The Yiddish Book Center's
Wexler Oral History Project
A growing collection of in-depth interviews with people of all ages and backgrounds, whose stories about the legacy and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture offer a rich and complex chronicle of Jewish identity.
Tom Oppenheim's Oral History
Tom Oppenheim - great-grandson of Yiddish theatre actors Jacob and Sara Adler, Artistic Director and President of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting - was interviewed by Christa Whitney on March 8, 2016 at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York, New York. Jacob Adler, star and producer of Yiddish theatre, came to the United States in the late 1880s and worked to elevate the mostly low-brow offerings of the time. His daughter Stella grew up in the exciting world that he was creating and was on the stage from a very young age. Her grandson remembers her as a deeply intelligent, extravagant, larger than life figure. She started acting with her family and then with Maurice Schwartz's company before moving to Broadway and working for years with the Group Theater. Stella often spoke Yiddish to her students and suggested that it was a warmer, more intimate language than English; she attributed her ability to "transform" into a character to her Yiddish stage experience. Tom describes Stella's classes, some of which he took himself. She helped her students to find the true meaning of a play in a tiny bit of text and to explore archetypes through the visual arts and through music. Stella had enormously high standards; her teaching style could seem almost abusive to observers but was in fact very loving and brought out the best in the actors. For her, imagination was the central tool – the actor must imagine the history of the character he is playing. There were numerous exercises to help students strengthen such skills. Tom talks about the differences between Stella's techniques and "Method Acting" which encouraged actors to summon emotional memories to inform a characterization. Stella was also a social activist who was involved in trying to help World War II survivors in displaced person camps and believed that theater should inspire people to fight for a better world. Neither Stella nor Tom's family were religiously Jewish, but he feels that their humor, storytelling, love of ideas, and focus on education and intellect were strongly influenced by their background. Tom grew up in a Jewish milieu on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and describes large, raucous Passover seders at Stella's apartment. He has worked hard not to let the acting studio degenerate into dogmatism and devolve into a "wax museum" devoted to Stella. He has tried to build an institution that is based on the idea that growth as an actor depends upon growth as a human being. He has hired wonderful teachers - many but not all of whom studied with his grandmother - and has grown the program to include a dance theater company and a playwright division. He is working on a new "Jacob Adler Center" which would focus on theater addressing the immigrant experience. He ends by talking about the revival of interest in Yiddish and Yiddish theatre and is thinking about how the Stella Adler Studio could be a part of that exciting effort.
This interview was conducted in English.
Tom Oppenheim was born in New York, New York in 1959.
Video highlights from this oral history
"It Was This Impersonal, Powerful, Uncompromisable Artistic Standard Just Coming At You": Descriptions of Stella Adler's Classes
6 min 25 sec
Slide 2 of 8
Stella Adler's First Theater Memory and Her Capacity to Identify Strongly With Others
1 min 28 sec
Slide 3 of 8
Responsibility of Theater Actors to Raise Themselves and Their Audiences Up
2 min 8 sec
Slide 4 of 8