By Rachel Kurland and Selah Maya Zighelboim
Finding the true source of how the Mummers Parade began is as complicated and elusive as reloading the SEPTA Key.
The annual event dates to European folk festivals, and although known as a deep South Philly tradition ingrained in Irish and Italian communities, some in the Jewish community have paraded along Broad Street for decades.
Back in 1965, the James Durning String Band marched to “Hatikvah” while dressed in costumes decorated with large Stars of David. Just one year earlier, Jules Cohen, then the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia, denounced blackface at the Mummers Parade.
Since then, others have represented the Jewish community in the parade with pride.
Jay Polakoff is just one member of the Fearsome Foursome Minus Two Plus One, composed of himself, Jerry Orondenker and Elliot Maser. The mathematical gimmick aside, they take the Mummers Parade seriously.
They march in the comic division with Murray Comic Club, which has won first place in the parade for 19 consecutive years.
“We’re the guys that take it seriously,” he said. “We’re not the crazies.”
2018 marks Polakoff’s 20th year participating, though the parade itself goes back almost 120 years.
“I love the string bands, but we jokingly say, ‘They’re not the parade. We’re the original parade,’” he added of his comics performance.
Polakoff recalled the origin of the day dates to Swedish immigrants who knocked on neighbors’ doors asking for libations while singing a little ditty. If they found a house that offered beverages, they’d shoot a firearm into the air to alert other revelers to come by.
To avoid future accidental injuries, the city indoctrinated the day of oft well-liquored clowns into an official parade in 1901 with contests, prizes and games — but nobody would receive prizes if a firearm was shot.
From there, the parade evolved into what it is today, with competitive comic clowns accompanied by music, “so it was more than just a bunch of guys running around with umbrellas and screaming.”
“We’re more than just a bunch of crazy guys running around when it’s freezing out,” laughed Polakoff, who belongs to Old York Road Temple-Beth Am.
Polakoff also marches and competes as a single comic, for which he has won first place twice and placed in the top five 17 times.
He sews his own satirical and timely costume each year, builds the props and choreographs the 60-second dances, for which he admits he becomes a bit obsessive about.
“If stitches aren’t straight, I’ll pull them out and restitch something” at the parade, he said. “For me, it’s either 120 percent in or not at all.”
Polakoff also attends the Mummers Mass each year, a service on the Sunday prior to the parade in which mummer groups bring articles of themselves — golden slippers or parasols — to be “blessed.”
This year, Polakoff “left church and went straight to our Chanukah party.” But he twists his own Mummers Mass tradition: He goes to Shabbat services.
“I always joke with them each year saying, ‘I was just at Mummers Mass, and they blessed my shoes. Will you bless my shoes?’ And the rabbi says, ‘You know Jay, we don’t do that,’” he laughed.
Jack Cohen is a veteran mummer, too, entering his 41st year with Golden Sunrise.
When he was a teenager, he volunteered at the Mummers Museum, doing everything from giving tours to working in the gift shop to cleaning instruments.
“I had to take two buses and the El to get there,” he laughed. Eventually, he jumped into the parade lines himself, which his daughters, nieces and nephews do now, too.
But Cohen, who belongs to Beth Sholom Congregation, has since traded in his mummer costume for a behind-the-scenes role, fundraising and prepping throughout the year.
Mummers compete in different divisions like comics, wenches, fancy brigades, string bands and fancy clubs, the latter of which Golden Sunrise often wins first prize each year.
Golden Sunrise is one of the few groups that refurbishes and uses the same costumes and floats each year, and still takes home first place — though to be fair, they don’t have any other competition in their category.
“It’s like the Thanksgiving Day Parade,” Cohen said. “They change up a little bit, but they’re the same floats.”
A lot of fundraising goes on throughout the year to manage the costs of running the club, storage space, utilities, insurance and expenses on New Year’s Day for renting trucks, buses, food — it’s like a full-time job for Cohen.
In addition to their winning streak, Cohen said he broke barriers by not being a native South Philadelphian. He grew up in the Northeast, but credits a lack of a Jewish presence in the parade to the demographics of South Philly.
“Most of the clubs are in South Philadelphia, and the Jewish section wasn’t where the mummer folks were,” he noted.
But who is in what group doesn’t matter to Cohen. At the end of the day, they’re all just mummers.
“Every year I go, ‘One of these years I’m going to lay on the beach on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day and not think about the Philadelphia Mummers Parade,’” Cohen said. “I haven’t gotten to that point. I still love it.”
Unlike Polakoff and Cohen, Ryan Green, a tenor saxophone player for Pennsport String Band, is relatively new to the parade. He got his start three years ago when a member of a local school district orchestra asked him to join the parade as well.
At the time, Green played the clarinet, an instrument not used in the string band, so he just helped out with props and scenery. But he wanted to participate in the band so much that he learned to play tenor saxophone.
“We all have a love of music,” Green said. “We have the same interest in entertaining people. I consider the band to be almost like a family.”
Although Green, a member of Congregation Beth Tikvah in Marlton, N.J., doesn’t know of other Jewish people involved in the parade, he said the sense of kinship is similar in both communities.
“From my experience, I would say there is a tight-knit Jewish community in the area. From my experience in the Mummers, I would say it’s the same way,” he said. “Everyone knows each other; everyone knows each other’s family.”
[email protected]; 215-832-0737
[email protected]; 215-832-0729