Yiddish Theatre in New York

A cultural phenomenon of Jewish America in the early 20th century.

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By 1918 the city boasted 20 Yiddish theatres, which, in a single year--before the inroads of movies--attracted two million patrons to over a thousand performances. Hutchins Hapgood, a keen and sensitive observer and devotee of East Side culture, wrote that Jews of every station and persuasion came to the theatre: "The Jews of all the ghetto classes--the sweatshop woman with her baby, the day laborer, the small Hester Street shopkeeper, the Russian Jewish anarchist and socialist, the ghetto Rabbi and scholar, the poet, the journalist. The poor and ignorant are in the great majority, but the learned, the intellectual, and the progressive are also represented."

Although Jewish intellectuals and socialists considered the Yiddishized classics, along with the musical melodramas of Joseph Lateiner and Morris Horowitz, to be shunde (trashy), the practice of adaptation led the way to better drama on the Yiddish stage. Jacob Gordin began in 1890 to reform the Yiddish theatre according to the best traditions of the Russian theatre. He succeeded, to some extent, in educating actors and audiences to appreciate sincerity on the stage. But the playwright was also influenced by theatregoers; in his later plays, Gordin inserted comic and musical intrusions as part of the dramatic action.

Audience Participation

The involvement of the audience was total and fervent. Crying, always part of an evening at the Yiddish theatre, was cathartic for the bone-weary workers who made up most of the house. Laughter at characters with familiar problems was just as prevalent as tears and helped immigrants recognize their own strength and motivation to hold on--even to succeed.

Patrons ate and drank, exchanged loud remarks, and unabashedly cheered and hissed. Sometimes they openly jeered actors who lit cigarettes or cigars on stage on Friday night, even while the protestors themselves were obviously not observing the Sabbath, either. Occasionally, patrons yelled out advice, particularly at critical points in the many plays about family conflict. One man was so moved by Jacob Adler's performance in the The Jewish King Lear, that he ran down the aisle shouting: "To hell with your stingy daughter, Yankl! She has a stone, not a heart. Spit on her, Yankl, and come home with me. My yidene [Jewish wife] will feed you. Come Yankl, may she choke, that rotten daughter of yours."

Real Life on the Stage

Family life and its problems preoccupied Jewish playwrights. Leon Kobrin's comedy The Next Door Neighbors dealt with the difficulties faced by a couple who did not immigrate together, and Gordin's Mirele Efros (also known as the Jewish Queen Lear), a melodrama about a self-sacrificing mother, "instructed" members of the audience to respect their parents. These plays of Gordin and Kobrin, as well as those of David Pinski, Sholom Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, Sholom Asch, and others were performed innumerable times over several decades and were enormously popular with parents and children.

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Gerald Sorin

Gerald Sorin is Distinguished University Professor of History and Jewish Studies, State University of New York at New Paltz.