MCNY’s Exhibit: New York’s Yiddish Theater

Museum of the City of New York’s Exhibition

“New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway”


“Yiddish Theater’s Legacy in American Performance” Panel
at Museum of the City of New York

by Yoni Oppenheim

MCNY exhibition page, with audio for programs

This past season, not one, but two Yiddish language productions, New Yiddish Rep’s Death of a Salesman in Yiddish and Folksbiene’s The Golden Bride, were nominated for Drama Desk Awards. Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paula Vogel’s Indecent about the wonderfully strange Yiddish play God of Vengeance, played to critical acclaim at the Vineyard Theater off-Broadway, and a highly praised production of Fiddler on the Roof is still a running hit on Broadway. Yiddish Theater in New York clearly is having its moment…again. In the past few years there has been a steadily growing engagement with Yiddish plays, both in in English and in its original language. Beyond Folksbiene’s continued commitment to performing work in Yiddish, Target Margin Theater devoted two-years to their “Beyond the Pale” season, exploring a large number of Yiddish works in English translation, directed by a young diverse cadre of directors; New Yiddish Rep’s production of Waiting for Godot in Yiddish was a hit; and my own company, 24/6: A Jewish Theater Company produced of A Dybbuk for Two People.

Once again in the limelight, these current examples of Yiddish Theater serve as the perfect backdrop for the recent Museum of the City of New York’s exhibit “New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway”. Ironically it closed the same weekend actor Fyvush Finkel, who for many was the embodiment of Yiddish theater in mainstream American culture, passed away at age 93. The brainchild of David Chack, Executive Director of the Association for Jewish Theatre, this exhibit was curated by Edna Nahshon, professor of Yiddish and theater at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Though compact in size, it effectively mapped out the development of Yiddish Theater in New York and its influence on New York theater using a mix of play scripts, including a beautiful original copy of The Yiddish King Lear by Jacob Gordin; props from Vaudeville productions including an actress’s gloves and fan; elaborately costumed mannequins (different costumes were rotated in the months of the exhibition, including Barbara Streisand’s Funny Girl costume); Yiddish theater and film posters including a Yiddish language poster for The Jazz Singer among them; numerous production photographs; design sketches; archival videos including Molly Picon singing; a set of puppets from the satirical Modicut Puppet Theater, with one of Hitler; and an imposing subway set from a production of Ossip Dymov’s Bronx Express.

Fortunately I visited the exhibit on a morning when Professor Nashon was giving a tour. The exhibit opens with large striking projections of images featured throughout the exhibit – a large photograph of the Grand Theatre where Jacob Adler performed, and a large-scale photo of the packed theater filled with well-dressed Yiddish Theater audience. The aim of including this photo is to dispute the claim that Yiddish Theater audiences were an uncouth rowdy bunch. (Though I recently heard a Yiddish Theater scholar say that women were warned to avoid the upper balcony, which was filled with single men).

Yiddish Theater is often associated with the politics of the left, social justice advocacy, and with the socialist leanings of many of its creators. Consequently, many were impacted by the McCarthy hearings and blacklist. With the exception of a Hebrew Actors’ Union Banner this was not the focus of the Museum of the City of New York’s exhibit. The Hebrew Actors’ Union banner struck me though, not only because of its political overtones, but also because of its embroidered Hebrew lettering on velvet. Reminiscent of a parochet the curtain which covers the Torah Ark in a synagogue, for many Yiddish Theater artists it becomes a the stage curtain replacing one sacred covering transformed into another.

Several highlights from the exhibit were, a micrographic portrait of famed Yiddish playwright Jacob Gordin composed entirely of the text of his play Mirele Efros, often referred to as “the Yiddish Queen Lear”; a poster for a production of Moliere’s The Miser, with the Yiddish title humorously being Gevalt Mein Gelt! (Help, My Money!); and a production photo from a play which featured the entire Adler clan. A section on Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theater featured photos from his production of Ari Ibn-Zahav’s Merchant of Venice adaptation Shylock and His Daughter and from Schwartz’s English language Broadway debut in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. This was the same Yiddish Art Theatre that spawned the immense talent of Tony and Academy Award winning actor Paul Muni, born Muni Weisenfreund.

Schwartz reappears later in the exhibit in an excerpt from his film Tevye, in an entire section devoted to the mainstreaming of Yiddish Theater in the original production of Fiddler on the Roof, including Zero Mostel’s Tevye’s costume and boots, Boris Aronson’s gorgeous set models and more. The exhibit concludes with a life size photo of Frank Sinatra and his agent posing outside the Second Avenue Theater with a poster of Yiddish Theater stars Menashe Skulnik and Miriam Kressyn, to express the extent to which Yiddish Theater and its stars had become mainstream. Finally, as you exit there is a massive map of New York City titled “Where Yiddish Theatre Played From 1882-1940.” The theaters are gone, but the legacy of Yiddish theater lives on in the work of actors, playwrights, directors, producers, designers, teachers of acting and theater scholars working today.

Concurrent with Museum of the City of New York’s exhibit “New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway” were a series of public programs, including one co-sponsored by the Association for Jewish Theatre, moderated by its Executive Director, David Chack. The panel “Yiddish Theater’s Legacy in American Performance” was held on Monday, July 18 and featured actors Tovah Feldshuh (Golda’s Balcony, Yentl, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) Jackie Hoffman (Hairspray, On the Town, Once Upon a Mattress, Difficult People, and stand-up comedy) Adam Kantor (Fiddler on the Roof, The Last 5 Years, Rent), and up and coming comedienne Michelle Slonim. The evening was non-stop laughs, but beyond their talent and great sense of humor, what united these four performers was that they all seem to be very comfortable in their Jewishness – and in a profession where performers seeking mainstream careers downplay their Jewishness to the point of changing their names, WASP’ing their appearance and disavowing their heritage.

The four on the panel unapologetically discussed their careers – Tovah Feldshuh revealed how she used to go by the stage name Terri Fairchild (her legal name is Terri Sue Feldshuh), but when she decided to go by her Hebrew name, it surprisingly opened doors for her when Yentl was cast. Not only did she make her Broadway debut in the role, she met her husband while playing it. She recalled that when he met her in costume, he said that she looked “from the front like Lillian Gish, and from the back like Larry Tisch.” To add variety to the evening, David Chack included a curated video element to share with the audience. He presented excerpts from the documentary Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women featuring both Feldshuh and Jackie Hoffman discussing their comedy heroes; a hilarious musical scene from the TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend where Feldshuh plays a classic Jewish mother, which opened up a conversation both about the process of filming that scene, and a discussion of its young Jewish screenwriter Rachel Bloom. Chack shared segments of Adam Kantor’s video blog of playing Motel in Fiddler, Motel Citizen where he gives a tour of his dressing room, showing object that inspire him, including his grandfather’s tallis and teffilin prayer bags, and his great-great grandfather’s transcribed cantorial music – yes Adam Kantor’s great-great grandfather was a cantor.

Considering that many early male Yiddish theater actors were scouted from synagogue choirs, Kantor is the quintessence of Yiddish Theater’s legacy in America. For Michelle Slonim, Chack shared a short comedic film she shot, dealing with the Jewish dating scene. Kantor continued on to share his experience of going on a research trip through the Los Angeles organization Yiddishkayt, walking in the shoes of Sholem Aleichem in preparation for playing Motel Kamzoil. He wrote about his journey in The Forward. As Jackie Hoffman joked about how she wasn’t cast in the current Fiddler revival though she auditioned with a song in Yiddish, both she and Feldshuh spoke about carrying their history with them through the elements of pride and an intense fear that, as Feldshuh said, “the Cossacks might come and it might be all over, so grab one last piece of kugel.”

This expressed not only the physical dangers Jewish people experience in a world where they are still very much targets of anti-Semitism, but also an actor’s fear that their career might suddenly end. Jackie Hoffman explained that the fear bled over into feeling the need to take every role offered to her. Thankfully, her agent talked her out of accepting a one line role saying “there’s a shiksa in the mikvah.” While Adam Kantor expressed appreciation for having the opportunity to play such Jewish characters as Motel Kamzoil in Fiddler, Jamie Wellerstein in the off-Broadway revival of The Last 5 Years, and Mark Cohen in the final Broadway cast of Rent, he also yearns, like every actor, to play a diversity of roles. It was touching to see the veterans of Broadway, TV, and film in the group, Feldshuh and Hoffman, reassure him and Michelle Slonim as well, that they both have a bright futures awaiting them, and that their talent will carry them far. Chack ended the evening with a final clip of Kantor’s homemade video “Motel Citizen,” where he and his Fiddler wife Alexandra Silber sang Lucille and Leo Frank’s final love duet “All the Wasted Time” from the Jason Robert Brown/Alfred Uhry musical Parade. Who knows? Perhaps they will indeed be cast in those roles, and once again, the legacy of Yiddish Theater in American Performance will continue on into the future.

Yoni Oppenheim is the Co-Artistic Director of 24/6: A Jewish Theater Company. He is a freelance director, dramaturg, translator, and teaching artist. Credits include directing IF NOT NOW by Ken Kaissar, dramaturg of Doug Wright’s POSTERITY at Atlantic Theater Co., translator of AT NIGHT’S END by Motti Lerner. He is on the Executive Committee of the Board of the Association for Jewish Theatre and is a member of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab. B.F.A. in Drama from NYU and M. Phil. in Ibsen Studies from the University of Oslo. Yoni was named one of The Jewish Week’s 2015 “36 Under 36”.