EDNA NAHSHON is assistant professor of Hebrew at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is the author of Yiddish Proletarian Theatre: The Art and Politics of the Artef, 1925-1940 (Greenwood, 1998) and of From the Ghetto to the Melting Pot: Israel Zangwill's Jewish Plays, (forthcoming). Dr. Nahshon has contributed entries to the American National Biography, a milestone publication sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies; written the entry on theater in Israel for the Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and the entry on Yiddish theater for Jewish American History and Culture. Her work was included in Yiddish Language and Culture, Then and Now, The Politics of Yiddish, Jewish Studies in a New Europe and Di Froyen: Women and Yiddish. Professor Nahshon has delivered academic papers at over twenty conferences and congresses. Her most recent paper, "The Performance of Justice: Yiddish Mock Trials" was delivered in July 1999 at the International Academic Workshop on Yiddish Drama, Theatre, and Performing Arts organized by the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Oxford University and the European Science Foundation. Her impressive academic credentials have afforded her a YIVO Fellowship, the International Fellowship in Jewish Studies of the Memorial Foundation and a grant given by the American Council of Learned Societies. In 1999 she received a Skirball Visiting Fellowship from Oxford University's Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and JTS's Stroock Fellowship. From 1990 to 1998, Professor Nahshon was chair of JTS's Hebrew department. She is currently the historical adviser to the television project, "The Life and Death of the Federal Theatre" produced by the Educational Film Center and Multi-Media Consultants. Dr. Nahshon studied at Tel Aviv University and Columbia University. She holds a PhD in Performance Studies from New York University. She is Editorial Board Member of All About Jewish Theatre Email Address: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Yiddish theater was the great cultural passion of the immigrant Jewish community in the United States. It was the theater, Harold Clurman noted in 1968 that “even more than the synagogue or the lodge, became the meeting place and the forum of the Jewish community in America between 1888 and the early 1920s.”
The Yiddish theater was a new phenomenon in Jewish life. It came into being in 1876 in Iasi, Romania, and arrived in New York six years later. This novel form of entertainment quickly took hold; within less than a decade, New York turned into the undisputed world capital of the Yiddish stage. Supported by a constantly growing Yiddish-speaking immigrant population (nearly 3.5 million Jews settled in the United States between 1881 and 1925), the New York Yiddish rialto was brimming with energy. It produced celebrated stars, generated a wealth of dramatic material, and presented a rich spectrum of productions ranging from sentimental melodramas and quasi-historical operettas to sophisticated experiments inspired by the latest trends of the European, particularly the Russian, stage.
Although always in the hands of private entrepreneurs, the American Yiddish theater was a genuine people’s institution insofar as its appeal was not limited to any one socioeconomic group. It was attended by rich and poor, educated and illiterate, observant and free-thinking. Statistical data attests to its popularity. In 1927, two years after mass immigration had reached a virtual halt, there were 24 Yiddish theaters across America, 11 of them in New York, 4 in Chicago, 3 in Philadelphia, and 1 each in Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, Newark, and St. Louis. Some 10 years later, during the 1937-1938 season, when the Yiddish theater in America was well past its prime, it was estimated that 1.75 million tickets to Yiddish shows were sold in New York City alone. Such sales meant that every Yiddish-speaking adult in the city saw an average of more than three Yiddish shows per year, an impressive figure unmatched by any other ethnic group in America.
In order to understand the development of the Yiddish theater in the United States, however, it is imperative to consider its East European roots. Professional entertainment, even on a modest scale, was introduced into Jewish life only after secularization and urbanization had begun to change traditional Jewish life. Music was the only performing art for which Jews could boast of having skilled personnel. Music also provoked the least protest because of its nonrepresentational character. Hence, it was only natural that the earliest modern Jewish performers were itinerant minstrels. The first such group, the Broder Zinger, originated, as its name indicates, in the Polish town of Brody. By the mid-nineteenth century, its members began to travel across the towns and villages of Eastern Europe, presenting their comic songs and ballads to working-class audiences. As this kind of entertainment became popular, the number of such musicians increased. Some began to introduce bits of dialogue and to use some makeup and props to add continuity and dramatic flavor to their musical numbers.
These rudimentary theatrics finally evolved into a cohesive, albeit crude, performance in 1876, when Abraham Goldfaden (1840–1908), a Russian intellectual known for his popular tunes and lyrics, joined forces with Israel Gradner, a Broder singer performing in a Jassy tavern on the eve of the Russo- Turkish War. Goldfaden imposed a simple dramatic framework on Gradner’s musical material and created a genre that has been compared to Italian commedia dell’arte because it combined a fixed scenario with improvised dialogue and stage business. The successful Goldfaden enlarged the troupe and began to produce full-fledged musical plays, some of which—The Witch (1879), The Two Kuni Lemls (1880) and Shulamith (1880)—have become classics of the Jewish stage and have been frequently revived in the original as well as in Hebrew and English translations. Known as the Father of the Yiddish Theater, Goldfaden was a man of many talents who produced, wrote, composed, directed, and designed the sets of his own productions. However, in a world of wandering troupes with little regard for copyright laws, he also suffered from his own phenomenal success: actors who were initiated into the stage by him, including Gradner, frequently opted to leave the master’s majestic rule and to found their own competing traveling companies whose main repertoire consisted of Goldfaden’s original plays.
In 1883, following the assassination of Czar Alexander II, the Russian government proclaimed a series of anti-Jewish laws, including the prohibition of Yiddish theatrical productions, throughout the Russian empire. Because anti-Semitism and the depressed economic conditions that afflicted Jewish communities in other East European countries were not conducive to theatrical activity, the young actors and fledgling playwrights of the new Yiddish stage joined the great migration to the West. London became the new, though temporary, center of the Yiddish stage.
Unfortunately, the poor immigrant community of the East End could not support this influx of Jewish thespians. The latter were also hampered by the fierce opposition of the Anglo-Jewish establishment and by the strict fire-safety rules of the municipal authorities. The freedom to flourish without such constraints was to be found in the Golden Land, particularly in New York, soon to become the largest Jewish urban center in the world.
It was, perhaps, the good fortune of Leon and Miron Golubok and their troupe to have left Russia and to have been stranded in London in 1882, before the influx of better-known actors began. They were also lucky to have a brother, Abe Golubok, who had already settled in New York. The American Golubok and a co-worker in the same cigar factory, an ambitious youth named Boris Thomashefsky (1868/1866?–1939) persuaded Frank Wolf, the proprietor of a downtown saloon, to become the first Yiddish impresario and to finance the importation of the Golubok troupe to New York. The company, consisting of four men and two women, arrived in the city in the summer of 1882. On August 12, assisted by local talent and featuring the young Thomashefsky, the actors premiered with Goldfaden’s popular musical, The Witch. The performance at Turn Hall, 66 East Fourth Street, started late and ended in disaster. Thomashefsky, who some years later became a matinee idol of the Yiddish theater, offered in his memoirs (1935) a glamorized version of the event, including attempted sabotage by uptown German Jews. It seems, however, that the performance left no imprint on the life of the community, and its importance is primarily that of an historic first.
Toward the end of 1882, the group signed a lease to play weekends at the Old Bowery Garden, a narrow beer hall with a small stage usually devoted to American vaudeville. The Yiddish shows were presented regularly on Friday nights and Saturday matinees, offering mostly Goldfaden’s popular operettas and the early plays written by Nahum Meir Shaikewitz (Shomer) (1849–1905), one of the first Yiddish playwrights to utilize Goldfaden’s formula, though with considerably less talent. The company also presented two plays written by one of its actors, Israel Barsky, whose business card identified him as “Tailor, actor and playwright. Author of The Spanish Inquisition. Pants altered and pressed.” It is interesting to note that in the absence of a centralized rabbinate, there was no opposition to performances conducted on Saturday; even Orthodox spectators frequented the theater on that day. However, no stage business that could be regarded as a violation of the holy day took place on stage: sealed envelopes arrived miraculously open, cigarettes were not lit, and all lights were turned on in advance before the performance began.
In 1883, plagued by financial problems and personal feuds, the company split into two theater groups. The Goluboks and their people stayed at the Old Bowery Garden, and Thomashefsky, joined by his two sisters and his entrepreneurial father, Pesach, leased the National, a theater on the Bowery near Grand Street. Neither fared well; the arrival in 1883 of a professional group from London, one with nine experienced actors as well as its own playwright, forced the Goluboks to move to Chicago and the Thomashefskys had to retreat for the next three years to Philadelphia.
In 1886, another major company that boasted some of the most brilliant stars of the Yiddish theater arrived in New York. Among the newcomers were comedian Sigmund Mogulesco (1858–1914) and the dramatic actors David Kessler (1860–1920) and Sigmund Feinman (1862–1909). A year later Jacob P. Adler (1855–1926) and Kenny Lipzin (1856–1918) left for New York, as did Abraham Goldfaden, who hoped to capitalize on his fame and to take the town by storm. Failing in their attempts, Adler and Goldfaden returned to Europe. Adler was invited back to New York in 1890; he became the greatest dramatic actor of the Yiddish stage. Goldfaden returned to New York in 1902, a somewhat pathetic figure whose livelihood depended on the regular support of Thomashefsky and Adler. In 1907, shortly before his death, the old master was vindicated when his play, Ben Ami, produced by Thomashefsky, proved to be one of the hits of the season.
The fierce competition between the early two companies created a heavy demand for new scripts. Two prolific dramatists who virtually monopolized the young Yiddish stage were Joseph Latteiner (1853—1935) and “professor” Moshe Hurwitz (1884—1910). Latteiner, who originally came to the United States in 1884 as the prompter of the Karp-Silberman company, wrote some 150 plays. Hurwitz was equally prolific; he had arrived with the Romanian troupe in 1887 and served as its dramatist. Latteiner and Hurwitz specialized in quasi-historical extravaganzas, heart-wrenching melodramas, and tsaytbilder, spectacles depicting recent events of national or sensational significance. Their plays, a hodgepodge of tragedy, comedy, music, and spectacle, were filled with plagiarized scenes and historical inaccuracies. Nonetheless, on stage they offered the immigrants an escape from their drab existence and an entry into a magical world of glamour, turbulence, passion, and fantasy.
The scripts were mostly derivative. They either Judaized classic and current dramas, like Shakespeare’s or Ibsen’s, or padded original plots with scenes lifted from other sources. It is significant that nearly every play included some traditional religious ritual, such as the lighting of the Sabbath candles, a wedding ceremony, or the recitation of a well-known prayer. The theatrical enactment of these traditional rituals touched the community’s nostalgic nerve, its collective yearning for the Old Country and the life it had left behind. These scenes remained an integral part of the Yiddish theater well into the 1930s.
The actors who performed in these early plays delivered their lines in daytshmerish, a Germanized Yiddish deemed more eloquent and more suitable to the stage. Their acting style was operatic, namely, broad, intense, with an energetic display of temperament. Often working with an unfinished script and learning a new part every two weeks, the actors took the liberty of improvising, introducing lines from other plays, and interpolating song-and-dance numbers that bore no relation to the plot.
The Yiddish stars soon became the royalty of the Lower East Side. They elicited a unique sort of adoration, and the characters they played were a major topic of discussion and controversy. This popular sentiment reached fanatic proportions with the patriyotn, avid fans of a specific star who regularly crowded the gallery, clapping their hands enthusiastically at whatever their favorite star did or said. It has been suggested that these devotees continued the tradition of the Hasidic followers crowding at their rabbi’s court.
The grandeur of the stage was not reflected in the auditorium, whose atmosphere resembled that of an outdoor marketplace: peddlers promoted their wares, and spectators chewed apples, shelled peanuts, and popped bottles of soda both during and after the intermission. The burgeoning intellectual circles looked down at the theaters as circuses and labeled their plays shund, mainly trash. Influenced by the new European theater, they wanted their Yiddish Shaw and Ibsen.
Jacob Gordin (1853–1909), a Russified intellectual with no previous ties to the Yiddish stage, became their torchbearer and idol. Gordin came to the United States in 1891 with the Am Olam movement, which had been greatly influenced by the ideas of Tolstoyan socialism. He accidentally met Jacob P. Adler, who voiced his dissatisfaction with the repertoire of the Yiddish theater. Adler was looking for plays of greater literary value; not a song-and-dance man, he sought strong dramatic roles. Gordin wrote his first play, Siberia, for Adler. Its 1891 premiere marked the beginning of a new phase in the history of the Yiddish theater.
Gordin rejected escapist spectacles in favor of a realistic mode, the prevailing style of the European stage. He had serious literary aspirations and fought bitterly with actors to convince them to deliver his lines as written, and to omit their customary “shticks” and improvisations.
Gordin’s plays, which did away with daytshmerish and which employed a more natural language, were successes. Gordin was recognized as an innovator and as the leading playwright of the Yiddish theater. His 18-year career was named the Gordin Era, also known as the Golden Epoch of the Yiddish theater in America.
Gordin, a social activist and former teacher, utilized the stage as a didactic forum. In his plays, playlets, and translations, he focused on issues relevant to American Jewish life. In The Jewish King Lear (1892) and Mirele Efros (1898), he tackled the painful subject of intergenerational estrangement; in God, Man and the Devil (1900), he criticized the manic pursuit of the almighty dollar; in The Kreutzer Sonata (1902), he dealt with the subject of women’s emancipation. Gordin’s plays, essentially domestic melodramas, became classics of the Yiddish theater and are still periodically revived.
One of the greatest playwrights of the later Yiddish stage, David Pinski, noted that Gordin did not write plays, but parts. Indeed, the more ambitious actors of the early Yiddish stage quickly recognized Gordin’s plays as effective star vehicles and were often eager to perform in them. Four actors were closely associated with Gordin’s repertoire: Jacob P. Adler, the most revered dramatic actor of his generation; David Kessler, who excelled in portraying simple characters; Kenny Lipzin, nicknamed the Yiddish Eleonora Duse; and Bertha Kalisch, a romantic prima donna.
Gordin’s success encouraged more Yiddish writers to devote their energy to the theater. Leon Kobrin (1872–1946) tried to follow in Gordin’s footsteps and wrote the first plays that offered a realistic portrayal of Jewish life in America. His 20 plays were full of melodrama and vaudevillian elements, yet were instrumental as a stepping stone for the introduction of meritorious literary plays.
Following the successful reception of Gordin’s and Kobrin’s plays, the star managers began to produce a more gutsy repertoire. Adler and Kessler staged plays by Sholem Asch; Adler and Thomashefsky produced plays by Sholem Aleichem; and Bertha Kalisch introduced I. L. Peretz’s plays to the American Yiddish stage.
According to historian Moses Rischin, the four major Yiddish theaters—the Thalia, the Windsor, the People’s, and the Grand—presented 1,100 performances annually during the turn of the century, for an estimated audience of 2 million patrons. The theaters, all in the Bowery area, were a far cry from the modest halls of the 1880s. The Thalia was a 3,000-seat house devoted to more literary plays; it often featured David Kessler and Kenny Lipzin. The Grand, managed by Jacob Adler, was the second house devoted to so-called “better theater.” Specifically built for Yiddish shows, it opened in 1903 and seated 2,000. The Windsor opened in 1893. With 3,500 seats, it was the largest playhouse devoted to popular plays, particularly those by Hurwitz. The People’s had a 2,500-seat capacity and was leased by Thomashefsky in 1900. It housed the greatest Yiddish hit of its day, Thomashefsky’s Dos Pintele Yid (The Jewish Essence, 1907), a magnificent spectacle that ran for an entire season and was seen by tens of thousands of people.
The four theaters employed a repertory system, which meant that various plays from their repertoire were presented during the week, usually to theater parties. To attract a mid-week audience, they offered “benefits,” i. e., discount sale of an entire performance to volunteer organizations. The organization, in turn, sold the tickets to their members at full price, and the particular charitable and/or social cause benefited from the proceeds.
The theaters’ current hits were presented on the weekend at regular box office prices, ranging from 25 cents to $1. Hutchins Hopgood noted in 1902 that many who earned $10 per week were willing to spend half of their income on the theater, virtually the only amusement available to the immigrant Yiddish-speaking Jew.
Like its English-language counterpart, Yiddish theater enjoyed an economic boom during World War I. Money poured into the box office, and the theaters offered increasingly lavish shows, often at the expense of the more literary repertoire whose popularity was waning after Gordin’s death. After the United States entered the war, the Yiddish stage was full of patriotic musicals, with such titles as Jewish War Brides, Orphans of the World, and Jewish Martyrs of America.
The prosperity, on the one hand, and the decline of the Bowery area, on the other, led to the formation of a new Yiddish theater district on Second Avenue. On the avenue, between Houston and Fourteenth streets, stood the Yiddish flagship theaters and related businesses, such as music, flower, and photography stores, costume houses, and several restaurants and cafes, the most famous of which was the Cafe Royal, the legendary meeting place of the theatrical crowd. The first Yiddish theaters to open on this “Yiddish Broadway” were the Second Avenue Theater (1911) a 1,986-seat house built especially for David Kessler, and the National (1912), a 2,000-seat house built for Thomashefsky. Both were elegant theaters that cost nearly $1 million each. The opening ceremonies of these playhouses were important social events attended by an array of dignitaries, including the mayor of New York. The last two theaters to open on the avenue were completed in 1926—Maurice Schwartz’s 1,236-seat Yiddish Art Theater, and the Public, a 1,752-seat house. Both were elegant structures that attested to the social mobility of their patrons.
Second Avenue was synonymous with the great stars of the popular theater of the 1920s and 1930s. The first lady of the musical stage was Molly Picon, introduced to American audiences in 1923 as “the greatest sensation from Europe.” Other big names in musical comedy were Menasha Skulnik, Herman Yablokoff, Aaron Lebedeff, Ludwig Satz, and Michael Michalesko. Jennie Goldstein was the queen of Yiddish melodramatic musical spectacles.
Despite the enormous popularity of these stars, the postwar period was associated, first and foremost, with the art theater movement. The movement, in turn, was brought about by the young, relatively un-Americanized post-1905 immigrants, many of whom were radicals with a serious relation to culture, particularly to literature and drama. Many of these culturally oriented workers had become familiar in Russia with amateur dramatic groups whose goal was to improve the folksy ways of the Yiddish theater. Out of this tradition emerged the semiprofessional troupe, established in 1905 by Peretz Hirshbein. It is credited as the first art theater of the Yiddish stage.
Upon their arrival in America, many young immigrants joined amateur dramatic clubs. Soon the clubs proliferated, and in 1917, they tried unsuccessfully to form an umbrella organization. One of the major clubs in this “better theater” movement was New York’s Hebrew Dramatic League, which, in 1915, became the drama section of the Workmen’s Circle fraternal organization. The league changed its name to Fraye Yidishe Folksbine (the Free Yiddish People’s Stage). Its first production was Ibsen’s Enemy of the People. In 1918, the Folksbine produced Green Fields by Peretz Hirshbein. The production’s success went beyond expectation, and some regard its premiere as marking the birth of the Yiddish art theater.
Inadvertently, the production also served as a touchstone, and it proved to Maurice Schwartz (1890–1960), who had recently opened his Irving Place Theater, the existence of new audiences who were looking for a new sort of theater. In existence to this day, the Folksbine maintains its amateur status, though since 1925 it has also collaborated with professional directors, designers, and choreographers and actors of the Yiddish stage, the latter appearing occasionally as guest stars. The company is devoted primarily to literary drama, regularly presenting one major production per year. It has staged numerous Yiddish classics by I. L. Peretz, Sholem Asch, Abraham Goldfaden and Sholem Aleichem, and in its early years also produced translations of plays by Maxim Gorky, Eugene O’Neill and Upton Sinclair. In response to changing needs, the Folksbine has added in recent years simultaneous translations in English and Russian.
Maurice Schwartz, producer, director, actor, and occasional playwright, was a powerhouse of a man who, more than anyone else, defined the shape of the artistic Yiddish theater in America during the 1920s and 1930s. In 1918, the young Schwartz took over the Irving Place Theater, hired Jacob Ben-Ami, the finest young actor of the Yiddish stage, and other known actors such as Celia Adler and Bertha Gersten. Schwartz was persuaded by Ben-Ami, a serious actor committed to the principles of the modern European theater, to offer a modest production of Hirshbein’s play Forsaken Nook. The 1918 production made theatrical history. The play and its mode of production were a complete reversal of the customary bravura of the Yiddish stage. Simple and modest, it was captivating in its tenderness.
The Yiddish Art Theater replaced traditional Yiddish acting with Stanislavsky’s psychological realism. It was not, however, committed to one particular theatrical style. Schwartz was not a theatrical thinker, but he was greatly interested in new theatrical forms. In the 1920s he was willing to risk boxoffice proceeds to produce lavish modernistic shows, such as the constructivist production of Goldfaden’s The Tenth Commandment (1926), designed by Boris Aronson.
The Yiddish Art Theater’s greatest success was Yoshe Kalb (1932), a dramatization of I. J. Singer’s popular novel. The enormous success of this domestic melodrama had an adverse impact on the future of the theater. Playing for an entire season, it destroyed the theater’s repertory system and made Schwartz eager to cash in on its reputation by touring extensively. The Yiddish Art Theater that returned to New York in the late 1930s did not regain its adventurous spirit, though it continued to be considered New York’s primary Yiddish theater.
Among other innovative and noteworthy theaters of the period was the Unzer Teater (Our Theater), which opened in 1925 in a small Bronx playhouse. Playwrights David Pinski, Peretz Hirshbein, and H. Leivick were involved in its formation, but the group could not maintain itself economically for more than one season. The Shildkraut Theater, organized a year later, was forced to close for a similar reason. The 1930s saw more of the same phenomena—groups formed, presented one or two noteworthy productions, and then disbanded for lack of financial resources.
The one small art theater that thrived during the 1930s was the Artef Theater. Originally a group of amateurs affiliated with the American Yiddish Communist movement, the Artef was greatly influenced by the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s. Directed by Benno Schneider, possibly the best and most innovative director working on the American Yiddish stage, the Artef developed a unique style characterized by a measure of stylization and genuine ensemble work. The Artef gradually professionalized itself and, in 1934, moved to a small Broadway house, far removed from the downtown Yiddish rialto. Despite its successful shows and community-based support, the Artef suspended operation in 1937 for lack of funds. It reopened for the 1938–1939 season, after which it closed permanently.
It was the tragic misfortune of the Yiddish theater in America that during the 1930s, when it reached its highest artistic level, it was losing its hold on the masses. The decline in attendance was an irreversible process. Jewish immigration to the United States was at an all-time low, averaging 7,000 per year. The foreign-born became more acculturated, and as the number of American-born Jews increased, Yiddish gradually and consistently lost its status as the primary language of the American Jewish community.
The Yiddish theater continued to hang on. As the theater season became increasingly short and as the elegant playhouses were abandoned, the actors, aging with their audiences, began to tour the Jewish communities around the world, and became a twentieth-century variation of the itinerant players of the century before. By the l960s the Yiddish theater was no longer a viable phenomenon, and sporadic efforts to revive it tended to be amateurish and short-lived. The curtain had come down on a major chapter in Jewish creativity.
- American National Biography. Oxford University Press, 1999.
- Berkowitz, Joel. Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage. Iowa University Press, 2002.
- Hapgood, Hutchins. The Spent of the Ghetto. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967.
- Howe, Irving. World of Our Fathers. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.
- Lifson, David S. The Yiddish Theatre in America. Cranbury, N.J.: Yoseloff, 1965.
- “Yiddish Theatre.” In Ethnic Theater in the United States. Edited by Maxine S. Seller. Westport, Conn.:
Greenwood Press, 1983.
- Nahshon, Edna. Yiddish Proletarian Theatre: The Art and Politics of the Artef, 1925-1940. Greenwood, 1998.
- Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance. Oxford University Press, 2003.
- Rosenfeld, Lulla. Bright Star of Exile: Jacob Adler and the Yiddish Theatre. New York: Crowell, 1977.
Sanders, Ronald. The Downtown Jews. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.
- Sandrow, Nahma. Vagabond Stars, a World History of Yiddish Theater. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.
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