This May marks Jewish American Heritage Month and in this blog post we are celebrating the Golden Age of Yiddish Theatre in America with some fun facts that might have passed you by! You may be familiar with Stella Adler, but how much do you know about her father? We all know King Lear, but have you heard about The Jewish King Lear?! Well, read on!
During the early decades of the twentieth century, New York City’s Second Avenue on the Lower East Side was known as the “Yiddish Broadway” or the “Jewish Rialto”. This was the heyday of Yiddish Theatre in America and the theatres catered to the thousands of immigrants who had arrived in New York to escape the violent attacks against Jews (known as pogroms), which were sweeping through southern Russia and killing thousands.
Shakespeare was very popular in Yiddish Theatre, with many of his plays adapted and translated for the Jewish community. One of the most popular was Jacob Gordin’s The Jewish King Lear (also known as The Yiddish King Lear). In 2018, actor and opera singer David Serero adapted the play into English and performed it at the Orensanz Foundation, along with popular Yiddish songs of the early twentieth century.
Dear Worthy Editor
One of Alan Menken’s first musicals, Dear Worthy Editor was based upon letters to the editor in the Yiddish-language newspaper Jewish Daily Forward and remains popular in Jewish-American communities.
Fiddler on the Roof
The Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof is based upon the short stories Tevye and His Daughters (also known as Tevye the Dairyman) by Yiddish author and playwright, Sholem Aleighem. The award-winning show became the first commercially successful English-language production depicting Jewish life in Eastern Europe.
Fiddler Afn Dakh
And while we’re talking about Fiddler on the Roof, Academy Award-winning actor and director Joel Grey directed the first, hugely successful Yiddish adaptation of the musical – Fiddler Afn Dakh – at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF) in 2018. The show transferred Off-Broadway and won the 2019 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Musical.
Jacob Adler was one of the biggest stars of Yiddish Theatre in New York. Born in Odessa (present day Ukraine), he arrived in America after several years performing in London. Nine of Adler’s children survived into adulthood and most of them followed their father into the theatre. Both Jacob and his daughter Stella are members of the American Theater Hall of Fame.
Actress and acting teacher Stella Adler made her stage debut at the age of 4 in a Yiddish translation of Broken Hearts, which was produced by her parents’ theatre, the Independent Yiddish Art Company.
The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene
The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF) was founded in New York in 1915 and is the world’s longest running Yiddish theatre company.
One of the most celebrated star couples of Yiddish theatre were actors Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky. Boris is credited as a pioneer of Yiddish American theatre and you might have heard him mentioned in a fun, tongue-in-cheek reference in Mel Brook’s musical The Producers.
On Second Avenue
The 1987 Off-Broadway musical On Second Avenue, celebrates the heyday of Yiddish Theatre in New York. It was revived in 2005 by NYTF and received two Drama Desk Award nominations.
So, there you go! 10 fun facts about Yiddish American Theatre that you may not have known before. For more information on Jewish American Heritage Month, check out this great website hosted by the Library of Congress and National Archives, among others.