Jewish Entertainment through a Sociological Perspective

From the Yiddish Theater to Hollywood

From 1881-1914, over two million Jews fled from Eastern Europe and the Pale of Settlement, escaping the pogroms, antisemitism and oppression that swept through czarist Russia at the time. When they arrived here, they knew there was no turning back. America was their new home and the Jews were determined to make the most of it. By 1910, Russian Jews were New York City’s largest immigrant group.

When they first arrived to the city, many of them settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In fact, by 1915 over half a million Jews were living there. It became the most crowded area of all the five boroughs in New York City, and eventually known as “the center of gravity, the focus of intellectual, cultural and political life of American Jewry well into the twentieth century."

With the luck of a rapidly expanding economy in the manufacturing of garments, 40 percent of Jews arriving in New York City between 1899-1914 worked in the garment industry. These were very low paying jobs with at least a sixty-hour workweek. Others found jobs as merchants, building workers, machine workers, and sales. Whenever they had any time off, many of them would turn to the Yiddish theater for entertainment. It was, by far, the most popular recreational activity for the new immigrants. The Yiddish theater provided an “escape from poverty and drudgery” while at the same time, held a “mirror to their own lives.” Binder and Reimers describe the audience of the Yiddish theater:

"The patrons of those theaters were unrestrained in their response to the action on the stage-- laughing, crying, at times shouting out advice or cheering heroes and hissing villains."

The first Yiddish play in New York was produced in 1882, many more were to follow. These performances were primarily comedies, musicals, and melodramas. Many of them had Biblical and historical themes while others dealt with the immigrant experience. There were several re-occurring characters within these shows which included: clowns (kuni lemels), beggars (shnorrers), pipsqueaks (shmendricks), fools (shlemiels) and many other humorous and exaggerated personalities. Although these performances were popular, many of them were considered to be low-brow, trash, or shund by the Yiddish intellectuals and writers who critiqued them.

Things began to change in 1891 with the arrival of another Russian Jewish immigrant named Jacob Gordin. He was a talented playwright who favored “realism” and thought the old Yiddish theater was vulgar and crude. He was often compared to Ibsen. A man by the name of Jacob P. Adler was also helping to change the face of the Yiddish theater. He was an actor and director who formed the Yiddish Artists Company, and was determined to offer only realistic musicals and drama that gave serious portrayals of life. He too, passionately rejected shund, calling it “crude, unclean, and immoral.” Together, Adler and Gordin would collaborate to create extremely successful theater art which was natural, life-like, and socially aware. Both of them, along with other Yiddish theater artists like: Solomon Libin, Leon Kobrin, David Pinski, H. Leivick, Sholem Asch, Y. L. Peretz, and Peretz Hirschbein, were responsible for helping to shape what became known as the first “golden age” of the Yiddish theater, although it has also been referred to as the “Gordin Era”.

Reoccurring themes and characters continued to develop within the Yiddish theater as it grew and progressed. By 1918, twenty Yiddish theaters were attracting huge audiences. Through the years, millions of Jewish immigrants attended these performances, some of which featured a character commonly used by many writers: The Yiddish mother. She was always from the "old country", motherly, and usually spoke no English. Her role was one of despair. She looked at the ways of her modern-day, English-speaking children, wondering where she had gone wrong. Needless to say, many such mothers attended the plays and wept along with her.

The second “golden age” of the Yiddish theater was international in scope and referred to the continuation and intensifying of the theater-art movement. It started with the playwright Hirschbein, and a theater he founded in 1908 in Odessa. Others who shaped the theater-art movement included the Vilna troupe which was organized in 1915, and the Moscow State Jewish theater, which began in 1919 and ended in 1948. In New York City the movement revolved around the still-active Folksbiene company, which began in 1915, the politically left-wing Artef Theater (1926-1941), and the Yiddish Art Theater (1918-1949), which was founded by the distinguished Yiddish actor Maurice Schwartz (1890-1960).

Maurice Schwartz was considered to be a pioneer in the Yiddish theater. He was a lot like Jacob Gordin in that he was determined to make Yiddish theater better by the use of realism or naturalism. He too, was distressed by the standards of the theater and felt the Yiddish writers should try to write well and be artful rather than just evoke tears and laughter. Eventually he bought the Irving Place Theater to exercise his ideas and attracted many other actors including Celia Adler, Anna Appel, Sonya Nadolsky, Ludwig Satz, Clara Rosenthal, Boris Rosenthal, Max Wilner and many others. These actors were some of the best the Yiddish Theater has ever seen. Although his Yiddish art theater was very popular, people eventually lost interest in it. The company disbanded in 1950, ten years before Schwartz’s death.

The popularity of the Yiddish theater and its eventual decline forces many to ask, “where did this Yiddish theater come from, and why was its popularity exploding in this new world?

Throughout Jewish history there has always been music and performance, however, it wasn’t until 1876 that the Yiddish theater had its formal beginnings. A man by the name of Abraham Goldfadden (the undisputed father of Yiddish theater) began performing songs and sketches in Yiddish. Throughout the wine cellars of Eastern Europe, he traveled with an ensemble troupe of performers called the “Broder Singers”. The language of their performances and all those that followed was Yiddish-- not only because it was the mamalotion (native tongue) of Eastern European Jewry, but also because it is, as Goldfadden put it, the “melody of the Jewish soul.”

With increasing antisemitism, oppression, and persecution of the Jews in Eastern Europe, the Czar banned all performances in Yiddish in 1883. This may have created a void within the Yiddish speaking Jews that needed to be filled once they arrived in the free new world, which would partly explain the Yiddish theater’s seemingly explosive nature.

But where is Yiddish theater today, and what were the reasons for its eventual decline? Many reasons could explain why this has happened. Among them is the fact of Jewish assimilation into American mainstream culture. As the Yiddish theater was growing, so were organizations which were created to help the Jewish immigrants adapt to life in America. One of the most important was the Educational Alliance, which provided job skills and training on how to be a citizen. Many classes were offered in literature, history, philosophy, art, and music. However, English-language classes were some of the most popular among all age groups, and they were offered in both the day and evening.

The Jews were also becoming a more upwardly mobile and acculturated ethnic group. Binders and Reimers suggest that "there is a good deal of truth in Selma Berrol's assertion that 'as a group the eastern European Jews were capitalist to the core, willing to endure self-exploitation and privation to amass the reserve that would enable them to become bosses and landlords themselves.'" Also, because of a very strong emphasis on education within the culture, many Jews became professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and accountants. Thousands found jobs in education. An article in a New York Evening Post in 1903 described the yearning of the Jews for knowledge:

"The Jewish child has more than an eagerness for mental food: it is an intellectual mania. He wants to learn everything in the library and everything the libraries know. He is interested not only in knowledge that will be of practical benefit, but in knowledge for its own sake."

Binder and Reimers agree:

"No immigrant group matched the Jews in enthusiasm for schooling. Jewish children were less likely to fail, less likely to be tardy, and more likely to stay in school longer. Jewish parents valued education for more than its cultural contributions. They knew that schooling could lead to jobs."

With the new jobs, came more money thereby allowing the Jews to move out of the Lower East Side and into nicer, less-cramped areas. Second-generation Jews who were exposed primarily to English were not as interested in the Yiddish theater. Nazi Germany, with the murder of 6 million Jews, many of them Yiddish-speaking, also helped to inhibit the growth of the Yiddish theater. Finally, many Eastern-European Jews in New York and other northeastern cities decided to move out west to form another new type of entertainment in a town called Hollywood. They were escaping the monopoly that Thomas Edison had on motion picture production in the northeast at the time. Some claim they were seeking a looser social structure---a place where a Jew could make it.

Among these Jews who moved out west were the founders and builders of major motion picture studios: Carl Laemmle (Universal Pictures), Adolph Zukor (Paramount Studios), William Fox (Fox Film Corporation), Louis B. Mayer (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) and Harry, Sam, Albert, and Jack Warner (Warner Bros.).

Eventually Hollywood movies became the American mainstream art form. Ironically, the founders of this new medium were mostly Jewish and came from practically the same place: the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe. Many of them were second generation Jews who watched their parents struggle and who had to begin working at early ages to help their families put food on the table. This hard work was the beginning of their dreams. They were determined to “make it” in this new country. However, according to the author and historian, Professor Thomas Cripps:

"Any business or profession that was thought to be honorable was, in some way or another, excluded to Jews, so they went into businesses which were outside this system of dominance."

Therefore, many of them started in businesses which allowed risk-taking and innovation, such as sales. When it came time for them to explore the new business of motion pictures, they looked upon it with the perspective of how to distribute a product.

Together these Jews and others created what we now call the “studio system”-- a system in which hundreds of films were created each year. Every major film that was ever produced within this system was under their direct control and ownership. These films contained the images and sounds of a unique, optimistic, and patriotic vision. The visions were so realistic that they created a new reality within American culture. According to the A&E special, Hollywoodism, Jews, Movies, and the American Dream, “the Jewish determination to survive was repackaged as the will of all common people to go on.”

Moviegoing in America became the most popular form of entertainment. Hollywoodism explains:

"In the 1920’s and 1930’s movie houses became temples of the new Hollywood religion-- Jewish values made kitsch. 75% of all Americans went to the movies at least once a week. This kind of moviegoing was religious because it had to do with worship-- with the screen being larger than you were, and you being in awe of what you were looking at and feeling a certain reverence for it."

The themes in these movies can be looked upon with a Jewish perspective, however very few of them are overtly Jewish. Many films depict outsiders trying to make it, or trying to fit into an insider’s world. Films like Frankenstein (made under Laemmle’s, Universal) championed an outsider who was persecuted much like the Jews of Europe. Several of the films to come out of Columbia Studios made the common man the hero, while Zukor’s Paramount Studios brought its audience into a world of luxury. However, no studio out-did Mayer’s MGM when it came to expressing the grace and sophistication of the upper classes to the masses.

Although the Jewish movie moguls had Jewish concerns, many of them were not overtly Jewish. Before W.W.II many of them became aware of the Nazi atrocities occurring in Germany, and some even spoke out publicly of them. In fact, Carl Laemmle and Harry Warner were both actively involved in sponsoring Jewish refugees from Europe. However, in the late 1930’s former US Ambassador to Britain Joseph P. Kennedy flew to Hollywood to warn the Jewish movie moguls to not speak out, or they could be blamed if the US was to be dragged into the war. This kept them quiet. Prior to W.W.II, only two Hollywood films were released about Nazi Germany. One (The Great Dictator) was made by Charlie Chaplin who was neither American, nor Jewish. The other was a Warner Bros. picture made after their Jewish representative in Germany was beaten to death. It was called, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, and ironically makes no reference to Jews or anti-Semitism. Once the war had begun, Washington instructed the Jewish Hollywood movie moguls to make pro-American war movies.

Many films borrowed heavily from the Broadway (mainstream) and Yiddish stage. Although several of the writers for Broadway were also Jewish, ironically many of the themes of these shows were not. However, they did express Jewish concerns. For example, My Fair Lady, once again, is another film about an outsider trying to fit in. Broadway musicals were often interpreted and adapted for the big screen. The motion picture industry also attracted many Jewish actors from the Vaudeville circuit such as George Burns, Al Jolson, the Marx Brothers, and Eddie Cantor.

Although it seemed as if Yiddish theater was swallowed up by Hollywood, there were and still are some Yiddish theater productions getting made. Also, several Yiddish films were produced. In fact, there were over fifty made before W.W.II. These films expressed “the flip-side of the Hollywood movies, and parodied Hollywood’s optimism.” Ultimately, it seemed they were “trying to protect certain forms of Jewish cultural expression against the overwhelming seductive power of the larger American culture.”

Today there are all types of Jewish entertainment artists “making it” within America mainstream culture. The hit comedy sitcom, Seinfeld, is said to have been based on the old stock characters of the Yiddish theater. Woody Allen has been called the “Menasha Skulnik” of his time. However, Woody Allen is actually a writer and director who often investigates Jewish vs. Gentile stereotypes and themes in his work. In his film Annie Hall, his character, Alvy, is appalled when Annie (who is not Jewish) orders a pastrami sandwich, on white bread, with mayonnaise:

This is something a Jew would never do. However, certain aspects of his work might only be geared to a Jewish audience because they are the only ones who would get it. (In a recent survey of my family, which is all Jewish, they unanimously stated they prefer their pastrami on rye, with mustard).

In another scene from the same movie, Alvy travels with Annie to visit her family for Easter. The entire scene is brilliant portrayal of the inherent issues in interfaith relationships. As, they are eating ham, Annie’s grandmother, whom Alvy describes as a “classic Jew-hater” keeps giving him dirty looks. In a quick cut, we see Alvy dressed as a Hasidic Jew. This is how he thinks she perceives him. It is the classic Jewish uneasiness of not fitting into the dominant culture. Then the screen slices in half and we see a classic comparison of Allesn't perception of the difference between a Jewish and non-Jewish family. It may not be 100% accurate for everyone---but it does highlight some differences:

Is that uneasiness of not fitting in the cause of assimilation into mainstream American culture? Yet with names such as Spielberg, Sacha Baron Cohen, Larry David, Sarah Silverman, Adam Sandler (the list could go on forever) we see how Jews and Jewish humor continue to be a light unto the nations through entertainment. We can only pray that there will eventually be a bit of reversal and Jews will collectively embrace all that we are and what it is we are actually supposed to be fulfilling and lose all fears and uneasiness of trying to "fit in."

From the humble beginnings of Yiddish theater in Eastern Europe, to the sophisticated humor and characters of Seinfeld and Woody Allen films, Jewish entertainment has always served as an escape from reality. At first Jewish entertainment was primarily geared toward Jews. Nowadays it is becoming more mainstream with themes that are not overtly Jewish, but nonetheless, are Jewish-- just beneath the surface.

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