Who owns history?
That question has proved to be a thorny one regarding the treasure trove of archives that once lived in New York City at 31 East 7th Street. The contents of that building are the remnants of the now-defunct Hebrew Actors Union, and, with the union officially disbanded, issues of ownership of the building and the items within have been complex.
The first theatrical union in the United States when it was founded in 1887, the HAU provided an infrastructure for the Yiddish theater that flourished in playhouses up and down Second Avenue. Yiddish theater in New York was more than just a temporary diversion for Jewish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. It was a beacon of hope, fueling the political, social and professional ambition in
its audience members. Often barely eking out a living in a city that seemed determined not to welcome them, immigrant Jews were starved for the messages about poverty, assimilation and equality hidden between the lines of the plays, and they flocked to performances in droves. Setting rules for everything from working conditions to payment schedules, the HAU was a vital part of that theatrical movement.
Hollywood’s booming success and the declining popularity of the language were jointly to blame for the demise of Yiddish theater, but a diminished HAU continued through the 1990s. Then Seymour Rexite, the union’s president, died in 2002 at age 91; in October 2005, the HAU was officially labeled nonoperational by its umbrella union, Associated Actors and Artistes of America.
With no president and no functioning union, the issue of ownership arose for HAU’s physical remnants — music librettos, play manuscripts, costumes and props. Ex-members squabbled over the restoration of the relics of their theatrical past. The questions were countless: Did archives belong to the union or to its members’ descendants? Who would do the restoration? Where would the archives be housed? (Major contenders were Harvard’s Widener Library and the New York-based YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.) Who would pay for all this? An acting board was assembled to help unravel these issues.
After reading about the dilapidated archives in a New York Times article this past May, Los Angeles-based philanthropist Eli Broad stepped up to the plate, offering $186,000 to finance the restoration. His donation was in memory of his Lithuanian immigrant parents; as a child growing up in New York, he often heard them talk of the Yiddish plays they had seen.
The acting HAU board designated YIVO as the recipient of the archives, but even with the grant from Broad the task was not easy. Leo Greenbaum, an associate archivist at YIVO, found much of the material to be moldy. A few plays in a trunk looked beyond repair, Greenbaum said, “but I still took them, because they’re one of a kind.”
Greenbaum estimates that the restoration of the material — often painstakingly page-by-page — will take a year and a half. Following a public exhibition, the archives will reside at YIVO, accessible for research purposes.
The fate of the building, however, is still up in the air.
Bruce Adler — an actor who made the move from Second Avenue to Broadway, winning a 1992 Tony Award for his performance in “Crazy for You” — has strong feelings about the building. A dues-paying HAU member since 1958, Adler is also a third-generation member of the legendary Adler acting family (perhaps the most famous member of which is Stella Adler, best known as Marlon Brando’s acting coach).
“There’s a lot that building stands for,” Adler said. “I’d like it to be turned into a museum and preserved as a monument to the work of my parents and their parents before them — something that will live on long after all of us.”
The creation of a museum may prove more difficult now that YIVO has taken hold of the archives. As Ruth Ellen, HAU’s acting head, pointed out to The New York Times, “If they ever wanted to make a museum out of it, why did they give all the materials away?”
Neva Small, a former union member who appeared in the 1971 film version of “Fiddler on the Roof” as Chava, is also adamant about a lasting memorial, but she believes it should be a living monument. “I almost think the building should be sold,” Small said. “Then, they could take the proceeds from the building to keep the music alive — to keep the immigrant spirit alive.”
The building’s future is yet unknown, but what is certain is the indelible imprint that Yiddish theater made on life on the Lower East Side and beyond. Members and fans alike speak glowingly of the Golden Age of Second Avenue. “They put on plays that could break your heart,” said legendary downtown poet and performer Taylor Mead. “Even in the still photographs, they could just break your heart.”
Iris Blasi is a writer in New York.