At the entrance to “New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway,” an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, there’s a wall-sized reproduction of a 1905 photo showing the 1700-seat Grand Theatre, the first venue built expressly for Yiddish productions. A well-dressed crowd in starched collars and derby hats mills about outside, though it’s unclear whether these people are leaving or just going in. The theater itself has a magnificent facade, bedecked like a wedding cake with terra cotta detail, and a marquee advertising the “Great Eagle” of the Yiddish stage himself, Jacob P. Adler, in his signature role as the “Yiddish King Lear.” The scene is so close that you can practically walk in.
That feeling of immersion is the beauty of this exhibit, which tells the story of Yiddish theater as it evolved in New York City, its most commercially successful locale. While there are books you can read on the subject (including the 328-page exhibit catalog, published by Columbia University Press), and revivals of Yiddish plays now and again, it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to sit in the audience as someone like Adler strode the boards. “New York’s Yiddish Theater” can’t accomplish that feat of time travel either. But through 250 photos, artwork, costumes, set designs, film clips and other artifacts, it brings you as close as you can hope to get.
The exhibition, curated by Edna Nahshon, a professor of theater and drama at the Jewish Theological Seminary, tells a conventional story with a few special twists. After getting its start in 1876 in a wine garden in Romania, modern Yiddish theater tore through Europe and hopped the Atlantic in 1882 with a production of “The Witch” by Abraham Goldfaden. In New York it became the predominant form of entertainment for Jewish immigrants, and arguably more than that. While Yiddish theater was mostly a profitmaking business, it also became a forum for raising political and social consciousness, and even a substitute for organized religion. You might credit Yiddish theater with creating the kind of cultural Judaism that later became the norm.
Early Yiddish productions tended to swing between light musical entertainment and overwrought melodramas, but Yiddish plays soon became more serious literary vehicles. Yiddish actors were notorious for ad-libbing and for hamming it up, an approach that went unopposed until the arrival of Jacob Gordin, a champion of theatrical realism. Gordin was decidedly middlebrow, but his insistence on textual fidelity made him Yiddish theater’s first literary playwright, and he’s honored in the exhibit with a bust of his head alongside one of Goldfaden’s.
Yiddish theater was always more of an actor’s medium than a writer’s, however, and the fame of its stars outshone that of its playwrights. Such actors include now obscure figures like David Kessler, Zigmund Mogulesko and Bertha Kalich, while others, like the husband-and-wife team Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, attained more lasting reputations. (A 2012 production about them by their grandson, San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas, didn’t hurt the cause.)
There are also those who achieved crossover success on the English-language stage, like actor Jacob Ben-Ami, who appeared on both Second Avenue and Broadway, and Molly Picon, a famously diminutive actress best known to contemporary audiences from her appearance as Yente in the 1971 film adaptation of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
While telling this story, “New York’s Yiddish Theater” also takes some engaging detours. It highlights phenomena like the Modicut Theater, a satirical puppet show named after its creators, Zuni Maud and Yosl Cutler, and avant-garde groups like the communist Artef, which put on experimental productions under a hammer-and-sickle banner. New York’s Yiddish theater wasn’t one thing but many, the exhibit argues, bound together by language and geography.
All this history is told in the wall texts and exhibition catalog. But it’s the artworks and artifacts that bring this exhibit to life and help the visitor imagine their way into the world of Yiddish theater.
Just past the entrance there’s another wall-sized photo of the Grand Theatre, only this time showing the interior of the hall. The audience sits in plush seats at floor level and up through three balconies, awaiting the performance. It’s not hard to imagine yourself in stylish eveningwear, taking a place among them.
Other artifacts have a similarly evocative quality. There is a flag of the once-powerful Hebrew Actors Union, bringing to mind the class-conscious attitudes that flowed from the workplace to the theater and back again; a large collection of bright and bombastic advertising posters, and costumes worn by actresses like Picon, including a white-gold bridal dress (from “Mazel Tov Molly,” 1950), a yeshiva boy’s outfit with cap and knickers (“Yankele,” 1925) and an impish clown costume with ruffled red and orange cuffs (“Circus Girl,” 1928).
Many of the artifacts display the skills of artists behind the scenes, like the constructivist set and costume designs by Boris Aronson, who also worked on Broadway and with the Metropolitan Opera. One of the strangest items in the exhibit is a racially dubious painting for “Pins and Needles,” a hugely successfully satiric review mounted by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in 1937. The painting shows black taskmasters and soldiers whipping black workers or slaves. If you weren’t already convinced that Yiddish theater represented a deep vein of New York cultural history with its own strange offshoots, these works will quickly convince you of that fact.
The exhibit also does a good job connecting the legacy of Yiddish theater to mainstream American entertainment. Intermediary figures included actors like Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni and Stella Adler, the last of whom founded an eponymous studio that produced a generation of method actors. The sensibility of the Yiddish theater also filtered down to contemporary pop culture through Borscht Belt comics and musicals like “Funny Girl,” starring Barbra Streisand as the dancer and vaudevillian Fanny Brice, and “Fiddler on the Roof,” which recently received its fifth Broadway revival.
Yet there are aspects of Yiddish theater that I wish the exhibit explored more deeply. Like many aspects of the American Jewish story, Yiddish theater is easy to romanticize — to highlight its legacy while claiming for it a level of accomplishment that even its audiences knew it didn’t have. True, there were plenty of impressive artists, like Maurice Schwartz and his Yiddish Art Theatre, which put on high-quality productions for decades. But there was also plenty of trash — shund, in Yiddish — that was reviled by intellectuals and beloved by audiences. This was the theater that boasted contributors with business cards reading: “Tailor, actor and playwright. Author of the Spanish Inquisition. Pants altered and pressed.” And this was the kind of entertainment that formed the beating heart of Yiddish theater.
This is also the part of Yiddish theater that is most difficult to recapture. How can you depict the enthusiasm of audiences who spent their last pennies to see their favorite stars and didn’t really care what the play itself was about? How can you reproduce the ingenuity of actors who appeared not in the good plays, but in the worst ones? What today parallels the relationship between audiences and stars, which presaged contemporary celebrity culture but had an intimacy that has long since been eclipsed? Most of all, how can you re-create the atmosphere inside a Yiddish playhouse, or the experience of sitting in such a theater?
The truth is, you can’t — you can only imagine it, or try to. But an exhibit like this one provides the best opportunity to make that attempt. It invites us to dream our way into the Yiddish theater of New York, and to share an hour’s respite from the vicissitudes of life. Yiddish theater may not have always been so high class. But that invitation is one most of us would gladly accept.
Ezra Glinter is the critic-at-large of the Forward.