This turn-of-the-century crossdressing feminist proves that Yiddish theater ain’t no drag
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'Her legacy is being reclaimed by feminists, the LGBT community, and Yiddish theater and music enthusiasts'

This turn-of-the-century crossdressing feminist proves that Yiddish theater ain’t no drag

With a modern revival 100 years after Pepi Littman donned Hasidic garb, the irreverent, nearly forgotten performer is even more relevant

San Francisco-based Yiddish singer Jeanette Lewicki (center) is key to the revival of 1920s drag-performer Pepi Littman. (YouTube screenshot)
San Francisco-based Yiddish singer Jeanette Lewicki (center) is key to the revival of 1920s drag-performer Pepi Littman. (YouTube screenshot)

Singing satirical songs while cross-dressed in Hasidic costume, Pepi Littman was once a controversial star of the Yiddish theater. Littman faded into obscurity after her death in 1930. Today, a young San Francisco-based Yiddish singer called Jeanette Lewicki is key to her revival.

In her January 19 presentation “Comedienne in a Hasid’s Pants” at the Jewish Community Library of San Francisco, Lewicki sang a lineup of Littman’s songs. She included the cheeky “Oylem Habe,” which, in Lewicki’s words, is about “a pretty maid, a lecherous rich guy, a wonder-working rabbi, and his too-helpful assistant.”

Religion, sex, social class — Littman (one of several English spellings of her name) took on all taboos, defying society’s constraints on women. Today her message is more resonant than ever.

“I see her as being important for our time because her legacy is being reclaimed by feminists, the LGBT community, and Yiddish theater and music enthusiasts,” said Yiddish singer-songwriter Amanda (Miryem-Khaye) Seigel, who has aided Lewicki’s research. “[Littman] could be considered a role model.”

Jeanette Lewicki, right, with her band, the Gonifs, 'the world's first vegetarian bike-powered anarchist klezmer band.' (Courtesy)
Jeanette Lewicki, right, with her band, the Gonifs, ‘the world’s first vegetarian bike-powered anarchist klezmer band.’ (Courtesy)

“She was a bold, charismatic, full-figured woman with a very strong voice and presence who appropriated male attire and culture for herself, delivered it with pizzazz, and pushed the boundaries of appropriate behavior — and she was highly successful,” said Seigel.

Born Peshe Kahane in Tarnopol (today Ukraine) in 1874, Littman escaped poverty and eventually led her own troupe across Eastern Europe which included her husband, director Yankel Littman. She even performed in New York in 1906.

No one was safe from Pepi Littman's lampooning, as her Hasidic-crossdressing act proved. (Steve Lasky, Museum of Family History, Museum of the Yiddish Theatre)
No one was safe from Pepi Littman’s lampooning, as her Hasidic-crossdressing act proved. (Steve Lasky, Museum of Family History, Museum of the Yiddish Theatre)

“Littman was almost the only Yiddish-character ‘chansonetke in Khosidic trousers,’” reads the “Leksikon fun Yidishn Teater,” a Yiddish-language reference encyclopedia. “In sketches, her short, chubby figure appeared plump, even clumsy. But when she entered the stage as a ‘Khosid,’ every nerve blazed.”

The “Leksikon” described her Hasidic costume as “a velvet hat over curly peyes [side locks], a kapote [long coat], short pants, white socks and slippers.”

In the Yiddish theater, “Women’s cross-dressing didn’t happen right away,” said Alyssa Quint, Vilna Collections Scholar-in-Residence at the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research. “But it signaled their sense of mastery or ownership in the realm of public Jewish performance, a place that Jewish women had never entered in any language before the advent of modern Yiddish theater.”

Littman’s cross-dressing was “edgier, more subversive, since it turned on her duplicating the mannerisms of Hasidic rebbes,” Quint said. “It wasn’t just poking fun at Hasidism. It was asserting a woman’s claim to every corner of Jewish performance.”

This was a time in which women didn’t wear pants in public. They couldn’t own property and couldn’t vote, said Lewicki.

“Respectable women didn’t appear on stage; actresses and dancers were considered just one step up from prostitutes… Nice Jewish girls didn’t even sing in mixed company; pious Jewish men were… forbidden to listen to women’s voices,” she said. (Lewicki noted that this last point is still the case today.)

‘Actresses and dancers were considered just one step up from prostitutes’

The public was not always supportive of Littman. In Odessa during World War I, “Pepi’s show was so vulgar that the audience protested and she was given a vacation for the remainder of her contract,” Seigel said.

Postwar years were harsher. In 1928, Littman suffered “great poverty” and illness in Vienna, according to the Leksikon.

“[She] was laid up for some time in the Rothschild Hospital, where she died on the 13th of September, 1930,” the Leksikon reported. “Her burial was arranged by the Vienna Yiddish Artist’s Union, and the Kehilla [Jewish community] donated her cemetery plot.”

What was ‘alt’ becomes ‘neu’

One day during the 1990s, Lewicki was listening to 78s from Berkeley professor Martin Schwartz’s record collection. She had been singing Yiddish songs and playing her accordion as a busker, and wanted to learn more Yiddish. Her music teacher had recommended Schwartz as a resource.

“Among my collection were a number of pre-WWI recordings of theatrical songs from Lemberg, including some of Pepi Littman, of whom few then had an awareness,” said Schwartz, now a professor emeritus.

Lewicki recalled: “From a cloud of scratches and pops, Pepi’s voice emerged: low, ardent, thrilling. She was singing, sometimes talking, even shouting, over an orchestra that was very tight… the musicians following her exactly.”

Littman saucily sang about the length of the rabbi’s “holy havdole,” (post-Shabbath ceremony) tweaking the pronunciation to add sexual innuendo.

‘From a cloud of scratches and pops, Pepi’s voice emerged: low, ardent, thrilling’

“I sensed a kindred spirit,” Lewicki said. (The singer is a founder of the Gonifs — self-described as “the world’s first vegetarian bike-powered anarchist klezmer band.”)

“And I felt, the way you do with a great artist, that she was speaking directly to me, across generations. So I really really wanted to know more.”

But Lewicki barely spoke Yiddish — much less Littman’s Galician dialect with a “thick shmear of daytshmerish, this sort of fake German that Yiddish theaters used to get around anti-Semitic censors and licensing boards,” she said.

She began studying Yiddish at venues including the Catskills, Oxford, Weimar and Columbia University. By late 1995, she could read the titles of books at YIVO, including the “Leksikon.”

“The archivists made a photocopy [of the Littman section] for me and I brought it back to [San Francisco] in my carry-on, I was so afraid of losing it,” she said. “Then I spent the next year trying to translate these blurry, smudgy, fine-print pages.”

These “few pages” are the “only one known bio” of Littman, said Lewicki, “so we really don’t know why she made the choices she did. Maybe the answers are in the songs!”

‘Some kinda sex talk?’

The songs are challenging. “Di Apikorsim” (“The Heretics”) is “all about how the unbelievers will suffer when moshiach [the messiah] returns, while all the Hasidim are singing and dancing and drinking wine and eating delicious food,” Lewicki said. “In the end the rebbetzin — the rabbi’s wife — sprouts grapevines and gives us all something to lick!

“That brings us to the problem of the double meaning — like when Pepi sings that the Hasidim are going to nibble the chicken’s backside… As my grandma used to say, ‘Is that some kinda sex talk?’”

‘As my grandma used to say, “Is that some kinda sex talk?”‘

Lewicki wonders “whether she was satirizing Hasidism, or celebrating it, or both.”

“She sings with full conviction, completely in character, shouting like a street preacher; and as the Leksikon says, there must have been some sense of heymish recognition in her audience. In fact, I’ve heard modern people sing these anti-Hasidic satires straight-faced, mistaking them for actual Hasidic songs!” she said.

Lewicki has listened to 11 Littman songs, translating four and a half.

“[That other] half is the part of ‘Di Apikorsim’ I can’t understand,” she said.

Despite the difficulties, in January Lewicki was finally able to perform “Di Apikorsim” and other Littman songs before a live audience.

Since then, fellow enthusiasts have been reaching out.

“I contacted her when I found a couple songs notated ‘for Pepi Littman’ in a box of rag-tag bits of old Yiddish song lyrics at Harvard,” said researcher Jane Peppler, who translated both songs and posted recordings on her blog “Yiddish Penny Songs.”

Michael Aylward, a discographer and translator in the United Kingdom, said that “[Surviving] copies of her recordings can be found in various archives worldwide, chiefly in London and to a lesser extent in Jerusalem. There is also a number [possibly a very large number] in the hands of private collectors.”

He said a list of songs “would not take very long” to draw up, and an album “would take about 18 months.”

And, Lewicki said, “I believe there is somebody out there, probably a native Yiddish speaker with some Hasidic background, perhaps a freethinker or something of a rebel, who will love these songs as much as we do — and have the skills to transliterate them, and willingness to share.”

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