As far North as East 14th Street, South as Houston, East as Avenue B and West as Second Avenue- this made up the general map of what was known as the Yiddish Theater District, or the “Jewish Rialto”.
Yiddish theater arose in this area is the 1880s and it was considered the center for Yiddish theater near the turn of the century. At that time, the Lower East Side saw a huge wave of new immigrants who were striving for success in America while still attempting to maintain their cultural roots. Yiddish theater in New York City was used for both entertainment and education and the area saw various kinds of plays–dramatic Shakespeare inspire work, comical shpiels, political puppet theater and everything in between.
Many immigrants came to America to escape the persecution they faced in their mother countries. This included a large number of Jewish immigrants, primarily from Eastern Europe. Many immigrants came to America hoping to achieve financial success and prosperity, this was considered by many to be the “American dream.”
Theaters became cultural community centers where many Jews gathered together, much like the the synagogues were for their fathers in Eastern Europe. People ate, drank, joked around and even nursed their babies in the theater–no formal rules existed.
The role that the Yiddish theater played in these immigrant communities, was that it allowed these individuals to both portray the ritual and traditions they were used to in their old country, but also how allowed them to show how those traditions often came into conflict with their new modern ways of living in America. It was a chance to honor their old culture and embrace a new one at the same time, and show how difficult the two were to accomplish together. Immigrant theater-makers were able to express themselves by portraying their own personal stories of immigration through theater.
This page will explore several locations which played an integral part in the history of Yiddish Theater and which were located in the rialto:
The Grand Theater (Chrystie Street and 255 Grand Street) which was built in 1902 (and opened in February of 1903) by Harry Finschel. It was founded by Sophia Karp, who was considered to be the very first Yiddish theater actress. She founded the theater along side Finschel and playwright Joseph Lateiner. It was New York cities first theater that was dedicated to the sole purpose of holding Yiddish theater performances. Many of the previous Yiddish theaters found in the rialto shared their space with other immigrant groups, such as italian, Irish, and German immigrant communities. Immigrant groups would work together on a rotation to share the theater space, often switching off seasons.
Below is an image of the Grand Theater in 1902:
There was a lot of “switching-of-hands” in the Yiddish theater community, because it was often hard for owners to keep their theater business profitable. The yiddish theater was actually a very competitive place in its prime. Eventually the Grand Theater was taken over by Jacob P. Adler, a Russian born Jewish actor and Yiddish theater star. His daughter Stella Adler, still well known today, taught method acting to Hollywood stars like Marlon Brando. Adler’s ownership marked a transition at the Grand Theater, from the common yiddish theater inspired by the original Purim Shpiel, to a more sophisticated type of theater inspired by Shakespeare. Adler himself was best known for his roles in the yiddish “King Lear” , and for his role as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice.” These were considered to be more serious and dramatic parts than Yiddish theater was used to as the time, and it therefore appealed to a more intellectual audience, or so was Adler’s hope.
In addition to plays, many benefits (such as one for the East Side Janitors Society) were held at the Grand Theater as a way to raise more money and publicity for the theater itself.
There is a rumored story that Karp and Adler had a feud over who really had rights and ownership over the theater. Adler had the money, but Karp had a strong attachment to the space, being one of the founders. It is rumored that she tried to obtain the building legally by squatting on the premises for several nights. During that time she worked, ate and slept on the Grand Theater stage. But, because the building had no heat she died of Pneumonia. The story may not but true, but it still goes to show how important the theater was to her, and many of the Yiddish theater players, and how much she would be willing to sacrifice for it.
The Hebrew Actor’s Union
The Hebrew Actor’s Union (31 East 7th Street, East 7th Street, New York) was the first theatrical union in the United States. It was formed in 1899 and founded by Joseph Barondess. The above plaque can still be found at that location today. It was made specifically for Jewish and Yiddish actors and actresses. Barondess formed the union because he wanted to help actors and actress receive the wages they often had to fight for. The union would make sure that actors got paid, and it would bail out actors who found themselves without money while on tour. The Hebrew Actor’s Union helped many struggling actors who, like Karp, were sacrificing for the sake of their art.
Actors became part of the Union by auditioning in front of their fellow actors. They needed to provide one song and one dramatic monologue. It was, however, extremely difficult to gain membership because the members who voted of their acceptance knew that this meant they would have more actors to compete against for jobs. In 1929 the New York Times reported that the union had over 300 members. The union saw its decline with the arrival of the Great Depression, and the Americanization and acculturation of the American Jewish population. American Jewish audiences wanted to associate themselves with the American theater and not the Jewish American theater. Many theater closed down for these reasons.
The Thalia Theater
The Thalia Theater (in 1879) later the Bowery Theater (46 Bowery, New York, NY 10013, Bowery, New York) was an extremely popular theater in the lower east side that housed various cultural performances, but in 1891 Yiddish theater became” the predominate attraction.” It was here that Boris Thomashefsky, one of the biggest stars in Yiddish Theater, got his start.
The Modicut Theater
The Modicut Theater (East 12th Street, New York) was a puppet theater in the 1920s, for children and adult audiences alike, which was used to both for the purposes of entertainment and education. There was a trend in Yiddish theater of it being somewhat comical and silly, as its origins were in the Purim shpiel. The Modicot theater, is a great example of a combination of the silly and the sophisticated. The marionettes used were an aesthetic associated with children’s theater, however, the performances often dealt with serious political and cultural themes. You can find a more in depth look at this location on its own page!
The Yiddish Walk of Fame
The Yiddish Walk of Fame is a historical landmark still visible at 10th street between First and Second Avenue. It is currently right outside of a Chase Bank, but used to be outside of the Second Avenue Deli. The Yiddish Walk of Fame pays homage to Yiddish actors, actresses who played important roles in Jewish theater, many of whom became stars in Broadway and Hollywood. The Lebewohl family founded the landmark because of their love and appreciation for theater. Fyvush Finkel, Bruce Adler and Molly Picon all have brass stars in their names. Many of the stars on this strip went on to perform on Broadway and in Hollywood. They were able to transform there success in Jewish theater into success in American theater.
Sandrow, Nahma. A World History of Yiddish Theater: Vagabond Stars. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. Print.
(A lot of this information came from our class discussions and especially our class walking tour.)