- New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway ed. by Edna Nahshon
Evaluating a book chronicling, or associated with, a museum exhibition is a bit like crafting a theater review. It’s not just about the text, but the spectacle. For those who were unable to attend the original show, the book needs to provide a sense of its flavor, to make an argument for its raison d’etre, to share some of its unique treasures. But the gilt and glitz that work well under stage lights run the risk of fading somewhat in the cold light of print, and that’s where the accompanying text has to play (as it were) its part. Edna Nahshon’s New York’s Yiddish Theater, produced in consultation with the Museum of the City of New York is, not to stretch the metaphor beyond its breaking point, a palpable hit on both counts: visually lush and factually and analytically vital, a must-read (and, given its nature, a must–see) for anyone interested in one of the most important cultural moments in American Jewish society.
Nahshon’s achievement is aided immeasurably by her collaborative spirit (again, another hallmark of the theatrical mindset). Although given her expertise as one of the leading scholars of Jewish theater she could certainly have written the entire accompanying text herself, she turns to many of the subfield’s other leading lights to provide a series of essays that approach the topic panoramically, at times, even, kaleidoscopically. Nahma Sandrow, whose Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater (1977) introduced a generation of Yiddish scholars to the delights [End Page 412] of Yiddish theater, provides an overview of the genre, while Hasia Diner, one of the deans of American Jewish history and a careful observer of the Jewish-American city, explains why New York City was such fertile soil for the European emigrants fleeing Tsarist repression, economic malaise, or, in the case of the actor, maybe even perceived cultural stultification.
Among the emigrants: star actor-producers like Jacob Adler and Boris Thomashevsky, whose achievements are ably chronicled by Nahshon and Stefanie Halpern; Jacob Gordin, the great “reformer” of the Yiddish stage, who was as responsible as anyone else for incorporating contemporary issues a la Ibsen onto the Yiddish stage, as explicated here by Gordin’s biographer, Barbara Henry; and Molly Picon, the leading lady of the American Yiddish stage, whose trouser roles, as Joshua Walden suggests, would go on to delight generations of Yiddish theatergoers, film viewers, and creative types, perhaps not least Yentl’ s Isaac Bashevis Singer. It was these four—and many others, including Maurice Schwartz, who insisted that Yiddish theater could be art theater, and the members of the Artef, who insisted that it must be political—who were instrumental in building the theaters on the Bowery, Second Avenue, and yes, even Broadway, to strut and fret and play their parts in.
As a number of the essays make clear, American Yiddish theater was American as well as Yiddish. That relationship was embodied in the reciprocal flow with the small and big time circuits of vaudeville, which was at its height at almost precisely the same moment as the Yiddish theater was. It was made manifest in stage designs—and the stage designers—of and for the Yiddish theater who would go on to work uptown. Arnold Aronson – no relation to of one of the most notable of those designers, Boris Aronson, is responsible for a fine essay on the latter here. And, perhaps most prominently, the relationship became a launching pad for an icon and a sensibility that would shape American theater and American culture.
It was the New York Yiddish theater’s Tevye, as Alisa Solomon persuasively argues, who would serve as a fundamental source of influence for Broadway’s massively successful Fiddler on the Roof, perhaps even more than the original Sholem Aleichem stories—both in terms of the Maurice Schwartz performance and...