Yiddish Musical Theater in the United States
From 1876 to the early 1880s, a newly hatched phenomenon of Yiddish theater, “operettas,” could be found in Jewish communities in Russia, Romania, Austria, and Poland. Abraham Goldfaden, father of Yiddish theater, had devised operettas for his troupes of singer-players and instrumentalists. This new genre of theater gradually featured women rather than young boys in female roles and soon included special set pieces for female performers. By the 1880s, operettas and their artists began to immigrate to America, where both male and female entertainers rapidly adopted the qualities and societal patterns of their American counterparts. Male artists became matinee idols, while female artists became role models who reflected the diversity of women’s lives and conditions in America.
Jewish women on stage in America took on a variety of musical roles and performed all kinds of songs, including religious hymns and liturgical chants. Sophie Karp (formerly Sara Siegel Goldstein), who had been discovered and trained for the stage by Goldfaden, became a popular soubrette in Yiddish revues and shows at the Bowery theaters on the Lower East Side of New York City. In 1896, she introduced a Yiddish ballad written especially for her by a musician named Peretz Sandler. That song, “Eli, Eli,” was a dramatic arietta that became an immediate favorite and soon became a featured solo of many other female performers of the day, even those in general entertainment. Operatic sopranos Sophie Braslau and Rosa Raissa sang it at the old Metropolitan Opera House and in concert halls. Belle Baker featured it in her touring vaudeville presentations, and her photograph adorns several published editions of the song. When Yossele Rosenblatt made it part of his repertoire, “Eli, Eli,” originally a Yiddish stage tune of female singers, evolved into a Jewish hymn considered in the domain of male singers.
One of the singers of “Eli, Eli” was Bertha Kalich, a famous dramatic actor whose performances were acclaimed by English as well as Yiddish critics. She started her career on Bowery stages and then moved to Second Avenue theaters and Broadway, playing Yiddish versions of the female protagonists in plays by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Schiller, Ibsen, and Shakespeare. All of Kalich’s roles involved music—so important to Jewish productions. Goldfaden had shaped that format, set that distinctive artistic pattern. Songs were the dominating element in drama as well as comedy, and everyone on the Jewish stage had to sing.
The earliest female singer-actor, for whom Goldfaden himself wrote many operettas featuring heroic women, was Regina Prager. In the course of her long career, she introduced characters such as Shulamith, the gallant girl of the Second Temple era, and Dinah, the warrior consort of hero Simeon Bar Kokhba. Over the years, Prager went from lovely soubrette and romantic lady to a formidable matron with the leading role in Boris Thomashefsky’s musical Di Khazinte [The lady cantor]. Her photographs adorned the covers of an entire series of special solo song selections. Indeed, it became customary for female performers to be featured on theater posters and commercial sheet music, usually in costumes and scenes from a particular show.
By 1910, resourceful Yiddish theatrical entrepreneurs were presenting their own versions of “uptown” American musicals. Bessie Kaufman Thomashefsky starred as the “Jewish American Beauty” in her husband Boris Thomashefsky’s production of The Yiddish Yankee Doodle. For advertisements and covers on sheet music from that show, Bessie is clad in a riding costume that makes her resemble Barbra Streisand! Indeed, in those early years Bessie Thomashefsky favored pants and other “advanced” fashion ideas. After her marriage dissolved, she moved on to have a busy theatrical life—directing, producing, and acting in her own shows.
While Jacob P. Adler was the abiding theatrical star of his day, the Adler women constituted an array of exceptional talents. Adler’s daughter Celia (Cili Feinman) Adler enjoyed a long and varied stage career, as did his third wife, Sara Heine Adler, and their daughter, the widely acclaimed performer and teacher Stella Adler, both of whom appeared in dramatic roles past their eightieth birthdays.
In its heyday, the Yiddish stage mirrored life, depicting many issues and problems that directly affected the audiences. Family matters had particular importance in that era of immigrant accommodation and acculturation to American life. The nobility of motherhood was celebrated in legions of stories and songs. How could it be possible, all balladeers sang, that one mother could take care of ten children and yet ten children would not take care of one mother? An amazing range of women’s woes were highlighted, discussed, and often resolved across the footlights, presenting reality to an extent not paralleled in the general theatrical world of those years. Some theatricals were comic, as in songs and stories about suffragettes and women’s rights issues, where the idea of women as doctors or politicians, even rabbis or cantors, was mocked. Other theatricals, however, were serious expositions, for example, those on behalf of movements for women’s labor regulations that followed upon the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911 where 146 people lost their lives and numerous others were maimed.
Jennie Goldstein was a particular favorite of the Yiddish stage, as she portrayed in her dramatic performances a great range of lonely women struggling to survive despite great adversity. Goldstein’s stage song was always a version of: “The sun shines but never for me.” She began her career portraying a vulnerable immigrant waif and then played the wronged maiden who must give away her baby, the girl with the “stained past,” and the exhausted working girl who pleads “take me away from the sewing machine.” Other roles over the years included the victim of the bad husband, and the deserted wife with sickly children who becomes an unappreciated, self-sacrificing middle-aged mother and then an abandoned and penniless old woman. Her photographs in these roles appeared on numerous sheet music covers and souvenir programs, and she filled crowded theaters with teary women and sympathetic men.
Two highly popular comic-soubrettes who enjoyed long and illustrious careers were Nellie Casman and Molly Picon. Casman, who had a particular type of humorous style, somewhat naughty yet wise, wrote much of her own theatrical material, including songs. One of her tunes, “Yosel, Yosel” [Joseph, Joseph], and its English version “Joseph, Make Your Mind Up” continues to be sung by non-Jewish as well as Jewish performers worldwide. In late 1939, Casman concluded a successful year-long European tour, fleeing by train from Berlin after a performance in that city. It was an experience she would vividly recall to the end of her life. Picon was likely the most beloved performer on both the Yiddish and the general stage. She exploited the idea of a girl-boy Yankele [Little Jackie] persona and played a variety of such roles in productions throughout the world. Her delightful characterizations were shaped by a petite physical appearance and warm personal charm. The songs she presented on stage and in recordings were written by three leading composers of Yiddish music theater: Joseph Rumshinsky, Sholom Secunda, and Abraham Ellstein. She made two Yiddish movies, filmed in Poland in 1937 and 1938. Almost to the end of her life, she appeared on stage, in films, and on television, ever a gifted and versatile star.
Although their performances were often associated in style, genre, and content with the Yiddish theatricals, neither Fanny Brice nor Sophie Tucker appeared formally on the Yiddish stage. There were some women, such as Rhea Silberta, who composed songs for the Yiddish musicals, generally for their own performances. One leading female composer was Mana-Zucca (Augusta Zuckerman), who also had a long career in the general music field. Among her selections of specific Judaic content were Rahem [Mercy] and Shalom Aleikhem [Greetings/Peace to you], the published editions of which were dedicated to soprano Rosa Raissa.
By the second half of the twentieth century, the distinctive qualities of Yiddish theater had mainstreamed into American life. While the artists and their artistry found new audiences in radio, movies, and television, the special qualities of Yiddish theater abided and were even strengthened in the much broader venues of entertainment and cultural expression. Nevertheless, a number of highly talented performers and creative figures stayed within the ranks of Yiddish-focused arts. Many were women, acting and singing, composing and writing, directing and producing.
The older style of Yiddish theatricals and popular songs remains a special legacy from an era rich in innovative ideas and notable personalities. Women from that heyday all did yeoman service and helped bring other women into the forefront of Jewish artistic self-expression.
Green, Stanley. Encyclopaedia of the Musical Theatre (1976); Heskes, Irene. The Music of Abraham Goldfaden: Father of the Yiddish Theater (1990), and Passport to Jewish Music: Its History, Traditions, and Culture (1994), and Yiddish American Popular Songs, 1895 to 1950 (1992); Landis, Joseph C., ed. Memoirs of the Yiddish Stage (1984); Lifson, David S., trans. and ed. Epic and Folk Plays of the Yiddish Theatre (1975); Sanders, Ronald. The Downtown Jews: Portraits of an Immigrant Generation (1969); Sandrow, Nahma. Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater (1977); Rosenfeld, Lulla Adler. Bright Star of Exile: Jacob Adler and the Yiddish Theatre (1977. Rev. ed., The Yiddish Theatre and Jacob P. Adler, 1988); Slobin, Mark. Tenement Songs: The Popular Music of the Jewish Immigrants (1982).
How to cite this page
Heskes, Irene. "Yiddish Musical Theater in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 18, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/yiddish-musical-theater-in-united-states>.