American Jewish Theatre

A history of Jewish theatre in America.

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Jacob Adler (1855-1926) arrived in New York by way of Odessa and London, after Yiddish theatre was banned in Russia. An actor, Adler worked with writer Jacob Gordin (1853-1909) to Americanize Yiddish theatre. For example, whereas Shakespeare's Shylock had traditionally been played as a madman, Adler chose to play the Jewish moneylender in the 1901 Yiddish performance of Merchant of Venice as a man "with high intellect, proud convictions, and grand character," who was "governed by pride rather than courage."

Adler also played the old king in Gordin's Der Yiddisher King Lear (The Yiddish King Lear). Gordin was a prolific writer, adding nearly 80 plays to the world of Yiddish theatre and once referred to his own writing as "like a scribe at work on the holy Torah."

Emerging Personalities

Yiddish theatre spread beyond New York to Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland, and by 1927, 24 theatres still performed Yiddish plays. But in the following years, Yiddish theatre began to decline, with the end of incoming of immigrants and the decline of Yiddish.

A new generation of American Jews received the mantel from their foreign-born artistic predecessors. The New York-born Samson Raphaelson (1894-1983) wrote The Jazz Singer in 1925, and Al Jolson (1886-1950) played the lead in the 1927 movie version. In the play, Jakie Rabinowitz abandons his past, his father, and his love for cantorial music to become the American jazz singer Jack Robin.

While Clifford Odets' (1906-1963) Till the Day I Die (1935) explored Nazi attacks on Communists rather than Jews, his play Awake and Sing! (1935) addressed more specifically Jewish themes, telling the story of a large New York Jewish family. Jewish musicians like Irving Berlin (1888-1989), George Gershwin (1898-1937), and Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) wrote lyrics and music for numerous shows.

Gershwin alone composed music for 20 Broadway musicals. Although debates center on the question of whether these composers drew from their Jewish heritage in their music, some works are undeniably Jewish, like Bernstein's 1963 symphony that drew from the kaddish.

Zero Mostel (1915-1977) famously played Tevye in Jerry Bock's Fiddler on the Roof (1964), based on stories by Shalom Aleichem. He also portrayed Max Bialystock in Mel Brook's Holocaust film, The Producers (1968).

Arthur Miller (1915-2000) often depicted Jews or crypto-Jews in his plays, as some critics have suggested of Willy Loman in Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949). Miller's The American Clock (1980), Playing for Time (1980), and Broken Glass (1994) all portray Jews and Jewish themes.

Jewish Theatre Today

Born in 1947, David Mamet is one of the best known American Jewish playwrights today. In his The Old Neighborhood (1997), set in Chicago, the first act of three is called "The Disappearance of the Jews." In a review of this play, Les Gutman calls the work "a significant statement of Mamet's coming to terms with his Jewishness, Reform Judaism, and Jewish culture."

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Menachem Wecker

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He lives in Washington, D.C.