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Women on the Immigrant Yiddish Stage: Paths to Stardom

Hosted By: YIVO

Yiddish theater was one of the most dynamic cultural institutions of East European Jewish immigrants in New York during the decades around the turn of the twentieth century. It was also the only one that included women in significant numbers. However, for decades the leadership of some of the most successful companies were groups of men, including the male star, playwright, manager, or director. Female stars, or actresses with star ambitions were usually dependent on the male star-managers for roles. By the late 1890s, some women began seeking opportunities that would allow them more control of their repertoire and give them full star status, a trend that accelerated after 1900 and led to more instances of female stars headlining productions and several female-led theaters around World War I.

While traditionally historians of Yiddish theater have tended to look at its development through the lens of the two foundational playwrights Avrom Goldfaden and Jacob Gordin, and the actors (male and female) who supported their missions, this lecture will outline a reading of these decades through the prism of several female actors whose star ambitions led them to careers rarely described in historiographical accounts. Following the careers of these women illuminates shifting attitudes within society and the profession regarding gender and illustrates the significance of theatrical activity well beyond the flagship theaters on the Lower East Side.

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