This is the fourth—and final—installment in a multi-part exhibit on the American Yiddish theater. Parts one through three covered the so-called “big four” composers of Second Avenue—Abraham Ellstein, Alexander Olshanetsky and Sholom Secunda, and Joseph Rumnshinsky.—while also touching on their mainstream successes and interactions with some of the genre’s key players. Under their guidance, Second Avenue became a wildly popular form of entertainment. As generations of Jews struggled to adapt to life in a new land, the dramas that unfolded on the American Yiddish stage provided both escape and enlightenment. It helped the topsy-turvy world-in-transition keep its eyes on the old world and new at the same time.
Rumshinsky, Ellstein, Secunda, and Olshanetsky may be the names we most know today, but it took far more than four composers to fuel Second Avenue. Behind the Secundas and Rumshinskys were Trillings, Meyerowitzes, Yablokoffs and others—not to mention the writers, musicians, set-builders, and ticket-sellers—fueling a scene that by 1910 included some thirteen theaters and 300 performers putting on eleven hundred performances yearly (Heskes 1984).
Without diminishing the contributions of the “big four,” it seems prudent to point out that shows, often, were not so much composed as compiled. That is to say, songs, storylines, and themes circulated freely, with songs written for staged productions enjoying extended lives in vaudeville houses, radio studios, and printed music. Some productions benefitted from the participation of multiple composers. And some songs, written as one-offs or for non-dramatic purposes, became so popular that they were turned into full-length, staged productions or films—and not always by the same composer. It is with a turn toward this aspect of that vital and vibrant world that our four-part exhibit closes.
Yiddish theater was a powerful force in the turn-of-the-century American Jewish experience. Its songs captured the aura of an era, embodying—often simultaneously—the joy, sorrow, humor, and tragedy of a generation caught between two worlds.