Yiddish Theatre in New York

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

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Popularity was largely a result of the fact that stage characters faced problems similar to those of every immigrant: How to be an American and a Jew? How to protect the family from destabilization, and religious values from disintegration, in a secular, seemingly normless society? How to enjoy the opportunities for material success in America without giving up the spiritual values of Judaism? These were the questions that befuddled people who were still very much part of two worlds, and the Yiddish theatre, like many other transitional East Side Jewish institutions, helped immigrants deal with those questions, in this case by portraying them on stage.

American & Jewish

The Yiddish theatre also encouraged members of the audience to feel connected to both the American and the Jewish worlds. Patrons felt pride in their Jewishness, as Jewish playwrights and actors expressed Jewish vitality. And Jewish playgoers shared the patriotic enthusiasm of the general American public when they cheered Boris Thomashevsky in Der Yidisher Yenki Dudl, or applauded the song "Three Cheers for Yankee Doodle," typical genre pieces.

By combining aspects of Old World culture, American culture, and the transitional culture of the ghetto, and by dealing with many of the immigrant dilemmas of that transitional culture, the Yiddish theatre held up a mirror to its audiences. It helped them gain a better understanding of their role in the historical process of relocation, and it gave them greater insight into the problems of creating new identities in the New World.

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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.