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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.