“Surka” and Boris Only Cash Café

Rooting around in Calisphere, the “gateway to digital collections from California’s great libraries, archives, and museums,” my girlfriend and I came across some photographs of Boris Sapiro — actor, director, restaurateur, and who knows what else? — in front of his eponymous café in Shanghai in the late 1930s. These photographs are part of Loyola Marymount University’s Werner von Boltenstern Shanghai Photograph and Negative Collection, which documents, among other things, the fascinating life of the city’s Jewish ghetto. The photograph below, which appeals to me for obvious reasons, reminded me of a line from one of my beloved Odessan criminal songs: “we ducked into a rundown little joint.”

Boris Sapiro's Boris Only Cash Cafe - Shanghai, 1938-1939.jpg

The song is “Surka” (a diminutive of Sarah), a Jewish parody of the infamous “Murka” (“Moll”), which I mentioned in an earlier post. I was so inspired by the photo of my namesake in front of his greasy spoon that I translated the song’s lyrics. You’ll find several versions of the original here, and a recording of Vladimir Vysotsky’s take below the lyrics. So here’s to Surka, that hell-raiser! (In “Rabinovich,” the emphasis is on the “o.”)

We went to pull a job, me and Rabinovich,
but Rabinovich had to knock one back —
after all, why shouldn’t a poor Jew wet his whistle,
if he ain’t as busy as all that?

So’s to get a stiff one, and a bit of tzimmes,
we ducked into a rundown little joint;
there we saw her — Surka — and she had a pistol
underneath her skirt, loaded with shot.

We thought we were done for, so we took a powder,
vowing that we’d make that Surka pay:
in a darkened alley by the local temple,
we’d take Surka’s wretched life away.

So we called up Moyshe (he’s a hardened convict),
and Moyshe loaded up his trusty gat.
In a darkened alley by the local temple,
he was gonna lay that Surka flat:

“Greetings, my sweet Surka — greetings, little darling.
Greetings, my sweet Surka — and goodbye!
You ratted on poor Shlomo, ratted on poor Aron —
it’s time for you to eat my lead and die!”

Rabinovich drew his crooked-barreled heater,
tried to hold it steady in his paws —
first he screwed up one eye, then screwed up the other,
then he cocked the hammer with his schnoz.

Rabinovich fired — but he missed a bisl,
and his bullet dinged my head instead.
Now I’m getting stitches — meanwhile, Rabinovich
and Surka have been painting the town red!

9 thoughts on ““Surka” and Boris Only Cash Café

  1. It looks like my instincts regarding my namesake were right on the money (cash only). Here’s an account of his character by another Shanghai émigré, Gérard Kohbieter, published in Steve Hochstadt’s Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2012): “I knew Boris Sapiro, a very small, very nervous, eccentric man that ran a little theater in a café and produced Yiddish plays occasionally. But he wasn’t as far out in his artistic choices as he was as a personality. He was a true madman of the old school, 18 carat. A friend of mine did backdrops for him, and he came home and had to have a couple of stiff drinks after consultations with the maestro. The rest he did was boulevard theater. What Pauline Kael called entertaining trash. Which is totally acceptable. Why not? Especially in those times when people have tsouris [troubles] up to here. Anything goes.”


  2. What fun! Bravo, Boris! Bonus points for the rhyme of “schnoz” and “paws,” and kudoes for jewels such as “missed a bisl” and “took a powder.” And what an odd but inspired usage of 12 Chairs footage as visuals for the VV version!

    Liked by 1 person

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