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Lost World of Yiddish Theater

April 4, 2019 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Broadway’s Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish recalls a world of thriving Yiddish theater in New York and beyond.

One of the hottest tickets on Broadway right now might seem like a novelty. Fidler afn Dakh, Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, started off as a limited stage run in New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage in 2018. After audiences flocked to performances, and the play’s run was extended five times, Fidler afn Dakh transferred to Broadway in 2019.

Audiences are vying for tickets to the musical, which is staged all in Yiddish with English and Russian translations shown on a large screen above the stage. Fidler afn Dakh is following in the footsteps of over a hundred years of vibrant Yiddish theatre in New York and beyond.

Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof

In the 1920s, New York was home to 11 Yiddish theatres. Chicago boasted four Yiddish playhouses. There were three in Philadelphia and one each in St. Louis, Los Angeles, Newark, Detroit, Baltimore, Boston and Cleveland.

Yiddish theatre gave voice to the hopes, longings, talents and gifts of Yiddish-speaking Jews. Many of the great innovations in music and drama we enjoy today were made possible because of the genius of Yiddish theatre. Far from being a novelty, Yiddish theatre was a fundamental part of many of the cities Jews call home today.

First Yiddish Theatres

Yiddish performers began to put on formal shows in the early 1800s in Eastern Europe. A Yiddish theatre existed in Warsaw in the 1830s, entertaining locals with Yiddish-language dramas and performances. Another center of Yiddish performance was the Ukrainian town of Brody where a collection of Yiddish poets, singers, dramatists and badchans (comedians who perform at Jewish weddings) began performing concerts and simple plays in various venues. Some members of the “Broder Singers”, as the group was known, would travel as far as Germany to entertain audiences in impromptu gatherings at markets and other venues.

Avrom Goldfaden (1840-1908), one of the Broder Singers, is generally credited with being the “father of Yiddish theatre”. Born in Ukraine, Goldfaden was an immensely talented writer and musician who travelled widely and soaked up the musical culture of mid-19th century Europe, becoming proficient in popular music, classical, opera, and various theatre traditions. When he was 26, Goldfaden moved to the city of Iasi in Romania, and organized what many historians call the very first formal Yiddish theatre company. He hired people who were usually overlooked, giving jobs to meshoyrerim (boys who sang in synagogues) and women, and producing original new plays. His early play Shmendrik, about a foolish yeshiva student, became a classic.

Goldfaden also wrote many Yiddish operas and his songs, like the haunting song Rozhinkes mit Mandlen (Raisins and Almonds), became classics that are still listened to today. He worked in Russia until anti-Semitic edicts closed many Yiddish theatres, then worked in Warsaw, Lemburg, and New York City. He served as a delegate to the World Zionist Congress in Paris in 1900, then returned to New York City where he died in 1908. Over 100,000 people came out to pay their respects and attend his funeral.

New York’s Thriving Yiddish Theatre Scene

Jewish immigrants brought Yiddish theatre to New York, where they developed a distinct theatrical style. One critic, observing the flamboyant style of acting, compared Yiddish theatre to Italian opera without the singing.

One critic, observing the flamboyant style of acting, compared Yiddish theatre to Italian opera without the singing.

Classics from Shakespeare and cutting edge playwrights such as Ibsen and Strindberg were translated into Yiddish, and a burgeoning cadre of talented Yiddish playwrights wrote dramas and musicals for a devoted and highly enthusiastic fan base. Each week thousands of Jewish theatre-goers paid between 25 cents and a dollar to be transported in their mind’s eye by the Yiddish plays and shows that filled the Lower East Side. By 1918, there were 20 Yiddish language theatres in New York, though that number fell somewhat in the 1920s and more and more people started going to movies instead of live plays. Some of these theatres were massive. The People’s Theatre on the Bowery near Delancey contained seats for 2,500 people, and was often packed.

The non-Jewish journalist Hutchins Hapgood attended some of the Yiddish plays in New York and vividly described their wide appeal: “The Jews of all the ghetto classes – the sweatshop woman with her baby, the day laborer, the small Hester Street shopkeeper, the Russian Jewish anarchist and socialist, the ghetto Rabbi and scholar, the poet, the journalist. The poor and ignorant are in the great majority, but the learned, the intellectual, and the progressive are also represented.”

American Tastes

European playwrights sometimes found they had to alter their writing to suit the tastes of impoverished immigrants. Back home in Europe, Yiddish theatre productions were often intellectually ambitious, avant garde performances. The Warsaw Yung-teater, for instance, was an experimental Yiddish theater that pushed the bounds of modern performance. They staged a production of the Yiddish play Boston, by Polish Jewish playwright Bernhard Blume, which consisted of 44 short scenes staged all around the theatre that explored the infamous American Sacco and Vanzetti murder trial.

Sholem Aleichem

In New York and other immigrant destinations, viewers often wanted something simpler. The great writer and playwright Sholem Aleichem (on whose short stories the musical Fiddler on the Roof is based) recorded his frustration when he moved to New York and started writing for American audiences. I send you the fifth act of Stempenyu,” he wrote to his agent, referring to a story he was adapting for the Yiddish stage. “A Jewish heroine seldom poisons herself on account of love,” the author wrote, but that was the sort of melodrama American Jews demanded, so that’s what he wrote into his new play.

Many Yiddish plays dealt with the immigrant experience. The comedy The Next Door Neighbors by Leon Kobrin is about a couple who immigrated to America separately and now find themselves estranged. The Yiddish author Samson Raphaelson adapted his short story Yom Kippur for the stage in 1925. Renamed The Jazz Singer, it was about a religiously observant Jewish immigrant whose son and grandson rebel against Jewish tradition. (The Jazz Singer was made into the first “talkie”, or movie with sound, in 1927.)

Audience Participation

So great was the devotion of Yiddish theatre-goers that even when non-Jewish, mainstream theatres were forced to close, Yiddish theatres seldom did. In her memoirs, the great Yiddish actress Molly Picon recalls that she met her husband Yankel Kalich on a night when Yiddish theatres refused to shut. It’s an anecdote seemingly straight out of a Yiddish drama. A Philadelphia native, Ms. Picon had just arrived in Boston with the vaudeville group she was working with, when a massive influenza hit the city.

Molly Picon

“The flu closed all the English theatres,” she recalls, and she found herself out of work. She had not money to get back to Philadelphia, so Ms. Picon stopped by a Yiddish theatre company that was still rehearsing. “The people who closed down the English theatres completely forgot about the Yiddish ones,” Ms. Picon recalls. Yankel Kalich was an actor at the theatre and he proposed to Ms. Picon that night – and every night after that for a week, until Ms. Picon accepted.

Audiences often ate and drank while watching and commented loudly on the performance. Booing and hissing as well as wild applause was the norm. When characters faced difficult decisions, it was common for audience members to call out advice. During one performance of a Yiddish adaptation of King Lear, a patron ran through the theater shouting “To hell with your stingy daughter, Yankl! She has a stone, not a heart. Spit on her, Yankl, and come home with me. My yidene (Jewish wife) will feed you! Come Yankl, may she choke, that rotten daughter of yours.”

Global Reach

In the years before World War II, Yiddish theatres flourished around the world. Sydney, Australia was home to the great Yiddish theatre Di Yiddishe Bineh, renamed the David Herman Theatre in the 1950s. Two stars of Yiddish theater, Lithuanian born Jacob Weislitz and Galician-born Rachel Holtzer, were conducting global tours of Yiddish theatres and found themselves in Australia at the outbreak of the war. Forced to stay in the country, they transformed Yiddish theatre in Australia, raising it to high standard and crating daring plays. In 1930, Rachel Holzer became the first woman to direct a Yiddish play in the country. She chose Froy Advokat (“Madam Lawyer”), a comedy by the non-Jewish French playwright Louis Verneuil about women having careers.

A Yiddish play being performed at the Moscow State Yiddish Theater

Yiddish theatre continued to flourish in Europe as well. The most prestigious was the Moskovskii Gosudarstvennyi Evreiskii Teatr, or Moscow State Yiddish Theater, called GOSET for short. Supported by the ruling Communist authorities, GOSET put on ambitious, lavish plays and spent summers touring in Ukraine and Belorussia. During World War II, it was evacuated to Tashkent, where the theatre continued putting on Yiddish plays, often with a patriotic, anti-Nazi message. (This renowned theatre was closed during the intense anti-Jewish sentiment of Stalin’s leadership in 1949.)

In South America, Buenos Aires emerged as a major center for Yiddish theater, eventually making its mark with its own distinctive style of Yiddish language play. Yiddish director and actor Max Berliner, who settled in Argentina, recalled, “We arrived (in Argentina) in 1922, carrying the weight of the pogroms. Why continue suffering in Europe? We saved ourselves! My father told me to pursue theatre. I began with a poetry teacher, in Yiddish. Although there were no (Yiddish) schools, there were seven Yiddish theatres…” The theaters were often raided by police, who believed that criminals and underworld figures patronized them. In the 1950s, when many Jewish refugees poured in Argentina, Yiddish theatre there got a new lease on life, producing serious, literary Yiddish plays.

Declining Theaters

During the Holocaust, most of the world’s Yiddish speakers were wiped out. While some Yiddish plays continued to be performed in the 1950s in Poland and the Soviet Union, the heyday of Yiddish theatre was clearly over. In the Americas, Australia, Britain and southern Africa, too, fewer and fewer Jews were growing up knowing Yiddish. Yiddish theatres began to close.

Yiddish has never entirely disappeared. It continues to be the mamaloshen (mother tongue) of hundreds of thousands of Jews around the world, and also lives on in the incredible literature including plays, written in Yiddish.

In 1978, when almost all of the once-thriving Yiddish theaters had closed, Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer was asked why he continued to write in Yiddish, a dying language. “Yiddish may be a dying language but it is the only language I know well. Yiddish is my mother language, and a mother is never really dead.”

And the hit Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway is bringing new life to Yiddish theater that few imagined possible.

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