There are few traces left of the boisterous Yiddish theater that reigned along lower Second Avenue during the first half of the 20th century. Maurice Schwartz's vaunted Yiddish Art Theater, at the southwest corner of 12th Street, is now a multiplex. Across the street, a Japanese restaurant has taken the place of the Cafe Royal, a former mecca for Jewish intellectuals and artists. And the Second Avenue Deli, with its Molly Picon room and Yiddish Walk of Fame on the sidewalk outside, closed its doors in January after a rent dispute.
Now the future of some of the last remaining artifacts of that era -- the dilapidated Hebrew Actors Union building at 31 East Seventh Street and its vast store of decaying manuscripts, photographs and props -- is in doubt as potential custodians wrestle with how best to preserve them.
The latest chapter in the tale begins in 2002 with the death of the union's 91-year-old president, Seymour Rexite (also known as the Yiddish Sinatra).
With no clear leader and few active members, the Hebrew Actors Union, widely regarded as the first actors union in the United States, was in October declared defunct by its parent union, Associated Actors and Artistes of America.
That's where Mike Burstyn comes in. Born 60 years ago to Pesach'ke Burstein and Lillian Lux, two Yiddish theater stars, Mr. Burstyn is a torchbearer of the tradition. Last year, he starred in the revue ''On Second Avenue'' at the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater, the last surviving Yiddish company in the United States.
As a child, Mr. Burstyn often prowled the union's second floor, a clubroom perpetually filled with smoke, egos and games of pinochle and rummy. When he visited in October, he found shelves and cupboards full of plays, photographs, union records, costumes and yellowing scores by leading Yiddish composers like Sholom Secunda and Alexander Olshanetsky, all desperately in need of rescue. Since then, Mr. Burstyn has spearheaded an effort to preserve the material.
''My dream would be to save the building and create a museum and research center for the Yiddish theater,'' he said during a recent visit. Behind him sat a bust of Boris Thomashevsky, the Second Avenue titan who in 1923 brought Mr. Burstyn's father to America. Down in the basement are steamer trunks filled with costumes, a large headstone, possibly used for a production of ''The Dybbuk,'' and file cabinets bursting with Yiddish newspaper clippings and once-urgent Western Union telegrams (''Goldenberg wants to quit Chicago'').
''The alternative is to let this die and let the building be sold off,''
Mr. Burstyn continued. ''Nothing else exists. If we lose everything, it's like it never existed, and everything else is out at the cemetery.''
But, perhaps fittingly for a union once known for a bare-knuckles negotiating style and exclusionary audition process, the road to consensus has not been a smooth one. Among the tangled questions: Who owns the material, the remaining members of the defunct union or the heirs of the composers and playwrights? What is the best way to preserve the aging papers? And who should be in charge of preservation?
Mr. Burstyn initially wanted Widener Library at Harvard, which has an extensive Judaica collection, to take the material. But some of the surviving members of the union's executive board objected, arguing that the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which is based in New York, should be awarded the collection. (Officials at Harvard did not respond to requests for comment.)
Mr. Burstyn was wary but ultimately agreed. ''I just wanted to make sure that YIVO will do the same preservation and archive it as Harvard would,''
he said. A recent article in The Jewish Week said the Center for Jewish History, of which YIVO is a part, had been having financial problems and had talked to New York University about forming a partnership.
Leo Greenbaum, associate archivist at YIVO, said, ''I think Mr. Burstyn was skeptical for a while.'' But the union's executive board met with Mr.
Greenbaum in early January and voted to give the trove to YIVO. After visits on Feb. 15 and March 10, during which the institute surveyed the union's goods, YIVO set a tentative pickup date of late this month. Questions on how the move would be financed remain unsettled.
YIVO's initial delay in inspecting the collection, Mr. Greenbaum said, was because he was awaiting approval from the boards of the Yiddish Theatrical Alliance, which acts as the union's burial society and maintains a small office in the building, and the Yiddish Artists and Friends-Actors Club. But Corey Breier, who serves as president of both organizations, said he was not interested in releasing anything found in the alliance and club quarters.
''I have no reason to,'' he said. ''The union has ceased to exist. The other two are active organizations,'' each with a couple of hundred members.
Mr. Breier isn't the only one who claims to have a say. Gene Secunda, the son of the composer Sholom Secunda, said: ''It's well established by law that if some unknown scores are found in a strange place -- say some things written by George Gershwin that people didn't know existed -- that those materials belong to the descendants of that composer. I'm not sure that's something that the union board quite understands.''
If conserving the contents has proved tricky, the fate of the building itself, the union's chief asset, is even more complex. Like Mr. Burstyn, some of the people involved would like to see it turned into a museum of Yiddish theater. ''The thing is there,'' said the actor Theodore Bikel, who heads the American Actors and Artistes Association. ''It exists. It's not as if you have to start a museum from scratch and acquire things for it.''
Yet as Ruth Ellen, an executive board member who has served as the nominal head of the union since Mr. Rexite's death, asked, ''If they ever wanted to make a museum out of it, why did they give all the materials away?''
Mr. Greenbaum said that would not be a problem, and that YIVO would probably be inclined to make the collection available for exhibition. But that still leaves unanswered the fundamental question of who should control the building and its contents.
''Who actually owns the assets of the Hebrew Actors Union, since it's basically not a functioning union anymore?'' Mr. Burstyn said.
Alan Eisenberg, executive director of the Actors' Equity Association and a lawyer, said, ''That's a thorny legal question, really.'' If you say it belongs to the surviving members, he said, there is still the question of who those people are. ''What's a member if you haven't paid dues in a long time, or if there are no dues? It's made for lawyers to make a lot of money.''
Mr. Burstyn has no legal claim to the material, but his personal investment in it is strong. ''This was part of my family, my roots,'' he said. He is convinced that without his involvement or that of his collaborator, Bruce Adler, another child of Yiddish actors, preservation and archiving are ''never going to happen.''
Mr. Eisenberg has a suggestion, though, for how to get the project into high gear: invite everyone to B&H Dairy, the narrow old restaurant near St.
Marks Place known for its soups and blintzes. ''Have a bowl of soup and get them all there,'' he said.
Read additional Research & Collections
Read additional Yiddish Theatre
There are currently 2 comments about this article:
The actor Mike Burstyn in the Hebrew Actors Union building in the East Village, amid the remnants of the heyday of Yiddish theater photo by John Marshall Mantel
Pesach'ke Burstein and Lillian Lux
The Hebrew Actors Union building holds a vast store of decaying manuscripts, photographs and props from New York's Yiddish theater past