The Museum of the City of New York mounted an exhibition titled New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway in March 2016. It is curated by Dr. Edna Nahshon, professor of Theater and Drama at The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and author of a book that shares the exhibition’s title, published by Columbia University Press. The exhibition will be on view through July 31, 2016.
Yiddish theater thrived on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and then on lower Second Avenue from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, selling over a million tickets in 1900 and regularly drawing 300,000 families in the mid-1920s. First- and second-generation Yiddish-speaking Jews constituted much of the audience, but the theater also drew the attention of non-Jewish theater artists and critics. Over time, the on-going conversation between the city’s Yiddish and English stages resulted in the crossover of Yiddish stars and theater professionals to the English-language stage. Their mark on the mainstream American stage and Hollywood is felt to this day.
While many of the productions presented on the Yiddish stage were operettas and comedies, Yiddish theaters were also devoted to serious literary plays by major Yiddish writers. “The cutting edge is seen most conspicuously in the area of design,” Dr. Nahshon notes of the remarkable modernism of the Yiddish art theaters. “Boris Aronson’s stage designs in the 1920s for the Yiddish stage were the most innovative in town.” A recent immigrant from Russia, he introduced to the American stage the modernistic language of the Russian avant-garde, especially constructivism. Aronson later became a major designer on Broadway, winning six Tony Awards over his career.
Two upcoming related programs will explore current influences of Yiddish theater: From God of Vengeance to Indecent on April 19, to include Paula Vogel, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of the new play Indecent; and “From the Bowery to Broadway: Yiddish Theater in Song and Conversation,” on May 18, featuring a performance by Yiddish actor Mike Burstyn followed by a panel discussion featuring Dr. Nahshon.
The Museum of the City of New York is located at 1220 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.