Goldfarb in Reno

Everyone knows the Dreidel Song:

I have a little dreidel, I made it out of clay,
and when it’s dry and ready, then dreidel I shall play.

Oh, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay,
oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, then dreidel I shall play.

Not too many people, though, know that Samuel E. Goldfarb, composer of that and many other U.S. Jewish songs, lived here, in Reno, for a year. Here’s a photo of Goldfarb in Reno, wearing a cowboy hat, on a horse.


Black and white photo of Samuel E. Goldfarb, wearing a cowboy hat, sitting on a horse in Reno.

Who was Samuel E. Goldfarb (1891-1978), known as “the father of Jewish music in America”? And how did he end up in Reno? I imagine locals will have guessed part of the story already because it was a common Reno story in those days.

After immigrating from Poland with his family, Goldfarb grew up in a Hasidic community on the Lower East Side, New York City, with his parents, five brothers and five sisters. He received both orthodox Jewish and New York City public school education. Given his aptitude for music, he studied piano and organ privately as well as composition, conducting and voice at Columbia University. He sang and played piano for silent movies for a living (though not on Friday night or Saturday) and, later, was a conductor, composer, arranger and accompanist. He worked with a whole roster of important musicians including Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, cantors Yossele Rosenblatt and the four Kousevitsky brothers (Moshe, David, Jacob and Simcha), as well as Yiddish theatre stars such as Molly Picon.

He and his brother, Israel Goldfarb, also promoted Jewish music as seen in this advertisement for two of their publications, “Friday Evening Melodies” and “The Jewish Songster,” the first primers ever published anywhere of Jewish music for home, school and synagogue. Samuel worked for about thirteen years for the Bureau of Jewish Education.


"Delightful Jewish Music," print ad for the Jewish Songster and for Friday Evening Melodies


Goldfarb lived in two worlds, it seems to me–the Hasidic world of his family and community and the modern world of theaters, silent pictures (in need of organists), glamorous Yiddish stars and Tin Pan Alley show tunes. Eventually, he found himself between those two worlds–living with Bella and two children after an arranged Hasidic marriage when he was young, and falling in love with the music and theater world including one woman in it, Sylvia, whom he met while he played theater organ. The year in Reno, in other words, had something to do with a divorce.

But it’s not quite what it might seem because it was his wife who suggested the year away. She knew he had someone else and was hoping an adventurous year away together might pull him away from her and solidify his relationship with Bella. Or, at least, so it seems from Susan Wolfe’s fictionalized account of the year in Reno called The Promised Hand. It’s a fiction, of course, so it’s not meant to be relied upon for facts. For example, did he meet Sylvia while playing at a theater? Or was she simply someone he had known since he and she were young? What is clear is that some time after he lived in Reno, he left his wife and two children in New York and went West to marry another.


Goldfarb (with face blocked out), his wife, daughter and son


If The Promised Hand tells events correctly, Bella had a pretty good time in Reno! Away from her community, she learned to drive and tooled around town in a six-cylinder Studebaker taking the kids here and there. She joined women’s public service organizations, at places such as the Twentieth Century Club located at the corner of Riverside Drive and Chestnut Street (supposing this is not just fictional speculation). Samuel played in theaters and clubs and was the acting Cantor and choir director for Reno’s first synagogue, Temple Emanuel, a Conservative synagogue. What luck for a small synagogue to end up with an experienced, talented and nationally well-connected choir director for the year.

Here’s a photo showing what Samuel’s performing life was like in Reno. It’s an evocative photo showing him with fellow performers–a violinist, a harpist and perhaps a vocalist–at the Majestic Theater in downtown Reno at 48 East 1st Street, near the swanky Mapes Hotel.

Black and white photo of Goldfarb, sitting at piano, with a harpist-and-harp, a violinist and another woman on stage in front of a theater curtain. Written on photo: "Majestic Theatre, Nov., 1922."
Photo credit: “Dreidel I Shall Play” CD, JA Songster, Inc.

The short rest of the story is that, though it may have been a good year away in many respects, being in Reno also was a convenient way to establish residence in Nevada, with its liberal divorce laws based on short residencies. Eventually, after continuing in Jewish music in New York City for a number of years, Samuel left his wife, moved to LA with the woman he loved, married her there, and then moved with her to Seattle where he became cantor and choir director at Temple de Hirsch Sinai for many years.

Hard to believe given the mores of our own time, but Samuel’s family in Seattle, including Susan Wolfe, author of The Promised Hand, did not even know about the family in New York until the 1990’s, while the family in New York knew about them but, in public, kept up the useful fiction that Samuel had died. Perhaps that subterfuge made life easier given the attitudes about divorce at that time.

All in all, it’s a striking Reno divorce story to add to those about Trinidadian dialectical theorist C.L.R. James, who established residence by living and working at Pyramid Lake Guest Ranch; novelist Saul Bellow and playwright Arthur Miller who also stayed at that guest ranch; philosopher and current presidential candidate, Cornel West, who got a divorce in Reno; actress Rita Hayworth, who established residence staying at Lake Tahoe with her daughters, and others–along with fictional characters such as Roslyn Tabor (played by Marilyn Monroe) in “The Misfits” and Vivian Bell (played by Helen Shaver) in “Desert Hearts.”

I have outlined what I know of the intriguing story–and hope others will correct any mistakes and fill in the details.


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Steven Weidmanreply
June 25, 2023 at 12:57 am

Excellent article. More Reno Jewish history.

Deborah Achtenbergreply
June 25, 2023 at 11:29 am
– In reply to: Steven Weidman

Thanks, Steve! The story fascinated me so I had to write it up.

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