The Yiddish universe is a strange place in which cultural and political ideas swirl about, waiting for lonely researchers to pluck them out of their invisible orbits and split them open. Sometimes these orbits will throw weird and unexpected things your way: Yiddish matter and antimatter that may have been long forgotten will suddenly reappear and ignite bursts of memory. A thing you never expected to see will crawl up through the muck of history to make itself known to the world in blazes of color.
I had no idea what strange surprises Yiddish might reveal when I fell into an odd project as a grad student in the Yiddish program at Columbia about 25 years ago. A semester-long ethnography seminar I was taking required us to research a figure in Yiddish cultural life who 1) had an archive at a university or library, 2) was listed in a reference work, and 3) had living friends or relatives who we could interview, ideally in Yiddish.
I had no idea whom to choose. I spent hours poring over the Guide to the YIVO Archives, the 400-page book that lists all of that institute’s archival material, the largest collection of Yiddish-related archives in the world. I considered certain poets and prose writers I liked and began to meander through the finding aids that list the contents of their archives. Some of them had thousands of pages of manuscripts and correspondence, massive amounts of documentation that would have been too much to handle for a semester-long project. And then, other archives didn’t have enough and weren’t meaty enough for the project.
At one point or another I stumbled across the name Zuni Maud. Kind of an oddball among its neighbors in the YIVO catalog, I recalled seeing the name in the far corners of cartoons I’d read while leafing through Yiddish periodicals of the early 20th century. Meanwhile, the other students in my cohort had all chosen their respective parties: ideologues, pedagogues, writers, and poets, basically standard fare in the world of Jewish academic research. I figured I’d go with Zuni, a cartoonist who was not your typical Yiddish cultural figure. I had no idea what I might I find in his archive, so it was kind of a Yiddish crapshoot.
What I found 25 years ago amazed me. Crammed with thousands of drawings and cartoons, Maud’s archive also contained bizarre stories and strange satiric songs. Not only did I find that Maud was prolific as a cartoonist, but also as a book illustrator and designer, poster artist, sculptor, and a writer of parodies and wildly surreal short stories. Even more surprising was discovering he was a puppeteer who co-created the first Yiddish puppet theater in America and toured the world with his hand up the skirts of tiny wooden Jews. Less well known for his art and cartooning, which was spread throughout the Yiddish publishing world, it was puppet theater that made him famous.
Zuni wasn’t alone in this endeavor. He had a partner, also a cartoonist, book illustrator, and writer by the name of Yosl Cutler. The two worked well together. Maud, who was short and swarthy, had a deep Jewish education and a morose personality. Cutler was tall and light, and a rare Yiddish optimist. Having met in the editorial offices of a Yiddish satire magazine in 1919, they wound up in the puppet business together.
That business took them all over North America, to England, France, Belgium, and Poland, where, during the first bleak winter of the early economic depression, they brought unalloyed joy to thousands of Jews who availed themselves of their performances. Calling their little theater “Modicut,” a conflation of their last names, they were regaled by both critics and audiences as having fused Jewish tradition, modern culture, and radical politics together with surrealist and avant-garde art. Most importantly, however, was that they were funny. That other high-flown stuff was secondary to most of their audiences.
With his decent sized archive and a number of living relatives who regaled me with stories of his antics, Zuni was a relatively easy person to research and my seminar paper wound up being far more interesting than I’d anticipated. Yes, Zuni was in a love triangle and shared his sister-in-law with his brother; yes, Zuni bathed infrequently and rarely wore shoes; yes, Zuni was an unrepentant communist; yes, Zuni cupped women’s breasts when he greeted them; yes, Zuni was unbeatable at chess; and so on and so forth.
Yosl, on the other hand, was a bit of a cipher. Killed in a car crash in 1935, his artistic and literary production was cut short. He didn’t have an archive at all: His then girlfriend allegedly took all of his art and manuscripts and disappeared. All that was left were the things he had sold or given away to family or friends, some of whom I managed to find. There were some pen and inks here and there, a couple of paintings, and three puppets that ended up in YIVO’s collection. But not much.
The year before he was killed, Cutler had published a book called “Muntergang,” a title created by combining the Yiddish words, Munter (good cheer) and Untergang (downfall). The implication, written as it was in the throes of the Great Depression, was essentially that everything’s fucked, but we’re going to have a good time while civilization collapses.
Everything, in fact, was fucked for Yosl when, in May 1935, the car he was traveling in was hit head-on by a drunk driver outside of Iowa City. Yosl was on his way to Hollywood to pitch an idea for a full-length puppet film and was performing in far-flung Jewish communities along the way. He died a few hours after getting hit and he and his puppets were shipped by train back to New York, where he was buried in the IWO section of a cemetery on Long Island. Total unter, not too much munter.
Because most of Yosl’s original artwork disappeared, his book became the major representation of who he was and what he accomplished. Full of unusual stories, poems, and illustrations, Muntergang gives its readers a look at a collision between hard left Yiddish politics and Jewish folklore and tradition. Couched in Yosl’s unique and frequently bizarre sense of humor, Muntergang, with its anarchistic selection of jokey poems, strange stories, and surreal illustrations is an anomaly in the rarefied world of Yiddish literature. There is, quite literally, nothing else like it.
From his self-portrait—a giant foot with a fruit fly sitting on the big toe—to one of the earliest Yiddish science fiction stories, Muntergang is a disorganized kitchen sink full of the Yiddish avant-garde. Strange things crop up suddenly with little or no explanation. One of these items is what’s described as an “oil painting.” Though he was known to have done a few, oil was not his métier. Nonetheless, an oil painting of a Punch and Judy puppet show taking place in a shtetl was reproduced in the book as a murky, black-and-white halftone.
The image illustrates something that is never mentioned in Jewish history books: a traveling puppet theater playing to an audience of shtetl dwellers, Jewish and otherwise. When traveling performers came to town and set up their portable stages, townspeople gathered around to watch shows that may have been in Russian, Ukrainian, or Yiddish, or possibly some combination of the three. Yosl captioned the painting, “I remember this in our shtetl in the marketplace.” As far as I can ascertain, this is the only image of a shtetl puppet show produced by a Jewish artist from this period. It may even be the only image of such a performance taking place in a pre-World War shtetl.
I have been looking at this picture and the people in it for the past 25 years. Poorly reproduced, the darker portions are muddy and the lighter ones are washed out. Details aren’t easy to see. Additionally, it’s tiny: just 3 x 4.5 inches, and the closer you look, the clearer the halftone dots become, leaving you looking at nothing but Jewdots. You can make out the audience—a Russian military figure, a bearded Jew, some children, a woman with a goose in her basket, and a young peasant. I always wondered what the original multicolored oil painting looked like. But knowing the fate of Cutler’s collection, I figured it would never have the chance.
It is therefore an understatement to say that my brain exploded when I received an email containing a brilliant color photograph of the original shtetl puppet oil painting. My heart pounded as it unfolded on my screen. The rich blues, the deep greens, the burning reds of a schoolboy’s coat and the round, fat peasant faces, the deep brown of a Hasid’s beard, the giant burgundy breasts of the woman carrying a goose in a basket, and the black-headed devil puppet about to smash an Orthodox priest in the face (an anachronistic nod to Cutler’s own anticlericalism) were all just astonishing to see. The whole scene was suddenly fresh and brilliant, bringing new life to a moribund halftone. But how and why did this image appear in my inbox so many years later?
The mysterious email came from a Canadian angel by the name of Robin Lissak. A Montreal-born art collector who had stumbled across the painting—mislabeled as “Yossi Cutler, Israeli artist”—in an auction in Lisbon Falls, Maine, a town not exactly known for its vast Yiddish collections. Had Yosl Cutler, a communist and anti-Zionist, heard that he’d been listed as an Israeli artist, he might have exploded with laughter.
Lissak, whose main interest is 1920s Jewish avant-garde, was familiar with Cutler and since so few of his works ever come up for sale, he thought he’d take a chance. After winning the auction, he googled Yosl Cutler, in connection to which my name came up. We wound up discussing the painting and Cutler and quite a lot about 1920s era New York Jewish avant-garde artists. About a month later, Lissak showed up in my office, painting in hand, explaining that he wanted to donate it on permanent loan to the YIVO.
In many ways, the sudden reappearance of this painting mirrors many such episodes in the Yiddish world. Just when you think you’re working with something old and faded and you’re sure you’ll never get close to the real thing, some Yiddish artifact comes barreling back into view, bursting with life and raw with color, telling stories about Jewish life in a completely new way.
This long-lost painting now hangs in my office at the YIVO, awaiting an exhibit on the Yiddish avant-garde. It’s a marvel to me, that 25 years after I first saw a tiny black-and-white version of it, that I get to stare at the real thing, an image bursting with life and with color, pouring out a unique bit of Jewish history that would have otherwise disappeared.
Eddy Portnoy, the Academic Adviser and Exhibitions Curator at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, is the author of Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press.