Yiddish Theatre in New York
A cultural phenomenon of Jewish America in the early 20th century.
Reprinted with permission from A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (Johns Hopkins University Press).
Many of the institutions created by Eastern European Jews became vital elements in the new transitional culture. Outstanding in this respect was the American Yiddish theatre, which also had its origins in the Old World. Performances and skits by Jews were developed in the 1870s as part of a Jewish cultural revival and were centered in the active secular Jewish cafe life of Iasi, Romania, where Avram Goldfadn, the father of Yiddish theatre, held sway.
By the early 1880s many impoverished Yiddish theatre companies were performing in wine cellars scattered throughout the larger cities of Eastern Europe.
King Solomon by Josef Kroger
at Thalia Theatre, 1897
But actors suffered harassment from both czarist government officials and Jewish Orthodoxy. Numerous theatre people, including Goldfadn's troupe, immigrated to the United States after 1883, when the Yiddish theatre was banned by Alexander III in the despotic aftermath of the assassination of Alexander II.
Growth & Development in the New World
In effect, Yiddish theatre arrived in New York City in its infancy and was nurtured there at the turn of the century by its greatest audience--the largest, most heterogeneous aggregation of Jews in the world. In the early years in America, the Yiddish theatre overflowed with "corrupt and foolish versions" of the European repertoire as well as "vivid junk and raw talent." It took hold in the public mind only after many trials. But with the emergence of playwrights like Jacob Gordin and actors like Boris and Bessie Thomashevsky and Jacob Adler, larger and larger audiences were attracted.
By 1900 there were three major theatre troupes in New York City and numerous smaller endeavors in other Jewish population centers. From the late 1890s to World War I, the works of Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Strindberg were adapted to the needs of the immigrant culture, and a flamboyant style of acting was developed. One critic observed that, more than anything else, Yiddish theatre, with its overstatement and ritual pageantry, resembled Italian opera without singing.
The theatre came to enjoy an unrivaled position on the Lower East Side; it became a major cultural institution, in which all the problems, hopes, and dreams of immigrant Jews were dramatized. The Yiddish theatre provided a collective experience for the entire community.
It was also a powerful vehicle for fund-raising. Philanthropic, mutual-aid, and labor organizations often sponsored benefit performances. Ticket prices ranged from 25 cents to a dollar, not a small outlay for immigrant laborers, but somehow thousands managed to pay it.