New York’s Yiddish Rialto
Yiddish theater sprouted in the capital cities of Eastern Europe but came into full bloom on Second Avenue on New York’s Lower East Side. Many immigrant groups brought their native arts and traditional performance styles with them to America. However, for New York Jews, it was more than just dipping into Memory Lane. Yiddish theater was a phenomenon, a massive creative movement, engaging thousands of the most brilliant and talented people in the city, putting on up to 20-30 shows per evening in its heyday.
Yiddish theater supported an entire ecosystem along Second Avenue with cafes and restaurants, such as Café Royale and Moskowitz & Lupowitz, and Yiddish music shops. The Yiddish press in New York City, many periodicals besides the Forverts, competed avidly to cover the scene with reviews often excerpted on postcards. Yiddish radio stations played the hits.
Performing arts in the Yiddish language may best be understood as an alternative art form – an avant-garde with links throughout the places that Jewish immigrants were coming from and moving to. Its source was not a lack of opportunity in America. On the contrary, America was open and welcoming toward performing artists of Jewish origin, as the careers of people as diverse as Irving Berlin, Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, George Gershwin, and Aaron Copland would attest.
Yiddish theater was not a religiously linked movement. In fact, the Orthodox leadership dismissed Yiddish theater as z’nus (sexual deviancy) and apikursus (profligacy). To best understand the role of Yiddish theater, one needs to sidetrack briefly into the history of the Yiddish language.
Yiddish as a lingua franca (common language) of the Jewish people emerged in Western and Central Europe between the 9th and 13th centuries. At that historic moment, Jewish communities were dispersed throughout Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Their common language Hebrew was reserved for prayer and study of religious texts. They needed another language for the profane aspects of everyday life and Yiddish, related to German in structure and vocabulary, fit the bill for the Jews of Western, Central, and Eastern Europe.
Jewish communities in Southern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia alternatively used additional languages, such as Ladino (derived from Spanish) and Judeo-Arabic to maintain in-group cohesion and communication.
Yiddish was written in Hebrew script, which Jewish people learned as part of their religious education and incorporated many pieces of Greek, Latin and Romance languages, and Slavic languages such as Polish, Czech, and Russian. This kind of mix made Yiddish the Jews’ own in-group way of speaking – not easily understood by even the Germans and Austrians living among them.
The status of many European Jews changed for the better following the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century after a period of grave persecution under the Inquisition. In many places, Jewish communities were “emancipated,” that is, not required to live in a situation of discrimination, lacking civil rights, forced to live in certain parts of their cities known as “ghettos,” forced to wear certain types of garments, kept out of most occupations, and forced into others.
In other places, particularly in Eastern Europe and places in the Russian Empire, the hatred and discrimination did not dissipate. In fact, it got worse.
The 19th century was also a period of tremendous technological, industrial, and economic development. People were able to move across seas and continents more easily. People could acquire wealth and the comforts of life and get involved in occupations, trades and crafts that were unimaginable in earlier years. It was also easy for many to fall through the cracks and get caught as low-wage urban workers, living in crowded tenements with minimal prospects.
Yiddish literature and language arts evolved in this ferment of the mid-to-late 19th century. Poetry, drama, works of fiction, philosophy and writings employing the new social realism were produced and widely discussed in the Yiddish newspapers and periodicals that proliferated everywhere Jews lived.
When postcards became part of the scene in the early 20th century, they eagerly promoted the leading literary lights. This card depicting Sholem Asch, social realist playwright and the first to break through to Broadway, translated into English with his controversial drama “The God of Vengeance,” (Gott fun N’komo) is one of an extensive series on Yiddish writers published by Verlag Reznik in about 1920.
Traditional Eastern European Jewish life – a popular theme in the books and plays of the era – also became a beloved subject on postcards. This card shows various Jewish “types” (Typen) assembled during the period of World War I in a market town (Shtetl) that today is in Belarus.
People everywhere not only Jews, were in motion, leaving traditional villages and crowding into major regional cities and national capitals. Many were seeking new lives through immigration to North and South America, to Western Europe, South Africa, and Australia. Urbanization and social mobility had their advantages but also had their deficiencies. The literature and theater of the era spoke to the crises that people were experiencing on deeply personal levels. That is what made Yiddish theater so popular – the art form honored tradition, nostalgia and memory while addressing people’s current issues and aspirations.
Boris Thomashefsky (1868-1939) a leading star of Yiddish theater’s first generations in New York is known for creating its mix of madcap musical comedy, vaudeville, and light operetta. He is also known for adapting Yiddish theater versions of the classics such as King Lear, Hamlet, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Wagner’s Parsifal. Here are two cards of his Roumanian Village, one showing the marquee, the other introducing the ensemble.
A wedding scene in the show “David and Esther” recreates a Russian village wedding complete with a Klezmer (traditional Jewish music) band.
The grip of all religions was weakening in the multi-cultural urban environment. Secularization and the weakening of traditional religious authority left many groping for identity, purpose and meaning. Women were seeking to break out of traditional roles. There were pressures to assimilate and lose any ethnic identity to the larger society. At the same time, many members of the immigrating masses became attracted by radical social movements, especially Marxian socialism.
The next item is illustrative of a postcard published in the teens into the early 20s. On the message side, an overprint publicizing a play “Di Meshumedis” (the Converted Woman) plus an all-star musical concert at Brooklyn’s Parkway Theater. On the image side, a souvenir photo of Karl Marx.
Jewish communities had another more serious problem during the 1930s – anti-Semitic propaganda and acts were spreading, becoming more violent and genocidal. In many localities newly liberated from the Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires following the end of the First World War, nationalist groups seeking their own self-determination and rights to national sovereignty grew to condemn Jews as disloyal outsiders. Former allies, the Russian Communists who had replaced the cruel tsars began viewing Jews as too particularistic and weak as revolutionaries.
Worst of all, the National Socialists in Germany actively worked to withdraw the Jews’ civil and human rights and initiated a campaign of genocide that would culminate in what is today known as the Holocaust, the systematic murder of six million European Jews.
Jewish literature and the arts expressed defiance, resistance and pride, providing the glue of identity and solidarity in many places. Unfortunately, after experiencing a period of growth and creative flowering in the ‘20s and early ‘30s, many European Yiddish theaters suddenly found themselves shuttered, their artists and technicians scattered, their very lives threatened and lost.
Second Avenue shared in the boom of the ‘20s and ‘30s. The stars such as Maurice Schwarz and David Kessler flourished but their thematic language grew pensive and pessimistic as the decades moved forward in a situation of depression and economic dislocation.
The 1932 Maurice Schwartz production of I. J. Singer’s morality play “Yoshe Kalb” became probably the most critically acclaimed and financially successful Yiddish theater hit. Singer, elder brother and mentor of Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer died prematurely in 1944.
The play produced a hugely creative series of Yiddish postcards to promote itself, here represented by one depicting two female characters: On the left “Serele,” on the right “Gittel, the Niyeshever Rebbe’s wife.” The center reads “S. Raskin’s etchings from ‘Yoshe Kalb’ at the Yiddish Art Theatre.”
As America entered the war years and reports of deaths and atrocities spread, Yiddish theater took another curious turn. It became joyful, cheerful and optimistic again. Its mix of sharp humor, rousing song and poignant characters seemed right for morale during the war effort – affirming humanity, celebrating our roots and looking to a brighter future.
A love song “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” (To Me You’re Beautiful) by the great cantor and songwriter Shalom Secunda became the blowout hit song of the era – the most successful song ever to go from Second Avenue into the mainstream. In the lilting, mostly English, swing version recorded by the Andrews sisters, and then by just about everybody else – Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, Kate Smith, Guy Lombardo, Tommy Dorsey – it became an anthem of confidence and solidarity as Americans engaged their enemies across the oceans.
A new star system emerged in the ‘40s and ‘50s: Performers like Molly Picon, who had started as a child star in Yiddish plays and films several decades earlier, and Menasha Skulnik, high-pitched, nasal and master of comedic timing and bawdy innuendo, playing the “schlemiel” (hapless fellow) so often, people referred to him as the “Yiddish Chaplin.”
There’s something curious about these postcards from the 1940s and ‘50s – they seem to have stopped using the Hebrew characters for Yiddish. Despite an energizing influx of Yiddish-speaking immigrants into postwar New York, much of Second Avenue’s audience then consisted of 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation Americans who may have understood or even spoken Yiddish but they saved it for communicating with their parents or grandparents.
Yiddish theaters began shutting their doors and their stars were eagerly absorbed into Broadway productions in the mid-1960s. Molly Picon starred in a new show about American Jews getting to learn about Israel, Milk and Honey. The show illustrated another reality facing speakers of Yiddish. As the Zionist movement grew and succeeded in establishing the Jewish State of Israel, modern Hebrew and to some extent English began to overtake Yiddish as the Jews’ lingua franca. It seemed like the era of Yiddish theater was coming to an end.
And then, Fiddler on the Roof happened in 1964. This Broadway show was not produced in Yiddish despite being based upon the turn of the century tales of Tevye the Dairyman by Yiddish author Sholom Aleichem. It was a product of Broadway, not Second Avenue, however, it perfectly captured the style, verve and ethos of Yiddish theater. Fiddler’s enormous popularity – it was the first show in Broadway history to clock more than three thousand consecutive performances – indicated that America was finally beginning to come to grips with the horrific evil of the Holocaust. The show’s plot also made the Jews’ origin story part of the American creation myth.
Second Avenue is no longer the Yiddish Rialto, but Yiddish plays are still being performed. Just before the outbreak of the pandemic in late 2019, New Yorkers were entertained by a production of Di Kishuvmakherin (The Sorceress) a madcap comedy co-written a century ago by the teenaged Boris Thomashefsky, at the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, housed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan. This is the group that a few years ago finally produced a translation of Fiddler on the Roof (Fiedler Of’n Dakh) into Yiddish.
Coming up soon is a startling new production of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance (Gott fun N’komo,) associated with the Bay Area’s KlezCalifornia and the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, developed using Zoom technology. Concern about the demise of Yiddish theater is a bit overwrought these days, considering the energy and vitality going into revivals and new productions.