26 August 2012

National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene, Part 2


[In Part 2 of “National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene,” I pick up with the development of Yiddish drama and theater, first in Eastern Europe, then in New York City. In the final section, I’ll trace the history and, so far as we can predict, the future of the last producing Yiddish theater troupe in New York, the Folksbiene. As much as the language itself fascinates me, the existence of a Yiddish theater astonishes me. It is, as I’ve stated, what I believe to be an entirely unique achievement in human cultural history.

[At the end of Part 2, after I reiterate some the definitions of some of the Yiddish words that have cropped up in the article, I name a few useful sources and resources for anyone who is curious enough to look further into this art form.]

Jewish drama in Europe began in the Middle Ages with performances of the traditional Purim play (Purimspiel), the Biblical story of Esther, Mordechai, Ahasuerus, and Haman by amateurs going from house to house. By the 16th century, these itinerant performances, which included references to contemporary matters as well as improvisations, songs, and dances, were performed in Yiddish. I’m giving short shrift to the prehistory of Jewish theater, but suffice it to say that during their sojourn in Western, Central, and Eastern Europe, the Jews of the Diaspora came into contact with the theatrical entertainments of their host countries from the Middle Ages on. During the 18th-century Haskala, intellectuals wrote plays that extolled their beliefs, but popular plays, ones that entertained and probed, began to appear in the late 19th century. By the 19th century, the new Jewish theater, following the tradition of the serious European art theater in its dramatic writing and content, was equally famous for its music. (There was a parallel development in Eastern Europe of Jewish minstrelsy that grew out of the impromptu singing and dancing performed at weddings. At a certain point, the two traditions met.) Offerings ranged from revues to operettas to musical comedies, melodramas to naturalist dramas to expressionist and modernist plays.

Abraham Goldfaden (1840-1908), a Ukrainian journalist, teacher, and poet (whose poems had already been set to music and become popular songs), is credited with staging the first Yiddish play, a presentation of one of his own musical scripts at a Romanian tavern in Iasi in 1876. The location isn’t entirely coincidental as some of the foundational influences for Jewish drama happened in Romania in the Middle Ages: while Jews elsewhere in Europe had been barred from attending the Christian religious performances, such as the Passion Plays and the miracle, mystery, and morality plays that were the origins of post-Roman European theater, the Romanian Orthodox Church wasn’t so restrictive and Romanian Jews saw these seminal performances. In any case, the Iasi presentation was successful and Goldfaden, known as the father of Yiddish theater, soon established the first professional Yiddish theater troupe there, though he later moved his base to Bucharest. Decades later, Bucharest is one of the three remaining centers of Yiddish theater, with Tel Aviv and New York.

The Jews of Europe being among the most literate people—out of necessity, many spoke three or four tongues—and Yiddish having been established as a literary language, this new art form was immediately appealing. A few Jews were familiar with the theater of their home cultures, but for most, literary pursuit meant books and prose. Within a few years of Goldfaden’s success in Romania, however, the idea of Jewish theater spread abroad. Goldfaden himself was urged to come to other cities like Warsaw and Vilnius to start Yiddish theaters and his Romanian company toured frequently, playing taverns and cafés across Eastern and Central Europe. Since the Ashkenazim shared common experiences despite their different countries of residence, the new Yiddish plays traveled easily and the successful playwrights immediately gained international followings. This spurred more Yiddish theaters to open and Goldfaden’s scripts were also published, spreading the idea of Yiddish plays and playwriting even further. Almost immediately, other Yiddish theaters popped up all over the Ashkenazi diaspora, prompting a simultaneous burgeoning of Yiddish playwriting to fill the little stages from Moscow to Berlin and beyond, stretching all the way to Vienna, Paris, London, and finally New York.

Joining a tide of Yiddish-speaking Jews fleeing the wave of anti-Semitic pogroms that followed the assassination in Russia of Czar Alexander II in 1881, Abraham Goldfaden emigrated to America. (In 1883, the government of Czar Alexander III banned Yiddish theater. The ban was lifted in 1904.) By 1887, two established companies from Eastern Europe had already crossed the Atlantic to set up in New York City—comedian Sigmund Mogulesko (1848-1914), from Moldavia via Romania, and his dramatic co-star, David Kessler (1860-1920), also Moldavian, were playing on the Bowery at the Rumania Opera House and a smaller troupe was working out of the Oriental Theatre. Goldfaden attempted to put his work on in New York in 1887, but the success he had in Europe eluded him here. His last play, however, Ben Ami (1907), opening five days before his death, was well-regarded in a production directed by Boris Thomashefsky, the première actor-director of the Jewish Broadway, Second Avenue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Many other playwrights arose, a number of them following Goldfaden to the United States and New York City, fast becoming the world capital of the Yiddish stage.

In 1880, there were 240,000 Jews in the United States, 60,000 of them in New York City. New York already had the largest concentration of Jews in the world, all from different countries with different languages. Between 1880 and 1910, the Golden Age of Yiddish theater, one-third of all the Jews in Eastern Europe had emigrated, 90% of them to the U.S. They were a ready-made audience for the migrating Yiddish theaters expelled from Eastern Europe. Much of the early stage fare were translated, often bowdlerized versions of European plays—but they offered astonishing talent, with the likes of Boris Thomashefsky (1868-1939), who arrived in New York from Russia in 1881 as a 12-year-old, and his wife, Bessie (1874-1962); and Jacob Adler (1855-1926), two of whose children, Stella (1901-92) and Luther (1903-84), became both famous and influential on the English-speaking stage and in Hollywood. (Stella Adler, a founding member of the Group Theatre, became one of America’s most respected acting teachers and one of the world’s most important interpreters of the Stanislavsky system of acting.) In 1899, the United States’ first actors’ union was formed by the Yiddish performers; the Hebrew Actors Union fought for actors’ rights 14 years before the Actors’ Equity Association was founded. 

Audiences began to include non-Yiddish-speakers and by 1900, there were three professional Yiddish theater troupes on New York City’s Lower East Side, charging from 25 cents for the gallery to a dollar for orchestra seats. In 1918, there were as many as 20 companies in the city, presenting over a thousand performances which brought in two million spectators from across the entire spectrum of Jewish society. The strip of 15 Yiddish theaters along Second Avenue between about 6th and 14th Streets was dubbed “The Yiddish Rialto” and New York’s Yiddish theater became a significant cultural establishment not just for the Jewish population, but the entire city. (Indeed, it benefited the entire country eventually. Vaudeville in the ’30s and ’40s and TV comedy of the ’50s inherited the talent that had been honed by New York’s Yiddish stages. Broadway and Hollywood did well from Second Avenue as well, with stars like the Adlers and Muni Weisenfreund—better known as Paul Muni.)

The young Thomashefsky, still only a child himself, orchestrated the emigration of two Romanian brothers with theatrical backgrounds and when they arrived in 1882 with four other actors, the boy, who’d never seen a play himself, persuaded a neighborhood tavern-owner to hire a hall and produce a play, Goldfaden’s Koldunye (The Witch, 1877). It was such a success, despite stiff opposition from upper-class German Jews who looked upon Yiddish theater as undignified, that Thomashefsky’s credited with staging the first Yiddish theatrical performance in New York. No older than 13, Thomashefsky became the first impresario of New York’s Yiddish theater. He took the new company on tours to Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; Pittsburgh; Boston; and Chicago, playing before enthusiastic audiences of working-class Jews. Besides original plays by Goldfaden and others, Thomashefsky’s troupe, one of the most celebrated of the many then playing in New York City and touring the country, also presented Yiddish adaptations of such works as Hamlet (called The Yeshiva Student), Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Faust, and Oscar Wilde’s Salome, starring a hugely successful Bessie Thomashefsky in the title role. (Many of the adaptations, like King Lear or Hedda Gabler, were given haimishe—‘homely’ in the sense of ‘warm,’ but here connoting ‘happy’—endings.) Still, while the English-speaking audiences uptown were seeing lightweight comedies or melodramas like Alias Jimmy Valentine or The Heart of Maryland, the Jews on the Lower East Side were seeing the work of modern European writers such as Shaw, Strindberg, Ibsen, and Gorki, along with the new Yiddish works of Ansky, Asch, Aleichem, Pinski, and others.

Though adaptations of European classics dominated the fare on the Yiddish stage, a practice often disparaged by the Jewish intellectual class, that began to change drastically around 1890, the start of the Golden Age of Yiddish theater. Jacob Gordin (1853-1909) took his lead from the best Russian theater, including the Moscow Art Theater of Konstantin Stanislavsky which was already reforming the theater of the western world. His début play for the New York theater, Siberia (1891), incorporating some of the style of secular Yiddish literature, was the first realistic play about Jewish life of the day (though by today’s standards, it was full of melodramatic plot elements). His Yiddish King Lear (Der Yidisher Kenig Lir, 1892) wasn’t a translation of Shakespeare but an original play inspired by the Elizabethan classic. Gordin’s central character is Dovid Moishele, a wealthy Jewish merchant in 19th-century Russia, the family patriarch and a most familiar figure to the East European theatergoers.

Though Gordin’s plays demanded sincerity on stage and attention from their audiences, he wasn’t above incorporating comic and musical elements to appeal to the spectators. The plays, both Gordin’s and those of other popular Yiddish dramatists, were most often about family life and problems—one popular theme was the generational conflict between American-born children and their old-country parents—with characters that resembled the playgoers and their neighbors, and situations they saw around them. Topical events also found expression on the Yiddish stage: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the sinking of the Titanic were both subjects of downtown dramas. Some of the plays were serious art and others were shund, trash, but the theater quickly became the cultural core of the Ashkenazim’s life in America. Playwright Isaiah Sheffer (b. 1935), a child actor on the Yiddish stage who eventually became artistic director of Symphony Space, explained that he went to Yiddish theater “for great depth of feeling, a richness of feeling. The idea of fullness, richness and overflowing table.” The great director Harold Clurman (1901-80), describing his own response to the output of Second Avenue, said that “it really satisfied and responded to the needs and the feelings and sentiments and the hopes of the people. It was not an entertainment or a pastime. It was a necessity.” Broadway actors came downtown to have a look and the New York press began to take serious note of this rival to Broadway as the English-language papers began running reviews of Yiddish performances around 1900.

The Yiddish Rialto also had its own culture, much like Broadway’s uptown. There was even a “Sardi’s of Second Avenue”—the Cafe Royale on East 12th Street—where fans and artists hung out after performances and between gigs. (The famous coffee shop was fictionalized in the 1942 play—revived on Broadway in 1989—and 1964 musical Cafe Crown.) The world of Yiddish theater was a separate universe, possibly an escape from the drudgery of daily life or the reality of the bleak world the immigrants had so recently left behind. In fact, more than Broadway, the Yiddish theater resembled the world of Kabuki, in which the actors’ children went into the family business as soon as they could manage to cross the stage. Lulla Rosenfeld, the late granddaughter of Jacob Adler and his colleague and friend Abba Schoengold (her parents were Adler’s daughter Frances and Schoengold’s son, Joseph), recounted that her sister Pearlie “made her debut at the age of 2, and created an uproar when, forgetting her role, she addressed Jacob Adler as ‘Zayde’ (Grandpa) . . . .” (The error brought laughter and “a rain of coins” from the audience.) The few Yiddish artists who married outside the profession introduced the spouses to the theater immediately and soon found an excuse to get them on stage. At the other end of history, sadly, is the burial ground, Block 67 at Mount Hebron Cemetery in Queens, maintained by the Yiddish Theatrical Alliance (a branch of the HAU) exclusively for artsts and stage hands of the Yiddish theater.

The theater managers engaged in publicity wars with one another over their stars on posters and handbills and in the press, and insults to rival actors at another theater were inserted into scripts. Devoted fans, called patrioten, truly adored their stage stars; many were fans of particular actors and would even yell advice from their seats at critical moments (much the way Japanese patrons of Kabuki might shout out encouragement or criticism at performers). Just as in a Kabuki-za, spectators ate and drank, exchanged loud remarks, and shamelessly cheered and booed the performers. Patrioten rabidly defended their favorite’s turf to all boosters of anyone else, even resorting to tossing a rival patriot out of the auditorium. Once a well-known patriot of actor David Kessler, Jacob Adler’s chief rival famous for his histrionics, turned coat and began supporting Adler, known for his dignity and reserve on stage. This was such an upheaval in the sphere of Yiddish theater, it got full-page coverage in the Jewish press.

Not only were productions quickly sold out, even among the working-class immigrants for whom the 25-cent ticket price was a small fortune, but the stars’ off-stage luster helped raise up their fans and the whole Jewish community. As I noted, many of the later stars—the Marx Brothers, Molly Picon, Paul Muni, Fyvush Finkel; even Leonard Nimoy and Tovah Feldshuh had a taste of the Yiddish stage in their youths—moved on to stardom on Broadway or Hollywood, but the star that shone brightest on Second Avenue was Jacob Adler, an émigré from Latvia via London in 1889. His performances in such Yiddish classics as The Yiddish King Lear moved audiences beyond control. It’s reported that one spectator ran toward the stage bellowing:

To hell with your stingy daughter, Yankel! She has a stone, not a heart. Spit on her, Yankel, and come home with me. My yidene will feed you. Come Yankel, may she choke, that rotten daughter of yours.

(“Yankel” is the common nickname for Jacob, Yakov in Yiddish. Yidene is a derogatory term for a Jewish woman, somewhat more insulting than “old lady.”) In 1901, Adler performed the role of Shylock in a Yiddish translation of The Merchant of Venice at the People’s Theatre on the Bowery. So successful was his portrayal of “The Jew of Venice” as a man driven not by revenge but pride, motivated, in the words of the New York Times review, to vindicate “Israel against the despiteful usage of the Christian merchant and his friends,” that he was invited to repeat the performance on Broadway and in May 1903, Adler appeared at the American Theatre on West 42nd Street in a production where he spoke in Yiddish and the other actors responded in English. When Adler, who had been nicknamed Nesher Hagodl, Hebrew for “The Great Eagle” (Adler is German and Yiddish for ‘eagle’), died in 1926, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers gathered to view his body as it lay in state for two days at the HAU.

But the New York Yiddish theater also presented the particular world of the American Jew, expressing pride in both the people’s Jewishness and their Americanness. Patriotism for their new land, keenly felt because of the freedoms they found (despite what we would recognize as casual and societal anti-Semitism and general xenophobia—far less than the new Jewish Americans had left behind in Europe) and the opportunities they had to express themselves artistically and intellectually, was expressed in plays like Boris Thomashefsky’s Der Yidisher Yenki Dudl (1905). The United States’ entrance into World War I in 1917 found the Stars and Stripes adorning every Lower East Side stage as Yiddish stars sold thousands of dollars of Liberty Bonds and raised large sums for the Red Cross. They could look with pride at fellow immigrant Irving Berlin (1888-1989), whom George M. Cohan had dubbed “the Yidishe Yankee Doodle,” and his raft of popular—and often patriotic—American songs and Broadway scores.

At its height of popularity, up to about the Second World War, Yiddish theater spawned as many as 200 troupes in New York City and around the U.S. Today, the only producing Yiddish company in New York City is the Folksbiene, founded in 1915 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. There were over a dozen companies in New York City when the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre formed, an arm of the Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring, a socialist-oriented labor organization founded in 1900. (Another company, the Yiddish National Theatre, was affiliated with a different labor organization, the now-defunct Hebrew Actors Union.) Remember that the large majority of Yiddish-speaking immigrants were working-class people laboring for wages and their culture reflected that. It’s this association to which I was referring when I suggested earlier that there’d been a practical effect of Yiddish literature’s leftist proclivity.

After the genocide of World War II destroyed most of the European Yiddish-speaking community, the pool of both writers and performers, as well as spectators, who spoke Yiddish diminished. (In 1921’s Emergency Quota Act and the Immigration Act of 1924, Congress had imposed restrictions on immigration from Eastern Europe.) American Jews had meanwhile become so assimilated that they preferred the English-language theater (as was true of most ethnic groups who arrived in the mass immigration of the turn of the century) and many of the stars of the Yiddish theater transferred to the English-speaking stage and Hollywood. In 1959, two of the most prominent Yiddish theater buildings on Second Avenue were demolished (initially for parking lots); in 1985, the last Yiddish play was produced on Second Avenue; in 1996, the same year the Hebew Actors Union went out of business, the Yiddish Rialto’s last theater was torn down.

Like many of the small theaters in New York City and around the country, Folksbiene, thought to be New York City’s longest continuously-producing theater troupe of any kind, began as an amateur company. It soon became a semi-professional outfit, first hiring renowned directors like Joseph Buloff (1899-1985) and Jacob Ben-Ami (1890-1972), followed by professional actors. Its earliest commitment was to present plays of literary worth, including Yiddish versions of classics from other cultures, though it now produces more popular fare to attract a wider audience. Folksbiene—the name, as I explained in my introduction, is Yiddish for “the people’s stage”—became an independent, not-for-profit theater in 1998, hiring a professional staff (currently about 10 personnel) and acting company. It embarked on a program of modernization in an effort to expand its audience. Having renamed itself the National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene in 2006, its modern mission, as stated on the company’s own website, is “to preserve, promote and develop Yiddish theatre for current and future generations.” Toward this end, along with the more liberal repertory, Folksbiene has also added supertitles in English and Russian for theatergoers who don’t understand Yiddish. Formerly housed in a midtown synagogue on the East Side, the company has been nomadic for several seasons now but has raised around $2 million towards building its own permanent performance space. The troupe, one of just five professional Yiddish theaters in the world still operating, currently presents one main play a year during the winter (though it also has other programs).

Folksbiene says that these efforts have increased their audiences threefold. In 2007, the theater won the Drama Desk Special Award “for preserving for 92 consecutive seasons the cultural legacy of Yiddish-speaking theatre in America”; its 2006 mounting of Di Yam Gazlonim, a Yiddish adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance, was nominated for the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Musical. Though the troupe’s original focus was on preserving and memorializing the traditional Yiddish theater culture, both the popular work and the classical plays, it has turned in recent years to original work that continues the tradition in modern ways. In 2011, for example, Folksbiene presented a co-production with Theater for a New Audience of a new klezmer musical, Robert Brustein’s Shlemiel the First, an English-language adaptation of a story by Isaac Beshevis Singer. Folksbiene artistic director Zalmen Mlotek, a Yiddish music specialist and conductor, explained: “We’re encouraging young artists to use the Yiddish culture and reinterpret it for the widest possible audience.” Its outreach efforts include bringing Yiddish shows to communities outside of New York City and offering free performances at colleges. Folksbiene has also expanded its offerings beyond theater to include concerts, literary programs, and children’s performances (Kids & Yiddish) in an effort to redirect its emphasis to the whole of Yiddish culture.
Coming up on its 100th anniversary, Folksbiene has announced plans for an international Jewish arts festival in 2015. Kulturfest: The First Chana Mlotek International Festival of Jewish Performing Arts will include performances and workshops exploring Jewish identity through the arts. (Chana Mlotek, the mother of Folksbiene’s Zalmen Mlotek, is the music archivist at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.) The company anticipates a week of celebration featuring 100 concerts, film screenings, and theater events, though fundraising isn’t complete yet. One question the plans raise, however, is embedded in the festival’s proposed name. As Jewish novelist Thane Rosenbaum, who writes frequently about Jewish culture, phrased it: “Is there is a distinctly Jewish art today, and what is its connection to Yiddish?”

The concepts of “Jewish” and “Yiddish” aren’t identical, though they clearly overlap. If nothing else, of course, “Jewish culture” must include not just Ashkenazi and Sephardi arts, but the creative work of Mizrahim (the Jews from Muslim-majority lands of the Middle East) and even the Falashas (the Jewish sect that arose in Ethiopia), among the many Jewish sects and communities around the world whose language isn’t Yiddish. (There are, for instance, centuries-old, indigenous Jewish societies in India and China.) “Jewish” theater, for instance, can be written in any language—there’s a lot of it in English, for example—and be creatively based in any nation, even as the Yiddish theater can be. But shouldn’t “Yiddish” theater be written exclusively in Yiddish? Traditionally, it also depicts the Ashkenazi world, either of the past or the present, though there’s no reason it must. As Rosenbaum put the query: “Is this really about world Jewish culture?” or “Is this just homage to Yiddish culture?” Does the use of Yiddish automatically make something Jewish? Shane Baker, executive director of the Congress for Jewish Culture, declared, “I’m a gentile fluent in Yiddish, and I play in Yiddish theater” and suggested, “I imagine one of the things they’ll be looking at is what is Jewish culture.” (It’s provocative to note that the official announcement of the Kulturfest plans came at a gala Town Hall concert in honor of, among others, pop singer Neil Sedaka, a Sephardic Jew—raised, curiously enough, in an Ashkenazi-influenced home).

Another provocative question, pertinent more today in this time of assimilation and homogenization, is raised by Theodore Bikel, the actor and folksinger: “Is someone a Jewish artist or a Jew who happens to create music or books?” Was Death of a Salesman a Jewish play (Willy “Lohmann”?) because Arthur Miller was a Jew? Is Barefoot in the Park a Jewish comedy because Neil Simon’s Jewish? West Side Story was famously written and staged by five Jews. It’s hardly a Jewish play, I wouldn’t say. (All five artists were also gay. Is West Side Story a gay musical?) On the other hand, Fiddler on the Roof is surely a Jewish play and story—albeit with universal themes and appeal. But when it opened in Tokyo, Japanese theatergoers and critics reportedly declared, “It’s so Japanese”! (A recent Broadway revival of Fiddler was mounted with no Jews among the principle artists engaged in the staging. It was humorously dubbed “Goyim on the Roof” and, coincidently or not, roundly criticized for its lack of personality and verve. Goy is the slightly derogatory—“condescending” is perhaps a kinder adjective, remembering that Yiddish words never have a single translation—Yiddish term for ‘gentile.’)

Is there even still a “Yiddish culture”? Thane Rosenbaum reminds us, “It is still a dying language,” spoken in fewer and fewer households, especially outside the Hasidic world. Rosenbaum also asks, “Are there original plays being written in Yiddish?” The theatrical section of the Mount Hebron Cemetery is steadily filling up as the practitioners of Yiddish theater dwindles. Could there possibly be a resurgence? Does it matter? Is the long and stunning history enough to justify the celebration or even the existence of an organization like Folksbiene? As I admitted, Yiddish and the Yiddish theater have intrigued me most of my adult life—yet I never learned the language. Are most Jews like me? Is the Folksbiene fighting a losing battle, sticking a finger in a dyke that's going to burst anyway? Are we getting ready to say, as one Mount Hebron epithaph reads, “The play is done, the curtain drops slow, falling to the prompter’s bell.” Sentimentally, I hope not. Realistically? “God alone knows,” as Hodel, Tevye’s daughter, says in Fiddler.

[I’ve tried to make clear what I’ve meant by the Yiddish words and phrases I salted through “The National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene,” either by defining them specifically or carefully situating them in context. Still, just to be safe, let me go over some of them again, in the order in which they appear above. Bear in mind that a) English spellings will vary and b) no Yiddish word has a simple, one-dimensional meaning.

Folksbiene, the company’s name, means ‘people’s stage.’ Mame-loshen refers to the Yiddish language, the ‘mother tongue.’ A mavin is an ‘expert,’ a ‘knowledgeable person.’ Haimishe means ‘humble,’ ‘homey,’ ‘comfortable.’ Yidishe (note the single d) is the Yiddish word for both ‘Yiddish’ and ‘Jewish’; only the context reveals the proper sense. (Yid is the word for ‘Jew,’ though it’s usually an offensive name if pronounced with a short i as in ‘kid,’ the way anti-Semites say it; if pronounced in Yiddish, “yeed,” it’s neutral.) Shund means ‘trash’ or ‘rubbish.’ A zayde is a ‘grandfather,’ though it can be used as a term of endearment for any old man. Patrioten (plural of patriot) means ‘fans’ as in ‘devotees’ and shouldn’t be confused with the English cognate it looks like. Yidene is an ‘old woman’ and is always a put-down in the sense that “my yidene” would be the equivalent of a man calling his wife “my old lady.” Klezmer music is traditional Ashkenazi folk music and hymns played by itinerant groups of three to six musicians playing trumpets, bugles, flutes, clarinets, fifes, violins, cellos, or drums. (The name comes from the Hebrew for ‘musical instrument.’) Originally, the players were untrained and the groups informal, though today the musicians are trained and the music is notated. Goy (pl.: goyim) is the way Jews refer to a ‘gentile’ or a ‘non-Jew’ and it can carry a condescending, even insulting connotation, depending on whether it’s spoken with a sneer or a smile.

[There are lots of books and articles about the three main topics I’ve covered in “The National Yiddish Theatre”—the Yiddish language, Yiddish literature, and Yiddish theater—too many to list. For the language, one of the most amusing—and still informative—is Leo Rosten’s
The Joys of Yiddish. It’s principally a vocabulary with wonderful examples of the uses of a word or phrase, but it also has encyclopedia-like articles about many surprising aspects of Yiddish culture and language and Jewish life and history. Another fun book, if you can find a copy, is Martin Marcus’s Yiddish for Yankees. For Yiddish theater, I recommend starting with Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater by Nahma Sandrow. Lulla Rosenfeld’s biography of her grandfather, Bright Star of Exile: Jacob Adler and the Yiddish Theatre is also a fascinating and engaging entrée into that world. Most libraries, especially university collections, have excellent resources on these subjects, and the New York Public Library’s Dorot Jewish Division at the Stephen A. Schwartzman Building (5th Avenue at 42nd Street) is easily one of the best collections of Judaica in the U.S., but for all three subjects, plus anything else about Yiddish culture (food, music, poetry) or Jewish customs and life, check out the Center for Jewish History in New York City (15 W. 16th Street); CJH includes the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.]


  1. Hi Rick,
    A close friend of mine, Jack Foshko, an artist, was the son of Joseph Foshko, a noted Jewish American listed artist. Joseph was married to Julia Adler, the sister of Stella Adler and the movie actor Luther Adler. Stella and Luther were children of Jacob Adler who you write about in this magnificent review of Jewish theater.

    Last time we wrote to each other it was about Hopi rituals. I did not think you were a Hopi Indian, but I am thinking you may be a Jewish American. I'm working on a blog now called "The Other Coney Island." I would like to go into the period in which I grew up in residential Coney Island when it was completely dominated by Jewish culture.

    Question: I think if you personalize your articles on the Jewish stage as to your own Jewish identity it might lend some interesting nuances to your articles on the Jewish theater.

    Jordan Richman

    1. Jordan--

      It's an interesting suggestion, but I have no personal connection to Yiddish theater. I'm not a native New Yorker so I didn't grow up here in the waning days of that culture and by the time I moved here, it was nothing but a memory. (As I admitted in the article, I also don't speak Yiddish.) Still, there's a little personal commentary in the article, though, I agree, not very much.

      Thanks for the comments nonetheless. It's always good to hear from you.


  2. On Wednesday, 5 September, the "New York Times" reported:

    Target Margin Theater, the alternative New York theater company known for its frisky interpretations of plays ranging from Shakespeare to Brecht, is turning its attention to Yiddish theater. The company has announced a two-season exploration of Yiddish theater called Beyond the Pale, which begins with a festival of plays, readings, a scholarly panel and a concert of Yiddish music, to be held Oct. 17 through Nov. 3 at The Brick in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

    The festival, all in English, will present four fully staged plays including “God, Man, and Devil,” the circa 1900 play by Jacob Gordin, an influential Yiddish dramatist. In March, Target Margin will present a reworked drama from the Yiddish canon at the Abrons Art Center at the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Other productions, workshops and concerts are also planned.

    “As I have learned about Yiddish theater in the last couple of years I’ve come to appreciate the range and sophistication of Yiddish theater and I want people to realize what is out there,” David Herskovits, artistic director of Target Margin said Tuesday. “The festival is the kickoff for big productions, little productions, readings and short presentations.” A dozen Yiddish theaters thrived in New York City in the early 20th century. (Fellicia R. Lee)


  3. On Wednesday, 9 October 2013, Anita Gates filed the following review:

    "Passing the Time Until He Arrives"

    "You think 'Waiting for Godot' is depressing? Wait till you hear it in Yiddish.

    "That will be possible for three more performances of 'Vartn af Godot,' Shane Baker’s translation of Samuel Beckett’s 1948 existential masterpiece, now having its world premiere in a modest but impressive production by New Yiddish Rep and the Castillo Theater.

    "The play's surface premise is minimalist. Two men who don't seem to like each other much wait on a lonely road for a man they have never met before and with whom they have some sort of vague appointment. Vladimir (Mr. Baker), nicknamed Didi, is the more pulled-together of the two. Estragon (David Mandelbaum), called Gogo, is a mess, always fretting, whether it is about his ill-fitting boots or the proper order in which he and Didi should commit suicide.

    "The men spend most of their time philosophizing only to each other, but they are visited by a messenger from Mr. Godot. The boy (or boys — it's existential) is played by Nicholas Jenkins, a 9-year-old angel in dreadlocks.

    "Didi and Gogo also interact with a pair of strange travelers, the imperious Pozzo (Avi Hoffman) and an elderly man — named, with Beckettian irony, Lucky (the delightful Rafael Goldwaser) — who carries Pozzo's heavy baskets and is kept attached to a rope. Mr. Hoffman did not particular impress me in his solo show 'Still Jewish After All These Years' this year, but as Pozzo he is vibrant and compelling, the embodiment of a cold and grossly unfair world.

    "The director, Moshe Yassur, has said that this production makes Didi and Gogo Holocaust survivors. If so, the signals are extremely subtle.

    "George Xenos's set consists of the requisite withered tree and what looks like a big flannel blanket, but it works. Jordan Kutzik's English and Russian supertitles are satisfyingly legible, but the screens, on either side of the stage, are so far from the actors that it's virtually impossible to read and watch the action simultaneously. The audience members who understand Yiddish or know the play so well that they don’t need to are the lucky ones. In the language of exile, everything sounds so much more hopeless — which is the whole point."


  4. On 23 March 2015, Andrew R. Chow reported in the "Arts, Briefly" column of the New York Times the following announcement:

    "Yiddish Production of ‘Death of a Salesman’ Coming to Off-Broadway"

    New Yiddish Rep will bring an updated Yiddish production of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" to New York this October. The production play at the Castillo Theater for seven weeks and aims to uncover the play's cultural foundations.

    The Jewish cultural influences on "Death of a Salesman" have been widely discussed and analyzed. An earlier version of Mr. Miller's story centered on a salesman named not Loman, but Schoenzeit. An actor, Joseph Buloff, translated the play into Yiddish and put on a small production of his translation in Brooklyn in 1951, titled "Toyt fun a Salesman."

    This new production hopes to draw and expand on Mr. Buloff's version. "The language of the play reveals its roots," said David Mandelbaum, the artistic director of New Yiddish Rep. "I hope people will become more aware of that when they hear the intonations and rhythms of Yiddish as applied to the play."

    Previously, New Yiddish Rep produced a well-received translation of "Waiting for Godot," which premiered at the Castillo Theater in 2013 before traveling to Northern Ireland.