Tag Archives: World Herald

Yiddish Omaha

October 5, 2016 by

Omaha is a city of many languages, in a country of many languages. Each language tells its own story. Take Yiddish, for example. The language comes from the same linguistic source as modern German, called High German. Yiddish, however, developed into its own language in the ninth century. Following Jewish migrations eastward, the language picked up many Slavic words and grammatical forms while borrowing a number of words from Hebrew. Yiddish became the common language of the Jews of Eastern Europe; as they migrated to America, they brought the language with them.

There have been Jews in Omaha since at least 1856. But it is likely many of those migrating from Germany spoke German, rather than Yiddish. We know that a large number of Jews from Ukraine came to Omaha after they were expelled from the city of Kiev in 1886. The first mention of their language appears in local newspapers in October 1879, when The Bee ran an article about a performance of  In Gay New York that appeared at Boyd’s Theater downtown and featured a “novel Yiddish specialty.”

In 1911, the World-Herald listed three Omaha synagogues in which the primary language spoken was Yiddish, all downtown, two of them new. In the story, a local rabbi estimated there were 1,000 Yiddish speakers in the city.

This makes sense, as Yiddish culture has a rich theatrical tradition. The Purim shpiel, an outrageous comedic improvisational play based on the biblical book of Esther, is often performed in synagogues as part of festivities related to the Purim holiday.

hester-streetNotices like the one in The Bee continued to appear, such as one from June of 1899, when the World-Herald ran an ad for the vaudeville Trocadero Theater of 14th Street downtown. The Trocadero at that time featured a performance by Julius Rose, who offered Yiddish ragtime songs and dances.

These performers were likely creating “dialect comedy,” productions staged mostly in thickly accented English, but it does indicate that the character and language of the Eastern European Jews was starting to get some stage time. Indeed, Carl Reiter, manager of the Orpheum, would occasionally appear onstage performing “Yiddish” stories.

Local use of Yiddish as a daily language emerged in a 1903 World-Herald story titled “Looking to Nebraska as a Haven of Refuge.” The story detailed the plight of Russian Jews, who were then experiencing anti-Semitic violence, and their need to find American cities that could accept them as refugees.

Soon after, we find evidence of the first theatrical told entirely in Yiddish. In June 1904, a performance of  Alexander, Crown Prince of Jerusalem took place at the Krug Theater, formerly the Trocadero; the theater would be home to similar events for years to come. That same year, the World-Herald reported a new police officer in the downtown “Market District” would be expected to understand a variety of languages, including Yiddish. By 1906, local Zionist meetings in English and Yiddish were reported at 17th and Farnam streets.

Boris Thomashefsky, one of the biggest stars in Yiddish theater.

Boris Thomashefsky, one of the biggest stars in Yiddish theater.

The year 1909 brought a Yiddish giant to Omaha: Boris Thomashefsky, one of the biggest stars in Yiddish theater, who was responsible for the first professional Yiddish theater production in America. Thomashefsky appeared at the Burwood Theater, where film star Harold Lloyd made his debut. He was followed by another legend of Yiddish theater: Jacob Adler, whose daughter Stella taught method acting to Omaha’s Marlon Brando. Brando himself used to read Yiddish newspapers in New York.

In 1911, the World-Herald listed three Omaha synagogues in which the primary language spoken was Yiddish, all downtown, two of them new. In the story, a local rabbi estimated there were 1,000 Yiddish speakers in the city. In a follow-up story, the paper opined within a generation or two, Yiddish would be a dead language.

Omahan Joan Micklin Silver wrote and directed the largely Yiddish 1975 film Hester Street. Today, a vibrant Yiddish-speaking community remains in the U.S., but the language usage has dwindled. Even so, studies have shown a growing interest in the language, especially among a younger generation of Jews.

Max Sparber is a research specialist at the Douglas County Historical Society. He publishes a blog about Yiddish culture at brityiddish.com.


Never Get Involved With a Writer

October 20, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Never… Ever… Never, never, get involved with a writer.

Now, that is not to say that writers are not nice people.  Many of them are perfectly decent sorts, especially when they are sleeping.  It’s in their waking hours that they do most of their damage.

I know, you’re saying to yourself, “Otis, you’re a writer. Are you suggesting that we should avoid all contact with you?” I must reply, “Exactly.”

Now I know some very fine writers. Here in town Timothy Schaffert has kept the Omaha Lit Fest growing and penned some very fine novels including his latest, The Swan Gondola.  He seems okay.  Rebecca Rotert’s latest, Last Night at the Blue Angel is skillfully done and emotionally evocative indeed. She must certainly be safe to be around. Rainbow Rowell, former World Herald columnist, has turned out a few very successful books including Landline that just went into paperback. With a name like “Rainbow” how could she be any sort of a risk?  And Sean Doolittle keeps turning out gems like my favorite, Rain Dogs – all while also pitching for the Oakland Athletics. Go ahead, look it up.

Poets are a sub-set of “writer,” that are especially hazardous to your mental health. Matt Mason, The Baby That Ate Cincinnati, and his band of misfits at the Nebraska Writers Collective, including Michele Troxclair, who puts on the most amazing spoken word events around town, are supremely talented and not to be trifled with if you want to lead a settled, comfortable life. Britny Cordera Doane can make myth and madness sing, as she does in her collection, Wingmakers. She also writes poems on demand in the Old Market. Yeah, a busker with a typewriter.

Perfectly nice people, all of them.

Don’t be fooled.

Writers will steal from you. If you say something clever, like squirrels we will stuff it away into our verbal cheeks and use it in a chapter years later. You will not get any credit.

We will tell all of your secrets; family tales left best untold, quirks in your love life, or reveal your most reprehensible personal hygiene secrets by assigning them to a particularly disturbing villain in one of our stories.

We will lie. Remember that time you and Betty took the underage me to the movies and sat in the back row? We will remember it differently. Our graphic details will shock you and destroy your reputation. Our memoirs will completely shake your sense of reality, and perversely, after you read and re-read them, even you will begin to believe our version.

We will drive you crazy. “Do you like my book?”… or…“Do you get what my poem means?”… or…“I’m the greatest talent ever!” … or… “I’m the worst writer ever.” We will be euphoric and then suicidal all within a half-hour. Our insecurities will baffle and exhaust you.

And worst of all, writers are like the Naked Guy in Friends, sometimes you see things about us you can’t un-see.

If you hang around with us, be prepared to stand on the edge. Be ready for us to risk falling. Be careful we don’t take you with us.

I know all of this because I have a novel coming out this month. It’s the best book ever. Or, it’s the worst waste of paper since God invented gerbils. You should read it. You might learn something about yourself. Or, you shouldn’t. We’d both be safer then.

It’s just true.

Never…Ever…Never, never, get involved with a writer.

Otis Headshot

Jeff Koterba

January 16, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Political statements in Omaha, it would seem, don’t originate solely from behind a podium or during photo ops.

For Omaha World-Herald editorial cartoonist Jeff Koterba, his catalog of more than 7,200 cartoons means he has an important voice on the political stage.

“I want to be part of the discussion, the great conversation,” Koterba says. “I’m like anyone else reading the paper or paying attention to the news. I just happen to be able to draw about it.”


Koterba, whose 25-year cartoon collection Koterba: Drawing You In hit stores last fall, has drawn editorial cartoons for the World-Herald since 1989. Although initially a sports cartoonist for the Kansas City Star, Koterba confesses he has a “bigger world in his head” than just athletics. Politics, for him, was the next logical step.

“I’m always trying to find not just the middle-ground,” he explains, “but a third or fourth way of looking at an issue. I get really sick of looking at right versus left, red versus blue. I try to go beyond the visible, predictable route.”

Which, predictably, provokes some backlash: “I piss off both sides of the aisle frequently.”

Koterba admits that he receives a fair amount of both fan mail and hate mail, but both have occasionally been cause to reassess his position on specific topics—topics that Koterba brainstorms from sometimes the oddest of angles.

“I try to find inspiration in places beyond the obvious,” Koterba says. “It might be reading the side of a cereal box, listening in on a conversation in a coffee shop, or going to a concert. I never know where an idea might come from.”

That diversity of ideas might come easier for Koterba, given the versatile life he leads. His rockabilly/swing/blues band, the Prairie Cats, although currently on hiatus, have released three albums. He’s the author of two previous cartoon collections and has penned a memoir. He even survived a lightning strike in high school.

Koterba’s subjects of drawing can range anywhere from ebola to Huskers football to the Omaha weather, but he tries not to be predictable. For him, substance rather than technique is the “meat and potatoes” of any given cartoon.

“There are plenty of people out there that can draw way better than I can, but if you don’t have a concept or substance, the drawing falls flat. It’s empty,” Koterba says. “I’d much rather have a great idea. Drawing is sort of like the frosting on the cake.”

Koterba’s verve, then, is perhaps his strongest asset.

“I try to find some different takes on things,” he says. “I try to keep it fresh.”