Not long ago, I went to The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center to examine some old Yiddish theater photographs. Historic photos must be viewed in the inner sanctum of the library — a separate space where you can’t bring in personal paraphernalia, can’t use pens, can’t even whisper. When the requested materials are brought over, you’re required to wear white cotton gloves, as if handling sacred objects, and your compliance to the rules is punctiliously supervised by the great priest/ess of scholarly conduct seated at the room’s main desk. Waiting for my file to arrive, I looked at the person at the desk — a beautiful black woman of a certain age. Her voice was musical; her figure tall, trim, projecting such elegance that there was no doubt this octogenarian was a former actress or dancer. When the file was delivered and she summoned me to the desk, she looked down at the photos and her face lit up. “This is Maurice Schwartz, isn’t it?” she exclaimed. “He was wonderful. We used to go see him all the time. What a great actor!” Before I could ask who “we” were and what she remembered, someone else came to the desk with his request, her attention shifting.
Why did this brief exchange please me so? Was it perhaps because the spontaneous testimony of one who was not of the tribe notarized the fact that the Yiddish theater was of genuine merit, erased those deeply hidden doubts that perhaps it has been over-praised? (Indeed it occasionally has been, most prominently in the 1970s and ’80s, when the Yiddish theater was dying and everyone felt guilty about it, overcompensating with exaggerated reviews for often mediocre and even amateurish fare.) This woman, who was fortunate enough to have experienced a still-robust Yiddish theater world that I could only glean from written accounts, offered me objective quality-control authorization. And more than that, she confirmed that even though most of us regard the Yiddish theater as an ethnic phenomenon, as not “really” American, it was time to revise our opinions.
Indeed, the list of celebrities with personal roots in it is staggering: The late Stella Adler, whose studio continues to train generations of actors, was the daughter of actors Sarah Adler and Jacob P. Adler, the latter worshipped as the supreme Yiddish actor of his age; conductor Michael Tilson-Thomas who has tenaciously preserved and publicized the historic role of his glamorous grandparents, Bessie and Boris Thomashefsky, the latter the greatest matinee idol of the Yiddish stage; Jules Dassin, a native New Yorker now living in Greece, who began his career in the Yiddish leftwing Artef Theater before he became the internationally renowned film director of “Rififi” and “Never on Sunday”; Elaine May, whose father was a Yiddish actor, and Sidney Lumet, whose father, Boruch, worked with the Yiddish theater in Chicago. And there are the famous names of the long departed: Paul Muni, born Muni Weisenfreund, who acted with Maurice Schwartz before Hollywood beckoned; the brilliant Bertha Kalich and Jacob Ben-Ami, who captivated audiences on both Second Avenue and Broadway; and Joseph Buloff, who began his career with the Vilna Troupe and would later originate the role of Ali Hakim in “Oklahoma!” and stun the critics as Willy Loman in the Yiddish version of “Death of a Salesman.” And the list goes on and on.
From the outset, the Yiddish theater was of America and, like its immigrant audience, was enamored of its new home. During the Spanish-American war, the Yiddish Windsor Theater was draped with American flags and banners, and the evening began with the orchestra playing Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” When the Grand Theater — the first theater building constructed especially for the Yiddish stage — opened in New York in February 1903, the front of it was decorated with streamers of red, white and blue, topped with the white-and-blue Zionist flag. Boris Tomashefsky, who was especially well attuned to popular taste, was notorious for his patriotic display. In 1918 it was commented that he considered no production of his complete unless it contained an American flag. And in 1899, when the actor debuted as the Yiddish Hamlet at Chicago’s Metropolitan Theater, mayhem broke loose for fear of a fire in the theater. Instructions were given from the stage; the orchestra stayed put and played the tune of “America” (“My Country ‘Tis of Thee”). The crammed and fearful crowd began to sing along, the reassuring Americanism of the tune calming shattered nerves and restoring order, enabling Tomashefsky to resume his character’s tirade against the queen mother.
The young Yiddish theater quickly incorporated America onto the stage. An amusing anecdote by New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, titled “East Side Flag Waving,” offered a vivid description of an unnamed 1927 production at the National Theater. It was a tale of the trials and tribulations of a Russian immigrant girl on her way to America, and it involved the Statue of Liberty and an illuminated American flag. Atkinson wrote: “At frequent intervals glowing tributes in Yiddish were paid to Freedom. Bursting with patriotism, the drummer banged his trap and kettledrums savagely, smashed the cymbals and several times seemed on the point of saluting the flag…. Every furl of the flag awoke spontaneous pride in the new world.”
And the romance was hardly a one-way affair. It did not take long for gentile America to discover the Yiddish theater. By 1898, barely six years after the first Yiddish production in New York had taken place — a rather lusterless affair in a dingy Bowery hall — the white-gloved New York Times and the Chicago Tribune were offering readers coverage of local Yiddish theatrical productions, and top magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly printed detailed accounts of the new and exciting theatrical kid in town. The most comprehensive coverage was offered by Hutchins Hapgood and was later reproduced in his milestone volume “The Spirit of the Ghetto.” But Hapgood was not alone. John Corbin of Harper’s Monthly, Lincoln Steffens and even famed British critic William Archer came to visit, as did John Barrymore, Annie Russell, Isadora Duncan, and a host of other uptown intellectuals and artists. They came for the theater, but they also came because the immigrant ghetto had become the new frontier of American culture. Aside from the open street, there was no better spectatorial site than the theater for these outsiders to glean the authentic culture of the Jewish masses.
The politicians too were quick to take advantage of the theaters’ houses as hubs for vote gathering. When the Grand Theater opened in 1903, New York City’s Mayor Seth Low was the guest of honor, accompanied by an entourage of luminaries and local politicos. As the mayor proceeded to his box, the orchestra struck up “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the entire audience rose to their feet. Low then gave a speech praising the thrift and industry of the Jewish immigrants and their devotion to family life. (It is not clear whether he stayed for the full duration of the performance, a lengthy musical melodrama titled “Zion, or On the Rivers of Babylon.”) In 1904, Jacob P. Adler’s Grand Theater moved a notch higher on the prestige ladder when it hosted none less than Democratic presidential candidate Alton B. Parker (who would be defeated in a landslide by incumbent Theodore Roosevelt, himself no stranger to New York’s Lower East Side). Such events were immensely satisfying to all concerned, and visits by Tammany Hall powerbrokers and various political aspirants eager to shake as many hands as possible repeated themselves with regularity, especially as elections were approaching.
Moreover, Second Avenue was dialoguing with Broadway. Yiddish stars — including David Kessler and Ludwig Satz , Bertha Kalich and Jacob Ben-Ami, Molly Picon, Menasha Skulnik, Leo Fuchs and Joseph Schildkraut — became visible presences on the English-language stage, with the demand for their talent seen by their immigrant followers as a mark of “real” success. And when their English careers limped or faded (or their health failed them, as was the case with the fabulous Kalich), these actors could always go “home” to Yiddish audiences and be embraced, without a recriminations or “I told you so.” And those who fully moved to the Anglo world and reaped accolades and success — Muni, Stella Adler — remained remarkably faithful to their roots, making special appearances and lending their names to the cause of Yiddish.
As America and Yiddish became intertwined and the younger generation shifted increasingly into English, the popular Yiddish theaters that specialized in musical comedies followed suit, often using Yinglish as an entertaining stage language. It was a language that an uninitiated visitor from the overseas parts of “Yiddishland” would not be able to fully follow. If you’ve just come off the boat from Warsaw, how could you comprehend the lyrics of the song sung in 1930 by the mega-star Jennie Goldstin: “When I pretend I’m gay, es iz mir okh un vey.” While buffs of literary Yiddish drama would shudder, such hybridization became increasingly common on the popular stage — where the greatest star was the gamine, American-born, Molly Picon — and in the vaudeville acts offered by Catskill comedians.
The Yiddish theater has been proclaimed dead on numerous occasions. But is it really? Or has it perhaps just metamorphosed in translation, its tradition carried on by the genius of Clifford Odets, Paddy Chayefsky, Herb Gardner, such greats as Mel Brooks, Tony Kushner, David Margulies, Mel Brooks, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, the Stillers and so many more?
Edna Nahshon is a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is the author of the recently published “From the Ghetto to the Melting Pot: Israel Zangwill’s Jewish Plays” (2006).