The Dorot Jewish Division's Yiddish Theater Collection contains the materials assembled by many of the founders of the art form, from the notoriously flamboyant matinee idol and impresario Boris Thomashefsky to the comparatively sublime Bertha Kalich and the impossibly dignified Morris Morrison, as well as their young Harvard-educated aficionado, the bibliographer Edward Coleman. It is the principal repository for the unpublished manuscripts of these early Yiddish plays, for whose contents there is generally no other surviving evidence. The Library is home as well to an unparalleled array of publicity materials, often verbose and unfailingly hyperbolic, proclaiming the early productions of the New York Yiddish stage, as well as a representative sample of the more restrained announcements that heralded Yiddish theater productions in Buenos Aires in its belated years of glory during the 1930s and 1940s. Many of the New York placards were collected and presented to the Library by Yiddish magazine publisher Chonon Yankov Minikes, whose 1897 anthology Di Idishe Bihne [The Jewish Stage] was the first book published in America to explore and celebrate the Yiddish theater.
"a stage that is never empty of tears - at least one good death rattle is
heard every night"
- Henry Roth, Call It Sleep (c1934)
Both of the major movements in modern Jewish culture, the Hebrew and Yiddish language revivals, began to build serious momentum in the middle of the 19th century in Russia. The accelerating decline of the Russian Empire, however, soon made eastern Europe increasingly inhospitable to such creativity. From the end of the 19th century, therefore, and into the 1920s (which saw the full-fledged resurrection of Hebrew in British-Mandate Palestine as well as a short-lived Yiddish renaissance in Europe), the center of both movements, Hebraism and Yiddishism, was New York-and the center of the center, it is no exaggeration to say, was the Jewish Division of The New York Public Library.
The most conspicuous artistic manifestation of the Yiddish language revival was the sudden emergence and rapid triumph of Yiddish theater. Inspired by the popularity throughout central and eastern Europe of German-language companies, and their repertoires both classical and trashy, and by the elements of a Jewish theatrical tradition comprised of the ambitious Hebrew dramas of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque and the more improvised Purim plays of Ashkenaz, Yiddish theater's official birth took place in a tavern in Jassy, Romania, in October, 1876, with paternity credited to Abraham Goldfaden. Less than six years later, in the summer of 1882, the first Yiddish production in the United States was presented on the initiative of the fourteen (or, at most, sixteen)-year-old Boris Thomashefsky. The event took place at the German-American cultural and recreational center, Turn Hall, on East Fourth Street between the Bowery and Second Avenue. It was in New York that Yiddish theater blossomed, reaching the height of its appeal and influence during the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, when Jewish immigration was at its peak. Major venues during those years included the Roumania Opera House, on the Bowery near Grand Street, and Adler's Grand Theatre, one block east at the corner of Grand Street and Chrystie, but the scene was dominated by the Thalia and Windsor theaters, which faced off on opposite sides of the Bowery near Canal Street. The fare was made up of European classics (especially Shakespeare, often transposed to a Jewish key) as well as an array of new works, both original and adapted, including melodramas, farces, operettas, and reenactments of historical and current events.
With immigration drastically curtailed and assimilation all the rage, New York Yiddish theater between the wars lacked the authenticity of its glory days before World War I. From the vulgarity of the commercial nostalgia-peddlers to the high-minded kitsch of the modernists, it was at best a silver age. In Buenos Aires, by contrast, the story was quite the reverse. Yiddish theaters had existed there since the beginning of the 20th century, but, controlled by mobsters and patronized by the city's rollicking Jewish underworld, they had taken on something of the character of the burlesque house and, accordingly, were given a wide berth by members of the official, respectable, larger Jewish community. It was not until the end of the 1920s that the genteel element, with its aspirations toward community and cultural advancement, prevailed. With encouragement from such figures on the New York scene as Thomashefsky, who would visit for the winter while their own companies were closed for the summer, a modest golden age ensued, through the 1930s and into the 1940s, that made Buenos Aires the second city of the world history of Yiddish theater.