Jews & theater

TOP ROW FROM LEFT: Jerome Robbins, Sophie Tucker, John Garfield and  Danny KayeBOTTOM ROW FROM LEFT: Kurt Weill, Fanny Brice, Mel Brooks and Barbra Streisand. 

By Judith Newmark, Special to the Jewish Light

Editor’s Note: St. Louis Post-Dispatch theater critic Judith Newmark recently delivered this talk on Jewish-American theater at the Brodsky Library.

When my daughter Jordan was a sixth-grader at Solomon Schechter Day School, Rabbi Mordecai Miller sent the class home with this assignment: Ask your parents why G-d made the Jews.

Stunned, I realized I actually had answer to give her: He did it for the conversation.

Conversation — talk — is a Jewish art form, one that thoroughly informs another, more widely recognized, art form: the theater. 

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The Jews didn’t invent theater. Credit for that, in Western culture at least, goes to the ancient Greeks. 

Naturally, their theater, profound and eloquent and masked, reflected their worldview. It’s a pagan worldview, in which man — a man like King Oedipus, for example, condemned to kill his father and marry his mother — has no choices. Choice belongs to the gods.

Things are somewhat sunnier in the classical theater, which also reflects its world — an ordered, Christian world. It’s a world that allows Edgar to trust, through all the horror of “King Lear,” that “the worst returns to laughter.”

Jewish theater, a modern development, can’t share that rosy perspective. It emerges from a dangerous universe — a universe that relies on the artist (in concert with the audience) for expressions of meaning and beauty. 

That’s a challenging idea, yet one that we have summed up in an image so resonant, so lucid and so accessible that today, it embodies Jewish theater in its entirety. 

It’s the image of the fiddler on the roof. It’s the image of the artist who creates meaning and beauty despite desperately perilous circumstance.

Marc Chagall — a painter who, among many other things, designed stage sets — gave us that image. Later, the director/choreographer Jerome Robbins and his colleagues made it the centerpiece, as well as the title, of their musical adaptation of the stories of Sholom Aleichem.

By the time “Fiddler on the Roof” debuted in 1964, the Jewish influence on American theater was pervasive, unmistakable and well-established. In her masterful “Awake and Singing!” scholar Ellen Schiff reports that in 1905, it was estimated that fully 50 percent of people working in American theater were Jewish. This was only five years after the census of 1900, which found that there were about 1.5 million Jews in the United States — less than 2 percent of the population.

More remarkably, this did not happen because American Jews were transplanting an old art form. Today we may imagine that the Yiddish theater has a long history, but it is in fact so recent that we can actually assign it a “start date.”

Modern Jewish theater was born in Rumania in 1876, the creation of a writer, actor and director named Abraham Goldfaden. Think of that. 1876 is 11 years after the Civil War, four years before the U.S. Census Bureau declared the end of the Western frontier. In historical terms, it’s practically yesterday. It also coincides with the dawn of major Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe to the United States.

Less than 10 years after Goldfaden’s first indoor production, Yiddish theater arrived in New York, where it would flourish — and where, in just a few more years, the American theater would be 50 percent Jewish. 

We don’t have a comparable statistic today, and we know why. We don’t feel comfortable talking about it, and why would we? Who, after all, makes lists of Jews? 

Jewish “percentages” have become the realm of anti-Semites, not proud Jews. On the other hand, are we surprised to find that Jerome Robbins (nee Rabinowitz) was Jewish? Or that any actor, director, playwright, producer or regular theater-goer is? We take that for granted. But if we mention it at all, we whisper.

Maybe it’s time to say it out loud: Today, modern theater remains in many profound ways a Jewish art, not only because of who makes it but because it expresses a modern Jewish worldview.

But let’s start with the people: Actors and playwrights composers and designers, and directors and producers. The Yiddish theater on the Lower East Side and its cousin, vaudeville, trained them all. 

They weren’t all Jewish, of course. In “The Godfather,” Francis Ford Coppola gives us a wonderful glimpse of immigrant theater from an Italian-American perspective; Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates compared so-called “chitlin’ circuit” shows to immigrant theater for black audiences. But from the first, Jews embraced theater with such fervor that the famed British director Sir Tyrone Guthrie observed that if they left, the whole of American theater “would collapse about next Thursday.” 

At a time when many professions restricted or simply excluded Jews, the theater probably looked democratic. Historically a business without pedigree, theater was one place you might get ahead on sheer talent and nerve — and where everybody changed his name anyhow. The Great Tomashevsky may have sported a cloak, but nobody mistook him for the kind of aristocrat so elegantly portrayed by Leslie Howard. (Of course, Howard was Jewish, too.) 

In “The Producers,” Mel Brooks satirizes that kind of flamboyant theatrical character as Max Bialystock (a role created by Zero Mostel). Brooks also said in “To Be Or Not To Be,” his homage to Jack Benny that “without Jews, (gays) and gypsies, there’s no theater.” In show business, modesty is useless.

But Jewish Americans never prized shyness. What must it have taken for youngsters like George Burns and Eddie Cantor to perform in bars and burlesque houses, in places where dissatisfied customers pelted them with vegetables and invective? 

Poverty was a spur, of course, but so too was their sense of themselves as outliers, people at the edge of the cultural continuum. They had so little, they had nothing to lose. Their mothers, who let them go, must have shared at least a little of their bravado — and so did some of their sisters.

Women from Sophie Tucker and Fannie Brice to Barbra Streisand and Sarah Silverman all benefited from outsider status, a role that allowed them to climb on stage and say outrageous things. As Ms. magazine co-founder Letty Cottin Pogrebin has pointed out, these women virtually invented a new type of female stage character, the “lovable loudmouth.” She’s not a conventional heroine, but she gets all the good lines.

Roughly speaking, Jewish male performers divided into two big groups, wild men (including a host of iconoclastic comedians) and smart, sensitive dreamers. Archetypically, that’s David Kaminsky and Julie Garfinkle — better known as Danny Kaye and John Garfield. 

Who else is with them in the big, dark room? The audience, of course, which stuck around and over time bought better tickets and occasionally endowed whole troupes. Today that Jewish audience remains, still curious and still aspirational.

Artists from playwright Harold Pinter to Judith Malina of the Living Theatre, from Second City founder Bernard Sahlins to St. Louis-born producer Carole Rothman of New York’s Second Stage, filled theaters with disproportionately-Jewish audiences, willing to investigate something new and different. Near the end of her life, singer Lotte Lenya recalled that when a revolutionary musical called “The Threepenny Opera” opened in Berlin in 1928, it was a hit because it attracted a sophisticated audience that understood satire. “Everybody was Jewish,” she explained.

Lenya wasn’t Jewish. But her husband, composer Kurt Weill, was. After they emigrated to New York, Weill joined the Jewish writers, composers and writers who came to define in central ways what we now call modern American theater: its preoccupations and its voice.

The greatest of them is the playwright Arthur Miller, who stands with Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams at the complex (Jewish, Irish and gay) apex of American theater art.

I was lucky enough to interview Miller at his home in New York in 1998, not long before the 50th anniversary of his “Death of a Salesman.” He talked a lot about Jewish upbringing that morning, and discussed a passage in his memoir, “Timebends”: “Something in me insists that that there must continue to be Jews in the world or it will somehow end.”

He said he connected that belief to the Jewish sense of justice. “This doesn’t mean that only Jews possess a sense of justice, nor that all Jews obey it,” he acknowledged. “But the tradition . . .is very powerful in Judaism, and the world is better off for it. That has to survive, or the world will end. It will go back to the barbarians.”

“Angels in America” playwright Tony Kushner is the heir to Miller’s viewpoint. (Miller once said that he wasn’t worried about the future of American theater as long as it produced writers like Kushner.) “Angels” is such a profoundly Jewish play that the story of Jacob, becoming Israel, inspires its central image of wrestling with an angel, and its key line is in Yiddish. That line is spoken in Heaven, by a dead woman who advises a visitor to tell her grandson to struggle with God. “S’iz der Yiddishe voch” (“It’s the Jewish way”), she says.

Kushner’s massive “Angels,” which deals with many issues and spans about seven hours, is one kind of Jewish-American play. So is “Fiddler on the Roof,” coming back next season at Stages St. Louis. So are two spirited Nicky Silver plays that were recently staged here, “The Lyons” at Max and Louie Productions and “Pterodactyls” at the St. Louis Actors Studio. 

Both of those are plays that deal with families. But for Jews in the audience, a lot of American theater feels “haimish,” whether the words the actors speak are bitter or tender. We recognize that we already belong to that theatrical family — a family in which everybody talks to everybody else. It’s what we do. Maybe it’s what we were made for.