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The Yiddish Broadway and Beyond
Given New York City’s major role in the Yiddish theater, it’s no surprise that The New York Public Library has a wonderful Yiddish theater collection. Here you’ll find posters, playbills, sheet music, published plays, photographs, manuscripts, memoirs, oral histories and recordings that tell the story of Yiddish theater and its legendary stars.
The images here come from our Digital Gallery, which includes dozens of Yiddish theater posters from New York and Buenos Aires , plus historic photographs from the Yiddish Art Theatre and images of personalities such as Jenny Goldstein, Ludwig Satz, Molly Picon, Maurice Schwartz, Bertha Kalich, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, and more.
New York became a center of Yiddish theater beginning in the late 19th century, when a rising population of Eastern European Jewish immigrants provided an enthusiastic audience and talent pool. New and old Yiddish musicals, dramas, comedies, and translations of world literature supplied entertainment, enlightenment, and community.
Manhattan’s Second Avenue was once known as the Yiddish Broadway, or the Yiddish Rialto. Yiddish theater also played throughout the city, including in the Bronx and Brooklyn.
An Oct. 14, 1908 production of Jacob Gordin’s “Mirele Efros” at the New Star Theater at 107th and Lexington starred Madame Keni Liptsin, and featured Bernard Bernstein and poetry readings by Yehoash (Solomon Blumgarten).
Popular Yiddish theaters in Manhattan included the Thalia Theatre, Windsor Theatre, Yiddish Art Theatre, Grand Theatre, National Theatre, People’s Theatre, Second Avenue Theatre and Yiddish Folks Theatre. At various points, many theaters also carried the names of stars such as Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, Molly Picon, Jacob P. Adler, Keni Liptsin, and David Kessler. The Hebrew Actors Union, which preceded Actors Equity, still has its headquarters at 31 E. 7th St.
The Grand Theater was located at Grand and Chrystie on the Lower East Side.
The Grand Theater was located at Grand and Chrystie on the Lower East Side, and was popular in the early 20th century, featuring plays such as “My People's Dream,” featuring Jacob P. Adler singing “Zay nit gefaln, mayn zindele” (words & music by D. Meyerowitz ; arrangement by Joseph Rumshinsky). Jacob Gordin’s “Got, mentsh un tayvl” [God, man, and devil] was also performed at the Grand in a benefit for the East Side Janitors' Society in 1903. For benefit performances, Jewish communal and hometown organizations would buy large numbers of tickets at a substantial discount and sell them to their members in order to raise funds. Benefits were a popular method for attracting audiences, especially during weekdays.
This photograph of the Thalia Theatre at 46-48 Bowery was taken in 1904.
The Thalia Theater, located at 46-48 Bowery, hosted performances including a Yiddish version of Hamlet (displayed here) starring the renowned multilingual actress and singer, Bertha Kalish. Yiddish translations of Shakespeare, and of other classics of world literature, were an important part of the Yiddish theater repertoire.
This undated advertisement features Bertha Kalich in “Hamlet” at the Thalia Theatre.
The Thalia also hosted popular fare known as “shund” (trash) such as “Dos Idishe harts” [The Jewish heart] by Joseph Latayner, starring Clara Young, in 1908. Latayner was one of the most well-known and prolific Yiddish playwrights of his era, creating superficial and often extravagant plays in a matter of days and shamelessly stealing from existing works.
This poster of Madame Clara Young in “The Jewish Heart” is dated December 29, 1908.
One of Latayner’s rivals was “Professor” Moyshe Horowitz, author of elaborate historical dramas like “The Heroes of Santiago; or, Patriotism and Love,” presented at the Thalia Theatre in 1899, with music by the beloved actor, singer and composer Sigmund Mogulesco.
The heroes of Santiago, or, Patriotism and love. Poster from 1899.
The Yiddish Art Theatre represented a departure from the genre of shund. Founded by the great actor Maurice Schwartz in 1918, the theater focused on works from world literature and serious Yiddish drama, and was steadfastly committed to presenting these “better” plays in the Yiddish language. Schwartz built the Yiddish Art Theatre building at 181 Second Avenue (at E. 12th St.) in 1926. The building still stands today and is used as a movie theater.
The Second Avenue Theatre (Yiddish Folks Theatre, Yiddish Art Theatre) at 181 Second Avenue (at E. 12th St.).
Maurice Schwartz (top) and actors of the Yiddish Art Theatre.
In the Bronx, the Tremont Theatre, at 1942 Webster Avenue, operated for a time as a Yiddish theater. Yiddish theater was also performed at the Bronx Art Theatre, also known at times as the Intimate Playhouse, and the Schildkraut Theatre. The famous Vilna Troupe appeared here, and other Yiddish shows took place at the Bronx’s McKinley Square Theatre.
Tremont Theatre, Webster Avenue and 178th Street, Bronx.
Ossip Dymov’s Yiddish play, Bronx Express, was also performed in an English adaptation at the Astor Theatre.
Brooklyn’s Parkway Theater, at times also called the Rolland Theater, was located at St. John’s Place and Eastern Parkway in Brownsville. Today, you can find a church on this corner called the “House of Prayer for All People”, as seen in Google Street View. You can view a historic image of the theater in the Brooklyn Collection of the Brooklyn Public Library. There is a small sampling of Yiddish sheet music , some associated with plays produced in Brooklyn, in the Brooklyn Collection of the Brooklyn Public Library. The Hopkinson Theatre, another popular Yiddish venue, was located at Pitkin Avenue and Hopkinson Avenue (now Thomas Boyland Street) in Brownsville, Brooklyn.
These are just a few of the many Yiddish theaters in New York City. For more images, search NYPL’s Digital Gallery for the word “Yiddish” and explore. You can also find more information about Yiddish collections in the Library’s catalog and on the website of the Dorot Jewish Division.
The Library’s collection is freely accessible to the public for personal and scholarly research. Please contact the Dorot Jewish Division at firstname.lastname@example.org to ask questions and request materials.