In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, new immigrants often kept to themselves in separate ethnic enclaves. Naturally with this separatism came ethnically-specific culture in different parts of the same cities. From grocery stores and radio stations to places of worship, immigrant groups could find amenities similar to those they would find in their home countries. One such type of ethnic transplantation was the Yiddish theater, which originated in Romania and was transplanted to popularity in American, especially in New York City, from 1888 to the 1920’s.
Yiddish theater was created in Romania and came to New York six years later. Yiddish theater most often included over-the-top representations of Jewish characters—the pining lover, the devout cantor, the husband with the wandering eyes—in exaggerated situations. Following the model of vaudeville, Yiddish theatrical productions included melodrama, operettas and pieces inspired by the European stage. Nearly every act in the Yiddish theater included singing. Performers were usually immigrant Jews and traveled throughout the country performing their acts.
Some historians of the Yiddish theater claim that it was more of a meeting place, and a place to see and be seen, in the American Jewish community than synagogues. In New York City, this is not surprising in that nearly 3.5 million Yiddish-speaking Jews settled here during the same time as the popularity of the Yiddish theater.
The Yiddish theater was not isolated in New York City, however, and included houses throughout the country. In 1927, after immigration to the United States had slowed, New York had eleven theaters, Chicago had 4, Philadelphia had 3 and Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, Newark and St. Louis had one each. In 1937-38, perhaps influenced by nostalgia, Yiddish theater sold 1.75 million seats in New York, nearly ten years after its prime.
Yiddish theater was particularly significant because it began blending American popular song with Yiddish, particularly Eastern European, historical and language-based specificity. Popular performers quoted songs and phrases from more mainstream American music, as well as used popular English phrases in songs sung mostly in Yiddish. So, immigrants who went to see Yiddish theater were following their homeland culture while, at the same time, beginning to amalgamate into the homogenizing American whole.
Two of the most famous American immigrant Yiddish theater performers were Ludwig Satz and Aaraon Lebedeff. Satz, born in Austro-Hungary (currently Ukraine) was called the greatest comedic Yiddish actor by the New York Times in 1925. This nod alone showed that by this time, Yiddish theater was becoming more well-known to non-Jewish audiences in New York City. Lebedeff was born in Russia and made a name for himself there, as well as in China. He came to America in the 1920’s, performing, directing and composing many of his own comedy routines. He toured the entire country—he was particularly popular in the Midwest—and combined Jewish religious song with vaudevillian style. These men are largely forgotten, but provided a template for comedic characters and for the combination of old-and-new that is still used in entertainment today.
Cultural amenities like the Yiddish theater that blended old country language and tropes with mainstream American culture served as a crossroads for new immigrants to retain their old-country identities while simultaneously becoming Americanized. Yiddish theater, and its eventual demise, represented a halfway point for Jewish immigrants and their descendants to retain their heritage, but also learn how to be Americans. The next phase in Jewish-American entertainment was Yiddish film, starring many of the same actors that became famous on the stage.
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