Great Songs of the American Yiddish Stage
Yiddish Theater, Vaudeville, Radio, and Film
Description: Musical treasures from one of the most celebrated periods and genres of American Jewish music.
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OVERVIEW|VOLUME 13 explores one of the most celebrated periods and genres of American Jewish music: the “heyday” of American Yiddish theater—including Yiddish Musical Theater, Yiddish Vaudeville, and Yiddish Film and Yiddish Radio—and the songwriters, lyricists, composers, and singers who made it what it was. These various Yiddish stage entertainment vehicles (also known as Second Avenue, after the Lower Manhattan street near which most of the theaters existed) flourished for more than six decades among large segments of eastern European immigrant populations and their American-born children, articulating the struggles and triumphs of an immigrant generation trying to find its place in the American “melting pot.”
The first known staged Yiddish theater production in America dates to 1882 when soon-to-be-impresario Boris Thomashevsky (1868–1939), with the aid of a benefactor, produced Abraham Goldfaden’s Di kishefmakhern, oder di tsoybern (The Sorceress, or the Witch) at Turn Verein Hall in New York City. Thomashefsky went on to found Second Avenue as a patently American Jewish stage genre, and a virtual way of life for its insider professional contributors as well as its devoted followers. Prominently featured in Volume 13 are what have become known as Second Avenue’s "big four" composers, Abraham Ellstein, Alexander Olshanetsky, Sholom Secunda, and Joseph Rumshinsky, though many lesser-known composers are also included.
Complementing the array of sound recordings is a vast collection of photographic and video documentary material from our archives. The Videos section contains multiple live performance and recording session excerpts, as well as selections from our oral history project featuring some of the heyday's biggest stars. Their recollections take us beyond the music, providing a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what it took to get these productions to the stage, and what happened after the curtain closed. Over time, the Milken Archive's collection of new recordings will be augmented by historical recordings made during the heyday.
Second Avenue reached its apogee between the late 1920s and the mid-1940s—oddly enough, enjoying prosperity during the severely strapped days of the Great Depression and the anxious years of the Second World War. By the dawn of the 1950s Yiddish theater was already on the wane, but there were still one or two generations old enough to be able to identify with its past and with the situations and characters recalled by its plots. Yiddish theater thus limped on for a while. Some Second Avenue–type Yiddish productions toured as late as the 1960s, albeit to cities where they played to elderly and rapidly graying audiences. Sholom Secunda’s final Yiddish musical, Shver tsu zayn a yid (It’s Hard to Be a Jew) was produced as late as 1973. But while nostalgia for the Old World had been an important part of Yiddish theater’s attraction during its heyday, the audience nostalgia now was for Second Avenue itself.
Those who wish to declare the American Yiddish theater dead, however, should heed the words of one of its heyday’s veteran performers, Mina Bern (1911–2010):
A reborn interest in Yiddish language and culture toward the end of the 20th century, as well as a preoccupation with rediscovering and revisiting roots and heritage, continues to provide enthusiastic audiences for several Yiddish-oriented musical revues in New York, such as those produced by the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre.
Discovering and reconstructing the musical and dramatic contexts of the works presented here was an arduous and uncertain process. Undated scripts, typed in Hebrew characters or even handwritten, contain undecipherable margin notes and cryptic instructions. Few complete or authoritative orchestrations of these songs—or the shows from which they were extracted—have survived. In many cases, they were never made in the first place. Conductors often worked from sketches rather than complete scores, and both musicians and stage performers relied significantly on improvisation.
The American Yiddish musical theater was a powerful product of the turn-of-the-century immigrant experience. Its songs captured the aura of an era, embodying—often simultaneously—the joy, sorrow, humor, and tragedy of a generation caught between two worlds.
Read the full Introduction to Volume 13