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 Goldfadn’s Koldunye, or the Witch.
According to Thomashefsky’s 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 wasn’t 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." Thomashefsky’s 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, Thomashefsky’s company played Baltimore, where 14-year-old Bessie Baumfeld-Kaufman was given a ticket to a performance. Young Bessie was enchanted by the female star’s 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 Boris.
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 Hasidic 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 Shakespeare’s King Lear or Ibsen’s 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 Tom’s Cabin, Goethe’s Faust and even Wagner’s Parsifal (this was a time before the rise of Nazism). Boris starred in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet called Der Yeshiva Bokher [The Yeshiva Student], in which a wicked uncle smears rabbinic candidate’s 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 Wilde’s 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 couldn’t 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.
Sources: American Jewish Historical Society