Think of the East Village, and the names Charlie Parker, Allen Ginsburg and even Emma Goldman come to mind. At least to the mind of Philip Hartman, a filmmaker and restaurateur who recently founded the Federation of East Village Artists "to honor the historic role of the East Village as the cradle of the city’s, if not the world’s counterculture," according to the group’s press release.
FEVA is currently organizing a week of festivities in August – titled HOWL! after Ginsburg’s famous poem – to celebrate and preserve the neighborhood’s legacy as a "stomping ground for generation after generation of beatniks, hippies, yippies and punks."
To some, however, the folks at FEVA should rewind even further. Leaving names from the heyday of the Yiddish theater like Maurice Schwartz, Boris Thomashefsky or Jacob Ben-Ami – not to mention the stars Stella Adler, Joseph Buloff and Molly Picon – from a celebration of the area’s creative history is "an outrageous omission," said Caraid O’Brien, an Irish-born actress and Yiddish theater devotee, who attended FEVA’s first planning meeting.
Before the explosion of downtown basement theaters hit the Lower East Side, the Yiddish theaters ruled the neighborhood, O’Brien has noted in an online history of the avenue she compiled for New York University. Houses like the National Theater on the corner of Houston and Second Avenue or the Yiddish Art Theater 12 blocks north could accommodate crowds of 3,000 – and in the first decades of the 20th century, they usually did.
Some of the stars who performed for those throngs are living in New York – although few in the East Village. Two will be honored this month by the Yiddish-speaking community.
On April 8, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the Sholem Aleichem Foundation will honor Lillian Lux, a Brooklyn native whose story of life on the road with her family was the subject of an acclaimed 1999 documentary, "The Komediant." Another Yiddish-stage veteran, Mina Bern, will be honored April 13 at the 70th annual Passover Seder of the Workmen’s Circle. Bern, who toured with her husband Ben Bonus in vaudeville and revues, most recently appeared last winter in the Folksbiene’s Yiddish Theater’s production of "Yentl."
To O’Brien, who has translated several Yiddish plays for English productions, Yiddish theater deserves to be commemorated on the basis of its scope and range alone. "It’s amazing how big it was," she said.
Much of the fare on Second Avenue was crowd-pleasing musicals and melodramas, which provided audiences with a welcome diversion from the hard work and alienation of immigrant life.
Acting in Yiddish repertory demanded versatile performers. "One day you play a 90-year-old woman, the next day, a 14-year-old-girl," said Esta Salzman, a Brooklyn native who started out in children’s roles and continued working in Yiddish theater and film for 83 years. Yiddish theater players were required to do their own hair and make-up, sew or design their own costumes, and sing and dance – regardless of training or lack thereof. "They said ‘Sing!’ We sang. They said ‘Dance!’ We danced."
The popular dramas also provided audiences with a symbolic link to the old country. It’s said that the day after a performance of the Yiddish "King Lear" or "Mirele Efros," with their themes of filial gratitude, banks filled with audience members buying money orders to send home.
But the Yiddish stage also attracted literary audiences, including actors on Broadway, who came to see serious work and dramatic innovation.
"People who were in that Yiddish theater orbit were the people, Stella Adler in particular, who brought over [Stanislavsky’s] method" from Moscow, said Nahma Sandrow, the author of a comprehensive 1977 history of Yiddish theater, "Vagabond Stars." Moreover, Sandrow notes, a number of European classics were produced in Yiddish before they were translated into English.
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Luba Kadison, for example, grew up on the stage with the renowned Vilna Troupe, which her father, Leib Kadison helped found in 1916 to create a literary Yiddish Theater. The troupe became famous for its original production of S. Ansky’s mystery play, "The Dybbuk." Later, Kadison’s husband, Joseph Buloff, made a name for himself with "The Singer of His Sorrow," an expressionistic interpretation of Osip Dimov’s "Yoshke the Musician."
In 1927, Kadison and Buloff came to the United States at the request of the domineering Maurice Schwartz, who himself had set out in 1918 to create a more refined and more intimate Yiddish theater in New York.
Buloff, who died in 1985, had replaced the actor Paul Muni, one of the few big names to emerge form the Yiddish theater to the mainstream. Buloff followed suit, starring on Broadway and in film, including a cameo in Warren Beatty’s "Reds."
Kadison spent years as a dramatic lead, at first opposite Buloff in Europe and South America, and then for seven years with Schwartz’s on Second Avenue. She was also the inspiration for the song "Ich Hob Dich Tzufil Lieb" which became an English-language hit as "I Love You Much Too Much."
The sheet music for that song, written for Kadison by Alexander Olshanetsky and Chaim Tauber, was published by Metro Music, which had its fully stocked company store at 58 Second Avenue. Further up the avenue at 12th Street, theater people gathered at the Royal Cafe for post-performance meals and fateful deals.
Today few physical traces of the old Yiddish presence in and around Second Avenue remain. The Hebrew Actors Union, formed in 1887 as America’s first theatrical union, is still headquartered on East 7th Street. A Hebrew date on the cornerstone of the Cinema Village movie theater hints at its origins as Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theater, as does the building’s Star of David decoration.
Outside the Second Avenue Deli, engraved plaques in the pavement form a miniature walk of stars, among them the husband and wife teams of Molly Picon and Joseph Kalich, Seymour Rexite and Miriam Kressyn, and Lux and her husband, Pesach’ke Burstein, who was famous as a singer and virtuoso whistler.
While FEVA prepares for its "historic event" in August – and a benefit on May 5 with performances by local celebrities like Philip Glass and Patti Smith – artistic director David Leslie said the federation is open eventually to expanding the scope of its East Village timeline. For now, however, the primary focus is the last 50 years, when, coincidentally, the term, "East Village" was first applied to the area east of Bowery and south of 14th Street.
The history "is so expansive, so extensive and so deep and thick – it’s mind-boggling," Leslie said, adding that FEVA planned to create an archive that could include video documentaries and oral histories. "Every time you think you might have a grasp on the parameters, someone says, ‘Consider this and this.’"
For her part, O’Brien is helping some of the leading lights of the Yiddish theater preserve their legacies. In the past few years, she has helped Rexite, who died in October, and Kadison, prepare their personal archives for Harvard University’s Widener Library.
She’s also at work on "The Wonderboy," a musical based on Rexite’s life, as well as "Jake the Mechanic," an updated English-language adaptation of Dovid Pinski’s Yiddish classic "Motke the Thief."