by Charles Marowitz
A Book Review
Kanfer, Stefan: Stardust Lost, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2007, ISBN 1-4000-4288-7, 220 pages.
(Swans - June 4, 2007) At the turn of the last century, Boris Thomashevsky was arguably the most popular actor in the Yiddish theatre; a haughty mien, a shock of perfectly groomed, brushed-back hair and allegedly, the best looking legs of all his rivals (frequently exhibited in classic productions requiring tights.) His sister Emma, who acted with the ensemble at the Thalia Theatre, was an attractive adolescent who had won the hearts of many of the young men in Thomashevsky's company. Her illustrious brother knew that she was silently admired and assumed that, like all well-brought-up Jewish girls, she would one day find a proper fiancé, and perpetuate the Thomashevsky dynasty.
As it turned out, Emma became enamored with Morris Finkel, a middle-aged Romanian émigré who had been brought in as a director with the company. When Thomashevsky discovered the liaison, he was outraged and forcefully tried to sever the relationship. But Emma was young and flighty and not to be trusted and so, at a packed performance at which 2700 playgoers were present, he asked the audience to remain in their seats after the show ended as there was going to be a shvier: a ritual at which life-changing vows were to be taken in public before a minyan, a gathering of at least ten Jews.)
Once the play finished, the curtain rose again revealing Thomashevsky with his daughter in tow. "Do you swear" he thundered in a voice accustomed to the bombast required of Yiddish drama "that before this audience, and before God, do you swear that you will never go out with the man named Morris Finkel?" Tremblingly, the girl repeated the invocation, "or ever see him or have any dealings with him again as long as you live," Thomashevsky added. Emma solemnly repeated the vow. The audience gave the girl a tumultuous ovation and it was as if a sinner had been purged of all her sins and her endangered soul blessed with everlasting salvation. That night, probably traumatized by the day's events, Emma sought out her lover Finkel and the two eloped to Philadelphia where they married, had three children, and started a Yiddish theatre of their own.
Approximately twelve years later, Emma, tiring of her superannuated husband, met a good looking young actor named David Levinson. An affair ensued, the jealous hubby discovered the infidelity, was confronted by the shattering fact that his wife no longer loved him and intended to marry the younger actor. Under intolerable pressure, Emma bundled together her three children and fled to a rented farmhouse in New Jersey to try and sort things out in her mind. Levinson sped after his beloved but, unbeknownst to him, Finkel had followed him from Manhattan and, distraught and intoxicated, confronted him at the farmhouse with a loaded pistol. A shot rang out but instead of downing Levinson, it lodged into Emma's legs who, as a result of the incident, would never walk again. Finkel realizing he had shot his wife rather than her lover, turned the gun upon himself, pulled the trigger, and expired instantly.
The chain of incidents I have just described actually happened to the people involved, but they could just as easily have occurred in one of the shund (trash) melodramas which dominated the Yiddish theatre from the l900s to the l940s. Fatal melodrama triggered by irrepressible jealousy and egged on by the harsh strictures of Talmudic law occur in some of the most popular of the Yiddish plays of the period, viz. "The Dybbuk," "The Golem," "Mirele Efros," "Yosha Kalb," etc., etc., etc. Jewish life, like Jewish drama, fed on a diet of melodramatic catastrophes.
It is generally held that the Yiddish theatre was created in Romania by Abraham Goldfaden and then carted from Bucharest to Russia, London, and eventually New York City where it found fertile soil in the Lower East Side of New York. Between 1890 and the end of the 1930s, there were 200 Yiddish theatres or touring companies in the United States; a dozen in New York alone. In its first phase, with potboilers such as those of Joseph Lateiner, the content was crude and shoddy. A certain measure of "class" was added with the arrival of playwright Jacob Gordin ("The Yiddish King Lear") and Jacob Adler, whose production of "Merchant of Venice," after a successful run downtown, transferred to Broadway with an English-speaking cast -- save for Adler who reprised his role in Yiddish.
Created and populated by Jewish émigrés, Yiddish theatre existed as a reaffirmation of traditional Judaism in a country where the tenets of those beliefs were rapidly being eroded. Its success had less to do with esthetics than it did the craving for a national identity and allegiance to a faith and a history which, ironically until l948, had no nation to speak of.
Shund was the word most often used to describe the nature of the plays that dotted the theatres on Second Avenue and elsewhere in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Evaluating their artistic merit would be like trying to dope out the respective merits of daytime soap opera. Steeped in rhetoric, exaggeration, speciousness, and hysterical hyperbole, one has to conclude the majority of the plays were, as their detractors claimed, shund. But to those who regularly patronized these plays, they were an accurate reflection of their own lives, employing characters and language which reaffirmed their identity in a society which was not eager to accept them in their midst.
To evaluate Yiddish theatre in artistic terms is to miss the sociological reality which made the institution a necessity for millions of transplanted Jews coping with the befuddlements of the New World. Émigré audiences, disparate as they were, are not like the multi-ethnic spectators that constitute the film and television public of today. If the misnomered Communication Age has done nothing else, it has established a sociological frame of reference which makes sense to virtually every American -- whatever their passions or prejudices may be. That wasn't the case between the turn of the century and the 1930s.
The alienation felt by many new Americans during that period had less to do with psychological angst than it did assimilation. Old world Jews in particular, clung to their European rituals and their native language -- very much like Muslims in certain parts of America do today. One of the ubiquitous themes of the Yiddish Theatre was the children's abandonment of their elders' faith. To "integrate" was not a harmless process that made them proud U.S. citizens, but a renunciation of the rites, customs and beliefs which had defined them in their countries of origin. There was no nationwide television circuitry to help foreigners "Americanize" themselves. Although there was radio, it required a good grasp of English to exert its influence -- which is why music played a greater part than anything conveyed in the new tongue.
Kanfer's book Stardust Lost is not only a masterpiece of research and anecdotage, but a sweeping panoramic view of how the nascent Yiddish theatre interacted with contingent events such as the First and Second World Wars, the legislative changes that affected the stop-and-go waves of immigration, the pogroms in Russia, the Nazi genocides, the Communist purges, and the ultimate dissolution of Yiddish as a native language. It also traces the subtle and unstoppable ways in which Jewish wit (and wits) gradually infiltrated American show business and how relics of the Yiddish Theatre were subtly reincarnated in the works of Jewish-American playwrights such as Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller, Paddy Chayevsky, and Tony Kushner.
Kanfer vividly sketches out his central characters -- Boris Thomashevsky, Jacob Adler, David Kessler, Bertha Kalisch -- and then flashes back to them as the Yiddish theatre prospers, declines, renews, is hobbled, and ultimately vanishes. Along the way he provides transient but vivid portraits of key figures such as Molly Picon, Menasha Skulnick, Leo Fuchs, Moishe Oysher, Paul Muni, Zero Mostel, etc. The impregnable fortitude of Maurice Schwartz, the founder of the Yiddish Art Theatre, is particularly telling. Considered an insufferable ham by my own generation, Schwartz emerges as a staunch Defender of the Faith and devoted entrepreneur right up to the final demise of the Yiddish Theatre. His legacy is that even today, there are Schwartzian-styled idealists who believe, through resuscitation of the Yiddish language and excavation of the more durable works of the genre, a healthy Yiddishkeit can be reincarnated. I doubt it but admire the zealousness of the effort.
The years of the Yiddish Theatre in America are a fascinating saga because despite all odds and within the relatively short space of half a century, it persevered and ultimately prospered. Its brief chronicle is studded with colorful, outsize personalities. No one was as swell-headed as Jacob Adler (nor as talented); no one as resilient as Boris Thomashevsky (nor as dogmatic). The charismatic actor David Kessler was purveying a Method-styled naturalism before Lee Strasberg was ever born; the talent of outsize artists such as Jacob Ben-Ami, Joseph Buloff and Muni Weisenfreund (Paul Muni) make actors like Al Pacino and Robert de Niro look like also-rans. There is no wealth of dramatic literature to boast of, but writers as dissimilar as Franz Kafka, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholem Aleichem, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth all have Yiddish theatre in their progeny and, as Kanfer makes abundantly clear: if one were to excise the talented Jews from Show Business, we would be back to the days of the Medicine Shows.
The questing, rambunctious, larger-than-life creation that was the Yiddish Theatre deserves a faithful chronicler who is not blind to the absurdity beyond the grandeur and Kanfer, the biographer of Lucille Ball, Groucho Marx, and the variegated mishugos of the Catskill variety shows, is the right man for the job. Stardust Lost is like a gigantic tapestry where, in every corner of every inch, some fascinating character emerges to participate in a quest which is simultaneously holy and outrageous.
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