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The Ghosts of the Yiddish Theatre


On December 23, 2015 it was melancholy experience to have watched The Golden Bride, a Yiddish operetta, performed by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, the world’s oldest Yiddish theatrical organization at the Museum of the Jewish Heritage in Battery Park.  When I saw “The Golden Bride” at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene on December 23, 2015, it was a centennial of its founding year.  Back in 1915, when it got started, the Yiddish theater was at its apogee:  the three million Jews of America supported twelve Yiddish theaters in the “Jewish Rialto” on Second Avenue  and four in Brooklyn plus a few more in other major American cities. In that year, there were one million Yiddish theater-goers!  Indeed, the native-born Molly Picon got her start by first learning in transliteration her lines in Yiddish at this time before becoming fluent in the language.  In the golden years from the 1920s to the 1950s, Yiddish theatrical companies would first put on a performance in New York, travel throughout the USA, and winter in Argentina performing before the large Yiddish-speaking population there.


The Yiddish audience in Europe was murdered by Adolph Hitler in Europe; the Yiddish playwrights were murdered by Joseph Stalin.  Stalin’s daughter Sevetlana in her memoirs recalled her murderous father making a telephone call to arrange an automobile accident for Solomon Mikhoels, the Yiddish playwright, whose funeral he then attended.  In the USA, it was the forces of assimilation.  An Irish student completed his Ph. D. comparing the fate of Gaelic in Ireland and Yiddish in America.  He noted sadly that the English was the language of fame and fortune that would dim the prospect of these languages surviving.  The Zionist pioneers of Israel promoted Hebrew that once more became a living language while Yiddish was marginalized.  Over half the population of Israel is descendants of Sephardic Jews who never spoke Yiddish.  Yiddish had no champion like Eliezer Ben-Yehuda who was instrumental in the revival of Hebrew as a modern, living language.  I remember doing research on the Bund, a socialist Jewish group who championed a federation of languages in Europe in which Yiddish would be an equal, at the Bundist Archives and Yivo archives in Manhattan.  I was fascinated by the stories I uncovered but unfortunately I found no future for Yiddish.  


My parents had belonged to The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring a fraternal organization for its benefits, not for its promotion of the Yiddish language. Workmen’s Circle and several other fraternal organizations had attempted to continue Yiddish by sponsoring summer camps and schools in which activities took place in Yiddish but they were not successful in the long run. My mother in recounting her youth mentioned she used to date Yiddish actors in the 1930s.  My father mentioned that Menusha Skulnick had been a star in the Yiddish theater when he took me to the Tarrytown Playhouse when I was about eight years old to a comedy English.  I helped my father keep the minutes of a fraternal group or landsmanschaft whose minutes shifted from Yiddish to English.  When he died in 1987, I gave the records of the organization to YIVO that has an archive to preserve the papers of such groups.  In 2014, KlezKamp, the Yiddish folk arts gathering that took place in the Catskills every winter for the last 30 years, had its last gathering for the fall.  Yiddish New York took its place during the Christmas week in 2015 but whether this will continue remains to be seen in the future.


Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, and James Cagney got their start in the Yiddish theater but moved onto the Broadway and then Hollywood.  James Cagney (whose mother was Jewish) was completely fluent in Yiddish.  I remember him casually mentioning in one of his interviews with David Hartman to promote “Ragtime” that he had just finished reading a book of Yiddish poetry he had received in the mail.  José Ferrer got his start in the Spanish theater before moving on to the Broadway and then Hollywood.


Inevitably, the forces of assimilation and the end of mass migration from Europe following American restrictions on immigration and the Holocaust doomed the survival of Yiddish in America.  The few enclaves where Yiddish is spoken as a first language tend to be Chassidic Jews who despise the secular Jewish culture.  The Forward, once the world’s largest daily Yiddish newspaper at a quarter million readers, is now a weekly printed in English, Hebrew, Russian, and Yiddish editions.  There were once over sixty Yiddish radio stations from the 1930s to the 1950s; but alas they are no more.  I remember Art Raymond hosting a show of Jewish music on WEVD, “the station that spoke your language.”  The once 24-hour a day Yiddish radio station, launched in 1927, died in 1981.  The last commercial Yiddish theater, the Yiddish Art Theater, winked out in 1962 on Second Avenue.   It has been landmarked as the East Village Cinema at 12th Street where you can see its Star of David candelabra. Other remaining Yiddish theater buildings still standing are the Anderson Yiddish Theater at East 4th Street (which was abandoned)  and the Orpheum, at St. Mark’s Place, and the Former Sunshine Theater at 147 East Houston Street building was built circa 1910 as the Sunshine there.   The American Jewish Repertory Theater in the 1970s did not make it.  The Hebrew Actors’ Union (HAU) founded in 1899 to serve Yiddish actors by Joseph Barondess, the first actors’ union in the United States, merged with AFTRA in 2007.  You can still see giant letters of HAU for Hebrew Actors Union building on 31 Seventh Street between Second Avenue and Third Avenue.


The Second Avenue Deli, formerly located at 156 Second Avenue is in the heart of the former Yiddish Theater District, was founded in 1954 by Abe Lebewohl.  In 1980, he inaugurated his own version of the Grauman Chinese Theater plaques in Hollywood with Second Avenue Hall of Fame:  Molly Picon and her husband/manager Jacob Kalish, Ben Bonus, the Barry sisters, Adler parents and Adler children, Zvi Schooler, Menashe Skulnic, Rose Boyzic, Boris and Bessie Thomashevsky, Maurice Schwartz,  and Paul Muni (Muni Weisenfeld) are honored.   Joseph Goldfaden was the founder of the Yiddish Theater.  He established the first Yiddish Theater in Bucharest, Roumania in 1876.  When the Russian Empire banned the Yiddish theater, he came to America to establish one in New York.  Fyvush Finkle was last name added to the roll call in 1995.  Although the deli moved uptown and has been replaced by a Chase bank branch, the names are still there.  

Let us conclude with a Yiddish proverb:” Words should be weighed, not counted.

 ‏ווערטער זאָל מען װעגן און ניט צײלן. Veter zol men vegn un mit tseylyn

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