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Yiddish Musical Theater in the United States

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. In its heyday, the Yiddish stage mirrored American Jewish life. An amazing range of women’s woes were highlighted, discussed, and often resolved across the footlights, presenting the reality that immigrant women faced to an extent not paralleled in the English-language theatrical world during those years.

Vaudeville in the United States

Jewish women in vaudeville helped to cultivate a unique American Jewish identity. Headliners Sophie Tucker, Belle Baker, and Fanny Brice were prominent, as were performers such as Nan Halperin and Nora Bayes. Molly Picon was a star of Yiddish theater, and Sarah Bernhardt a star of the stage. The reign of Jewish female vaudevillians ended in the 1930s, but their voices continue to be heard.

Sophie Tucker

Vaudeville legend and Broadway star Sophie Tucker defied convention with her saucy comic banter and music. Tucker became famous internationally for her singing performances and delighted audiences throughout America and Europe with her rendition of “My Yiddishe Momme.” Tucker was proud of her Jewish identity and created the Sophie Tucker Foundation, which supported various actors’ guilds, hospitals, synagogues, and Israeli youth villages.

Theater in the United States

For over a hundred years, Jewish women have been involved in the American theater as writers, actors, directors, designers and producers. The vitality of the Yiddish theater, the splendor of Broadway, the rich tapestry of the regional theater, and everything in between, all owe a debt to the Jewish women who have given of their talents, their energy, their drive, and their dreams.

Sydney Taylor

Sydney Taylor as the author of the beloved All-of-a-Kind Family chapter book series, about five memorable and distinctive sisters growing up in a warm and loving Jewish household in early twentieth-century New York.

Helen Tamiris

Helen Tamiris was a leader in forming American modern dance. An acclaimed choreographer and director, she used dance to comment on the social issues of her day, including racism, poverty, and war.

Sylvia Blagman Syms

Sylvia Blagman Syms was a gifted jazz singer who earned praise from Billie Holliday, Frank Sinatra, and Duke Ellington. In 1949, she was discovered by Mae West, who became a significant teacher and influence on Syms’s intimate storytelling performing style. Sym’s went on to record fifteen major albums and tour the United States and World before dying of a heart attack. 

Barbra Streisand

From her Oscar winning performance in Funny Girl to her Golden Globe-winning direction in Yentl, Barbra Streisand has consistently made history in the entertainment industry. One of the most successful performers of the twentieth century, she also directs and produces movies. She also funds multiple charities through the Streisand Foundation.

Anna Sokolow

Anna Sokolow (1910-2000), an American dancer and choreographer of Russian-Jewish descent, danced with the early Martha Graham Company and created many international dance-theater works of social and political significance.

Joan Micklin Silver

Award-winning director and screenwriter Joan Micklin Silver, born in 1935 in Omaha, Nebraska, wrote and directed the 1975 barrier-breaking independent film Hester Street, which sparked an interest in the lives of immigrant Jews. She also directed Crossing Delancey (1988), five other feature films, and several films for television.

Sylvia Sidney

Feisty and opinionated, Sylvia Sidney was quite the opposite of the waiflike victim of social oppression she played in Hollywood’s Depression Era films. While she disliked playing the victim, her vulnerability and working-class persona resonated with audiences. She earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams, took on a comic role as the caseworker in Beetlejuice, and played a sympathetic grandmother in one of the first TV movies about AIDS, An Early Frost.

Irene Mayer Selznick

Irene Mayer Selznick was a producer and philanthropist in Hollywood and New York. She wrote in her memoir, A Private View (1983), that Act I was spent under the shadow of her father, the film executive Louis B. Mayer; Act II was marriage to David O. Selznick, producer of Gone With the Wind; and Act III consisted of her career as a Broadway producer. She is known for producing Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1947).

Joan Rivers

In revues, nightclub acts, concert halls, and on television, Joan Rivers popularized and perfected a genre of comedy that challenged reigning social conventions. After breaking into Chicago’s comedy scene in 1961 at Second City, Rivers became known for her comedic routines, books, and the talk show for which she won an Emmy for in 1990.

Molly Picon

A lively comic actress, Molly Picon brought Yiddish theater to a wider American audience. She acted in the first Yiddish play ever performed on Broadway and insisted on performing in Yiddish on a 1932 tour of Palestine. Filming on location in Poland, on the eve of World War II, Picon captured a view of shtetl life soon to be erased by the Holocaust.

Adele Gutman Nathan

Adele Gutman Nathan was a prolific writer, theater director, and creator of historical pageants and commemorative events. She wrote fourteen children’s books, in addition to newspaper and magazines articles. Nathan directed theater in Baltimore and New York and staged events from the 1933 and 1939 World’s Fairs to the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Adah Isaacs Menken

In her short but remarkable life, actress Adah Isaacs Menken became legendary for her scandalous defiance of convention. One of the most glamorous celebrities of the 1860s, Menken also cultivated a literary following. She wrote poetry and developed relationships with Walt Whitman and Charles Dickens, among others.

Judith Malina

Judith Malina was an actress, director, and producer who dedicated her life to creating avant-garde, politically charged theater works, and activism. She co-founded the experimental Living Theatre company with her husband; was involved in the antiwar movement, Women Strike for Peace, and the Industrial Workers of the World; and won many honors and awards for her acting and directing work. 

Judy Holliday

A brilliant actress and comedian, Judy Holliday won an Academy Award for her performance as the not-so-dumb blonde in Born Yesterday and performed thousands of times on Broadway. Holliday epitomized the duality of her American-Jewish heritage, as she was a successful performer who was investigated for subversive activities in the McCarthy Era due to antisemitic suspicions. 

Lillian Hellman

Controversial both during and after her life, Lillian Hellman was one of the leading women of letters of mid-century America and a pioneer woman playwright. Hellman displayed courage not only in writing powerful plays like The Children’s Hour but also in her public refusal to name colleagues to the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Melissa Hayden

Melissa Hayden showed unparalleled versatility and range in her ballet dancing during a successful career that spanned decades. Dancing in both the American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet, Hayden thrilled her audiences with consistently excellent performances in a career that spanned four decades.

Elsa Zylberstein

During the last two decades of the twentieth century, French cinema displayed an extraordinary wealth of young Jewish talents, such as Elsa Zylberstein. Zylberstein is an internationally acclaimed French film and stage actress with a strong commitment to humanitarian awareness and advocating for women’s welfare.

Miriam Zohar

Miriam Zohar is known as one of the leading ladies of Israeli theater, performing as a lead at the Habimah theater from 1951 until 1994. After a tumultuous war-torn childhood and immigration journey from Ukraine to Israel, Zohar rose to fame working under director Hy Kalus and won an Israel Prize for her noteworthy performances.

Ruth Ziv-Ayal

Ruth Ziv-Ayal, a director and choreographer, is a pioneer in Israeli experimental movement theater. Her early work was characterized by the use of everyday materials such as household tools, newspapers, and balls, while her later work expanded to use materials such as soil, sand, water, bread, and clothing.

Rina Yerushalmi

Theater director and choreographer Rina Yerushalmi, one of Israel’s leading artists, is the founder and artistic director of the experimental Itim Theater Ensemble. Her unique theatrical language is based on visual images that present the classical texts in a new light, making them acute and relevant. Yerushalmi currently serves as Professor of Theater at Tel Aviv University.

Shelley Winters

Shelley Winters (1920-2006) was a movie, television, and stage actor. She won two Academy awards, an Emmy, and a Lifetime Achievement Award, and published a two-volume autobiography.


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