Old Days of the Radical Jews: How American Yiddish Theater Survived Through Satire

Reviewed: Joel Schechter, Messiahs of 1933: How American Yiddish Theatre Survived Adversity through Satire. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008. 238pp, $28

The world of Yiddish theater in its glory days on Second Avenue in Manhattan of the 1910s-1940s seems like one more leftwing Jewish tale of another faraway universe. However, the productions have not ceased entirely and various forms of translations bring the theater to new audiences. What we’ve lost more than anything is the vernacular qualities, the ways in which this theater drew upon various forms of entertainment and edification from the shtetl to the immigrant ghetto, and how fully it engaged an excited and sometimes infuriated Jewish public.

It’s therefore no wonder, in the raucous early days, that realist and anti-realist crowds reputedly fell into fistfights after the evenings’ shows were done. And it’s no wonder actors made better pay than on Broadway: in this world, unions were a force to reckon with and the audience not only knew but demanded unionization of their thespian heroes.

Theater criticism, for its part, was in these days arguably better and more intense in the Yiddish world than in any other. Sometimes the commentaries got into published volumes as collections of essays, providing yet more opportunities for arguments among readers. But all of this was, of course, in Yiddish. Not one-thousandth has been translated or is likely ever to be translated, meaning more irrevocable losses.

But here comes theater scholar and teacher Joel Schechter with his book Messiahs of 1933: How American Yiddish Theatre Survived Adversity through Satire. His earlier published work has been largely about clowns from the Bay Area to old Moscow. He has a wonderfully intuitive feeling for the material that only someone who has directed Yiddish plays (albeit in English) is likely to possess.

For a little background to the main action we must remember that the 1920s saw the Yiddish Renaissance in the US. There was a lot more money floating around than in earlier, hungrier decades, along with more secularism and more sophistication among American Jews. But there remained a deep feeling for distinctiveness, prompted in part by the hostile political climate in which, at the time, several US states were run by the Ku Klux Klan and an immigration restriction was in place that doomed the trapped European Jews. On the other hand, there also existed a sense of collective self-development within the American Jewish community. Not only theater flourished, Yiddish choruses boomed with fervent voices and roaring audiences, neighborhood clubhouses appeared in a dozen cities with socialistic secular schools on the premises. Summer resorts for all ages opened with their own forms of entertainment, often including social satire. All this, along with real suffering – the garment industry, home to radicalism, was a sick work environment with wage cuts and layoffs – made for explosive cultural times. Never did so many leftwing Yiddish poets, short story writers and playwrights write so much and so well or for such a global audience. Never did hopes and disappointments in Russia seem so great – until they got greater in the 1930s and beyond.

In Messiahs of 1933, Schechter places us in the depth of the Depression, when Marxist predictions about capitalist downfall seemed more than vindicated, but predictions of working class uprising were sorely off the mark. It was a grand moment of irony, indeed. In these years, the very early 1930s, a half-million or so Jews of greater New York supported fourteen Yiddish theaters and ten newspapers – not all serious or political at all – but all of them capable of the grand moments that a considerable part of this audience demanded.

According to the main lines of liberal and conservative criticism in later decades, the left-wingers at the center of these cultural activities were a mass of sourpuss characters who devoted themselves to Josef Stalin and the Communist corruption of Jewishness. It’s strange how little this Cold War set of images corresponds to the mordant, laughing, ironic and combative scenes and characters that Schechter offers us. Here, as he lovingly explains, the real proletarian actors, directors and writers (they couldn’t afford to be anything else) and audiences consoled themselves with anti-capitalist laughter and pathos, spawning a creativity that could still do us a lot of good today.

Of special interest to Schechter is the "bad boy of the ghetto," Moshe Nadir (a nom de plume meaning roughly, "Take this, mister!"). A notorious cynic turned revolutionary, Nadir’s plays reached audiences of the ARTEF (Jewish art theater), where actors were likely to be garment workers out of jobs, tickets only cost 35 cents (in the high priced district of Second Avenue, it was closer to $2), and commitment to the audience was so deep that a play would be withdrawn amid huge success because the ARTEF could only put on so many plays per year and did not want to deprive its viewers of variety.

Schechter highlights one particular play, "Rivington Street," an adaptation of a book-length poem by Nadir that can be rightly described as an apotheosis of the famous avenue of New York Jewish life from the early 1890s onward. What Nadir sought to do was to depict the drama of Jewish proletarians and sub-proletarians at large within this historical frame, from the gangsters to the garment workers, street peddlers, ancient-looking Jews who never assimilated to the excitements of those who assimilated rapidly, and the young ones eagerly watching the first movies, projected onto sheets thrown over clotheslines.

Schechter turns to Russian plays performed (in Yiddish) during New York in the short-lived glory of Soviet sponsorship of Yiddish, and quickly goes on to the plays sponsored by the New Deal administration’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). The Russian contemporaries were working with theatrical principles (especially of the "Method" actor who "feels" the part rather than acting like a marionette), experimenting with the avant-garde; the New Deal Yiddish theater tended toward the didactic and straightforward, searching for a maximum audience. These were all, however, part of the same global Yiddish world. Actors, directors and set designers traded ideas, seeking to revolutionize theatrical techniques and, of course (but carefully not saying so with New Deal-sponsored projects) the audience as well. Moshe Nadir supplied a hilarious satirical of American justice (actually injustice) in a mixture of English and Yiddish titled "Prisoner 1936."

Three years later, as a New Deal Translation Department was planning Yiddish plays in English for younger Jewish (and non-Jewish) audiences, Congress ended the funding of WPA and this real-life experiment in American democracy came to a crashing halt. So much more happened in this short space of time that no review can do justice to Schechter’s analysis of the plays and their meaning, but suffice it to say, a close reading of his book will prove delightful.

Before the end came, the comedy and musical revue (in the best clubs, with stand-up Jewish comics warming up the audience for a multi-racial performance) had begun to emerge. When Yiddish theater faded, the Borsht Belt of summer entertainment stole many of its talented performers. A great deal had been lost already simply because some quality in language does not really translate and because the "Yiddishland" of radical, secular Jewish culture would collapse under the combined assault of McCarthyism, political disillusionment with Russia, upward mobility and the well-fed consumer society of the 1950s.

And yet, centuries of Jewish entertainments interwoven with the plight of the poor and with the wretched condition of the soul in a corrupt and corrupting society could not be wholly destroyed. Lenny Bruce and hundreds of others (many of the non-Jews who picked up on the political ambience) to the present day, the Simpson’s Krusty the Clown to Saturday Night Live’s satires of Bush, McCain and, naturally, Sarah Palin – all this is part of a chain of theatrical vitality.