New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway

Columbia University Press  2016


Edna Nahshon has admirably edited and contributed to an anthology of essays and photos chronicling and illuminating New York’s Yiddish theater from the 1880s through the 1940s—a theatre she describes as offering its public “a decidedly Jewish lens for looking at such key issues as acculturation, labor relations, intergenerational conflicts, and personal relationships” while providing this country with some of its finest actors, playwrights, designers, and comedians. “Without the Yiddish Theatre [sic],” Nahshon concludes, “the American stage would simply not be the same.”

Yiddish theatre began in Jassy, Romania in 1876, when writer/composer Abraham Goldfaden turned popular Yiddish songs into musical plays by connecting them with storylines, to be performed by local singers. He went on to adapt well-known Jewish narratives into well-received productions of lavish operettas. Goldfaden’s work became the model for New York’s nascent Yiddish theatre, beginning in the Bowery in the early 1880s and later flourishing on Second Avenue—the “Yiddish Broadway.”

Most of Goldfaden’s operettas have long been forgotten, along with those of his peers; but some are performed in English to this day. Moreover, these productions launched the careers of musical theatre superstars—such as Boris Thomashefsky, with his hundreds of patriotn (obsessive fans); Menasha Skulnik, “Second Avenue’s favorite nitwit”; and Molly Picon, whose vivacious Yiddish persona can still be enjoyed in the popular film Yidl mitn Fidl.

When writer/intellectual Jacob Gordin arrived in New York City in 1891, he was appalled by its Yiddish theatre: “Everything that I heard and saw was far from Jewish life, was vulgar, without aesthetic merit, false, vile, and rotten.” He proceeded to do something about it. He wrote and produced plays that replicated the bitter realities of contemporary Jewish life, as well as Yiddish adaptations of the world’s greatest dramas: those of Shakespeare, Goethe, Ibsen, and Chekhov.

Gordin’s work provided quality roles to any number of superb Yiddish actors, including Jacob Adler, David Kessler, Keni Liptzin, Bertha Kahlich, and Sarah Adler. Jacob and Sarah were the parents of prominent American actors, Luther and Stella—active members of the renowned Group Theater. (Stella became the foremost teacher of American “method” acting, her most notable student being Marlon Brando.) Moreover, Gordin’s example inspired Yiddish dramatists of quality, such as Sholem Asch, H. Leivick, Peretz Hirshbein, and David Pinsky. (Asch’s God of Vengeance continues to be in professional production.)

It could also be said that the example of Gordin led to the development of Yiddish political theater, the most successful of which was the leftist Arbeter Teater Farband (ARTEF), which combined radical theatre with expressionist designs and staging. The designs were those of Russian-trained Boris Aronson. An entire chapter explores his Yiddish theatre work, which led to his becoming one of Broadway’s leading scenic artists.

The book also has a chapter on the Yiddish Puppet Theater of Yodl Cutler and Zuni Maud—as well as two on Yiddish Vaudeville and its culmination in the “Borscht Belt” entertainment that perfected the talents of America’s greatest comedians, such as Danny Kaye and Mel Brooks.

The longest lasting enterprise of New York’s Yiddish theatre was the forty-year Yiddish Art Theatre, created by multi-talented actor/director/producer, Maurice Schwartz. The Yiddish Art Theatre reached its pinnacle in Schwartz’s adapting, directing, and starring in Israel Joshua Singer’s much-revived masterpiece, Yoshe Kalb.

Nahshon’s anthology closes with a chapter on Fiddler on the Roof, which is well placed to conclude this marvelous book—encapsulating, as does the musical, everything New York's Yiddish theatre achieved both ethnically and artistically.

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