Biographer and cultural historian Kanfer (Ball of Fire, 2003, etc.) provides a workmanlike chronicle of the populist drama that flourished in the US as long as the Jewish masses kept one foot in the Old World, one in the New.
The Yiddish theater was born in Romania in 1876, when Abraham Goldfaden knocked out a farce to be performed in Yiddish, the mamaloshen (mother tongue) that united Jews dispersed throughout Eastern Europe and Russia. But it gained its greatest commercial success in America, spurred by the flamboyant acting of Jacob Adler, David Kessler and Boris Tomashefsky. Like their audiences, they had emigrated from the old country to escape oppressive laws and vicious pogroms. Tomashefsky was content to be the prince of shund (trash), winning the adoration of New York’s Lower East Side with splashy spectacles that allowed him to wear tights showing off his handsome legs. Kessler and particularly Adler aspired to uplift the race through art, favoring Shakespeare and the serious, realistic dramas of Jacob Gordin. While Yiddish-speaking immigrants poured into America’s cities through the beginning of WWI, there was room for all three to pursue their ferocious rivalry, and for other companies and stars to thrive in their wake, most notably Maurice Schwartz on the high end with the Yiddish Art Theater, Artef on the political left and Molly Picon on the crowd-pleasing side. Assimilation in the US and mass murder in Nazi Europe eliminated the uneasy but fruitful middle ground occupied by a theater catering to Jews making their way in a new land but clinging to old ways. Kanfer covers the salient points and reels off famous names, from Sophie Tucker to Paul Muni, to demonstrate Yiddish theater’s impact on American culture, but he doesn’t delve into any of it very deeply. In particular, the remarkable nature of the Yiddish language, flexible and polyglot like no other except perhaps pidgin, cries out for further consideration. The result is a readable narrative heavy on anecdotes, many of them very funny, but regrettably light on insight.
Yiddish theater for beginners.