Yiddish theater for beginners.



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.

Pub Date: Oct. 26, 2006

ISBN: 1-4000-4288-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2006

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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.



Rootin’-tootin’ history of the dry-gulchers, horn-swogglers, and outright killers who populated the Wild West’s wildest city in the late 19th century.

The stories of Wyatt Earp and company, the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and Geronimo and the Apache Wars are all well known. Clavin, who has written books on Dodge City and Wild Bill Hickok, delivers a solid narrative that usefully links significant events—making allies of white enemies, for instance, in facing down the Apache threat, rustling from Mexico, and other ethnically charged circumstances. The author is a touch revisionist, in the modern fashion, in noting that the Earps and Clantons weren’t as bloodthirsty as popular culture has made them out to be. For example, Wyatt and Bat Masterson “took the ‘peace’ in peace officer literally and knew that the way to tame the notorious town was not to outkill the bad guys but to intimidate them, sometimes with the help of a gun barrel to the skull.” Indeed, while some of the Clantons and some of the Earps died violently, most—Wyatt, Bat, Doc Holliday—died of cancer and other ailments, if only a few of old age. Clavin complicates the story by reminding readers that the Earps weren’t really the law in Tombstone and sometimes fell on the other side of the line and that the ordinary citizens of Tombstone and other famed Western venues valued order and peace and weren’t particularly keen on gunfighters and their mischief. Still, updating the old notion that the Earp myth is the American Iliad, the author is at his best when he delineates those fraught spasms of violence. “It is never a good sign for law-abiding citizens,” he writes at one high point, “to see Johnny Ringo rush into town, both him and his horse all in a lather.” Indeed not, even if Ringo wound up killing himself and law-abiding Tombstone faded into obscurity when the silver played out.

Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-21458-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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