January 19, 2020

The Yiddish roots of Hollywood

When I ask Yiddishist Edna Nahshon what images of Jews appeared on the stages of Yiddish theater, she says, simply, “Everything.” 

You have scientists, you have crooks, you have whores — the entire gamut of Jewish life.” 

Minus the whores, that pretty much described the scene around us when we met one recent morning at a bustling café on New York’s Upper West Side. I’d invited Nahshon to discuss an exhibition she curated on New York’s Yiddish Theater, “From the Bowery to Broadway,” currently at the Museum of the City of New York. In viewing it, I was astonished to discover a lesser-known attribute:  Yiddish theater was kinda racy. 

Take stage actor Boris Thomashefsky, for instance. He was a huge star in his day, but also a serial womanizer and volatile personality who lost his entire fortune and died a pauper. His life played out like a tabloid drama, riddled with scandal. There was also Moishe Finkel, the actor, director and producer (most everyone was a jack-of-all-trades in the Yiddish theater world) who fired a gun at his wife, Thomashefsky’s younger sister, when she jilted him for a lover. Then he fatally shot himself. 

“They were like Hollywood stars,” Nahshon says, “and the community followed [them] with great interest. Who else are you going to gossip about, Moishe the tailor? Who cares? The [Yiddish stars] were glamorous. And the women were beautiful — Sara Adler was known to get her dresses from Paris. Who had dresses from Paris on the Lower East Side?” 

The glamour and emotion remind me a little bit of that other Jewish performing arts industry — Hollywood. But a closer look suggests the two worlds were actually quite different: Yiddish theater was “theater by Jews for Jews,” as Nahshon puts it, deeply, proudly ethnic, a way to establish identity in a changing world. Hollywood, by contrast, was about assimilation, acculturation and Americanization. Constitutionally, they were opposites. “Whereas in Hollywood they were so nervous about Jewish themes, not in New York,” Nahshon says. “In New York, a huge percentage of the theatergoing audience was Jewish.”

“It’s interesting to have a topic like this in a museum that is not a Jewish museum,” she muses, admitting the placement of a deeply ethnic exhibit at a secular museum has confused her friends and colleagues. “You have no idea how many emails I’ve gotten from people who say, ‘Can’t wait to see the exhibit at the Jewish Museum.’ ” They’ll figure it out, she hopes.

Nahshon has been a professor of theater and drama at the Jewish Theological Seminary “for decades” and is the author of several books on Yiddish theater — “I’m interested in the whole complex of Jews in the performing arts,” she says — but this is her first exhibition. And, boy, is it a fun telling of the Jewish “entertainment zone” that developed in the early 20th century on the immigrant-rich Lower East Side. “In 1925, you had 14 Yiddish theaters in New York,” Nahshon says with an emphasis befitting a dramaturge. “That’s not the number you have on Broadway, but it’s also not insignificant.” 

What emerges from the exhibition, which features photographs, drawings, movie posters and costumes (worn by such stars as Molly Picon and Barbra Streisand) is a world peopled with larger-than-life characters and tremendous artistic talents. It reads like a novel, telling wild stories of actors, writers and producers, set designers and composers who established a dynamic community meeting place Nahshon likens to a “secular synagogue.” 

“For the Jews of that era, the greatest culture in the world was Russian culture,” Nahshon explains, adding tartly, “not Russian pogroms, but Russian culture.” The Yiddish theater world was full of Russian emigres who yearned to connect with their past, and the community united around the cause of helping fellow Jews from the “Yiddishland.” This wasn’t the quiet, anemic domain of WASPs, mind you; this was a theater of shared values and intense emotions. “You don’t have to explain certain things,” Nahshon says. “There’s no need.” Everyone understands conversion or intermarriage is “bad.” 

Yiddish theater was an ethnic enclave, mediating between past and present, between the motherland, Russia, and the new land, America. It was the place to explore “all the dilemmas that are raised by immigration, by Americanization, the shift from the old country to the new country, changing values, intergenerational tensions,” Nahshon says. “[These things] are universal, but also very specifically Jewish.”

The exhibition is as historically exacting as it is dishy, capturing in full the vibrant dynamism of a world long gone. “In the 1930s, as Yiddish begins to decline, its function changes.” As more and more people speak English, there’s no longer a need to translate the wider culture into Yiddish, so, “it begins to be a place where you go for a ‘Jewish’ show.” 

That’s not a claim Hollywood can make, though some stories from and about the Yiddish theater would ultimately become Hollywood and Broadway hits. Think: “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Funny Girl.” The self-contained Yiddish universe disappeared, but its content, many of its stories, and even some of its stars still migrated to America’s mainstream entertainment industries. 

Is it sad, I ask, that Jews lost something totally their own and traded up for Hollywood, which is about everyone? 

“Everything changes,” Nahshon says without lament. “We’re comfortable with the arts. They’ve become a kind of secular religion of American Jews. People who don’t live a traditional religious life in the old sense are people who rush to film festivals and to ‘Fiddler’ and to various shows that deal with Jewish topics.”

Yiddish remains in the DNA coursing through the veins of American Jewish culture. So instead of thinking it dead, think of it as an influential ancestor.

“You can ask, ‘Why does the past matter at all?’ ” Nahshon says. “Because, we are the summation of our memories and our history. We don’t come out of nowhere. We come out of something.”