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

Edna Nachshon
  • Review
By – July 5, 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.

Relat­ed Content:

Nor­man J. Fed­der, Ph.D., is dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of the­atre at Kansas State Uni­ver­si­ty. He is cur­rent­ly on the fac­ul­ty of the Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Arts Pro­gram at Nova South­east­ern University.

Discussion Questions