New York's Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway

By Dauber, Jeremy | American Jewish History, July 2017 | Go to article overview

New York's Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway


Dauber, Jeremy, American Jewish History


New York's Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway. Edited by Edna Nahshon, In conjunction with the Museum of the City of New York. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. 328 pp.

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 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. …

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