New Museum Exhibit Showcases New York's History of Yiddish Theater

By Philip Trapp on Apr 06, 2016 09:00 PM EDT

A new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York showcases the city's vibrant Yiddish theater community at the turn of the 20th century. The display examines the culture's close-knit entertainment structure and eventual ingression into Broadway.

The Yiddish language -- a product of Germanic, Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic dialects -- was the historical vocabulary of the Ashkenazi Jews. Following the history through the exhibit, 20th-century Jewish immigration then brought a spirited Yiddish arts scene to the neighborhood:

"From the late 19th to the mid-20th century, a thriving Yiddish theater culture blossomed on Manhattan's Lower East Side, entertaining over 1.5 million first- and second-generation Eastern-European Jewish immigrants."

Yiddish theater covered an extensive assortment of theatrical styles, from drama and operetta to musical comedy and modernist. Until the mid-1950s, the LES area boomed with Yiddish theaters dotting Second Avenue, between Houston and 14th Streets. The area was then known as the "Yiddish Theater District" or even the "Jewish Rialto."

In the Wall Street Journal's recent review of the exhibit, writer Diane Cole told of the critics' concurrent fondness for Yiddish theater, praising the museum for its dynamic retelling: 

"Already, in the first decade of the 20th century, esteemed English-language journalists like Lincoln Steffens were extolling the vibrancy of Yiddish performers and productions. The exhibition celebrates and charts this history through brightly colored vintage posters, black-and-white photos, period costumes, sheet music, heroic busts, stylized puppets and continuously playing clips of Yiddish-language films from the silent and sound eras."

Yiddish theater eventually permeated the mainstream consciousness, highlighting influential playwrights like David Pinski, Jacob Gordin and acclaimed actors such as Jacob Adler and Molly Picon. Heavyweights like Herman Yablokoff dominated the particular environment with their ability to act, sing, write and direct.

A meaningful chronicle of Yiddish theater's impact on the arts and its contribution to the historic district, the exhibit is curated by theater professor Edna Nahshon, who also authored a book covering the subject.

New York's Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway is showing now until July 31 at the Museum of the City of New York.

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TagsMuseum of the City of New York, Yiddish Theater, Yiddish