Friday, July 29, 2016

New York's Yiddish Theater : From the Bowery to Broadway edited by Edna Nachshon, Columbia University Press

New York's Yiddish Theater : From the Bowery to Broadway edited by Edna Nachshon, Columbia University Press

‘New York’s Yiddish Theater’ Explores a Fractious Heritage of Melodrama and Musicals

An exhibit devoted to Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories and to “Fiddler on the Roof,’’ the musical they inspired. CreditJake Naughton for The New York Times

A DEFINITE if wobbly line connects the Yiddish theater of 19th-century Eastern Europe and the Lower East Side to the giants of modern American entertainment. It traces a long road from the ghettos and shtetls to Broadway and Hollywood and the likes of Marlon Brando and Barbra Streisand.

That connection is a major theme of an exhibition that opened this week at the Museum of the City of New York. With 250 posters, playbills, photographs, film clips, set designs, costumes and other artifacts, it shows how what began as traveling troupes performing for poor Jewish audiences in Europe turned into a major New York entertainment center that provided a vital escape for the Lower East Side’s sweatshop workers and pushcart peddlers at the start of the 20th century.Photo

A statuette from the Goldie Awards, named for the 19th-century actor and playwright Abraham Goldfaden, in “New York’s Yiddish Theater” at the Museum of the City of New York.CreditJake Naughton for The New York Times

The exhibition, “New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway,” includes treasures like Miss Streisand’s gray and lavender gown from “Funny Girl,” the 1964 musical about the Jewish vaudevillian Fanny Brice; Zero Mostel’s rumpled Tevye outfit from “Fiddler on the Roof” the same year; and a photograph of a young Frank Sinatra smiling at a poster of Menashe Skulnik, who styled himself as the quintessential nebbish.

As for Brando, he learned his Method acting from Stella Adler, who as the daughter of the great Yiddish actor Jacob Adler started out in Yiddish theater herself and helped found both the socially conscious Group Theater, whose members included Clifford Odets, Elia Kazan, and John Garfield, and the school named for her, which turned out alumni like Robert De Niro, Warren Beatty and Mark Ruffalo. (There is some speculation that Brando’s famous bellow of “Stella!” in “A Streetcar Named Desire” was an insider’s wink to his mentor.)

Major Hollywood actors whose stars have dimmed with time — Edward G. Robinson (Emanuel Goldenberg) and Paul Muni (Frederich Weisenfreund, whose Yiddish nickname was Moony) — got their start in Yiddish theater. In 1998, Mandy Patinkin, whom young Americans know mostly as Saul Berenson of Showtime’s “Homeland,” staged a one-man show of Yiddish songs (or American songs like “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” sung in Yiddish). Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “Angels in America,” his drama about AIDS and gay life, adapted the Yiddish theater classic “The Dybbuk,” by S. Ansky, in 1997.Photo

Vintage posters from various Yiddish theater productions. CreditJake Naughton for The New York Times

Boris Aronson, a Ukrainian rabbi’s son who designed the sometimes surrealistic sets and costumes for Unser Theater, a Yiddish house in the Bronx, went on to win six Tony awards for shows like “Cabaret,” “Company” and “Follies.” And where would American comedy be without inspirational Catskills jesters like Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye and Jackie Mason, all of whom, as one exhibition label says, “came of age in a world deeply shaped by New York’s heritage of Yiddish performance”?

The show, organized by Edna Nahshon, professor of theater at the Jewish Theological Seminary, tells the story of how Yiddish theater emigrated here with the three million Jews fleeing the poverty and pogroms of Russia, Poland and Romania. The first production, in 1882, was the middling operetta “The Witch,” by Abraham Goldfaden, regarded as the father of the modern Yiddish theater.Continue reading the main story

Melodramas and musicals followed, and going to the theater soon became the favorite pastime of hard-pressed tenement dwellers — seeing a show was what you splurged on — and helped ease new immigrants into the English-speaking world. Though some of what was offered could be considered mawkish schlock, much was vigorous and moving, particularly once the literary playwright Jacob Gordin insisted that actors stay faithful to the text and stop larding it with shtick. Plays like “Yoshe Kalb,” based on a story by I. J. Singer (Isaac Bashevis’s older brother), drew visits by Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin and glowing remarks from a mainstream critic, Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times.Photo

A gown worn by Barbra Streisand in the 1964 Broadway musical “Funny Girl.”CreditJake Naughton for The New York Times

By the mid-1920s, New York was the world capital of the Yiddish stage, with 14 houses, half of them along Second Avenue. Not much smaller in scale than Broadway, the Jewish Rialto boasted music halls and après-theater hangouts like the Cafe Royal, the Lower East Side’s answer to Sardi’s. (In 1942, the cafe inspired a Broadway play, “Cafe Crown,” which was last revived in 1988 with Eli Wallach in the lead role. It featured a set meticulously recreating the defunct restaurant down to the pickle bowls on the tables.)

The exhibition, which runs through July 31, capitalizes on the collections of the museum and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Visitors walk in to face a giant black-and-white photograph of the Grand Theater, which opened in 1903 as the first such venue expressly built for Yiddish shows. The billing in the photograph is for “The Jewish King Lear,” starring Jacob Adler, so charismatic a tragedian that 50,000 people would attend his funeral in 1926. The theatergoers in the photograph seem formally dressed, the men in black suits and bowler hats and the women in gowns and wide bonnets; Yiddish posters ask them to “help your brothers in Russia.”

“There is a tendency to paint the Yiddish theater as unruly, a wild scene, with rolling bottles and pistachio nuts,” Ms. Nahshon said. “But here you have the glamour and elegance.”Photo

Puppets from the satirical Modicut Puppet Theater, which performed in Yiddish in a Lower East Side studio in the 1920s and ’30s and toured abroad. CreditJake Naughton for The New York Times

The exhibition has alcoves devoted to towering Yiddish figures like Gordin; Adler and his large theatrical brood; and the actors Boris and Bessie Tomashefsky, Maurice Schwartz and Molly Picon. In its tribute to the winsome Picon, the show runs nonstop clips from the 1937 film version of her gender-bending “Yidl Mitn Fidl” (“Yiddle With His Fiddle”), in which she plays a girl masquerading as a boy who falls in love with a boy. Picon eventually crossed over to mainstream entertainment, appearing with Sinatra in the 1963 film adaptation of Neil Simon’s “Come Blow Your Horn.”

There are hints in the show of the roiling humanity of the theater’s personalities, and the kind of foibles that a Yiddish Page Six might pounce on.

“Tomashefksy had love affairs galore,” Ms. Nahshon said. “He was known for that. When he died, he had two widows, his lover and Bessie, whom he never divorced. She was known for her good taste and her love of Parisian clothing.”Photo

Set and costume designs by Boris Aronson, who won six Tony awards for shows including “Cabaret” and “Follies.” CreditJake Naughton for The New York Times

But as the new arrivals moved into the middle class and to the suburbs and away from their mother tongue, Yiddish theater declined. There is a poster for a production about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising starring Jacob Ben-Ami from 1944, but by then the number of shows had started tumbling. The energy shifted partly to the Catskills, where entertainers spritzed Yiddish vernacular into their English-language routines for vacationers who wanted a side of nostalgia with their stuffed cabbage. Meanwhile, entertainers who might have been stars of Yiddish vaudeville like Mickey Katz, father of Joel Grey and grandfather ofJennifer Grey, blended Yiddish and English lyrics in parodies like “Duvid Crockett, King of Delancey Street.”

The actors Joseph Buloff, Mina Bern, Miriam Kressyn and Seymour Rexite kept the flame flickering toward the end of the last century for audiences filled with Holocaust survivors, but those actors have died off. Today, there is only one company left from the golden age, the 101-year-old National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene, whose home is currently the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan, although groups including the New Yiddish Rep occasionally put on shows like the Yiddish “Waiting for Godot.”

Glimpses of the Jewish Rialto are visible on Second Avenue today. Most prominently, there remains the Yiddish Art Theater, now called Village East Cinema, at the southwest corner of 12th Street. Its interior has been declared a landmark, and the original Star of David is still visible on its domed ceiling.

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