddish Book Center, talks about the show, "Caught In The Act" which runs through March.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a great wave of immigration brought 2 million Jews to the United States from eastern Europe. Many settled in New York City, where they created a distinct cultural life based on the Yiddish language.
By the 1960s, though, that culture had begun to fade, as English became the first language of new generations. The situation intrigued Arnold Chekow, a New Yorker who was raised by Jewish immigrant parents, spoke Yiddish and English, but knew almost nothing of his parents’ ancestry or of Yiddish life. He was, he recalls, “engaged in a search for my roots.”
So Chekow, a lawyer and an accomplished part-time photographer, spent several years documenting Yiddish life in New York’s Lower East Side — from comedians and actors in local theaters, to the poets and writers who had brought Yiddish literature to the United States, to a younger generation of Jews who were trying to preserve Yiddish, including in song.
“Caught in the Act,” a selection of Chekow’s black-and-white photographs, is on display at the Yiddish Book Center in South Amherst through March. The exhibit represents “a photographic chronicle of a waning but still vibrant Yiddish culture in New York City,” as Aaron Lansky, the center’s director, puts it in an interview with Chekow that can be heard on the center’s website.
Chekow, 76, took most of his photographs during the 1960s and early 1970s, when he explored Manhattan’s Lower East Side with his camera and met many famous Yiddish performers by simply introducing himself and explaining his interest in their lives and in learning more about his own roots.
“I charmed them with my rich and interesting Yiddish,” Chekow joked during a phone interview from Florida, where he now spends winters with his wife, Natalie; the couple split their time the rest of the year between Lenox and Rochester, N.Y. “These people had been very famous, but no one took much interest in them anymore.”
Among his portraits is a photo of Kadya Molodowsky, a Russian-born poet who became one of the most noted Yiddish women’s writers of the 20th century. In Chekow’s portrait, Molodowsky, by then close to 80, sits in an armchair in her New York apartment and recites her poem “Ode to a Cigarette” as she smokes.
Another shows the actor Joseph Buloff, a star of Yiddish theater who also appeared in films like “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and early TV shows. Chekow’s portrait shows a pensive Buloff playing a lead role in a stage version of I.J. Singer’s 1936 novel “The Brothers Ashkenazi,” about a Jewish family in Poland in the early 1900s and the conflicts over faith, financial ambition and culture that divide it.
Like most of Chekow’s work, the photo of Buloff is surprisingly intimate. He says he was able to establish a rapport with many of his subjects that allowed him to photograph them in unguarded moments and natural settings, or in places photographers were not normally allowed to work, like the Folksbiene Theater in Manhattan, where he took the picture of Buloff.
“They took me under their wing,” Chekow said. “They kind of adopted me and made me feel at home ... I’d been searching for a good subject to photograph, and I really found my muse there.”
Search for old ways
Both of Chekow’s parents immigrated to the United States as teenagers in the early 20th century — his father from Poland, his mother from Ukraine — but neither ever talked to him about the “old country,” he said. They spoke Yiddish at home in Queens, N.Y., but English everywhere else, and his father and mother took pride in their ability to talk in their adopted language without an accent.
“My father even claimed to be a fan of baseball and of Joe DiMaggio,” Chekow said. “He had embraced his new country.”
That left Chekow, who took up photography as a teenager, with what he calls “a sort of homesickness” for a place and time he could only imagine. As a young man in the 1960s, he headed to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, looking for street signs in Yiddish and other indications of the historic Jewish community he’d read about, where busy street markets had been filled with Yiddish-speaking merchants and customers.
“That place wasn’t there any longer,” said Chekow. “I did find subjects to photograph, but many of them were starting to disappear into the obituaries.”
Yet Chekow captured a moment in time — something of a “sunset” era, as he puts it — in places like the offices of the Jewish Daily Forward, a Yiddish newspaper founded in the late 1890s. One exhibit photo depicts the paper’s editor, Meyer Sticker, at a cluttered desk, smoking a cigar and doing some writing in a classic portrait of old-style journalism.
An accompanying photograph taken at the newspaper’s former building, on East Broadway, prompts a laugh. It shows a cash register perched on a desktop, with a small sign tacked to the wall above it, reading “Se Habla Yiddish.”
Chekow also ranged to other parts of New York City. In upper Manhattan he went to public readings at a YMHA on 92nd Street to photograph Yiddish writers such as Jacob Glatstein and I.L. Schwartz reading from their work. He took pictures of actors in small Yiddish theaters in the Bronx and other parts of the city.
Personal now public
Chekow continued taking pictures into the 1970s, with some of his images capturing a new generation of Yiddish speakers determined to keep the language and culture alive. Two photos from 1971 feature young people singing Yiddish songs at a concert in Washington Square Park, the men with the long hair of the era. One of them, Zalmen Mlotek, today is a leading conductor and director of Yiddish music and theater.
Chekow shared his photographs with his subjects, but other than that says he didn’t envision exhibiting them publicly. He says he took the pictures mostly for his own interest.
“This was something very personal to me,” he said.
But he did show some of the images to Aaron Lansky at the Yiddish Book Center in the early 1990s, and a few years ago the center used his photo of Kadya Molodowsky as part of an exhibit on Jewish women writers. A little over a year ago, the center got back in touch with Chekow about hosting a bigger display of his work, according to communications director Lisa Newman.
“He really captured an important moment with these pictures,” Newman said.
Chekow says he’s happy to have made a contribution to the preservation of Yiddish culture. “It’s such a rich language,” he said of Yiddish. “It’s still my first language to this day — it has flights of color and emotion and fancy that you just can’t get in English.”
“Caught in the Act” is on exhibit at the Yiddish Book Center’s Brechner Gallery through March 31. For visiting hours and other information about the center, call 256-4900 or visit www.yiddishbookcenter.org.