New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway ed. by Edna Nahshon (review)
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New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway. Edited by Edna Nahshon. New York: Columbia University Press, in association with the Museum of the City of New York, 2016. [328p. ISBN 9780231176705 (hardcover), $40; ISBN 9780231541077 (e-book), $39.99.] Illustrations, bibliography, index.

Yiddish theater arrived in New York in 1882 while still in its infancy. Just six years earlier, Ukrainian-born Abraham Goldfaden (1840–1908) had established a Yiddish theater company in Iasi, Romania. His operetta The Sorceress was the first in a long series of dramas, melodramas, comedies, operettas, and musicals that lit up the stages on New York’s Second Avenue for some seventy-five years. At its height in the 1920s, more than a dozen theaters on the city’s Lower East Side and in the outer boroughs attracted thousands of attendees per week to shows ranging from high-class Shakespeare translations to the basest vaudevilles.

By the 1950s, the Holocaust in Europe and assimilation in the United States combined to reduce potential audiences to the point that Yiddish theater pretty much died out in the following decade. All that was left was for the actors, producers, writers, and composers to write their memoirs, for scholars to write histories of a glorious past, for companies to undertake the rare revival—and for Edna Nahshon to mount a superb exhibit that also resulted in the book under review. Much more than a mere byproduct or companion to the exhibit, New York’s Yiddish Theater serves as an excellent history through images, together with illuminating essays by Nahshon herself and other scholars.

The greatest value offered by the book lies in its three hundred illustrations, many in color, drawn primarily from material at the Museum of the City of New York, with contributions from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the Library of Congress, and other sources. In addition to many photographs of Yiddish theater stars, we find reproductions of posters, programs, scenes from shows, sheet music, set designs, costumes, and costume designs. There are photos of theaters and of important historical events, such as crowds of mourners lining the streets for the funeral of actor Jacob P. Adler (pp. 20–21).

In the chapter “Overture: From the Bowery to Broadway,” Nahshon provides a fact-filled capsule history of the Yiddish theater. She ends the essay by quoting director Robert Sanford Brustein, who suggested that the essence of Yiddish theater lives [End Page 720] on today in the work of Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Woody Allen (p. 44), to which she adds Donald Margulies and Tony Kushner (p. 48), and I would add Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick.

In the chapter “Yiddish New York,” Hasia Diner briefly tells the story of Yiddish speakers’ arrival in the city beginning in the 1870s. Nahma Sandrow, author of the comprehensive Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996), contributed the chapter “Popular Yiddish Theater: Music, Melodrama, and Operetta” in which one of the more curious reproductions is that of a poster depicting the non-Jewish African-American Thomas LaRue in full cantorial regalia. The Yiddish text on the poster identifies him as “Tevye, the Black Cantor, the Greatest Wonder of the World” (p. 73). Barbara Henry writes on Jacob Gordin (1853–1909), author of the plays The Jewish King Lear (or Yiddish King Lear—the Yiddish word can mean either) and Mirele Efros, or, the Jewish Queen Lear. Gordin raised the intellectual level of Yiddish theater from what was largely melodrama to serious works.

A chapter by Nahshon covers Maurice Schwartz and the Yiddish Art Theater, “New York’s most prestigious and longest-lasting Jewish theatrical enterprise” (p. 152). Another describes actor–manager Jacob P. Adler (1855–1926), who played Shylock in a 1901 Yiddish production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Adler and his third wife, actor Sarah Adler, were the parents of six children, all of whom would work in the theater. The best known of these were Stella Adler (1901–1992), who founded an acting studio that produced the likes of Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro; Luther Adler (1903–1984), who...