New York’s Yiddish Theater

An American Story

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as millions of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe poured into the port of New York, a thriving community of Yiddish-language performing companies and venues sprang up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. By 1925, Second Avenue, known as the “Yiddish Broadway,” boasted more than a dozen theaters that attracted hundreds of thousands of theatergoers each year.

A photo of the Yiddish actors Luba Kadison, Maurice Schwartz, and Berta Gersten in the play "The Three Gifts," 1945, Schwartz holding a violin.

Luba Kadison, Maurice Schwartz, and Berta Gersten in an adaptation of classic writer I. L. Peretz's story Di dray matones (The Three Gifts), 1945

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Postcard of the Hippodrome theater in New York

The Hippodrome in New York City, 1920. Built in 1905, the Hippodrome was a temple of English-language theater in the city and was advertised upon its construction as the largest theater in the world.

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Colorful painting of Times Square at Night, NYC, ca. 1935.

Times Square at Night, New York City, ca. 1935

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Sepia image of a large audience in the American Theatre, ca. 1902, all facing the camera.

Ted Marks' Big Sunday Concert, American Theatre, 1902. Weekends were essential times for theater performances in the period, Yiddish and otherwise, as the only time workers could briefly escape from their long hours in the office or sweatshop.

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Sepia image of the Casino Theatre in New York, ca. 1910.

The Casino, a home to splashy English-language operettas on Broadway & 39th Street, New York ca. 1910. The Casino, constructed in Moorish style, was a popular house in the nineteenth century, but its fortunes suffered during the Depression and it went dark permanently in 1930.

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The exterior of the Rialto Theatre in Brooklyn, 1916

The exterior of the Rialto Theatre in Brooklyn, 1916. The Rialto was a first-run movie theater in the Flatbush neigborhood.

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The marquee of B. F. Keith's Orpheum at Fulton Street and Rockwell Place, Brooklyn

The marquee of B. F. Keith's Orpheum at Fulton Street and Rockwell Place, Brooklyn. It advertises, "Nat C. Goodwin, Ernest Evans and George Howell."

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Molly Picon in Her Newest Yiddish Musical Film Triumph "Mamele" 1938

A poster advertising "Molly Picon in Her Newest Yiddish Musical Film Triumph Mamele," 1938

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Circle Theatre  Broadway, Southwest corner of 60th Street, ca. 1900

The Circle Theatre on Broadway, southwest corner of 60th Street, ca. 1900. Broadway, in midtown Manhattan, was and remains home to the city's famous mainstream theater scene, while 2nd Avenue on the Lower East Side was the "Jewish Broadway" and played host to the popular Yiddish-language entertainments of the day.

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Automatic Vaudeville theatre, 48 East 14th Street, N.Y.C.

The Automatic Vaudeville theatre at 48 East 14th Street, NYC. A small movie house, the theater offered penny-operated "peeps."

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Three men standing at the box office of the Olympia Theatre, 1895, with a billboard featuring Yvette Luilbers visible.

Three men standing at the box office of the Olympia Theatre, 1895, with a billboard featuring Yvette Luilbers visible.

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Bella Bellarina and Lazar Fried in "The Dybbuk," ca. 1926.

Bella Bellarina and Lazar Fried in An-ski's famous supernatural drama, The Dybbuk, ca. 1926

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Picture of an audience at a theatre, created by Carlos Anderson, ca. 1935.

Curtain Time by Carlos Anderson, ca. 1935.

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Exterior of The Old Madison Square Garden Theatre, 26th Street at Madison Avenue, ca. 1905.

The Old Madison Square Garden Theatre, 26th Street at Madison Avenue, ca. 1905

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Cover of a program for a production of Gedemedzhte kinder (Damaged Children), opened March 6, 1931 at the Odeon Theatre.

Cover of a program for a production of Gedemedzhte kinder (Damaged Children), which opened March 6, 1931 at the Odeon Theatre. Famed singer Nellie Casman did not actually appear in the production. Within the program are such pieces of interest as an ad for "Meyer London's Thin Crispy Matzos" and an article headlined "Two Million People Attend the Jewish Theatre Annually."

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Image advertising a 1937 production of Di brider ashkenazi (The Brothers Ashkenazy), based on I. J. Singer's revered family epic.

Image advertising a 1937 production of Di brider ashkenazi (The Brothers Ashkenazi), based on I. J. Singer's revered family epic. The Yiddish Art Theatre produced highbrow, dramatic plays, in contrast to the operettas and farces presented by the "shund" ("trash") houses.

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Yiddish actors Samuel Goldenberg, Jacob Ben-Ami, and Maurice Schwartz, ca. 1930. The latter founded the Yiddish Art Theatre.

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Cover of a Yiddish Art Theatre program announcing Maurice Schwartz in "Zalman Shneour's Romantic Folk-Play Song of the Dnieper," from the company's 27th season in 1946-47.

Cover of a Yiddish Art Theatre program announcing Maurice Schwartz in "Zalman Shneour's Romantic Folk-Play Song of the Dnieper," from the company's twenty-seventh season in 1946-47.

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Cover of a souvenir book from the Yiddish Art Theatre production of Dray shtet (Three Cities) by Sholem Asch, 1938

Cover of a souvenir book from the Yiddish Art Theatre production of Dray shtet (Three Cities) by Sholem Asch, 1938

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Program cover from a production of Avrom Goldfadn's seminal operetta Di kishef-makherin (The Witch), opened at the Yiddish Folks Theatre on April 17, 1929.

Program cover from a production of Avrom Goldfadn's seminal operetta Di kishef-makherin (The Witch), which opened at the Yiddish Folks Theatre on April 17, 1929

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The Yiddish Book Center is a co-presenter of the exhibit New York's Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway, now at the Museum of the City of New York. The first major exhibit on New York's Yiddish theater, it recaptures that vibrant world through original artifacts, costumes, photographs, ephemera, and documents, as well as multimedia presentations of film and audio of some of the great performances of the Yiddish stage and its emulators. It runs until July 31, 2016.

This story initially ran in Pakn Treger as part of a special issue on Yiddish theater. Other articles from that issue are available here.