Star­dust Lost: The Tri­umph, Tragedy, and Meshugas of the Yid­dish The­ater in America

Stephen Kan­fer
  • Review
By – November 11, 2011

The remark­able achieve­ment of the Yid­dish the­ater in ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca is well demon­strat­ed by Ste­fan Kan­fer in his spir­it­ed and thor­ough account of the genre — trac­ing its his­to­ry from Abra­ham Goldfaden’s bring­ing it to birth in 1886 in Jassy, Roma­nia through its present decline; includ­ing its influ­ence on Amer­i­can the­ater and cin­e­ma and response to con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish crises. 

Flour­ish­ing on Sec­ond Avenue in New York City’s Low­er East Side, much of the theater’s fare was sen­ti­men­tal melo­dra­ma and low­brow musi­cal com­e­dy cater­ing to the Jew­ish mass­es’ need for escapist enter­tain­ment— shund (trash) as the Yid­dish literati dubbed and derid­ed it. The lat­ter demand­ed plays of con­se­quence, reflect­ing the major issues and press­ing needs of the impov­er­ished immi­grant com­mu­ni­ty; and they suc­ceed­ed in writ­ing and pro­duc­ing these plays — such as S. Anski’s The Dyb­buk,” Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance,” Jacob Gordin’s Mirele Efros,” Peretz Hirshbein’s Green Fields,” H. Leivick’s The Golem,” David Pinski’s King David and His Wives,” and I. J. Singer’s Yoshe Kalb.” More­over, Sec­ond Avenue the­atres mount­ed pro­duc­tions in Yid­dish of Shake­speare; and intro­duced their audi­ences to the works of lead­ing Euro­pean play­wrights— such as Ibsen, Chekhov, and Tol­stoy— before they were staged uptown to the Eng­lish speak­ing public. 

The The­ater was sus­tained and dom­i­nat­ed by flam­boy­ant actor/​impresarios with con­sid­er­able tal­ent and dri­ve, but enlarged egos — notably Boris Thomashef­sky, Jacob Adler, David Kessler, and Mau­rice Schwartz — in ruth­less com­pe­ti­tion for audi­ences and noto­ri­ous­ly promis­cu­ous with fel­low actors and each other’s spous­es, hilar­i­ous exam­ples of which thread through Kanfer’s book. 

While the hey-day of the Yid­dish The­ater is long gone due to the assim­i­la­tion of its audience’s heirs into Amer­i­can cul­ture and lan­guage, it had a major and last­ing impact on Broad­way and Hol­ly­wood. It pro­duced such stel­lar tal­ents as actors Her­schel Bernar­di, Joseph Buloff, Red But­tons, Fyvush Finkel, Sam Jaffe, Paul Muni, Mol­ly Picon; stage design­er Boris Aron­son; and com­pos­er Sholem Secun­da. Two of the three founders of the renowned Group The­atre, Harold Clur­man and Lee Stras­berg, were weaned on Yid­dish The­atre — as were most of the Group’s actors, includ­ing John Garfield, Mor­ris Carnovsky, and Luther and Stel­la Adler, chil­dren of the Yid­dish Theater’s fore­most per­former, Jacob Adler. Stel­la with her act­ing class­es and Stras­berg with his Actor’s Stu­dio trained the finest actors of our time, such as Mar­lon Bran­do and Anne Ban­croft; while the Yid­dish Theater’s influ­ence is evi­dent in the work of lead­ing Amer­i­can drama­tists Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Pad­dy Chayef­sky, Herb Gard­ner, Tony Kush­n­er, David Mamet, David Mar­gulies, Arthur Miller, Clif­ford Odets, Sylvia Regan, Neil Simon, and Wendy Wasser­stein — not to men­tion the cre­ators of the Sec­ond Avenue-derived Broad­way block­buster, Fid­dler on the Roof! 

All this Ste­fan Kan­fer vivid­ly brings to our atten­tion and admi­ra­tion, for which we should be con­sid­er­ably grateful.

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.

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