Consider this archetypal Yiddish melodrama: A father leaves
turn-of-century, virulently anti-Semitic Russia with half his
family, to plant foot in America, before sending for the other half.
A year later, having established himself in Manhattan on the Lower
East Side after much struggling, the father sends the steamship
tickets back to Russia, to bring over the balance of the family.
smoothly exiting the country, but in England, at the final way
station on the journey to New York, there is a horrible mix-up and
the eldest son, age eleven, is left behind to fend for himself.
child, not knowing a single word of English, wanders the cold,
dismal, dangerous streets of London, barely surviving until, two
years later, he is reunited with his joyful parents.
marvelous material for a writer of trashy fiction, perfect for the
gristmill of Yiddish Theatre, to be ground course or fine, by hacks
and truer artists. Except that this particular story line is fact in
its broader outline, and strangely enough happened to, of all
people, Maurice Schwartz, arguably the greatest figure in the
century-old history of Yiddish theatre, once a vibrant and thriving,
but long-since deceased world.
that follow are an attempt not only to resurrect the undisputed
monarch of this vanished kingdom, but to illustrate the world he
inhabited, a time when the American Jew was as much European as he
was a Yankee, until the balance shifted in the span of a few
generations and the reign was over.
Schwartz was born in 1888, in the small Ukrainian town of Sudlekow,
which lay in the Polish section of Russia, some one hundred and
fifty miles due west
of Kiev, and eighty miles east of Lemberg. The patriarch of the family,
Isaac, was a comfortable grain dealer in the prime wheat-producing
area of Russia. A devout Jew, his life was bounded by the typically
standard Orthodox triangle of family, synagogue and work. Besides
his wife Rose, that family consisted of three boys and three girls.
Moishe, the oldest of the boys, had an outstanding alto singing
voice that stood out in the synagogue choir. He was also a born
performer, but the Orthodox branch of Judaism turned its pietistic
nose up at all forms of artistic expression, except for the
Esther-centered plays during Purim. Choir singing had to suffice for
those with other more worldly talents.
In 1898, Isaac
split the family in two, taking his three teenage daughters to
America, leaving behind Rose and the three boys, Moishe being the
oldest at ten. It was a well- conceived plan, as the girls were old
enough to obtain work in New York and help accumulate the money to
buy another round of steamship tickets. The waiting period however
was short, as after a year of scrimping and saving—Isaac had created
a rag-sorting business on Lower Broadway—Rose received a letter from
America that contained the tickets and their marching orders.
immediately packed the family’s belongings and within a week they
were in the port of Hamburg (the jumping off place for most European
Jews), and on their way to London. In the British capital, they took
a train 200 miles across the waist of England to Liverpool. From
this port, they’d board a vessel jam-packed with other like-minded
immigrants and brave the awesome Atlantic to the Golden Medina. This
route, Isaac had discovered, was considerably cheaper than sailing
directly from Hamburg.
The snafu began
innocently enough. Isaac had sent Rose an adult ticket for herself
and three half-price tickets for his sons. But during the year’s
separation, Moishe had shot up like the proverbial beanstalk, not
exactly a man, but with a man’s appetite. Because of the short hop
from Hamburg to London, this wasn’t deemed a problem, but the
boarding agent in Liverpool was incensed: why a strapping lad like
Moishe could eat for two, even three! The agent told Rose and the
two younger boys to please board the ship first.
become disoriented and confused over the half-price ticket hassle,
dutifully obeyed, certain that the matter would be quickly resolved.
After the ship got underway however, she soon discovered that Moishe
was not with them, that he’d been detained on shore. After the error
was realized, Rose wailed and beat her breast in vain for the
captain to return to Liverpool. The journey without her eldest son
must have been hellish, each day soaked in tears, sorrow and guilt.
Not the least of her problems was what to tell Isaac.
Those first few
hours had to have been equally as devastating for the misplaced
child. Not a shilling in his pocket, not a word of English at his
command. Truly a Joseph in the alien land of Egypt. The impact on
his psyche, on his inchoate personality, cannot be overestimated.
“It gave me an insight into what life is. It was my first
situation became apparent, he fled the steamship office onto the
street, tearful and panic-stricken. A passerby thought enough to
stop the boy who, using gestures, made his plight known. The
stranger led Moishe back to the office, where he was given a refund
for the half-price ticket. A tag was attached to the boy and he was
shipped back to its London headquarters like a piece of lost
luggage. There, in the narrow, garbage-strewn streets and back
alleys of Whitechapel, the city’s worst slum area, he had to fend
refund ran out, he lived catch-as-catch-can, searching for odd jobs
and barely managing to stay alive. In the winter he slept in the
subway and in church basements, on park benches in the summer. And
starved all four seasons of the year. He joined breadlines and
queued up at soup kitchens, accepting charity ladled out by young
before The Day of Atonement, wandering along Whitechapel Road in the
Jewish enclave, he heard music coming from within a synagogue. He
entered and won a job singing in the choir. The choirmaster was a
kindly, hoop-bellied man named Simon Hawkins. Taken with the young
urchin, Hawkins gave him a pair of his own but oversized trousers.
The boy found a length of cord to use as a belt. Moishe couldn’t
afford a haircut and looked for all the world like one of the many
shabbily dressed clowns who scraped out a living on the even
shabbier streets. Even the most hardened East Ender would gawk at
the boy. Children would throw stones as if he were some mangy dog.
brief synagogue gig was over, Moishe resumed his ways as a homeless
vagrant, until a Bobbie spied him on a park bench one night and took
him to a German bakery along his beat. The baker gave him shelter,
allowing the urchin to sleep in the back room. For months, the boy
walked the streets during the day, covered head to toe in flour
dust, making him an even greater subject of ridicule Later on,
Moishe found a corner in a tannery to occupy, and in the evening he
would climb out a window, to an inner courtyard where herrings were
being pickled. Night after night he’d dine on sour herring and stale
bread. For seven months he existed on nothing else. Often he’d find
his way down to the Thames and stare dejectedly at the blinking
lights of distant ships. Indeed, once he stared out and wondered
what was the use of enduring it all. “But at that moment I saw my
mother’s face in the water and I said no, I shall live on” (Braggiotti).
things and some bad eventually come to an end. In Moishe’s case,
rescue came at the close of his second year in Whitechapel. Long
before, his father had placed an ad in the London newspapers and at
last there were results. More than a few Londoners had noticed the
hapless child. When Isaac arrived and saw his son, barely
recognizable under his rags and tangled mop of hair, the overwrought
father fainted. Revived, Isaac had to remind himself more than once
that this filthy ragamuffin was indeed his son. Convinced, he set
about rehabilitating the boy, first with a hot bath then a haircut
and finally a visit to a clothing store on Whitechapel Road for a
completely new wardrobe.
The year was
1901, and Isaac hadn’t seen this semi-stranger in three years. In
that period Moishe had endured more suffering and privation than
most experience in a lifetime. The time spent in London would also
serve him well in the coming years of huge success and terrible
failure, of the high peaks of elation and deep valleys of
depression, of bitter disappointment and sparkling moments of the
greatest triumphs Yiddish Theatre has ever known.
On the packed
steamer crossing the limitless Atlantic Ocean, arriving in New York
after the incredibly long voyage, Moishe and Isaac had plenty of
time to get reacquainted. It had been three grueling years since the
father split the family down the middle and took his half to
America. Fully one-quarter of Moishe’s life had been spent out of
Isaac’s influence, perhaps the most important segment of any
with his mother and siblings was warm and emotional, as the tears
flowed freely from all participants, especially from Rose, who still
blamed herself for much of the turmoil in Liverpool. But the tears
soon washed away the stains of guilt and the family was made
completely whole again. Rose and Isaac brought their reclaimed child
home to the modest apartment on Cherry Street on the Lower East
Side, practically in view of the East River.
But the child
Rose had inadvertently left behind in England was not the young man
she’d embraced with her every fiber at the gangplank in New York. It
was more than the physical changes that had taken place in the shift
from age ten to thirteen. After all, he’d lived alone in London’s worst
hellhole, survived its jungle of assorted predatory animals. His
childhood amputated and jettisoned, he’d grown a tough carapace.
Moreover, it would take Moishe a while to get used to being shivered
over by a loving mother, to taking orders from an often stern
father, to blending in with his brothers and sisters. By thirteen
he’d become a country of one.
At once, Isaac
registered him in the Baron de Hirsch school on East Broadway. De
Hirsch, the foremost Jewish philanthropist in the world, had
established a trade school for the sons of recent Jewish émigrés
from Russia, to help them become useful citizens. The Baron had made
it his personal mission to rescue as many victims of Czarist
persecution as possible. A quick learner, having picked up Cockney
English in Whitechapel, Moishe (now Morris) adapted well, especially
in his literature class. Afternoons found him toiling in the small
factory his enterprising father had begun, supplying recycled rags
to the burgeoning clothing industry in Lower Manhattan.
that Morris had come to at the dawn of the twentieth century was a
vibrant overturned anthill of a growing nation, flushed with pride
after having flexed its muscles and beaten Spain three years
earlier, becoming a world power in the process. The population was
exploding, mainly from the avalanche of hopeful immigrants—nearly a
million by 1905—passing through Castle Garden, Ellis Island and
other portals of entry. Most of them settled in Manhattan,
especially the Jews, favoring the Lower East Side. New York City
quickly became the largest Jewish city in the world.
Morris developed an intense bonding with his uncle Mendl, who would
often receive cheap tickets to the galleries of the Yiddish theatres
on the Bowery close by. “He secretly took me to a Sunday, and at
that moment, from the first curtain, I became a theatre fanatic”
(Schwartz 1 Jan. 1941).
reasons, all of them sound, Isaac Schwartz took a dim view of his
son’s newfound interest. His hope was for Morris to become foreman
in his factory. Morris, as it so happened, had other plans.
At the time,
Yiddish Theatre was confined to a few blocks on the Bowery between
Canal Street and East Houston Street, and consisted of three major
playhouses and a few minor ones. In each of them, wrote Hutchins
Hapgood , is the ghetto world, the New York of Russian Jews, a world
of “tinsel variety shows, ‘dive’ music halls, fake museums, trivial
amusement booths of all sorts, cheap lodging houses, ten-cent shops
and Irish-American tough saloons [. . .]” (113).
railed against the foolish waste of time and money, his difficult
son hung around the unsavory Bowery. Morris was too headstrong to
obey his father, a boy who’d heeded only his own voice for so long.
The arguments over the kitchen table became so heated that Isaac
actually fired his son who’d some time earlier quit school to work
full time in the rag factory, and, more than once, despite Rose’s
frantic pleas, the boy packed up and left home, only to return the
next day or the day after. But Morris never surrendered to his
father’s demands and Isaac was forced to accept the seamy love
affair with the Bowery theatres. If this is what my son wants,
Isaac’s manner suggested, then so be it. But he’ll regret it later.
Morris and his uncle would saunter off to the Bowery, mostly to see
and hear and delight in the star who’d captured both their hearts,
the comic genius Zelig Mogulesko. Their idol was the first
professional Jewish actor anywhere. Avram Goldfaden had hired him
for the troupe of players he was assembling in Bucharest, Romania,
where Mogulesko had sung in synagogue choirs and in the chorus of
French operettas. By age 30 this natural performer was recognized as
a major talent.
become what was first known in Russian-Yiddish theatre, then in
American, as a patriote. A fan in the most rabid
sense. Patriotten would dress like their idols, ape
their manners, their voice patterns and the clothes they wore. They
had favorite meeting places, usually a restaurant near the
playhouse, where they would gather for hours, debating and bragging
about their actor-heroes.
object of patriote love was Boris Thomashevsky, Uncle Mendl’s
favorite. Unbelievable as it may seem, Thomashevsky had practically
originated Yiddish Theatre in America. An immigrant cigar maker’s
son who also worked in a cigar factory in Manhattan, Thomashevsky
claimed to have been in the first Yiddish play presented in New York
in 1882, The Witch by Goldfaden, though this has never been
describes him as “a young man, fat, with curling black hair,
languorous eyes and a rather effeminate face, who is thought very
beautiful by the girls of the Thalia. Thomashevsky has a face with
no mimic capacity and a temperament absolutely impervious to mood or
Morris was a
loyal but not fanatical follower of Mogulesko. For his preference he
got a black eye from a patriote fiercely attached to another
star of the period, Sigmund Feiman.
Uncle Mendl was not a great Feinman
partisan either, nor fond of any serious play in which he acted. He
much preferred the wildly popular lowbrow operettas and musicals.
When Morris would take him to see a more realistic offering, Mendl
would groan. “You’re making me spend my few pennies so that I should
see real life in the theatre. Don’t I have enough real life at home?
When I see real life on stage I feel melancholy. When I come to the
theatre, I want to laugh. I want to hear people sing. I want to see
them dance” (Schwartz 2 Feb. 1941).
This was no
idiosyncratic tic. Mendl was expressing the view of most Yiddish
theatre-goers, then and over the next half century, much to the
disgust and frustration of the serious Yiddish actor, director,
playwright and producer. But the Yiddish audience then was an
unusual one. The vast majority of them were recent immigrants who’d
barely escaped the many forms of the Czar’s wrath. They’d come to
America expecting to find paradise on earth, only to discover
intolerable sweatshops and crowded tenements. Like Mendl, they
attended theatre as a reprieve from, not a reminder of, their own
tawdry lives—if only for a few hours. Anyone in Yiddish Theatre who
offered otherwise was only swimming upstream against a strong
honesty, Morris loved the lighter fare, the Thomashevsky
extravaganzas, nearly as much as Uncle Mendl. He adored the music,
the grand, sweeping, impossibly trite plots. He knew all the songs
by heart, would sing them at the drop of a hat. From the very start,
he was never a strict ideologue, a theorist driven by one pair of
philosophic blinders or another. To him, good theatre transcended
categories and labels. And so Morris steeled himself to remain above
blind partisanship and heated arguments over which star shone the
brightest. “Yet I burned with a passion for the theatre [. . .]. I
worked for my father all week and thought every second about the
theatre” (Schwartz 5 Feb. 1941).
however, Morris found an actor not to idolize, but to emulate. David
Kessler, to whom Morris was to hitch his wagon a decade later, had a
riveting stage presence, powerful dominating eyes, and a sonorous
voice. Born in 1871, he’d come to America fifteen years later and at
once became a popular figure in better Yiddish plays. Hapgood
labeled him “one of the best of the Ghetto actors in realistic
parts and one of the worst cast, as he often is, as the romantic
If theatre was
now in Morris’s blood, the infection spread to his brain. For months
on end he didn’t miss a single Kessler performance. There were nine
of them weekly, one a day plus Saturday and Sunday matinees. For the
true believer, the Saturday matinee was the week’s high point. The
faithful would begin lining up early Saturday morning waiting for
the box office to open, their lunches and snacks crammed into brown
paper bags. The queues for the gallery would extend into the street
and around the block. Tickets would be quickly sold out. There was
an excitement in the crowd as palpable as rain. They were like
pilgrims waiting to be admitted to a holy shrine.
packed chock-a-block, its house lights would dim around 2 PM or
thereabouts, Yiddish Theatre of that era being notorious unpunctual.
The footlights would spring to life; the band would play the
introduction; the curtain would rise, as an awed hush fell over the
boisterous throng. And Morris would be transported to wherever the
playwright was taking him.
shift took place in Morris during his Kessler phase, and he wondered
how in God’s name he might become an actor like this man, which was
a far cry from hero worship. But where to begin? How to break into
what surely was a rarified brotherhood of the gifted and the lucky.
He confessed this dream to his parents. Ever the cynic (or realist),
Isaac shook his head and made dire predictions. An Orthodox Jew, he
had no love for that which frivolously displays itself in public,
and on the Sabbath yet. Being a businessman, his father also knew
how hard it was to make a living at even a legitimate trade. Rose
however refused to discourage him, certain as only a Jewish mother
could be, that her son would grow up to be not only a good man, but
a prosperous one.
proclivity towards Kessler continued until he saw Jacob Adler in
Solomon the Wise and The Jewish King Lear, both by
Jacob Gordin at the People’s Theatre. The careers of both Gordin and
Adler, playwright and actor, are permanently entwined. Each
propelled the other to great heights, and together they launched the
first magnificent Golden Age of Yiddish Theatre.
Adler, born in Odessa in 1855, had been a dilettante and a dandy in
that very cosmopolitan Russian city. Until he met Goldfaden and his
traveling players in 1879 and decided he had to become an actor.
After some success in London that ended in tragedy—he lost his first
wife and child to illness, and his theatre to a mistaken call of
‘fire’ that resulted in seventeen patrons being trampled to death—he
came to America in 1887. He was no immediate success like Kessler
and Mogulesko. With his second wife Dinah, he went off to Chicago
where competition was less keen. Nothing came of it, so the Adlers
returned to London then reversed themselves and left once more to
try New York.
circuitous route led to the People’s Theatre on the Bowery and
favorable recognition, then ultimately to his dominating the Yiddish
stage for many years. An actor of enormous power and noble features,
Adler despised the type of acting (exemplified by Thomashevsky) that
used exaggerated body motions, gestures and comic antics. Adler
preferred employing face, voice and eyes to extract the inner truth
of the role he was playing. To be natural and honest was the sum and
substance of his career.
had also emigrated from Russia, but directly. “He was a man of
varied literary activity,” wrote Hapgood. “Of a rarely good
education, a thorough Russian schooling, and of uncommon
intelligence and strength of character. He is Russian in appearance,
a large broad-headed man with thick black hair and beard” (167).
Natural allies, the two men formed a loose partnership that endured
for years. Together they created a vital center for Yiddish
intellectualism. For nearly two decades Gordin’s plays were the most
important ones on the Yiddish stage, with Adler their finest
Morris began running with the Adler faction headquartered on
Eldridge Street. Of all the sects of stalwarts, the Adler boys were
the toughest, the most devoted. They called their leader the Great
Eagle, because in Yiddish ‘adler’ means eagle. “The splendid
eagle has spread its wings” was how his patriotten announced
to each other the opening of a new play starring their idol.
actor began to educate himself, reading better literature to fully
appreciate Adler and Gordin, as he never could have in a formal
school, this teenager who’d received the first part of his education
on the streets of Whitechapel. Ibsen and Shakespeare were among the
non-Jewish dramatists he furiously attacked, absorbing entire
monologues from Ghosts and The Merchant of Venice.
“After a year of reading all the published plays, I understood how
an actor performed and what he brought to the play and what was not
the intention of the writer [. . .]. I was never interested in the
playwright before, but now he was beginning to interest me more than
the actor” (Schwartz 12 Feb. 1941).
inception, Yiddish Theatre had always been an actor-driven medium
rather than play-oriented, the vehicle for the star. And if Schwartz
believed then in the writer’s primacy, time and painful experience
later modified his views and actions. This shift and many others in
Schwartz’s long, unparalleled career has been the subject of much
written about him in English and Yiddish, a great deal of it
unflattering. Word and deed did not always coincide with Schwartz
when he became the vital powerhouse behind the Yiddish Art Theatre.
Eventually, a play, a novel, a short story to him would be merely
the raw material from which to extract good theatre. In his hands,
the Yiddish Art Theatre became neither an actor’s nor a playwright’s
vehicle, but the director’s. For this reason, Schwartz anticipated
the rise and dominance of the movie director.
One day, a
bolt of lightning sizzled through the Lower East Side. A new
playhouse was to be built on Grand Street. It would be the first
theatre specifically constructed to house Yiddish Theatre. Before,
there had been only three top grade locations of any substance, all
on the Bowery, within sight of one another. The most sophisticated
was the People’s at 199 Bowery, close to Delancy Street, with a
seating capacity of 1750. It was opened in 1883 by Harry Miner and
bore his name in the original title. Among its early stars, before
transition into a Yiddish playhouse, were Lily Langtree and Thomas
Keene. Its current Yiddish attractions were Mogulesko, Adler and
Thomashevsky, the latter two never appearing together in the same
play. Adler would take the high road, while Thomashevsky usually
traveled the low of less-than-artistic clunkers.
Down a few
blocks at 45 Bowery was the Windsor, which billed itself as ‘the
largest and most popular theatre in the City.’ Before it closed
forever in 1917, the Windsor had survived a fire and several name
changes. During its Yiddish phase, it served as the site of many
popular operettas. Directly across the street at 46 was the elegant
Thalia with its five-stories high front of Greek columns. Like its
two competitors, the Thalia began as a non-Yiddish theatre called
the Bowery. It served up mostly German language plays. David Kessler
was the main attraction during its Jewish phase.
But now a
fourth temple of sorts was to rise on Grand Street and speculation
ran high among the various factions as to who would open it.
Kessler? Adler? Mogulesko? Maybe even Boris Thomashevsky and his
actress-wife Bessie. Those with and without money bet on their
favorites. Tension mounted, but the various opposing armies
maintained a kind of uneasy truce. With other partisans, Morris
would stand and gawk at the construction site. “And even though the
many fan clubs didn’t know if their stars were going to perform at
the new theatre, they couldn’t hide their joy that they would be
there. Their happiness was passed from house to house, from shop to
shop” (Schwartz 20 Feb. 1941).
posters went up announcing the grand opening, the Lower East Side
let out a collective sigh. The first play was to be Joseph
Lateiner’s On the Rivers of Babylon, a biblical epic, one
of many from the lightning pen of the master of such gaudy
melodramas. The era of good feelings among the usually opposing
forces continued. Whoever would be the performers, whatever the
play, they all pulled together for a smashing start for the Grand.
On the night before the opening, many of the faithful slept on the
theatre’s fire escapes and by the stage doors.
every ticket had been sold long in advance and only the gallery was
available. A squad of police had been dispatched to maintain order.
Eager patriotten were circulating in the lobby offering to
pay up to fifteen dollars for a seat, any seat. “The crowds were so
thick people fainted and had to be continually taken out. Peddlers
did well, selling bagels and soda” (Schwartz 26 Feb. 1941). And for
all their prayers and anticipation despite being squeezed in the
gallery like oranges in a crate, the play was a terrible
disappointment. Instead of applause, the actors were rewarded with
boos, catcalls and curses. Groups of every loyalty boycotted the
Grand, refusing to make the long climb to the gallery.
disastrous half season of like offerings, the Grand closed. A
donnybrook then took place over possession of the once-virginal but
now sullied theatre. The Zukor-Loew’s powerhouse organization wanted
the Grand as a movie house. That year, The Great Train Robbery
--a twelve minute film-- had become an enormous hit, ushering in a new
form of entertainment for the masses. But Jacob Adler yearned for a
home to do the more realistic plays of Gordin and his successors.
After much wrangling that ended up in New York State Supreme Court,
Adler got his wish.