May 2023

Remembering the Golden Age of Yiddish Theater

The Price Library of Judaica celebrates Jewish American Heritage Month by looking at a slice of American Yiddish theater through its copy of Tealit: Hoydesh Schrift far Teater und Literatur (Tealit: A Monthly Magazine for Theater and Literature). This now rare Yiddish periodical was published in New York and ran for five issues between 1923-1924. All five issues have been digitized and can be read online in HathiTrust.

Between 1881 and 1925, around 3.5 million Jewish immigrants arrived in America escaping persecution and economic hardship in Eastern Europe. The Yiddish Theater quickly became an important cultural institution in Jewish American life. It provided a lively meeting place and diversion from the everyday worries of adapting to a new country. Yet, at the same time, the content of the Yiddish musicals and plays often harked back to the Old Country and recalled life in the shtetl.

“Here the Yiddish actor had no fear of having his passport revised at a moment’s notice or suddenly requested by the authorities to leave the country. Here, undisturbed, he was able to give free vent to all his dramatic expression; to sing and perpetrate the folk songs created in the Diaspora; to live out a peaceful existence in the drama of life. Immigrants came to the United States in a steady flow; the gates of our country were not yet closed; humanity flocked in the golden land of freedom and opportunity. It was during that epoch that the Yiddish Art Theatre was founded …”

Maurice Schwartz, Two Decades of the Yiddish Art, 1938

Productions in the early years of the American Yiddish Theater focused on appealing to the masses; however, after the Yiddish actor Maurice Schwartz established the Yiddish Art Theater in 1918, it developed into a more serious and refined art form.

Cover of Tealit, February 1924, featuring a drawing of the character Lilith by the famous Russian Jewish artist, Issachar Ber Ryback

The Tealit journal founded five years later reflected that turn to art, and included essays on a variety of literary and theatrical themes. Illustrations were few and mostly featured sketches of characters and costume designs.

B. Aronson costume designs in Tealit. Boris Aronson was an American scenic designer for Yiddish theater and Broadway

Among the great actors and writers of the Yiddish stage was the Russian-born Abraham Goldfaden, who was known as “the Yiddish Shakespeare,” Maurice Schwartz, who in addition to founding the Yiddish Art Theater, became famous for playing Sholom Aleichem’s “Tevye the Dairyman,” and Molly Picon, a great comic actress who brought Yiddish theater to wider audiences. Many actors who grew up on the Yiddish stage migrated to Broadway and even major Broadway composers like Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin drew inspiration from attending Yiddish productions.

Sketches in Tealit for the main players in two popular Yiddish plays: Yehudith and Uriel Acosta

The front and back covers of Tealit contained advertisements for local business and upcoming events in Yiddish and occasionally English.

Tealit advertisement for a concert at Carnegie Hall with Bronislaw Huberman, the great Jewish-Polish violinist. Today Huberman is known as the Oskar Schindler of Musicians for his role in rescuing almost a thousand musicians during the Holocaust

To read more about the rich and fascinating history of Yiddish Theater see the collaborative Digital Yiddish Theater Project which features primary sources, essays, research guides and much more.