Milken Archive album art
Yiddish theater, with its offshoots into radio, TV and film, was the most popular American Jewish cultural staple for half a century, telling the stories of the old world and mirroring the realities of the present world in which so many émigrés found themselves.
When the Archive's work began, we discovered that not a single Yiddish theater orchestration could be found that survived intact. Knowing the importance of this music, we embarked on three years of research to recreate these lost gems as faithfully as possible.
The results—featured in Volume 13: “Great Songs of the American Yiddish Stage: Yiddish Theater, Vaudeville, Radio, and Film”—include three albums (48 works), nearly three dozen videos, multiple oral history interviews, and numerous articles exploring the subject from various angles.
Yiddish Theater in America is widely believed to have officially begun in 1882 and lasted through the middle of the 20th century.
Like many Jewish traditions in America, Yiddish Theater was both an import and a home-grown phenomenon. What started with post-Haskalah (the "Jewish Enlightenment") art and entertainment in Europe soon evolved into what the new Jewish Americans needed—a combination of escapism, self-deprecating reflection and nostalgia.
The first production, Di kishefmakhern (the Sorceress) by Abraham Goldfaden, was produced by and possibly starred Boris Thomashefsky. Based on biblical, historical, secular folk, operatic and Jewish liturgical sources, Goldfaden's work was popular among the Jewish patrons of Europe and initially achieved great success in New York.
While Goldfaden’s intellectual and historical nature appealed to many, the majority of Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side and the German District (as the Second Avenue area was known at the time) were not as much high-brow educated elites as working-class immigrants struggling to make a life in the new world.
So while many high-art theaters developed in the Jewish community at the time, the most popular genre—musicals—evolved from a combination of operettas, melodramas and vaudeville among others.
By the time the heyday of the genre declined, it had spawned many great artists and works that transcended its Yiddish origins and influenced popular American culture as a whole.
The name Second Avenue was both a literal and aptly metaphoric title for Yiddish Theater in New York. Just like its more widely appealing Broadway cousin, the name originates from the New York street on and around which most of the major theaters of the genre were clustered. If Broadway was New York's premiere theater scene, then Second Avenue was a not-too-distant second.
Like its counterpart, Yiddish theater also radiated well beyond Second Avenue and New York City, to cities throughout North America that had a sizable Yiddish-speaking population, including Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Montreal, Cleveland, and Los Angeles. Touring productions even took the shows abroad, exporting the genre around the world.
Delve deeper into the origins and influences of Second Avenue in Neil W. Levin's introduction to Volume 13.
The Second Avenue scene gave rise to its own celebrities, many of whom transcended the Jewish milieu into broader American culture. It all began with Abraham Goldfaden and Boris Thomashefsky. If Goldfaden was "the father of Yiddish Theater", Thomashefsky could be considered the father of Second Avenue.
Thomashefsky was a key figure in bringing Goldfaden's work to New York and even the development of the theaters on Second Avenue. He was more than just a producer and would go on to become one of the premier actors, directors and producers of the genre. Thomashefsky's tremendous success spread to his family as well. His wife Bessie and his sister Annie both became stars in their own right.
Seymour Rechtzeit remembers some of the most important figures from the heyday of the American Yiddish theater.
Alexander Olshanetsky was among the most prominent and prolific Second Avenue composers and conductors, and one of the most musically sophisticated exemplars of the Yiddish theater. He was born in Odessa, the Ukraine, where he had both a traditional Jewish and a modern Western-oriented gymnasium education.
Among the major names associated with the heyday of the American Yiddish theater as songwriters, composers, orchestrators, and conductors, Abraham Ellstein was the only one born in America. Ellstein, though he may be remembered most widely for some of his theatrical “hit” songs, went further than the others in the classical realm, and he considered his theater career only part of his overall artistic contribution.
Born in Lithuania, Joseph Rumshinsky studied piano and was a cantorial-choir assistant as young boy. Known as Second Avenue's "Crazy Wagner," he sought to transform American Yiddish theater into a more opera-like genre. The beginning of his Second Avenue career, however, preceded the entrance of the other three in that group.
Born in the Ukraine, Sholom Secunda immigrated to America in 1907. A graduate of the Juilliard School, he composed Yiddish theater's most well known song. He will always be remembered primarily for his illustrious association with the American Yiddish musical theater.
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.
From left: Bruce Adler, Nell Snaidas, Elizabeth Shammash, Theodore Bikel, Joanne Borts, Arianne Slack, and Simon Spiro.
Milken Archive's One People, Many Voices concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall. November 2006.
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.
Among the most storied and beloved songs of the era, the one that reached the highest success was easily Shalom Secunda's Bay mir bistu sheyn. Many others including the ones below went on to fame beyond their original settings.
Written in 1932 for the musical comedy M'ken lebn nor m'lost nit, Bay mir bistu sheyn went on to become an international hit. Unfortunately for Sholom Secunda, it did so after he had sold the rights to it, which he regained nearly 30 years later. … read the full liner notes »
Originally written as an independent song and later included in the 1936 musical by the same name, Der dishvasher is the lament of an elderly man abandoned by his children—a familiar theme of the era. … read the full liner notes »
While the incipit sh'ma yisro'el would normally only be used in liturgical contexts, its adaptation here as a desperate plea for divine assistance in the pursuit of love reflects the convention—popular at the time—of religious themes functioning as nostalgic frames of reference. … read the full liner notes »
Written in 1907, A brivele der mamen was an instantaneous hit, even spawning other songs and productions by the same the name. Its lyrics resonated forcefully with that generation of immigrants, many of whom had left parents behind in Europe, knowing they would never see them again.… read the full liner notes »
Yiddish Theater albums from our 50 CD Collection. Click on each album image to view.
Listening to the music is one thing, but watching greats like Bruce Adler perform some of the classics takes them to another level. A third-generation Yiddish theater performer born on Second Avenue, Adler was a master of the music’s spirit and its delivery.
As part of the efforts to recover and record Yiddish theater works, a series of documentaries were also recorded interviewing some of the stars of the age.
Seymour Rechtzeit in a rare, intimate performance of Vos geven iz geven un nito. Recorded January, 1995.
As the community it served moved up and out of the Lower East Side, most of the theaters and theater companies closed as well. The notable exception is the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, founded in 1915.
Photo from official Facebook page
The only Yiddish theater company of the Golden Age to still perform today, Folksbiene has seen a resurgence in recent years. In addition to numerous revival productions at its new home in Downtown Manhattan, the company originated a Yiddish-language Fiddler on the Roof. The show was so successful that it transferred to an off-Broadway production in 2019.
Yiddish theater's primary purpose was to serve the Jewish immigrant communities of its day. It did more than entertain them, however. It also inspired an entire generation of artists who broke beyond the bounds of the niche to help shape American entertainment from Broadway itself to radio, film and television.
Watch the great Mina Bern talk about the enduring legacy and future of Yiddish theater:
"Yiddish theater died? It never will..."
Among the most notable break-out stars born in the heart of the Second Avenue scene were George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, John Garfield and many others who contributed prominently to the broader American performing arts world. Through them and the myriad artists they in turn inspired, the enduring legacy of Yiddish theater is in America is undeniable.
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