On a pleasant June evening in 1906, Manhattan’s original odd couple strolled down Second Avenue. The tall man with black beard and dark, deep-set eyes was playwright Jacob Gordin, the Yiddish theater’s first great realist and a dominant presence on the Lower East Side. Speaking with big gestures, the Russian immigrant went on about socialism, his eight children, his adaptations of Shakespeare, his interpretations of Tolstoy’s thought.

Gordin’s older companion, returned to his native America after a 20-year absence, was a dedicated novelist, master of nuance, lifelong bachelor, apolitical, bald, clean-shaven of late, tentative in style and speech, as Gentile in his way as the other was Jewish. The playwright led the way and chattered on; Henry James did the sightseeing.

What he apprehended did not seem encouraging. All around him was the pulse of cultural life, the voracious appetite for technical knowledge and dramatic art—the very art at which James had failed so publicly in London. But the great observer, his aural and olfactory senses besieged and affronted, couldn’t see what spread out before him. The cafés, filled with folk speaking in accented, ungrammatical English, were “torture-rooms of the living idiom.” This “Hebrew conquest of New York,” James felt certain, would permanently maim the language. In the future, “whatever we shall know it for, certainly we shall not know it for English.” The Yiddish theater, to which his companion had politely escorted him, was equally cringe-making. He fled after the first act of an operetta, not because it was incomprehensible—Gordin explained the plotline as it went along—but because its audience offended. Those ticket buyers emanated “a scent, literally, not further to be followed.”

Other WASP tourists were not so fastidious. Praising Jewish immigration as the great hope of New York, Lincoln Steffens, editor of the muckraking Commercial Advertiser, told his readers that he considered himself “almost a Jew.” He felt as infatuated with the Lower East Side as adolescents were with the Wild West, nailed a mezuzah on his office door, and every year on Yom Kippur spent the whole 24 hours fasting and visiting synagogues around the city.

Hutchins Hapgood, the paper’s star reporter, did his boss one better. The 30-something Harvard blueblood, whose family had settled in Massachusetts in 1656, celebrated downtown Jewry in a clothbound bestseller. The Spirit of the Ghetto compared the Lower East Side with quattrocento Florence: “Altogether there is an excitement in ideas and an enthusiastic energy for acquiring knowledge which has an interesting analogy to the hopefulness and acquisitive desire of the early Renaissance.” It was, Hapgood believed, “a mistake to think that the young Hebrew turns naturally to trade. He turns his energy to whatever offers the best opportunity for broader life and success. Other things besides business are open to him in this country.”

The most significant of those things, in Hapgood’s view, was the Yiddish theater. The journalist did not exit from productions at intermission but stayed to observe a rapt audience, most of whom had never before seen a drama or comedy of any kind. (The nearest many had come to a theatrical experience was the Purimspiel, a yearly masque at temples, celebrating the biblical account of Queen Esther’s triumph over the wicked anti-Semite Haman.)

The theaters themselves, on or close to Second Avenue, the aorta of the ghetto, were smaller versions of those uptown, the visitor noted, with chandeliers and balconies and flies for the scenery. The seat holders could be as boisterous as a crowd at the Elizabethan Globe or as hypnotized as children at a pantomime. The fare comprised serious works as well as shund—the Yiddish term for blatantly commercial melodrama: stories of wayward wives, drunken husbands, cruel landlords, children who married “no-goods,” and so on. Hapgood attended them all, keeping a close eye on the actors and a closer one on the onlookers, observing “the sweat-shop woman with her baby, the day laborer, the Russian-Jewish anarchist and socialist, the Ghetto rabbi and scholar, the poet, the journalist.” To him, as to so many of the fugitives from Eastern European pogroms, the Yiddish theater seemed to have a past as deep as Jewish history. In fact, it was younger than Hapgood himself.

The historical language of the Jews was, of course, Hebrew, the sanctified tongue of the Bible and prayer. Yiddish was the common speech of an ever-mobile people. It took form as a fusion of the Jewish-French dialect Laaz with Middle High German, mixing in new phrases from the various “Jew Streets” of major Western European cities. As the Jews drifted north and east to Poland and the Ukraine, where the czars suffered them to live, they picked up more expressions from the Slavic tongues. Written in Hebrew script, Yiddish was a living language, pronounced with great expression and musical cadence.

Anecdotes sprang up, stories that found a home in the wry attitude and rapid pulse of Yiddish: Two Jews decide to assassinate the czar. They bring sharp knives and conceal themselves behind trees in a park where the Russian leader takes his daily stroll. Hours pass, and the czar fails to appear. At sundown one of them worries: “I hope nothing happened to him.”

One Jew sighs to another, “It would be best never to have been born.” His friend agrees: “True, but how many are that lucky? Maybe one in a hundred thousand.”

Two Jews face execution by a firing squad. The captain offers Sol and Mendel blindfolds. Sol accepts. Mendel spits in the officer’s face: “Keep your lousy blindfold!” Sol demurs: “Mendel, don’t make trouble!”

As a magnificent funeral procession passes by the shtetl gates an old man weeps. “You’re a relative?” asks an astonished friend. “No.” “Then how come you’re crying?” “That’s why.”

With all its richness of attitude and lore, the language did not please everyone who spoke it. In The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten notes that purists derided Yiddish for its “bastard” origins, its “vulgar” idioms, its “hybrid” vocabulary. Russians called it “zhargon”; Germans condemned it as a “barbarous argot.” Worse still, Hebraicists thought it “uncivilized cant.” The greatest of them, the eighteenth-century scholar Moses Mendelssohn, wrote in German, stressed secular knowledge and social assimilation, and encouraged his coreligionists to speak in the tongues of their host countries. Yiddish, he declared, was “ridiculous, ungrammatical and a cause of moral corruption.”

On his counsel, many Jews did learn the tongues of other nations. Yet they stubbornly clung to Yiddish as the mamaloshen—the mother tongue. In a cascade of irony, Mendelssohn became revered as a scholar and philosopher but lost his place as a guardian of the Jewish spirit. His grandson, the composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, was raised a Christian and had no memory of synagogue attendance, nor had most of Felix’s cousins. Meantime, the children of the mother tongue kept their traditions and retained their religion.

By the nineteenth century, Eastern European Jews had been speaking Yiddish for many centuries, and knew it as well as they knew any other language. The Goldfaden family of Odessa was typical. Transformed by the Enlightenment (Haskalah in Hebrew), they spoke fluent Russian, French, and German—yet the mamaloshen was the language they spoke at home. They sent their brightest child, Abraham, to a progressive Jewish academy, where his teachers encouraged him to read Western literature and to study the Talmud and the Torah. But he, too, felt most comfortable speaking and writing Yiddish.

After graduation, the well educated but unfocused youth set out to find his destiny in Russia. Though musically illiterate, Goldfaden had a great ear; the tunes he banged out on the piano with two fingers caught the attention of local publishers and became hugely popular in Eastern European ghettos. With few copyright laws in effect, though, the royalties amounted to pennies. He became a teacher. When that career failed to satisfy, he tried retailing. Not enough ladies came to his hat shop, however, and he pushed on to medical school in Vienna, but his mind wandered. Journalism suddenly exerted an appeal; this he decided, was the proper occupation for the Coming Man.

Back in Russia, Goldfaden founded several Yiddish periodicals. One by one, they went under. He headed for the boomtown of Jassy, Rumania. Perhaps there, in a town full of progressive Jews, he could start a new paper. Upon arrival, Goldfaden dropped into a wine cellar called the Green Tree, where, astonished, he heard one of his own numbers performed by a popular singer. Afterward, Goldfaden fantasized about something unheard of: a theater for Jews, just like those for Gentiles. “Out of this,” his memoir states, “came a piece—a nonsense, a hodge-podge! I don’t even recall the name of it!” Nevertheless, on October 5 and 9, 1876, at the Green Tree, Goldfaden’s unremembered musical farce went on, performed by the professional singers he had hired, and applauded by a vociferous crowd.

Not a soul—including the father—knew that the Yiddish theater had just been born.

Moving from strength to strength, Goldfaden gathered a company of enthusiastic amateurs, wrote more plays and music, relocated to the Rumanian capital, Bucharest, and toured the big cities and provinces of Eastern Europe. His success encouraged other Yiddish companies to spring up. Heading up one was Jacob Adler, a young businessman-turned-actor, who nourished his own dream of replacing shund with a higher, more artistic theater.

Czar Alexander III—who blamed the 1881 assassination of his father, Alexander II, on laxity and liberalism—put a stop to all that. In the recent past, the authorities had allowed religious Jews to grow more insular and had unwisely permitted their secular brothers to embrace socialism or Zionism. This would not do. A three-pronged solution to the “Jewish problem” went into effect: one-third conversion to Christianity, one-third emigration, and one-third starvation. Almost incidentally, on August 2, 1883, a decree went up in every town square in Russia: Yiddish theater henceforward would be illegal throughout the land.

Most of the impresarios and actors were unwilling to convert. None intended to stop eating. That left emigration. Goldfaden stayed behind, moving his company around in Eastern Europe, picking up small change in Rumania and Poland. But the majority of Yiddish troupers bought steerage tickets to the Promised City: New York, New York, where they found thousands upon thousands of fellow refugees struggling for survival in a Lower East Side that soon grew more crowded than Calcutta’s slums. Yet in spite (and because) of those conditions, the Jewish population thirsted for art and entertainment. The people of the Yiddish theater strove to give them both.

In the beginning came the actors, extravagant personalities who made their histrionic uptown equivalents—Edwin Booth, Eleanor Duse, the Barrymores—seem self-effacing. The first superstar started as a boy soprano. In the early 1880s, Boris Thomashefsky won a featured role in Koldunya, a Goldfaden operetta previously staged in Rumania. When the diva failed to show on opening night, Boris crammed himself into her wig and dress and went onstage in the role. The Lower East Side crowd gave him a standing ovation. From that night on, Thomashefsky was a force to reckon with. By 21, he was a married barnstormer, touring with his own company nine months of the year. Boris’s father, Pincus, who had never written a word before, became the resident playwright. Once he had the plot, recalled Thomashefsky’s wife, Bessie, “Boris and his father filled in the prose. Music they scratched together from other plays. Boris wrote one or two songs, and in three days’ time, father and son were ready with a new ‘masterpiece’ for the Yiddish theater.”

Too often those masterpieces lacked proper conclusions—Pincus liked to see his son improvise. “Nu,” he would taunt. “You’re supposed to be a star. Let’s see how you’ll end the play. I have to write everything out for you?” As a matter of fact, he didn’t. Boris was a great ad-libber and a born crowd-pleaser. Inventing himself and his material as he went along, he became a celebrity in the Jewish areas of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Detroit, and then moved back to the Lower East Side, billing himself “America’s Darling.”

A Yiddish poem dedicated to Boris (and reprinted in his theatrical programs) included the lines: “Thomashefsky! Artist great! No praise is good enough for you. You remain the king of the stage. Everything falls at your feet.” Among the fallen objects was a throng of enraptured women, some of whom would faint when Boris made his bare-chested entrances in flesh-colored tights, barely acknowledging the audible swoons. When he played Solomon, the Second Avenue wags said that the only difference between the actor and the biblical king was that Solomon had to support his harem, whereas Boris’s harem supported him.

The other items that fell at Thomashefsky’s feet were coins—and he spent them all. In his self-celebrating but oddly revealing biography, written when he was reduced to singing for small change at a downtown nightclub, he remembers his competitors in the Yiddish theater. “If David Kessler wore a big hat with a long feather, Jacob Adler wore a bigger hat with three feathers and a gold scarf. I piled on colored stockings, coats, crowns, swords, shields, bracelets, earrings, turbans. Next to me, they looked like common soldiers. If they rode in on a real horse, I had a golden chariot drawn by two horses. If they killed an enemy, I killed an army.”

Thomashefsky’s greatest rival was a very different, and far more gifted, artist. In his own memoir, Jacob Adler admits, “I was weak as a singer. I had not a good voice nor, I confess it, a very good ear. But is this why I turned from the operetta to purely dramatic plays? I think not. From my earliest years I leaned toward those plays where the actor works not with jests and comic antics, but with the principles of art; not to amuse the public with tumbling, but to awaken in them and in himself the deepest and most powerful emotions.”

In some ways, Adler was astonishingly puritanical for his time. A fellow actor remarked in awe: “Jacob Adler never drank, never touched tobacco, never touched cards. Theater!” On the other hand, there were women, and with Jacob, that other hand was always straying. Two wives left their husbands for him, and he enjoyed innumerable liaisons. Assessing his personal relationships, Adler’s own granddaughter wrote, “Truly, he was a cause of grief to every woman who loved him.”

But he was also the lodestar of every production he ever graced, a performer of great acumen and charisma.

The third of the Yiddish theater’s powerful triumvirate, David Kessler, was a bull of a man who could make ingenues and male actors burst into tears when he bawled them out for some trivial error. His idea of motivation was rage, followed by grudging admiration: “May he burn,” he reportedly once said after putting a terrified performer through the wringer, “but the son of a bitch really played that scene.” Assessed by Hapgood as “one of the best in dramatic roles, and one of the worst in musical ones,” Kessler feared no one—except his wife, who kept women away from the stage door and, some said, made her husband do the household chores.

Though not a subtle actor, Kessler had the instincts of an artist and resented the lightweight, heavily costumed roles he had to play in order to maintain long lines at the box office. “All day long I am a human being,” he complained. “I speak like a human being, act like a human being. At night I must dress myself up like a turkey, like an idiot! If I went out in the street like this people would throw stones at me for a lunatic. Here they shout bravo!”

Conflicts among these three were inevitable. For a brief period, Adler and Thomashefsky lived at 85 West 10th Street—Jacob and his family on the first floor, Boris and his wife and children on the second. Adler’s morning routine never varied. After ablutions he would stick his head in the dumbwaiter shaft and holler, “Thomashefsky, a black year on your head! Thomashefsky, the devil himself go into your bones!” Boris, amused at this routine, never responded. Let the downstairs neighbor go through his exercise; everyone knew who drew the bigger crowds, the larger salary.

Once, and once only, Adler, Kessler, and Thomashefsky appeared together in a performance. Kessler upstaged Thomashefsky late in the play, aping the younger man’s broad gestures. Boris caught the stage business in the corner of his eye. The scene called for him to break a plate; furious, he smashed two. Staying within character, Kessler, who wasn’t supposed to touch the plates, broke four. Partisans in the audience cheered on their favorites. Adler was playing a mild-mannered rabbi, but he had no intention of missing out on the excitement. He broke some plates himself. The others shattered more crockery. At the finale, shards of china covered the floor, and Adler, Kessler, and Thomashefsky were starting in on a table and chairs when the curtain came down.

The actors’ competition had its echo in the Yiddish theater’s writer wars. One of the most spectacular examples of shund—Rashi, or the Persecution of the Jews in France—was written by Moishe Isaac Halevy Hurwitz, an extraordinary hustler who could only have been produced overseas, and who could only have flourished in America.

Early on, the playwright learned of Abraham Goldfaden’s efforts in Jassy. One afternoon a short, thickset visitor, bearded and dressed à la mode, presented himself backstage. He claimed to be the renowned Professor Hurwitz, specialist in world geography and playwriting. Something did not seem kosher, and Goldfaden asked a few questions around town. The “professor,” it turned out, had once taught Hebrew school on the elementary level, but soon got fired. He converted to Christianity and was currently a missionary in Bucharest. Confronted with the facts, Hurwitz acknowledged that he had indeed abandoned his old faith. “Hard times,” he explained. “I didn’t earn much with the old God. The new one brought me 90 francs a month.” A man may do what he likes, Goldfaden told him, but there was no way a Jewish audience could accept the work of a Christian missionary.

Hurwitz thought this judgment arbitrary and biased, and stomped off. But the success of Goldfaden’s troupe made him think twice about possibilities in the Yiddish theater. Over the next few weeks, he gathered a minyan. Before these ten Jewish witnesses he pronounced himself a Hebrew once more, hired a bunch of amateur actors, and began to stage his own plays in the back room of a Rumanian restaurant. Hurwitz turned up in London in the mid-1880s and made his way to the Lower East Side just in time for the birth of New York’s Yiddish theater. There he ground out play after play, some plagiarized, some original, without breaking a sweat.

His main rival was the inspired hack Joseph Lateiner, a former prompter and translator in Goldfaden’s troupe. It was Lateiner’s custom, as one scholar put it, “to take a foreign play, squeeze every drop of juice out of it, change the Gentile names to Jewish ones, slap on manly beards and peyes [sidelocks] and let them parade across the stage as Jews.”

But at least Lateiner tried to adhere to historical truth. Hurwitz had no standards at all; his strength was speed. The professor’s “history plays” became notorious for mixing the events of two centuries, and he falsified events whenever it suited him. Once, in a self-created emergency, he cast himself as a sultan in an Oriental drama. The purpose: to save the final act, incomplete on opening night. “Whatever I say, nod your head,” he hissed to the company just before the curtain rose. Hurwitz came onstage and spouted high-sounding phrases for 45 minutes. The others dutifully murmured assent, and as the curtain lowered the audience clapped and cheered as if it had all made sense.

Lateiner valiantly attempted to keep up. At first he wrote of the past, then thought to trump the competition with a story ripped from the headlines. His most earnest effort was Tisla Eslar, the true story of a rabbi recently accused of ritual murder in Hungary. The Lateiner play had just started its run when the rapid Hurwitz came up with two works on the same subject, The Trial at Tisla Eslar and The Conspiracy at Tisla Eslar. These would debut on successive nights, a first for the Yiddish theater.

Ironically, as theater historian Nahma Sandrow points out, the harder Lateiner and Hurwitz worked to accent their differences, the more the public linked them. Together they became “synonymous with vulgar dramatic baked goods of an uncertain freshness.” Both “plunged into the bakery business, until the two were almost continually bent over their respective ovens like cartoon madmen, jerkily kneading and shoveling in play after play after play.” Yet their works continued to draw audiences; no matter how bizarre the plots, how filled with sordid family squabbles, the ghetto dwellers regarded them as a form of documentary.

With good reason. For what the crowds saw on stage wasn’t very different from what they witnessed in real life. Looking back, Boris Thomashefsky’s son Teddy said that the world of the Yiddish theater “made the Left Bank of Paris look like a convent. There was every form of degeneration you can imagine: murder, suicide, drugs, sex deviations of all kinds. These were the emergent Jews, after living a Torah-cloistered existence, suddenly free—and drunk with it.” Naturally, that degeneration made for the melodrama actors relished and audiences adored, laughing and weeping through what the theaters advertised as “two hours of solid entertainment.”

Producers assumed that shund would always win out over serious drama. They referred to the public by the code name of “Moishe” (Moses), a caricature of the uncritical, easily amused ticket buyer who wanted everything to be histrionic and highly colored. Yet Moishe was not as simple as they thought. An inspired clown named Sigmund Mogulesco showed the Lower East Side that comedy could be subtle and informative; Hapgood called him “a natural genius of spontaneity.” The actor never went for cheap laughs as the lesser comedians did; he aimed at a natural look and rhythm of speech, then exaggerated it just enough to mine the humor in a character.

A great mimic of voice and gesture, Mogulesco could impersonate anyone: rich, poor, male, female, elder, youth. A memoirist of the period recalled “a gnarled old lady on the stage, who looked as if she had wandered in from the street. The action took place on a ship bound for America. She had to be vaccinated and put out her skinny trembling arm; her whole body quivered; every wrinkle in her bewildered face fluttered. The curtain fell. The audience cheered ‘Mogulesco.’ The old woman appeared, smiled charmingly, bowed and left. Afterward I went backstage and met Mogulesco, slim and elegant, a sensitive cheerful face, not a sign of the exhausted crone.”

Oddly enough, while Mogulesco began the elevation of the crowd, it was the ebullient, unsubtle Thomashefsky who brought it to another plane. In 1889, Boris held forth at the Thalia, a 3,000-seat theater at 46-48 Bowery; Jacob Adler performed across the street, at the 3,500-seat Windsor, 45-47 Bowery. To counteract the commercially successful operettas, Adler made a curtain call one evening to announce that he was going to open as Othello to Kessler’s Iago. On alternate nights, the two would switch roles. The role of the Moor, he added with a withering reference to Thomashefsky, was no mere “Princeling of Jerusalem.” This was a part that demanded a real actor, a specialist.

Boris rose to the bait, advertised his coming appearance in Hamlet, commissioned a translation, and starred in it, as promised. And his production turned out to be the more successful. The Thomashefsky Prince of Denmark played to standees. (Actually, he could have recited the front page of Hearst’s American and filled the house with young women. One evening an enthusiast actually started to strip in the aisle and was shown the door.) At the conclusion of Hamlet, calls of “Author! Author!” resounded almost every night. Boris didn’t have the heart to say that “Shekspir,” as the audience called him, had been dead for almost 300 years. A trouper volunteered to go out, claim authorship, and acknowledge the approbation, but instead, according to Bessie Thomashefsky, “We just used to ask them to forgive us, but Shakespeare lived far away in England, and could not come to see his play.”

Nonetheless, Moishe was rapidly maturing; the bardic presentations had deepened the hunger for serious, demanding theater. In 1903, Lower East Side patrons witnessed the cheeky, breakthrough performance of Bertha Kalisch. Along with the actresses Sarah Adler, Jacob’s third wife, and Bessie Thomashefsky, Boris’s long-suffering but only spouse, Kalisch dominated the Yiddish theater. The beautiful young woman had appeared in Goldfaden’s early productions, but even the Father of Yiddish theater could not hold her for long.

In 1896, at 24, she came to America and immediately picked up roles at the Thalia. Four years later, Bertha Kalisch’s name sat atop Bowery marquees, and unlike Bessie and Sarah, she had climbed there without the benefit of an impresario husband. Now she dared to follow the lead of Sarah Bernhardt.

The year before, the Divine Sarah had brought her notorious production of Hamlet to England, with herself in the title role. Encouraged by backers and fans, Kalisch was next to cross the gender line. Her performance won surprisingly favorable notices not only from the Yiddish papers but also from outside the ghetto. The critic for the New York Morning Journal happily reported, “There were no airs, there were no frills. There were no poses, no struggles for elusive effect.” The female star “got down to the solid bedrock of the idea and hammered at it.” As Joel Berkowitz notes in his luminous study Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage, Bertha Kalisch’s Hamlet “was no mere drawing-room experiment. It was popular theater—popular enough not only to remain in her repertoire as long as she remained in the Yiddish theater, but also to appeal to the ‘uptown’ critics.”

Those reviewers would come downtown the same year to see the most significant portrayal in Yiddish theater history. On reflection, Jacob Adler said that he derived enormous pleasure from playing “simple Jews, Jews who were clowns, fools, shlimazls, unfortunates.” But these characters were mere walk-ons, cameos compared with “the Jew of high intellect, proud convictions, and grand character.” That personage was the Shylock of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. The Adler version, presented at the People’s Theater a few months after the Kalisch splash, had an unusual aspect: a Jewish actor was playing the stage’s most infamous Jew.

Adler refused to follow the lead of Henry Irving. The English actor had made the Venetian moneylender a resolute gentleman, obliged to defend himself against Christian malice. This radical and sympathetic interpretation had enjoyed a warm reception in the late 1800s; yet Adler, who had seen Irving’s striking performance in London, wanted no part of it. He saw in Shylock “a patriarch, a higher being. A certain grandeur, the triumph of long patience, intellect, and character has been imparted to him by his teachers: suffering and tradition.”

In order to give Shylock “the prominence he deserved,” Adler ruthlessly edited The Merchant of Venice, excising scenes he thought unnecessary and altering the text so that his character remained onstage more than half the time. En route, he commissioned musical accompaniments by Joseph Rumshinsky. The composer knew the actor professionally. He got a more intimate view of Adler’s character one evening when the two men strolled past a Yiddish theater. It housed one of Adler’s favorite plays, but a lesser celebrity now had the role. In reminiscence, Rumshinsky wrote, “I wanted to take Jacob to the stage door, but he ran in to the lobby. By this time I was convinced he was insane.”

Rumshinsky continued, “Adler ran down the aisle, stopped in the middle, and shouted in Yiddish, ‘I am here, I am with you! We’ll play for you, we’ll give you good theater!’ ” The curtain rang down in the middle of the scene. Hustling to a dressing room, Adler began to apply makeup. “He said to me, ‘Rumshinsky, my friend, I love theater! But I’m only onstage two or three hours a day, so I have to turn the rest of my life into theater!’

“When he was ready, the curtain rose and the play started again, from the beginning.”

Still, just as the excitable Adler could persuade women into bed, he could also get artists to do his bidding. Rumshinsky created some of his best work for this new production. The theme he provided for Shylock was a grave, haunting cello solo, in contrast to a buoyant, fully orchestrated melody for the capricious Venetians. Aided by the mood music, Adler redefined Shakespeare’s problematical Jew in two pivotal scenes. The first was the shattering discovery that Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, had eloped with a Christian. In the Irving production, Shylock knocked at the door of his house three times, each time a little louder, with increasing desperation as the curtain came down. Irving’s contemporary Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree played the same scene more explicitly, pacing across the stage, crying out in sorrow and covering his head with ashes.

Adler took it a step further. He opened the front door with an immense key and entered silently. After an almost unbearable pause, he spoke his daughter’s name. Silence. He spoke it again, the voice hopelessly booming out “Jessicaaaaaa!” and echoing in a vast and empty room. He came out, bowed down with sorrow, to settle on a bench, his voice quavering with a barely audible Yiddish lament. As the curtain fell, he slowly tore his garment—a sign of mourning for the child who has left the faith and whom he must now regard as dead.

In the last scene, the court’s verdict goes against Shylock: he must forsake his gold and convert to Christianity. His enemy Gratiano sneers, “In christening shalt thou have two godfathers. Had I been judge, thou shouldst have had ten more, to bring thee to the gallows, not the font.” In all the other productions, Gratiano pushed Shylock to the ground where he sat, whimpering and defeated, the old Hebrew in extremis, victim of his own avarice. In the Adler version, Shylock was also forced to earth, but after a few moments he rose up. From his garment he brushed the dirt of the floor and, symbolically, the filth of bias. With an air of moral superiority and innate dignity, he made his exit. “Weighty and proud his walk,” the star recalled, “calm and conclusive his speech, a man of rich personal and national experience, a man who sees life through the glasses of eternity. So I played him, so I had joy in him, and so I portrayed him.”

The portrait of Shylock electrified the Lower East Side, as intended. What Adler could not have predicted was the clamor outside the little world of the Yiddish theater. The mainstream press embraced the production. Invoking the great eighteenth-century English actor/impresario, Theater magazine dubbed Jacob “The Bowery Garrick,” and the prominent producer Arthur Hopkins came downtown to make an unprecedented offer. He wanted to present the Adler Shylock on Broadway—not entirely in Yiddish; after all, Hopkins had to keep a wide, largely Gentile audience in mind. But the interpretation, the movements would be identical to those at the People’s, and the focus would remain on the Yiddish-speaking moneylender. The rest of the cast would recite their lines in English.

However bizarre—an unstable amalgam of art and promotion—Hopkins’s offer seemed too flattering to refuse. Adler signed the contract. He first tried out his Shylock in Boston and Washington, where patronizing critics spoke of it as a novelty rather than a breakthrough. Never mind, Hopkins assured his cast; New York would be different.

And so it proved. The Merchant of Venice opened at the American Theater on May 24, 1903, and rave notices showered down. ADLER SCORES IN SHYLOCK ROLE, trumpeted a headline in the Herald, and the article went on to call Jacob’s version “that rare dramatic experience on Broadway, the coincidence of a great play and a great actor.” The Evening Journal enthused that Adler “played the character in a way never seen on the American stage and defying imitation.” The performance revealed Shylock “as the Jew of the ages.” In the judgment of Theater magazine, the Jewish actor offered “a striking and original conception, wrought out not only of careful study, but above all from a racial sympathy, an instinctive appreciation of the deeper motives of this profound and complex character.”

No surprise that the Jewish press would kvell as one of its own received such glowing notices. But what was surprising was that most of the reviews paid more attention to the ticket buyers than to the actor. The Yiddish World, for example, found “a deep seriousness on the faces of these Americans. They understood Adler just as well as they did the rest of the actors, and in places even better. They showed this with both the attentiveness and the applause with which they greeted the end of every scene in which he appeared.”

Adler became the darling of the establishment press and of his Broadway peers. Steffens encouraged his readers to take the subway down to the Lower East Side. Even if they couldn’t understand a word, he wrote, they would apprehend the gestures and the themes of “the best theater in New York.” The establishment critics George Jean Nathan and Stark Young dropped by Adler’s dressing room; so did matinee idol John Drew. In the days to follow, the spirit of the ghetto took a galvanic leap. What the public schools taught the ghetto’s children was demonstrably true: humble beginnings were no bar to achievement in America. Old hands and greenhorns endlessly discussed this truth in cafés, social clubs, and sweatshops. A Yiddish proverb made the rounds: Men ken makhn dem kholem gresser vi di nakht: One can blow up a dream to be bigger than the night. Given the spectacular rise of Jacob Adler, who could disagree?

In fact, Adler never went back to Broadway. Having made his point, he contentedly stayed on Second Avenue for the rest of his career. But after the Shylock triumph, Yiddish theater would never be the same. The works of Hurwitz and Lateiner became unfashionable, and when Abraham Goldfaden immigrated to the Lower East Side in 1907 he found himself a back number, outdistanced by his offspring. No one had any interest in his old plays. When he wrote a new one, Ben Ami, about a false messiah, one producer bought it out of charity; at a reading, the actors openly mocked the dialogue. The old man overheard one performer refer to him as senile. Goldfaden left the room shocked and demoralized. From then on, he kept asking his wife and his few friends whether he had lost his senses. Out of pity, Jacob Adler sent Goldfaden five dollars a week so that he could eat and pay the rent for his meager flat, and Thomashefsky took an option on Ben Ami, motivated by guilt and sorrow.

And then a miracle happened. At a second reading, the actors proved excited by the prospect of putting on a retro melodrama. Gratefully, Goldfaden told Thomashefsky that he lived now for a chance at vindication before the Yiddish-speaking public. He would be content with one last success—a coda to his life in art. Then, he proclaimed, he could die happy.

Ben Ami opened on Christmas Day, 1907, to an avid response. The rest of the story could have been part of a Goldfaden mise-en-scène. There were curtain calls, a speech, flowers. The old playwright walked down Second Avenue accompanied by his admirers. Just before he reached his doorstep, they placed a garland around his neck. He walked into the apartment and greeted his wife, weeping: “They gave me laurel wreaths. I’m not senile, I’m not senile!” For the next five nights, he sat in a box watching performances of his play. On the sixth evening he felt feverish, left before the final curtain, and died in his sleep that night.

A funeral procession some 30,000 strong made its way from the ghetto to Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn. Many offered valedictories; Thomashefsky’s over-the-top oration put them all in the shade. “If not for our old father Goldfaden,” he intoned, “we none of us would have become tragedians or comedians, prima donnas, soubrettes, playwrights. If not for Goldfaden, we’d be plain and simple Jews: cantors, choir singers, folk singers, clowns, clothes peddlers, machine sewers, cigarette makers, Purim players, wedding jugglers, clothes pressers and finishers.” He paused for breath and went on: “Goldfaden went out like a light in his dark room while we, his children, ride in carriages, own our own houses, are hung with diamonds. Union members, club members, pinochle players, decision makers, managers, sports. We’re nice and warm, all of us. But our father was cold.”

Ben Ami ran for months, just as Goldfaden had dreamed. But that production became the coda for the old-style Yiddish theater. Fed up with light fare, audiences now demanded substance. Kessler got his wish; no longer did he have to dress up like a turkey. An advertisement in the Yiddish-language Forward listed him in adaptations of Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, as well as in four contemporary dramas—all in a single week.

By then, a new generation of writers had broken through.

Jacob Gordin, who began as a journalist, stressed realism over fantasy. In his debut, Siberia, a man finds himself condemned to prison for a misdemeanor. En route north he slips his chains, rejoins his family, changes his name, and assumes another way of life. He prospers and becomes a respectable leader in his community. A rival, jealous of the man’s success, discovers his secret and informs the police. Arrest and martyrdom follow.

The Lower East Siders had never encountered an original Yiddish play like this—no jokes, no promise of hope or reconciliation, no songs, and none of the big, ornamented speeches that ghetto dwellers adored. Yet audiences flocked to see Gordin’s terse presentation of sorrow and rue. His domestic drama, Wild Man, was even more popular. This strange prefiguring of Faulk-ner starred Jacob Adler in the title role. The plot was simple, the effect overpowering. A feebleminded youth falls in love with his stepmother without understanding his strange new emotions. “The poor fellow,” wrote Hapgood, “is filled with the mysterious wonderings of an incapable mind. His shadow terrifies and interests him. He is puzzled and worried by everything; the slightest sound terrifies him. The burlesque which Mr. Adler puts into the part was inserted to please the crowd, but increases the horror of it, as when Lear went mad; for the Elizabethan audiences laughed, and had their souls wrung at the same time.”

Leon Kobrin, a Gordin disciple, originally preferred to write in his native Russian: Yiddish was more appropriate to tell “simple tales for servant girls and ignoramuses.” But he soon succumbed to the culture of the tenements and to the spell of the theater. Yiddish play after Yiddish play tumbled from his pen, most of them about contemporary people and current dilemmas. The titles are eloquent: The East Side Ghetto; Minna, or the Ruined Family from Downtown; Sonia from East Broadway.

As for Sholem Asch, nothing seemed beyond his talent. His plays reached far beyond the ghetto, to seventeenth-century pogroms, Jewish criminals, the garment industry, Christian history. “I am not a Jewish artist,” he insisted, even though he continued to write in Yiddish. “I am a universal artist.” Few disagreed. His plays drew audiences all over the world. In the same vein, The Treasure, a play about a shtetl transfixed by the rumor of money buried in a local graveyard, was written by one of the most Americanized of the new writers, Russian-born Columbia grad David Pinski. It became a Lower East Side hit after famed director Max Reinhardt first staged the work in Germany in 1910. Harvard professor George Pierce Baker, teacher of Eugene O’Neill, George Abbott, and other Broadway luminaries, read The Treasure in translation and compared Pinski to Ben Jonson. If the Yiddish playwright’s dialogue “lacks the poetic expression of Volpone,” Baker wrote, “it has a finer truth of characterization.”

Following the Great War, the old guard slowly relinquished its hold. One evening in 1920, David Kessler suffered abdominal pains. He went on anyway, and then collapsed; rushed to the hospital, he died during emergency surgery. Jacob Adler’s health failed in the early 1920s. He made his last bow in Gordin’s The Stranger in 1924. Struggling to remember his lines at the Second Avenue Theater, he hobbled across the stage on a cane, and then received 18 curtain calls from a weeping audience. In his dressing room, Adler’s wife exclaimed, “You made them cry as never before.”

Yes, he acknowledged with a few tears of his own. “But it was not my art that made them cry.” Shortly afterward, Thomashefsky tried to bring Yiddish theater to Broadway, to no avail, and his career fell into a long tailspin.

By then, other troupes had pushed their way onstage. A young actor-director, Jacob Ben-Ami, took the limelight, emphasizing the new “intensive reality” of theorist Konstantin Stanislavsky. Ben-Ami’s innovations freed the Yiddish stage from the forehead-smiting, breast-beating style adopted by too many of the lesser players and began yet another renaissance on Second Avenue. Appraising the downtown scene in the early 1930s, Theater magazine enthused, “The Yiddish theater is now superior to the American. Yiddish theater is aimed at art.”

Equally up to date, almost every member of the sensational Artef (a Yiddish acronym for Worker’s Theater Group) was a hard-line communist. Predictably, the Artef’s work was symbolic and stark, emphasizing the group rather than the individual. Productions were revolutionary in more than the political sense, with dazzling set designs and acting that displayed a polish and discipline that other performers secretly envied. Jealous competitors were quick to mock the troupe’s mannerisms. Maurice Schwartz jeered at radical performers who made “peculiar motions with their hands, speaking in squeaky tones, rolling their eyes, sighing at the moon.” They spoke “the way people are going to speak in the future, millions of years from now . . . everything the reverse of natural; pointed walls and furniture, holding a walking stick upside down, jumping instead of walking, and instead of natural human faces—backwards noses and crooked cheeks.”

Other groups stayed away from politics and flourished. Yiddish films came out, including Gordin’s Mirele Efros, a kind of updated “Queen Lear,” and Tevye the Dairyman—progenitor of Fiddler on the Roof—starring Maurice Schwartz in the title role. Two of Jacob Adler’s daughters, Celia and Stella, became Yiddish theater stars; his son, Luther, was the original Golden Boy in Clifford Odets’s Broadway drama and soon made a name in Hollywood. Josef Buloff and Joseph Schildkraut appeared in American movies. So, even more spectacularly, did Meshilem Weisenfreund, the son of Yiddish theater producers, who, at 12, went on in an emergency to play the small part of a doddering ancient and who, renamed Paul Muni, received five Academy Award nominations, and won an Oscar for his starring role in the The Story of Louis Pasteur.

As Muni rose, however, the Yiddish theater seemed to experience an equal and opposite reaction. By the late 1930s, the Lower East Side’s Jewish population began to disperse to the outer boroughs, to better digs uptown, or to the burgeoning suburbs. Only a few signs of life remained. WEVD (“the station that speaks your language”) continued to entertain listeners with plays and interviews in Yiddish. Molly Picon’s winsome personality and Menashe Skulnik’s unabashed clowning found welcome not only on the Yiddish stage but on television and in movies. Ben Bonus founded a Yiddish theater in Hollywood and toured America with his wife, Mina Bern.

The charismatic Maurice Schwartz, fluent enough to pursue a career uptown or in films, stayed in his Yiddish Art Theater on 12th Street and Second Avenue. Under his aegis the troupe staged experimental “Grotesque-Cubist” productions of works like The Dybbuk, as well as new translations of Gorky, Schnitzler, Shaw, Molière, Chekhov, and Shakespeare. Occasionally, Schwartz could out-Ziegfeld Ziegfeld. His version of Sholem Asch’s spectacular Sanctification of the Name, for example, boasted 42 speaking roles, crowd scenes with 50 supernumeraries, ornate sets, orchestral music, choreography, and a 56-page program. Audiences, at first jarred, soon realized that they were in the presence of a new and modern sensibility. Uptown critic John Mason Brown, astonished, raved about a “vast energy, a blatant, exciting kind of underscoring that is more familiar to Berlin than to Broadway.” New York Times drama reviewer Brooks Atkinson agreed: Whenever you see this unique performer, he wrote, “you know you are not in a library.”

But Schwartz turned out to be the last superstar. One by one, the Yiddish venues folded, as did the newspapers that had reviewed and discussed so much shund and classic drama. Alas, the one king no Yiddish actor could impersonate was Canute, and the tide of assimilation flowed on. As the next generation of Jews caught on in New York, entering the professions, writing (with unconscious irony) Ph.D. dissertations on Henry James, and establishing themselves in business and in show business, Yiddish became a discomfiting singsong antique, a reminder of teeming slums and greenhorn culture. When the Yiddish marquee names passed on, no one replaced them.

All too soon, the Hebrew Actors Union on 7th Street, a powerhouse guild in the early 1920s to the 1950s, became a meetinghouse for retirees who sat on hard chairs, smoked, and reminisced about better times. The late Seymour Rexite, a union president, once spoke to me about the men and women he had watched and learned from and acted with a world ago. Around his neck he wore a gold Magen David. “They call this the Star of David,” he said. “Well, this is only one star. I worked with hundreds of stars of David, Jewish stars who outshone the streetlights, the stage lights, the sun, sometimes.” But today, he sadly observed, the only place you could find young players of Yiddish was the Folksbiene Theater. Almost alone, that group was (and still is) dedicated to keeping the flame alive, sometimes using supertitles, because so few audience members can understand the mamaloshen.

In World of Our Fathers, Irving Howe offers a valedictory. In order for the Yiddish theater to have survived, he argues, “some sort of leap was necessary, as Schwartz’s Art Theater and the Artef at their best undertook, from folk to cosmopolitan.” But this could happen “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 put paid to that: “It was a theater blazing with the eloquence of its moment, and in the memories of a few the glow would remain.”

Well, if the Yiddish theater itself has vanished, its glow is more than metaphoric. The fervor, the cultural ambition, the pure chutzpah animated a generation of showfolk who followed the giants. Lee Strasberg, a founder of the Actors Studio, never forgot his introduction to the world of performance when, as a child, he watched David Kessler—”clearly an actor of great temperament.” Stella Adler, Jacob’s daughter, became another of the most prominent acting teachers in the world. Concerning the audience, she wrote, “I have a mission right from the old man, who said, ‘Make it better for them. Otherwise, why are they here?’ ” Her mission quite literally covered the Waterfront. The star of that film acknowledged his debt not long ago. “If there wasn’t the Yiddish theater,” observed Marlon Brando, “there wouldn’t have been Stella. And if there hadn’t been Stella, there wouldn’t have been all these actors who studied with her and changed the face of theater—and not only acting, but directing and writing.”

Indeed, stage and film directors from Harold Clurman to Sidney Lumet pursued directing careers because of what they saw early on in the Yiddish theater. And the pupils of Adler and Strasberg and their colleagues form a pantheon of American performance. In addition to Brando, exemplars include Montgomery Clift, Paul Newman, Martin Landau, Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Ellen Burstyn. Brian De Palma’s remake of Scarface, one of the most popular DVD rentals for the last several years, bases itself on Paul Muni’s 1932 feature. Recalls Pacino, who played the title role: “The film just stopped me in my tracks. All I wanted to do was imitate the central character. The acting went beyond the boundaries of naturalism into another kind of expression. It was almost abstract what he did. It was almost uplifting.”

This “other kind of expression”—authentic, concentrated, persuasive—was the true spirit of the Yiddish theater. It animated the professionals who acted on its stages, and they in turn breathed it into their colleagues on Broadway and in Hollywood. The phrases of the Yiddish theater are no longer in the original tongue, but the fervor, the intensity, and the chutzpah persist, now part of the deepest essence of American drama.


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