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.