American Jewish Theatre

A history of Jewish theatre in America.

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"People ask me often, 'Why do you write in a dying language?'" Isaac Bashevis Singer told a crowd in 1978. Citing his love for ghost stories, he explained, "The deader the language the more alive is the ghost. Ghosts love Yiddish and as far as I know, they all speak it."

Singer's final response to the question touched upon the difficult question of identity that continues to plague Jewish theatre in America: "Yiddish may be a dying language but it is the only language I know well. Yiddish is my mother language and a mother is never really dead."

jewish american theatreJewish theatre began in America as an attempt to preserve the culture of the shtetl, and as the old collided with the new, Jewish playwrights, actors and theatre owners resurrected it and helped it evolve into a distinctly American Jewish theatre.

Jewish theatre thrived in America first as a primarily Yiddish enterprise, and later in a more distinctly American variety. Ellen Schiff observed in her book Awake and Singing that the term "Jewish Theatre" is so ambiguous that some theatregoers still call into the box office to inquire if a show billed as Jewish theatre will be performed in English or Yiddish. Surely this number is quickly dwindling, but it attests to an ambiguity that is sharply felt by theatre patrons.

While many question just what is Jewish about Jewish theatre, what is clear is that the nostalgia of the Yiddish theatre in America in the late 19th century, pining for the lost shtetl life, gave way over the next century to a new thriving Jewish theatre world. This new realm was and is more forward-thinking and postmodern in its identity.

The Early Years

Nearly three and a half million Jews immigrated to America between 1881 and 1925, primarily from Eastern Europe to the Northeast coast. Yiddish theatre appealed to these Yiddish speaking immigrants, and many have argued that the theatre was a unique place of Jewish community gathering, where classes and religious denominations would mingle. Early theatres such as the People's, Thalia, and Windsor hosted performances of Yiddish plays just on weekends and Jewish holidays.

In 1903, the Grand Theatre opened as the first place to specialize in Yiddish plays. Three years earlier, The Hebrew Actors Union was founded; Actors' Equity, the major actors' union still operative today, was only to arrive on the scene in 1920. Later theatres in New York included the Second Avenue Theater, the National, the Yiddish Art Theater, and the Public. By producing all-Yiddish plays, these theatres transparently revealed whom they viewed as their target audience. Only later would Jewish theatre appeal to a more diverse audience.

Avram Goldfadn (1840-1908), who arrived in New York in 1904, is generally regarded as the father of modern Yiddish theatre. The newspaper the Jewish Messenger calls an 1882 performance in New York of Goldfadn's "The Witch" (1877) the first Yiddish play performed in America.

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Menachem Wecker

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He lives in Washington, D.C.