Yiddish Theater Comes to America
The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 triggered government-sponsored pogroms in Russia. Two years later, when Yiddish theater was banned throughout the Russian Empire, many Yiddish acting troupes, along with much of their audience, moved to America.
By 1900 there were three major Yiddish theatre troupes in New York City and many smaller theaters in other Jewish population centers. By 1918, New York counted 20 Yiddish theatres, which, in a single year, attracted two million patrons to over a thousand performances.
While much of the theatrical fare presented was plainly “shunde,” or trash, true works of art were created as serious playwrights like Jacob Gordin, David Pinski, Sholom Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, and Sholom Asch began to write for the Yiddish stage. Presenting that art form were impresarios like Boris Thomashefsky, who also starred in his productions along with gifted actors like his wife Bessie and the legendary Jacob P. Adler.
One reason for the popularity of the Yiddish theater was that the characters on stage faced problems similar to those faced by the people in the audience. How to be an American while remaining a Jew? How to protect the family from the pressures of a modern, secular and sometimes immoral world? How to gain material success in America without giving up the spiritual values of Judaism? Audiences laughed and wept as the dramas on stage resonated with their own lives.
An idea of the tenor of the plays is captured in a scene in the film Godfather II in which the young Robert De Niro attends an Italian play. In the play the main character, an Italian immigrant to New York, receives a letter informing him that his mother back in Italy has died. He jumps to his feet, beats his breast, sobs and weeps and loudly proclaims his sorrow to the heavens and to the audience. His cries are in Italian but his pain and passion are universal and the performance very typical of what audiences experienced at Yiddish theater early in the twentieth century.
If audiences at Seattle Jewish Theater Company productions are moved to laughter and tears – as they have been and as we hope they will continue to be – that will be the continuation of a grand tradition of Jewish theater.