Oral tradition dies never: Yiddish musical theater, from Eastern Europe to the Lower East Side
Like any folk or traditional music, Yiddish music came into being as a record and reflection of a common lived experience. The music developed through oral tradition, as Ashkenazi Jews converted poetic texts of into secular music to mark Jewish life cycle events. As an oral practice, the musical tradition thrived through adaptation, with Jews and non-Jews mingling, each borrowing from one another. Yiddish musical theater arose from Jewish minstrelsy and the Purimshpil
(Purim-play) – religious-inspired performances included as part of Purim celebrations that included short plays, music, costuming, and pageantry – and reaching the height of its popularity in eastern Europe by the nineteenth century. This minstrelsy usually borrowed from liturgy, folk tradition, secular Jewish songs, or non-Jewish musical sources. The minstrel tradition was often presented through satire, “historic or timely ballads,” commentaries, or adapted folk stories, and often appealed to less educated, less affluent audiences, dealing with political, social, or economic themes, or the “always timely themes of life, faith, and hope” (Heskes, 75).
Yiddish theater’s success in eastern Europe ended when Russian authorities banned Jewish theatricals in 1883. At this point Jews, including many Jewish minstrels, began to emigrate, many crossing the Atlantic and entering the U.S. through New York, finally settling on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and spawning a fresh Yiddish musical theater scene within the working class immigrant community. Irene Heskes describes, “This musical theater and its popular songs were a chronicle of the times, infusing essences of the Old World into the new American scene. Theatrical stars served as surrogate family, and their presentations helped explain and interpret, entertain and guide, thereby easing difficulties in the period of change” (76). The “big three” houses appeared in the late nineteenth century –The People’s Theater, the Windsor, and the Thalia. In 1902 journalist Hutchins Hapgood wrote that these theaters represented “…the world of the Ghetto – that New York City of Russian Jews, large, complex, with a full life and civilization…[and] alone present the serious as well as the trivial interests of an entire community” (Heskes, 77).
The hospitality provided to the Yiddish theater performers by the diversity and freedom of New York City, and the nurturing creative environment of the Bowery, provided for the musical theater to thrive in its new home while maintaining its significance to the Jewish community. In addition to social clubs, worker’s meetings, lecture classes, and citizenship classes, theater provided one of the places in which Jews could congregate and reflect on issues important to the community. Creators of newer Yiddish popular songs continued to borrow from liturgy, religious hymns, and old folk songs, and the music continued to represent important dates in the Jewish calendar and to mark life cycle events. At the same time, songs were highly relevant to the current working class culture of the Jewish immigrant community, embracing topics dealing with the migration experience, the complex process of adaptation to American culture, current events, the teaching of moral and ethical behavior, or discussing more practical topics such as work and labor politics.
One unique aspect of American
Yiddish music was that it became a commercial phenomenon. Sheet music in America became a business venture in a way it never had been in Europe, and the music began to be exported from the U.S. to Europe by way of New York printers. The mass printing of the sheet music enabled the songs to achieve broad popularity, as the melodies and lyrics could be purchased and learned more broadly by the public.
Want to see early twentieth century Yiddish sheet music with some of New York City’s Jewish performers?
Check out the BJHI Ephemera
section to see images of sheet music from the Brooklyn Historical Society collection. Or, visit the Othmer Library at Brooklyn Historical Society to see more!
Did you know Woody Guthrie was influenced by Yiddish folk music?
The Oklahoma native moved to Brighton Beach, New York City in the 1940s, and collaborated a good deal with his mother-in-law, Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt, who lived across the street. While the words were all Woody’s, the diversity of musical style he worked with reflected the influence of instrumental Jewish klezmer music (klezmer
derived from the Hebrew k’lei zemer
means “tools of melody”). To read the full article about Woody Guthrie’s Yiddish connection, click here
Heskes, Irene. “Music as Social History: American Yiddish Theater Music, 1882-1920.” American Music
2, No. 4. (1984): 73-87.