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The Rediscovered Musical Stempenyu with Sharon Bernstein and Karen Underhill

  • The Jewish Community Library 1835 Ellis St. San Francisco United States (map)

Free event with free garage parking on Pierce St between Ellis and Eddy (click here for a map).

Shortly after he had begun adapting his fiction works for theatrical production throughout the Russian Empire, Sholem Aleichem was forced to flee Russia with his family in the midst of the anti-Jewish violence that accompanied the outbreak of the 1905 Revolution. He sent his newly adapted musical of Stempenyu, a novella about the handsome klezmer violinist Stempenyu and his love for the beautiful (and married) Rokhele, to New York, where it was rejected as being far too traditional for an American audience. A later version of the play, rewritten for the American stage, opened in Boris Thomashevsky’s People’s Theater in New York in 1907, to less than rave reviews.

Forgotten and never staged, the author’s original handwritten Yiddish manuscript of Stempenyu turned up over a century later in the basement of a home slated for demolition in Chicago’s once-Jewish South Shore neighborhood. This program tells the story of the manuscript’s reemergence, and brings to life the author’s original Stempenyu with songs and instrumental pieces from the original musical production that Sholem Aleichem intended for the Russian stage.

Karen Underhill.jpg

Karen Underhill is assistant professor in the department of Polish, Russian and Lithuanian studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She holds a PhD in Polish and Jewish studies from the University of Chicago; was Joseph Kremen Memorial Fellow at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, where she conducted research into the Stempenyu manuscript; and is co-founder of Massolit Books & Cafe in Kraków. Her book Bruno Schulz and Galician Jewish Modernity is forthcoming from University of Indiana Press in Fall 2020.

Sharon Bernstein.jpg

Sharon Bernstein is a singer, pianist, composer, and cantor, exploring resonances between text and music, tradition and innovation. Her work is built on rhythms, melodies, and harmonies from across the Jewish spectrum, including Yiddish songs, Hasidic niggunim, Italian Jewish musical traditions, and original compositions and arrangements.  She recently published the book and CD healing journey Under the Wings of Rafa’el, and she serves as the cantor for Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. 


Co-presented by KlezCalifornia, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, and the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring of Northern California.

Program made possible, in part, by Jane and Michael Rice.