Today in Yiddishkayt… June 7
Birthday of Nokhem Stutchkoff
Nokhem Stutchkoff was born on June 7, 1893 in Brok, a small town near Łomża, Poland. In 1900, the family moved to Warsaw. At the age of 16, Stutchkoff ecame involved with the Yiddish theater. He joined a theatrical group under the leadership of Y.L. Peretz and made his debut in a play by Sholem Aleichem.
Stutchkoff began to translate and re-work various pieces for the Yiddish theater. He also appeared as an actor in several of the plays he translated. From Warsaw, he traveled with different troupes across Poland and Russia. When the First World War broke out, Stutchkoff was inducted into the army. After his release, he become the secretary of the Artist’s Union. Between 1917 and 1921, Stutchkoff was affiliated with the Kharkov Jewish theater, which produced his translation of Voltaire’s comedy The Scapegoat and Moliere’s The Trickeries of Scapin. He then became the director of Wittenberg’s Yiddish Labor Theater.
In 1923, Stutchkoff immigrated to the United States to play the role of Oswald in a translation of Ibsen’s Ghosts at the New York Yiddish Art Theater. In his first few years in the country, he wrote and adapted plays for theaters in Philadelphia, New York, Detroit, and Europe. Throughout the 1920′s Stutchkoff wrote numerous plays that starred actors such as Celia Adler, and Samuel Goldenberg. These plays include: The Holdup in the Mountains, Proud Women, and Marriage License.
In 1931, Stutchkoff published a Yiddish Rhyming Dictionary that contained more than 35,000 words. It catapulted Stutchkoff to new heights of fame and popularity, and made him a renowned figure among playwrights, the intelligentsia and the general Yiddish world. That same year, Stutchkoff began his long association with Yiddish radio. After working first as as assistant music director, he was given his own show, Uncle Nokhem’s Program, on the Brooklyn station WLTH.
In 1935 Stutchkoff began working at WEVD in Manhattan, where he wrote, directed, and starred in a series of radio dramas that included: In a Yiddisher Grocery Store, Stories of a Thousand and One Nights, and Annie and Benny, a sensitive drama about the marriage of an American Jewish woman to an emigre man. He also premiered several other shows including an etymology and folklore program called ווי די מאמע פֿלעגט זאָגן (As Mom Used to Say) — based on his Thesaurus of the Yiddish Language—, אַן איידעם אויף קעסט (A Live-in Son-in-Law), דער מאַמענס טאָכטער (Mother’s Daughter) and אַ וועלט מיט וועלטלעך (A World Within Worlds). He also wrote many commercials for sponsors such as Kirsch beverages, Met Life and Breakstone’s dairy products.
In 1936, he premiered another of his great radio dramas, ביי טאַטע–מאַמעס טיש (Round the Family Table) sponsored by Manischewitz Matzo. Three years after the show’s radio premiere, Stutchkoff adapted it to the stage. In 1937 Stutchkoff staged לאַנד פֿון חלומות (The Land of Dreams).
Here’s the opening from an episode of Round the Family Table, as featured by the Yiddish Radio Project, featuring Stutchkoff reading a word from the sponosor, the B. Manischewitz Matzo Company:
During this time, Stutchkoff began working on the first thesaurus of the Yiddish language, דער אוצר פֿון דער יידישער שפראַך. It contained nearly 1,000 pages and more than 150,000 entries (including thousands of idiomatic expressions and folk sayings). The project ultimately took over 15 years to complete. He later composed the first Hebrew thesaurus in print. During World War II, Stutchkoff was one of several playrights writing dramas about the fate of Europe’s Jews under the Nazis for a series sponsored by the U.S. Treasury Department. These works are among the more forceful and penetrating he ever wrote.
In 1946, Stutchkoff debuted a new radio drama called צרות בײַ לײַטן (People’s Problems) sponsored by the Brooklyn Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital. The storyline of the very popular show hinged on the recovery of various characters in the wards of this hospital. It was this association with the hospital, which would become so important to Stutchkoff after he became ill in the mid-1960s. As repayment for his service on its behalf, the hospital opened its doors to him when his health failed, affording him a comfortable resting place until his death in 1965.