Book Review, Vol. 30 No. 1

New York’s Yiddish Theater

New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway. Edna Nahshon, ed. New York: Columbia University Press in association with the Museum of the City of New York, 2016; Pp. 237.

New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway is a collection of thirteen scholarly articles edited and introduced by Edna Nahshon, professor of Jewish theatre and drama at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a senior associate at Oxford University’s Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. Written to complement a recent exhibit of the same name at the Museum of the City of New York, this accessible work successfully combines scholarship and art to form a captivating portrait of the American Yiddish theatre and early twentieth-century American Yiddish culture. Creatively rendered and chockfull of photographs, drawings, and ephemera—a scholarly coffee table book, if you will—New York’s Yiddish Theater is a feast for the eyes and senses and is, in this age of e-books and digital media, a reminder of the authority and beauty of print books.

Nahshon argues that Yiddish theatre in the United States emerged from the unexpected collaborations of uptown-downtown German Jews and the Yiddish culture of Eastern European Jews, while the Romanian origins of the first Yiddish theatre is credited to Abraham Goldfaden. His traveling players of commedia dell’arte-style skits soon grew into lavish operas such as The Witch (1879), a classic of the Jewish repertory. Once Goldfaden’s acting troupe landed in the U.S., extravagant stages were quickly built in and around New York’s Lower East Side, thereby becoming home to the Yiddish theatre movement that eventually migrated uptown and—later in the century—onto Broadway.

Nahshon cleverly divides the work into multiple sections, similar to a playbill program, setting the stage in the Overture for the subsequent acts/essays written by other notable scholars. She also includes an intermission/portrait gallery and a Gallery of Stars, which functions as an annotation of Yiddish luminaries from the era. In addition to Nahma Sandrow’s “Popular Yiddish Theater” and Edward Portnoy’s “Yiddish Puppet Theater,” Barbara Henry provides a compelling historical and critical analysis of “Jacob Gordin: The Great Reformer” who, in addition to adapting Shakespeare into The Jewish King Lear, was also the first writer to adapt a Yiddish play into English, The Kreutzer Sonata. Nahshon and Judith Thissen discuss “Yiddish Vaudeville” and its influence on burlesque and the powerful legacy of Jews during the early days of Hollywood. The success of notable contemporary artists like Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Bette Middler are tied to the Yiddish theatre. One of the spotlight segments features an unpublished survey from the 1932-33 Yiddish theatre season, listing 185 different Yiddish language productions. The season was represented by 155 professional actors in melodramas, operettas, comedies, and reviews. However, after World War II the Yiddish theatre suffered from a steady drop in attendance, and as American entertainment choices shifted from stage to Hollywood, the Yiddish theatre declined and eventually faded into obscurity.

A persuasive thematic argument runs through the collection suggesting that Yiddish entertainment is synonymous with American entertainment, and nowhere is this more evident than in Alisa Solomon’s essay about Fiddler on the Roof, “Tevye’s Travels: From Yiddish Everyman to American Icon.” Opening with Al Hirschfeld’s iconic caricature of the Broadway production starring Zero Mostel, Solomon traces the seventy-year genesis of the story of Tevye, from its inception by beloved Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem to its record-breaking Broadway run and its status as an American classic. Tevye the milk-man, or Tevye der milkhiker, and his family appeared in numerous Yiddish stories from 1894 through 1914 during which time Aleichem’s writing found a global audience. Tevye’s struggles to survive in a cruel motherland, where he is not wanted, spoke to a generation of European Jews, and Aleichem’s stories were eventually embraced in the U.S. After two failed attempts as musicals, Aleichem’s stories found a home at the Yiddish Art Theatre and later as a successful 1939 film. English language adaptations followed and finally, in 1964, the creative team of Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Jerome Robbins created a labor of love known by millions of theatregoers as Fiddler on the Roof. What began as a popular anthologized Yiddish story is now embedded in popular American culture, and Aleichem’s Tevye is an everyman for the ages.

A distinctive feature of the collection, and one that sets it apart from Joel Berkowitz and Barbara Henry’s recent case book, Inventing the Modern Yiddish Stage: Essays in Drama, Performance, and Show Business, is the book’s visual inventiveness. New York’s Yiddish Theater is filled with beautiful architectural renderings, historical photographs and drawings, and spotlight sections featuring pivotal moments in Yiddish theatre, such as Sholem Asch’s controversial God of Vengeance (1923). Sholem’s play is one of the first early twentieth century plays to look at same-sex attraction and was newly reimagined by Paula Vogel in Indecent (2015). However, it is the entire package that makes the collection such a special work and opens the door to additional historical and theatrical scholarship.

As outlined in this collection, one needs very little background in American or Jewish American theatre history to appreciate the social complexities and dynamics of the Yiddish theatre movement. From its humble Eastern European beginnings and its immense popularity in the United States, to its influences on contemporary pop culture, the Yiddish theatre is embedded in American art and life. New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway is a valuable addition to our understanding of the significant legacy of the early Jewish American experience.

Derek R. Munson
University of Missouri

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 30, Number 1 (Fall 2017)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2017 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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