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  • Immigrant Popular Culture as Contested Sphere: Yiddish Music Halls, the Yiddish Press, and the Processes of Americanization, 1900–1910
  • Nina Warnke (bio)

There are already [Yiddish] concert halls where they play cat music and idiotic vaudevilles and sing dirty songs, where painted women and shady men gather, and where small children are taken to whom they sell beer and cigarettes and teach obscene language. These halls are a great danger, and we in our community have to do our utmost to protect the ghetto from this new plague. 1

In the spring of 1902, a heated discussion broke out in New York’s Yiddish-language press over the role of Yiddish music halls and variety entertainment in the immigrant community. Writers for conservative as well as socialist papers expressed their dismay by describing the halls as a “plague,” a “scandal,” and a “disgrace,” and performers and audience members alike as “depraved” and “immoral.” As immigrant performers eagerly appropriated this American entertainment form and young entertainment-seekers found in music halls a space in which to experience and express “American” modes of social and sexual behavior, the Yiddish press, particularly, the socialist daily Forverts (Jewish Daily Forward) and its editor, Abraham Cahan, regularly warned its readers of the immoral influence of this institution. Judging music hall entertainment primarily as a social problem rather than a cultural phenomenon, the Yiddish press attacked its social context, the nature of its audience and performers, and the content of the shows. While an overriding concern with the immigrants’ moral fabric lay at the heart of this critique, other issues, such as the socialists’ concept of the role of art in society and their deep ambivalence, if not opposition, to this expression of the immigrants’ Americanization, formed the subtext for their arguments. In particular, the controversial and titillating status of the music halls served the press as a convenient way to increase readership.

Following the lead of Bernard Gorin, the first historian of Yiddish theatre, scholars like Irving Howe, David Lifson, and Nahma Sandrow have provided us with much needed and insightful documentations of major Yiddish actors, dramatists, and [End Page 321] dramatic trends. 2 These works and others have generally stressed the theatre’s cultural particularity and have analyzed how its themes have expressed Jewish immigrants’ sentiments. 3 Lately, research has begun to branch out into investigations of cross-cultural influences between American and Yiddish theatrical forms and the complex role of the Yiddish press in defining and shaping the theatre. 4 A serious discussion of early music hall entertainment as a social as well as cultural institution is, however, conspicuously absent. 5 In presenting early Yiddish music halls as a contested site of Americanization, I hope to illuminate how aesthetic principles, moral concerns, commercial interests, and the social pressures of assimilation come together in the battle over Jewish American cultural identity at the turn of the century.

Socialist Critique of Yiddish “Legitimate” Theatre

By the turn of the century, close to 300,000 Jewish immigrants from all over Eastern Europe were living on the Lower East Side, and their numbers were increasing dramatically each year. Coming mostly from small towns to the huge, modern, foreign metropolis of New York, immigrants confronted a variety of fundamental changes in their social and class status, gender roles, community cohesiveness and religious and cultural traditions. As Andrew Heinze argues, one of the most powerful organizing principles in the immigrants’ Americanization was “adapting to abundance,” embracing mass consumption, from ready-made clothes to all forms of commercial leisure. 6 Until the turn of the century, the Yiddish stage served as the central entertainment institution for Eastern European Jewish immigrants, having become increasingly important in the lives and imaginations of tens of thousands, mostly uneducated, people since its beginnings in New York in 1883. 7 [End Page 322]

Due to the relative weakness of community structures and social control on the Lower East Side, immigrant socialist intellectuals, many of whom were newspaper editors, writers, and political activists, regarded themselves as the immigrants’ cultural and political educators, as guardians of immigrant morality and as guides on the road to a cautious Americanization. One of the most prominent figures of this group...

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