*This is part two of a multi-part exhibit on the American Yiddish Theater. Part one, on the music of Abraham Ellstein, is available here.
Like most of the people who made it what it was, the American Yiddish theater was born in Europe but found its greatest success in America. And though its 1882 American premiere ended in a brawl, Yiddish theater (or "Second Avenue," after the Manhattan street that housed most of the theaters) quickly became a popular entertainment choice for American Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
How popular? Irene Heskes relates that by 1910, New York City boasted thirteen theaters featuring Yiddish musical theater productions—three hundred performers putting on eleven hundred performances a year. One personal account collected in the Milken Archive’s oral history project described up to nine shows per week, with multiple productions playing simultaneously in the theaters of Second Avenue, Brooklyn, and beyond. A 1939 New York Times review of a concert held in honor of Joseph Rumshinsky noted a house that was "crowded to capacity, with many standees half-circling the orchestra."
The two most important figures in the origins of the American Yiddish theater are Abraham Goldfaden and Boris Thomashefsky. Goldfaden established the first known Yiddish theatrical company in Romania in the 1870s. He later emigrated to the United States with hopes of great success, but never achieved it. Thomashefsky put on the first American Yiddish theater production—written by Goldfaden—with an acting troupe imported from London, and went on to become the genre’s most important impresario, as well as a noted writer and actor.
Though Goldfaden struggled to find success in America, his contributions to the genre were widely acknowledged. Upon his death, a large funeral procession accompanied his family to the cemetery and his tombstone was inscribed with the sobriquet, Father of the Yiddish Theater. Thomashefsky’s success continued unabated.
Beyond Goldfaden and Thomashefsky, American Yiddish theater would not have been what it was without the “big four” composers of Second Avenue: Abraham Ellstein, Alexander Olshanetsky, Sholom Secunda, and Joseph Rumshinsky, a talented group with broad musical backgrounds and diverse artistic output.
Over several decades, the composers, lyricists, actors, and playwrights of Second Avenue created a body of work that spoke to immigrants' experiences as they struggled to adapt to life in a new world and come to terms with the one they left behind. It was not always viewed positively in terms of artistic merit, but it was crucial to the audience it served. As Nahma Sandrow has noted: “in the confusing shifting scramble for survival in a strange land, [Yiddish theater] substituted in subtle ways for the older communal institutions that had been the basis for centuries of Eastern European [Jewish] life.”
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.