When Yiddish theater gave Broadway a run for its gelt
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'The money, the talent, the music – it was all here'

When Yiddish theater gave Broadway a run for its gelt

Long before 'Fiddler on the Roof' revivals, from the late 19th century to the 1940s, New York was the cultural center for Yiddish-language plays

Detail from the Museum of the City of New York poster for its Yiddish theater exhibition (Cathryn J. Prince /Times of Israel)
Detail from the Museum of the City of New York poster for its Yiddish theater exhibition (Cathryn J. Prince /Times of Israel)

NEW YORK – Perhaps it’s the way the ruby red silk shimmers under the display light, or maybe it’s the way the rhinestone-encrusted heels glitter. Whatever the reason, it’s easy to picture Mae Simon, the once upon a time vaudeville star, dancing her way across the stage and into the heart of Yiddish theater.

Of course the curly-haired, doe-eyed beauty was just one of many dancers, singers and actors of the time to achieve stardom. And now it’s a world visitors to the Museum of the City of New York can see in its new exhibit: New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway.

Between 1881 and 1925, nearly three million Jews immigrated to the United States. Most settled in the overcrowded, tenement-filled Lower East Side, a neighborhood that served as an incubator of cultural activities that gave rise to a theater district rivaling Broadway itself, according to museum director, Whitney Donhauser.

“Next to the Yiddish newspapers, Yiddish theater became the most important thing for immigrants. New York was its world capital. The money, the talent, the music – it was all here,” said Edna Nahshon, guest curator, author and professor of Jewish theater and drama at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Edna Nahshon, guest curator and professor of theater and drama at The Jewish Theological Seminary (Cathryn J. Prince/Times of Israel)
Edna Nahshon, guest curator and professor of theater and drama at the Jewish Theological Seminary (Cathryn J. Prince/Times of Israel)

The first show to open was Abraham Goldfaden’s 1882 operetta “The Witch,” which featured a relatively unknown Yiddish touring troupe. The productions quickly grew more sophisticated, particularly with the arrival of the realist playwright Jacob Gordin, Nahshon said.

Gordin arrived in New York from Russia in 1891. Hailed as the Yiddish stage’s first literary playwright, he called on actors to stop ad-libbing and start sticking to the script.

‘Next to the Yiddish newspapers, Yiddish theater became the most important thing for immigrants’

Overtime the plays changed in size and scope, and they were no longer just song and dance affairs. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s politically avante garde shows, inspired by events taking place in Germany and the Soviet Union, were staged.

One of the more poignant productions was the 1944 production “The Miracle of the Warsaw Ghetto.” The play, performed entirely in Yiddish, dramatized the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising. While the details of the play were not entirely accurate, it was reportedly a striking performance nonetheless.

Souvenir program for the Yiddish Folks Theatre's 1944 production of 'Miracle of the Warsaw Ghetto' (Courtesy Museurm of the City of New York)
Souvenir program for the 1944 production of ‘Miracle of the Warsaw Ghetto’ (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

“It may not have been a call to arms, but it was a call to consciousness,” Nahshon said.

It was also a very good example of the way Yiddish theater continued to bridge the old world with the new.

“It was truly an immigrants’ theater. The plays they put on were a negotiation, a conversation, with their life here and now, and with the homes they left behind,” Nahshon said.

As stars of the Yiddish stage gained mainstream popularity, New York’s Yiddish theater became an American phenomenon. During its heyday, four Yiddish theaters presided over the neighborhood — People’s, Thalia, Windsor and Grand Street.

“At a time when there was no television, no radio you went to the theater for entertainment and within a short time there was a proliferation of Yiddish theater,” Nahshon said.

“Its audiences were mostly Jewish, but the New York papers all covered it. A critic for The New York Times at the time said he preferred it to Anglo theater. He said it’s got life, it’s got energy and it’s got movement. He thought the other shows anemic.”

Andrea Martin (left), as Golde and Harvey Fierstein (right) as Tevye in the revival of 'Fiddler on the Roof,' on Broadway's Minskoff Theater in New York, 2005 (photo credit: AP/Carol Rosegg, File)
Andrea Martin (left), as Golde and Harvey Fierstein (right) as Tevye in the revival of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ on Broadway’s Minskoff Theater in New York, 2005 (AP/Carol Rosegg, File)

With a new production of “Fiddler on the Roof” currently running at the Broadway Theater in New York, the museum exhibition is right on cue, said Nefah Assang, senior vice president of cultural and community relations for NYC & Company.

“Broadway is experiencing a revival right now and many institutions around the city are trying to put on exhibits that are timely, like this one,” Assang said.

The exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, which runs through July, covers more than a century — from the waves of immigration by Eastern European Jews that preceded New York’s first Yiddish production in 1882, through contemporary adaptations from modern theater icons like Tony Kushner and Mandy Patinkin.

The story of Yiddish theater’s rise to prominence is told through artifacts, photographs, film and art. It’s being co-presented with the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the National Yiddish Book Center, and the National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene.

Still from the 1939 Artef production of 'Clinton Street' (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
Still from the 1939 Artef production of ‘Clinton Street’ (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

The legacy of Yiddish theater lives long because of one man in particular, Nahshon said, standing before a series of photographs of the thrice-married Russian-born actor-manager Jacob Adler.

His third wife, Sarah Adler, was a well-known actress, and many of Jacob’s nine children went into acting. In 1949, Stella Adler, one Jacob’s daughters, founded the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. It counts Anthony Quinn, Salma Hayek and Elaine Stritch as alumni.

“The Adlers were a theatrical dynasty that surely equaled the Barrymores. These actors were the princes and princesses of the Lower East Side. When he [Jacob] died in 1926, 50,000 people massed for his funeral in the Lower East Side,” Nahshon said.

Rhinestone-encrusted high heeled shoes worn by celebrated Yiddish actress Mae Simon’s (Cathryn J. Prince/Times of Israel)
Rhinestone-encrusted high heeled shoes worn by celebrated Yiddish actress Mae Simon’s (Cathryn J. Prince/Times of Israel)

On display are intricately embroidered costumes from Molly Picon’s performances in Circus Girl, Yankele and Mazel Tov Molly and Mae Simon’s jewelry makeup box. In another corner stands Zero Mostel’s Tevye costume from “Fiddler on the Roof,” and set models and costume designs by Boris Aronson.

About half of the items on display come from the museum’s collection, Donhauser said.

The show also includes films from the archives of stars and playwrights like Molly Picon, Boris Thomashefsky, Jacob Gordin and the Adler Family Dynasty.

“Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway” runs through July 31 at The Museum of the City of New York.

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