Yiddish Theater will outlive us all

Faded, but not forgotten: Abraham Goldfaden’s star still shines. Photo by Scott Stiffler

As lecture revisits past, Folksbiene secures the present

BY JERRRY TALLMER  |  One day a thousand years ago (well, sixty years ago), my father figure, the great Charles Abrams, said: “Come with me. We’ll go to the East Side. I’ll show you where all the action was.”

By East Side, Abrams — who lived with his wife and two daughters in a fine old brownstone on West 10th Street — meant what is now called the East Village. In particular, he meant the stretch of Second Avenue from 14th Street down to below Canal Street that had in the 1920s and ‘30s been the stronghold of New York’s Yiddish-language theater. It was a topic about which I knew nothing.

But civil libertarian and urban housing warrior Abrams (1902-1970) — a man who might, standing at his fireplace, chortle Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Tit Willow” in Yiddish — had grown up with the Yiddish theater and its environs.

“This is where you’d go at night after the show,” he said as we downed borscht and baked goods at Rattner’s (where the waiters were famous for abusing their customers) or the Lafayette with its marble-tiled floors, or, above all, at the Cafe Royal (Second Avenue and 12th Street), where in the old days you might expect to catch Fyvush Finkle or Menasha Skulnik or Molly Picon or Maurice Schwartz supping and schmoosing after a show.

All of these people and many others would eventually make the leap to stardom on Broadway thanks to reviewers who’d ventured Downtown, just as would the critics who only a few years later would come down to the Village and discover Off-Broadway.

“Watts Junior [the Post’s Richard Watts, Jr.] made me come Uptown,” Menasha Skulnik said to this journalist during his (Skulnik’s) 1965 stardom in “The Zulu and the Zayda,” four years after he’d arrived on Broadway in his late ‘60s in “The Fifth Season” (a comedy about the Garment District).

It was at 189 Second Avenue, directly across from the Cafe Royal, that Maurice Schwartz had planted his Yiddish Art Theatre — where he duked it out with his great rival twenty blocks south, Boris Thomashefsky, as Shylock and “Der Yiddisher Lear” and a whole array of other Yiddish-ized classics from Shakespeare to Shaw to Wilde and beyond.

I once came across a photograph of Maurice Schwartz. It was the handsomest male face I had ever seen, and for some years it was fastened to one of my walls next to Jeanne Moreau, Billie Holiday, Picasso and Franklin D. Roosevelt. But by then, the Cafe Royal was long gone (as was the Yiddish Art Theatre itself).

In 1988 producer Joseph Papp, who loved, spoke and could charmingly sing in Yiddish, brought forth a show called “Café Crown” — a sort of memorial to that whole past. The Yiddish Art Theater premises at 189 Second Avenue would house through the years such worthy works as Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author” and less worthy ones like Ken Tynan’s “Oh! Calcutta!” Today it is the locale of a multiplex movie house.

When in the early 1960s the New York Post, not knowing what else to do with me, sent me — whose knowledge of Yiddish was limited to “schlep” and “schlemiel” and “mespuche” — to review Yiddish theater, that whole scene was already dying or dead.

Or so I thought, so everyone thought. What shows still existed were limited to kitchen sink dramas or sweet sad little musicals, with the handful of elderly onlookers blurting out the Yiddish equivalents of “Watch out!” or “Oh no!” as each crooked business proposition or unwed pregnancy loomed on the horizon.

But Yiddish theater in New York City was not dead. It has been carried on in recent years by the National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene, on West 29th Street (folksbiene.org) — under the direction of Zalmen Mlotek, a music man and conductor who learned his craft from none other than Leonard Bernstein.

“We are the legacy of that whole [Yiddish theater] culture,” says Bronx-born Zalmen Mlotek. “The last and longest-running professional Yiddish theater company in this country. We’re carrying the torch.”

“Folksbiene means ‘people’s theater,’” Mlotek points out. “That whole culture came into being as counterpoise to the shund” — the junk culture, the trash of the streets, that confronted the waves of immigrants flowing in past the lady with the uplifted torch.

At 12 Eldridge Street, on the Lower East Side, there is a museum — The Museum at Eldridge Street, no less — where once there stood a synagogue that first opened its doors 125 years ago. There, on Thursday, October 27, from 6:30 to 8pm, researcher David Freeland will offer “a virtual tour” — i.e., a talk (admission free) on the territory and goings on from the Cafe Royal. on 12th Street (the “Sardi’s of Second Avenue”), down to the red brick structure on East 7th Street that was once the headquarters of the formidable, all-powerful Hebrew Actors’ Union (HAU).

Those 125 years at 12 Eldridge Street are also being celebrated in a whole series of events staring Sunday, November 13, with a cornerstone laying at 1pm followed by a social from 2-4pm.

Midway between the HAU and the Cafe Royal is the corner of Second Avenue and 10th Street. It is there that for years, the famed Second Avenue Deli nourished a neighborhood (and everyone else) until its founder and owner, Abe Lebewohl, was shot dead as he was carrying the weekly payroll from the bank on March 4, 1996.

He left behind him a lot of broken hearts and, in the sidewalk in front of his joint, some 50 copper plaques — each bearing the name of some immortal of the New York Yiddish theater of the era you’re reading about here.

Those well-worn plaques are pretty hard to read now, and what was once the Second Avenue Deli is now, ironically enough, a Chase bank. But you can still make out some of those names on Abe Lebewohl’s Yiddish Walk of Fame.

Abraham Goldfaden! Ida Kaminska! Lillian Lux! Pesach Burstyn! Mike Burstyn! Paul Muni! Molly Picon! Joseph Buloff! Fyvush Finkel, who, snooted by the HAU in his youth, had to go to Pittsburgh to win his union card. Dear old, wonderful old “Picket  Fences” Fyvush, still alive and working to this day.

Boris Thomashefsky!

Maurice Schwartz!

Jacob Adler!!!

Oh my God, Jacob Adler, monarch of the whole mespuche — who defiantly took his Yiddish-speaking Shylock to Broadway — was brought there by Arthur Hopkins (while everyone else in the company spoke good high-flown Shakespearean English).

Jacob Adler, whose son Luther Adler I saw on stage with my own eyes in “Golden Boy” (by Clifford Odets). Jacob Adler, whose daughter Stella Adler reshaped the whole future of American acting beginning with Marlon Brando.

Luther and Stella Adler, brother and sister, who appeared together in the 1935 Group Theater premiere of “Awake and Sing.” Also by Odets, this theatrical event that changed everything is, when you look at it closely — the daughter getting knocked up, the grandfather falling off the roof — just a kitchen sink drama par excellence (with Marx and Stanislavski thrown in).

Charlie Abrams, I want you to know that the Yiddish theater will outlive all of us.

Meet you at the Royal after the show.