The Arty Semite

A Mandolin Orchestra's Labor Roots

By Jon Kalish

  • Print
  • Share Share

Photo courtesy New York Mandolin orchestra

On June 1 the New York Mandolin Orchestra will celebrate its 90th anniversary at a concert in Manhattan. The repertoire ranges from a Vivaldi concerto to St. Louis Blues. Founded in 1924 by a Russian Jew named Samuel Firstman, the orchestra was initially affiliated with the Jewish communist newspaper Freiheit. For a time it performed both the national anthem and the socialist Internationale at its concerts.

“All these people had come from Europe and it was part of their culture. They believed in a larger culture,” says Bill Knapp, a concertina player who was a card-carrying member of the Wobblies and played with the orchestra for more than 30 years. “It was very important to them that they play this music, that they learn it, they pass it on.”

Among the New York Mandolin Orchestra’s alumnae are the bluegrass virtuoso Barry Mitterhoff, who was given his first mandolin by his aunt Sylvia Reuben who had played in a mandolin orchestra in Newark, New Jersey. Mitterhoff, who now performs with the acoustic music group Hot Tuna, joined the New York Mandolin Orchestra in 1976 and served as its concertmaster for 12 years. He’ll participate in the concert on Sunday.

“By the time I got involved in 1976, there were very few, quote, unquote younger players, which included anybody under 50,” Mitterhoff told the Forward. “Most of the members were senior citizens and some of them were couples. They all worked in factories and sweatshops.

When I first covered the orchestra in 1992, I was introduced to Jack and Florence Melman, Russian Jews who were proud union members.

“I worked in a factory as an operator,” Mrs. Melman explained. “Pocketbooks.”

“I also was an operator,” Mr. Melman chimed in. “In luggage.”

Both the Melmans have passed away and at the age of 90, the New York Mandolin Orchestra is the only one of seven mandolin orchestras that once existed in the city to still be plucking away. Orchestras affiliated with the Workmen’s Circle, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the International Workers Order and the Jewish Peoples Fraternal Order have bit the dust.

Today there are an estimated 30 mandolin orchestras in the United States, down from the hundreds that existed before World War I. A resurgence of mandolin orchestras began in the late 1970s and continued into the ’80s after David Grisman and others brought the mandolin into jazz and the Modern Mandolin Quartet emerged with a repertoire that ranged from classical string quartet music to bluegrass.

In New York Barry Mitterhoff helped bring players from the bluegrass scene into the orchestra. One of the newer members is Leah Wells who also plays bluegrass banjo.

“Some of the bluegrassers I know dip into classical mandolin playing and I’ve gone and seen them. I always enjoyed it but it just hadn’t occurred to me that it was something that I could do,” said Wells. “I’d like to bring some of this to my mandolin students. It’s just giving me all kinds of ideas.”

Wells joined the New York Mandolin Orchestra just two months ago. Irene Roberts, on the other hand, has been a member for 27 years. When she was a kid, her mother played in it.

“When I first started, Barry Mitterhoff said to me, ‘When you join the orchestra, it’s for life. You don’t play one year. It’s for life.’ And he’s right.”


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: New York Mandolin Orchestra, Music, Freiheit

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.