New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway, edited by Edna Nahshon (Columbia University Press, 324 pp., $40)

The Yiddish theater was born in Romania in the late 1880s. Transported to the Lower East Side at the turn of the century, it flourished for decades thanks to continuous waves of Jewish immigrants. For these greenhorns, Hebrew was the elevated language of the rabbis; Yiddish was the mamaloshen—the mother tongue. But their children and grandchildren preferred to speak English, and in the 1950s the curtain came down on a once-vibrant art form, never to rise again.

And yet, like Hamlet’s father, the ghost of the Yiddish theater still has the power to haunt. It can occasionally be seen and heard in the legitimate theater, in Hollywood productions, and, inevitably, in locales dedicated to preserving the past. The current manifestation is in the halls and on the walls of the Museum of the City of New York, and an accompanying book.

New York’s Yiddish Theater: From Broadway to the Bowery offers a panorama of performers and dramatists, as well as a generous sampling of posters, sets, costumes, and other memorabilia. But in a classic example of overreach, it also includes celebs who have little reason to be there except for their marquee value. Frank Sinatra and his agent are shown looking at a Second Avenue placard. Images of Danny Kaye, Eddie Cantor, and Jerry Lewis are present only because of the comedians’ ethnicity—they were never a part of the Yiddish theater scene. Nor were most of the tummlers at Catskill resorts like Grossinger’s and the Concord, presented under the rubric of Borscht Belt entertainers. These performers bore about the same relationship to the Yiddish theater as the Ringling Brothers Circus bears to the Metropolitan Opera.

As Irving Howe observed in World of Our Fathers, the Yiddish theater could have kept going, “only if there had been more time, only if there had been several generations that used Yiddish as their native tongue yet were also at home in Western culture.” The rush to assimilate destroyed any chance of survival. In the aftermath, what remained were memories and influences—but what memories, and what influences!

In the museum and book, giants of the Yiddish theater glower or smile at the onlooker. Here is the sharp-faced Jacob Adler, “the Eagle” as his rapturous fans called him. A nonsmoker and teetotaler, Adler lived for the stage, which he dominated for decades. The pinnacle of his career came when he appeared as the usurious Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, investing the character with an unaccustomed dignity. (Later, he performed the role on Broadway to rave reviews from the uptown newspapers.) Here is the Eagle’s arch-rival, Boris Thomashefsky, notorious for egomania and exaggerated performances (he once ordered a new version of Hamlet tailored to his specifications), but a protean talent nonetheless—actor, singer, director, producer, impresario.

Jacob Adler (left) as Shylock in a production of The Merchant of Venice Photo by Byron Company/Folger Shakespeare Library
Jacob Adler (left) as Shylock in a production of The Merchant of Venice Photo by Byron Company/Folger Shakespeare Library

Here are the playwrights, Abraham Goldfaden, who wrote entire operettas without knowing how to read a bar of music; Jacob Gordin, the powerful realist who acted as a guide for Henry James when he visited the Lower East Side; Sholem Aleichem, creator of Tevye the milkman and the monologues he addresses to Jehovah. Here are the leading ladies, among them Bertha Kalich, “the Sarah Bernhardt of the Yiddish stage”; Sarah Adler (Jacob’s ex), Bessie Thomashefsky (Boris’s ex), and the gender-bending dynamo Molly Picon, who climbed ropes, put on blackface, and played a coquette and a boy in the same comedy. All were superstars in a male-dominated genre.

Here are crossover Yiddish theater troupers who had a global reach: Muni Weisenfreund, later Paul Muni, perennial Oscar nominee in the 1940s; Stella Adler, Jacob’s daughter, who became the teacher of Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Elaine Stritch, Lena Horne, Martin Sheen, and many other notables. And here is the most effective artist of them all, even though he never uttered a word onstage. The Russian émigré Boris Aronson leapt from the left-wing Artef theater to the revolving stages of the Main Stem, designing the sets for The Crucible, The Diary of Anne Frank, and most memorably, Fiddler on the Roof, which brought the immigrant experience full circle, from the tattered Eastern European shtetl to New York City—and then back to the shtetl, now aglow with Aronson’s magic realism.

Molly Picon, the gender-bending dynamo of Yiddish theater
Molly Picon, the gender-bending dynamo of Yiddish theater

Spectators are advised to gird themselves for the editor’s academic jargo-babble (“We must always cast our gaze through the additional and no less important lens that reflects the dynamics of intercultural conversations between the Yiddish Theater and the American reality in which it existed, which includes so many diverse cultural heritages.”) Best to skim the prosaic narrative; it’s the illustrations that deserve close examination. As Isaac Bashevis Singer observed, “Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world.” Some great treasures have just been gathered. Let the revelations begin.

Top Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images


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