(1868 - 1939)
In 1881, 12 year old Boris Thomashefsky arrived in New York City from
Tarasche, a shtetl near Kiev, Ukraine. Possessed of a beautiful voice, on
Saturdays young Boris earned money by singing at the Henry Street Synagogue on
the Lower East Side. During the week, he worked as a cigarette maker in a
sweatshop, where he heard his fellow workers sing songs from the Yiddish
theater they had enjoyed in the old country. Although Boris had never
attended, he fell in love with the concept of Yiddish theater, and wanted to
bring it to America.
One of Thomashefsky's coworkers, a Romanian named Golubok, had two
theatrical brothers in Europe who desired passage to America. Thomashefsky
persuaded Frank Wolf, who owned a tavern at the corner of Hester and Essex
Streets, to invest in the fare to bring them to New York. The brothers arrived
from London with four other actors in tow. Wolf rented a hall on Fourth Street
in Manhattan and announced the performance of a play, playwright Avrom
Goldfadns Koldunye, or the Witch.
According to Thomashefskys grandson, musical conductor Michael Tilson
Thomas, the performance was a popular success, but only after overcoming
obstacles. As Thomas puts it, "Many in the established [German-]Jewish
community did not want the play performed, believing Yiddish theater wasnt
dignified." According to Thomas, these "uptown" Jews tried to
buy unsold tickets and bribe those who already held tickets not to attend by
offering them beer in exchange. They even bribed the Romanian female lead into
developing a sore throat at the last minute. The ploy backfired. "Boris
– padded in all the right places by his father Pinchas – went on in her
place and gave the first performance of Yiddish theater in America."
Thomashefskys career was launched.
Still only 13 but with success under his belt, Thomashefsky persuaded Wolf
to let him serve as producer and director of the company, which traveled the
United States presenting a wide repertoire of Yiddish plays, finding an
enthusiastic audience of working-class Jewish immigrants wherever it
performed. Thomashefsky favored works by Goldfadn such as Shmendrick and the
Fanatic, or the Two Kuni-Lemls (Fools), which introduced a character, "Shmendrick,"
whose name has entered the American lexicon as a synonym for bumbler.
In 1887, Thomashefskys company played Baltimore, where 14-year-old
Bessie Baumfeld-Kaufman was given a ticket to a performance. Young Bessie was
enchanted by the female stars performance. "Her hair was piled high
with ringlets," Bessie recalled, "and she had all this sparkling
jewelry … She was the center of attention and flirting and all the men were
watching her." Bessie made her way backstage to meet this sheyne
meydele, who turned out not to be a meydele at all but Boris Thomashefsky.
Not long after, Bessie ran away from home to join the company and, in 1891,
married Boris. Bessie took over the female roles Boris had been playing. She
claimed to have learned everything she knew about coquettishness from watching
Between 1890 and 1940, as many
as a dozen Yiddish theater companies performed on the Lower East Side,
the Bronx and Brooklyn. Another 200 or so traveled to other cities and
towns. By presenting plays on themes such as generational conflict between
Old Country immigrants and their American-born children, or the tensions
between Chasidic and "enlightened" Jews in Europe and America,
the theater helped Yiddish speaking immigrants place the contradictions
in their own lives in perspective. By adapting works like Shakespeares King Lear or Henrik Ibsens Hedda Gabler to
give them haimische endings, the theater helped working class
Jews partake of "high" culture while preserving traditional
Jewish values. As historian Andrea most observed, although melodrama
was the preferred form of Yiddish theater, audiences respectfully attended
these "cultural" plays "as long as their favorite actor
was starring in the title role and a few song and dance numbers were
interspersed with the more serious plot."
While the Thomashefskys were not the only important Yiddish theater
impresarios, they were the most celebrated. They brought a wide variety of
productions to the stage: Jewish versions of Uncle Toms Cabin, Goethes Faust and even Wagners Parsifal (this was a time before the
rise of Nazism). Boris starred in an adaptation of Shakespeares Hamlet called Der Yeshiva Bokher [The Yeshiva Student], in which a wicked
uncle smears rabbinic candidates reputation by calling him a nihilist and
the young man dies of a broken heart. Bessie Thomashefsky was wildly
successful as the star of Oscar Wildes Salome.
Yiddish theater helped bridge the shtetl and America. In one notable play, Chantzhe [Hannah] in Amerika, Bessie Thomashefsky played the
independent-minded Hannah, an assimilating immigrant woman who wanted nothing
more than to be a chauffer. Although this seemed a strange aspiration for a
Jewish woman, Hannah argued, "What is the good of being in America if one
couldnt drive a car?" In 1922, Moshe Leib-Halpern told a fable that
summed up the role of American Yiddish theater:
There was once a vulgarian who went to synagogue … when he wanted to
weep, and to a bawdyhouse … when he wanted to be gay. But once, when he
wanted to weep and be gay at the same time, he put up a theater … that
combined the synagogue and the bawdyhouse into one.
Jewish Historical Society