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Mazel Tov! Yiddish Theater is born

On August 12th, 1882, the very first Yiddish theatrical performance in New York City was held in a building which still stands at 66 East 4th Street, between the Bowery and Second Avenue. Over the next four decades, the Yiddish theater would become a focal point and social outlet for the 3.5 million Jews that immigrated to the United States, many of whom came through and settled on the Lower East Side and what is now known as the East Village. The building which gave birth to Yiddish Theater continues to perform an important role in the cultural vitality and theater life of New York City today.

Scene from the Yiddish Theater “The Witch”, 1925 Revival. Image via The Yiddish Museum

The Yiddish theater in Europe preceded that in New York City by only a few years. Russian Jew Abraham Goldfaden is now known as the Father of the Yiddish Theater. In 1879 he produced Koldunye (The “Witch”, or “Sorceress”) in Russia. The assassination of Czar Alexander II on March 13, 1881 quickly ended the Yiddish theater in Russia. The assassination was blamed on “foreign influence agents” (i.e. Jews). Over the next few years, over 200 anti-Jewish pogroms and riots took place and the government passed laws against the Jews, including a ban on Yiddish theater. By the late 1880s, almost everyone associated with the Yiddish theater was living in New York City, and over the next couple of decades, almost one-third of Eastern European Jews would emigrate.

Koldunye was the show that would open the Yiddish theater floodgates on August 12, 1882. It featured a 16-year-old Boris Thomashefsky. The Ukrainian-Jewish Thomaschevsky would go on to become one of the biggest stars in Yiddish theater and was a Borscht Belt pioneer, taking the Yiddish shows on the road to large American metro areas.

Boris Thomashefsky

66 and 68 East 4th Street were built as two separate Federal-style row houses in 1831-32. Originally part of a luxurious row of houses called “Albian Place,” in 1871 the buildings were combined, decoratively embellished, and raised from 3.5 to 4 stories to become Turn Hall, home of the New York Turn Verein, which comes from the German term for “gymnasium.” The laying of the cornerstone in 1871 was met with great celebration and a vast audience that included the Mayor of New York City. At that time, the neighborhood was known as Kleindeutchland or “Little Germany” – the largest German-speaking community in the world outside of Berlin and Vienna. The German-American community was soon to be replaced by other waves of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, mainly Jews, Italians, and Ukrainians. 66-68 East 4th Street has a fascinating history having become part of LaMaMa ETC., and is now part of the Fourth Arts Block nonprofit organization.

66-68 East 4th Street. Ca 1875, Image via New York Historical Society

By 1900, New York City was established as the world’s center for Yiddish theater. Most of the Yiddish theaters were then located around the Bowery, Canal, Grand, and Houston Streets on the Lower East Side. Starting in the 1920s, however, the Yiddish theater would move somewhat uptown, flourishing on and around Second Avenue below 14th Street in today’s East Village. This area would become known as the “Yiddish Rialto”. This history is remembered with the Yiddish Walk of Fame, placed outside the 2nd Avenue Deli in 1984 (you can take a tour of other Yiddish Rialto sites on our East Village Building Blocks website here).

Full-page ad in the “Forverts” newspaper for “The Witch,” 1925 revival. Image via The Yiddish Museum

At the height of the Yiddish theater’s popularity in the late 1920s, there were reportedly 11 Yiddish theaters in Manhattan and 20 throughout the City. According to the Louis N. Jaffe Art Theater Landmarks Preservation Commission Designation Report, among the more prominent theaters were the National (111-117 East Houston Street, demolished); the People’s (199 Bowery, demolished); the Grand (Grand and Chrystie Streets, demolished), said to be the first theater built as a Yiddish theater in New York; the Second Avenue (14-22 East 1st Street, demolished); the Public (later the Phyliss Anderson, 66 Second Avenue); the Yiddish Art Theater at 189 2nd Avenue, and the Commodore Yiddish Theater, which later became the Fillmore East.


66-68 East 4th Street today.

Yiddish theater’s popularity started to decline in the late 1920s due to restrictive American immigration laws which kept Jews from immigrating to the U.S., the dissemination and assimilation of New York’s Jewish population, changing political and social beliefs, and new forms of entertainment such as movies and later on, television. However, its legacy claims modern mainstays such as Fiddler on the Roof and Barbara Streisand. Yiddish language productions are still held around the world, although on a much more limited scale than the millions of tickets sold each year in its 1920s heyday.

Some other surviving remnants of the Yiddish Rialto on and just off Second Avenue (clockwise from top l.) the Yiddish Art Theater at 189 Second Avenue; the former Commodore Yiddish Theater (later the Fillmore East) at 105 Second Avenue; the former Public Theater at 66 Second Avenue; the Saul Birns Building at 107-113 Second Avenue; and the Hebrew Actors Union at 31 East 7th Street, just west of Second Avenue.

7 responses to “Mazel Tov! Yiddish Theater is born

  1. What a gem of a piece—-it’s such a rich subject. Would love to see it be a series. Thanks for pointing out the remaining sites of the theaters

  2. Years ago a cab driver picked up sir Laurance Olivia
    Can driver what are you doing in NY
    I going to do Hamlet
    ever see it
    Sure on2nd ave you think that play will work in english?

  3. Great piece–and the photos are very much appreciated. We need plaques on all these important sites in our city’s rich history.

  4. terrific article
    My great uncle Jacob Goldstein was an actor in the Yiddish theater in the late 20’s to about 1931 when he passed away ( according to oral family history).
    How can I verify that or find out more definitive information about him? Has anyone of heard of him?

    1. In Volume 1 of Zylberzweig’s LEKSIKON FUN YIDISHN TEATER there is an entry on him (3 paragraphs) on page 381, and a small picture. The book came out in 1931, and he was still alive when it was being assembled. (It’s in Yiddish, of course.)

  5. From the YIVO News and Features on line
    Sep 25, 2015


    On a recent stroll down Second Avenue, I came across a charming old building, the Freie Bibliothek und Lesehalle. A little research revealed that this “free library and reading room” (now the oldest existing branch of the New York Public Library) had been built and endowed by Anna and Oswald Ottendorfer: successful immigrants; publishers of the Staats-Zeitung; philanthropists who supported hospitals and old age homes in the US and in Europe; and passionate believers in modern education who wished to promote literacy among German-speaking immigrants.

    Seeing the building was a vivid reminder of something that I’ve learned in the past few years in the process of translating Bernard Weinstein’s Yiddish book of 1929, Di yidishe yunyons in amerike: bleter geshikhte un erinerungen (The Jewish Unions in America: Pages of History and Memories). Weinstein had come from Odessa in 1882, lived on the Lower East Side, and worked in sweatshops with Samuel Gompers and Abraham Cahan. He devoted his life to improving the lot of Jewish immigrant workers, primarily through the militant labor organization that he founded with Morris Hillquit, the Fareynigte idishe geverkshaftn (The United Hebrew Trades).

    The Freie Bibliothek und Lesehalle opened in 1884. I would not be surprised if Weinstein used it. He had already been exposed to democratic and socialist ideas in tsarist Russia, and when he came to New York he joined the Socialist Labor Party (its Russian branch) and soon afterwards, he organized its Yiddish branch. But equally active in the party were many German workers who supported the Jewish socialists both financially and by letting them use their meeting rooms, which were sometimes in the back of beer halls.

    Their Vereinigte Deutsche Gewerkschaften (United German Trades) was the model for Weinstein’s federation. Their newspaper, the New Yorker Deutsche Volkszeitung (German People’s Newspaper) was the inspiration for the Nyu-yorker yidishe folkstsaytung (Yiddish People’s Newspaper).

    And there is another reminder of those long-forgotten links between progressive workers in New York’s German-speaking immigrant community and those who spoke Yiddish and Russian. Look at the front page of one of the first editions of the Forverts, which was begun in 1897 by a group of dissidents from the Socialist Labor Party who joined the new Social Democracy of America of Eugene V. Debs. On its masthead are the name of the new paper in Yiddish, English, and…German. Vorwärts was the organ of the Social Democrats in Germany.

  6. Loved the history. Helps me with my grandparents who came here at that time. They never spoke about any of the hardships.

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