Remembering the Heyday of Yiddish Theater

New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway” is published to coincide with an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York. Its editor is the exhibit’s curator Edna Nahshon, professor of theater at the Jewish Theological Seminary and senior associate at Oxford University’s Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. Recently the Forward’s Benjamin Ivry spoke with Nahshon about matters Yiddish and theatrical.

Benjamin Ivry: “New York’s Yiddish Theater” mentions Jerry Lewis and Joan Rivers as inheritors of tradition as a tummler and stand-up comedian, respectively, yet isn’t this stretching influence a bit?

Edna Nahshon: I’ll be very honest with you. The director of the [Museum of the City of New York] was insistent on somehow bringing it up to date, and she was fascinated with all these comedians. I thought very hard, and the fact that someone speaks with a Jewish inflection does not make them influenced by the Yiddish theater. But I saw the Catskills tradition as a link between the entirely ethnic and mainstream performers. The Catskills offered a safe place where you could be Jewish without feeling out of place.

The last chapter of your book is devoted to “Fiddler on the Roof,” which irked some people, including relatives of Sholem Aleichem, for having betrayed the spirit of the original Tevye the Dairyman stories. Can we classify “Fiddler” as part of Yiddish theater?

No, but the idea of “Fiddler” came essentially from Boris Aronson, who got it from [Marc] Chagall so there is a certain sense of continuity. I would not define “Fiddler” as Yiddish theater, but as American Jewish theater.

Around 1902, Abraham Cahan, editor of the Forward, complained that vaudeville was a “crime against decency.” He urged readers to boycott saloons featuring this “filth.” His campaign failed, since most audiences rejected serious Yiddish plays, preferring more frivolous fare.

I think they exaggerated and had high expectations for improving workers’ culture. It’s a different view of culture, kind of Russian in essence. Vaudeville was seen as low class. [Cahan] was not the only one; the actors union refused to allow vaudeville performers into the union. There are almost no artifacts from Yiddish vaudeville, almost nothing remains. It was the earliest agent of Americanization. It was easy to take a melody and add lyrics in Yiddish to make a kind of mishmash of New York, America, playlets and heartbreaking melodramas, then a Russian dance, and much easier to produce than a full dramatic play.

In the 1923 musical comedy “The Golden Bride,” lyrics were by the Ukrainian-born composer and lyricist Louis Gilrod. In a song about the Roaring ’20s, a suitor tells a girl: “You are a beauty, your father’s name is Louie, / For you I have a Chinaman who cooks good chop suey.” Not exactly Sondheim or Lorenz Hart in terms of sophistication. Did any of the best Yiddish poets deign to write lyrics for stage musicals?

No. Why not is hard to define. The good writers, so to speak, who wrote for the Yiddish theater wrote for the art theater.

“New York’s Yiddish Theater” mentions Al Jolson, a once-revered performer whose films many people find difficult to watch nowadays, due to his mannered antics and blackface routines. What great Yiddish actor or actress from decades ago would still be esteemed onstage today? Would comedians such as Molly Picon, Menasha Skulnik and Zvee Scooler fare better than the tragedians?

I don’t know. It’s a very hard question. Actors and performers and comedians and singers have their own generational audience. A young friend of mine was invited to a Barbra Streisand performance in Brooklyn a year ago and said it wasn’t great at all but the audience, who were more or less Streisand’s age, went bonkers. You cannot bring an actor from a hundred years ago and expect the audience to fall for it. That’s the beauty of the performance arts. Film freezes it, but the stage does not. It always has to be fresh.

There is a description by the son of the puppeteer Nat Norbert (born Norbert Buchholz) about his last puppet, Lola the Stripper, who would do a bump and grind accompanied by David Rose’s tune “The Stripper” until finally, “in a flickering strobe light, her bosoms would light up.” Apart from the fact that Rose was Jewish, was there any Yiddishkeit at all in Lola the Stripper?

I don’t think in Lola, but in many of his other puppets, definitely. And [for] most of his career, [Norbert] performed in Yiddish and only later switched into English. He has very, very Jewish puppets, quite a lot of them. I hope one day they will all be shown. His son is devoted to his memory.

By any standard, Aronson was a great artist of the theater, specifically the Yiddish theater. Was his achievement more Yiddish or more American?

It was relatively easier for visual artists to transfer to the mainstream American stage than for actors, although some could — for example, Paul Muni. Boris Aronson was a phenomenal talent, but [he was] also doing something that typifies the Yiddish theater, which was bringing over Russian traditions to America. It’s the old traditional Jewish role of being a kind of mediator of cultures, bringing the most fantastic innovations to the English-language stage.

Yiddish plays were sometimes written about or reviewed by critics or attendees who did not speak Yiddish. What can the value of their impressions be for the historical record, or in terms of evaluating the artistic results of the shows?

Well, I’ll give you a parallel: When Habima [Theatre] presented the famous production of “The Dybbuk” in Russia and New York, very few people understood the [Hebrew] language. Yet there is a musicality of the sound, a stage language that goes beyond the meaning of each word. People who are theater people can definitely recognize it. I was just in Gdansk, Poland, and was taken to a show. I don’t understand a word of Polish, but I enjoyed every moment. I wasn’t bored for a second. The Yiddish theater was certainly very lively, with a close connection between the stage and the audience. There was such an electricity, a real connection there.

Despite valiant efforts by the New Yiddish Repertory Company and the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, can we be optimistic about the future of Yiddish-language theater?

I don’t know. In the grand scheme of things, the heyday is gone. We’re not going to have what we had in the 1930s and ’40s. It’s brave and wonderful that [theater troupes] keep the culture going. There will always be a kernel of people who learn the language, especially in universities. What is interesting is the connection of contemporary playwrights with the tradition, like Paula Vogel’s new play “Indecent,” inspired by Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance.” As long as people confront these traditions and decide to do something with it, that’s good enough for me, quite frankly.

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