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Yiddish Musical Theater

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Yiddish Sheet Music

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).
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Are We Funny or What?

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Submitted by Joe Dorinson Brooklyn produced a bumper crop of comic artists. Many of the nation’s premier humorists–Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Buddy Hackett, Jack Carter, Joan Rivers, Fanny Brice (and her avatar, Barbra Streisand),  Alan King, Lenny Bruce, Danny Kaye, Abe Burrows, Phil Silvers, Phil Foster, and Henny Youngman–mined their Brooklyn past and Jewish roots for comedic nuggets. Starting in local candy stores, they honed their… Read More »Are We Funny or What?

What’s in a name?

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Sandra Aboulafia, interviewed May 30, 2012, Brooklyn Borough Hall: My family is both Sephardic and Ashkenazi. Aboulafia is a very, very old name. It can be traced back to the year 800. Rabbi Aboulafia came from Toledo, Spain and the El Greco museum used to be the home of Samuel Aboulafia, and my brother is Samuel Aboulafia, so the name has carried through all this history. During the Spanish Inquisition, the… Read More »What’s in a name?

My Brooklyn Jewish Experience

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Growing up as a Jew in Brooklyn involved unique experiences. It could have been playing stickball in the one of the borough’s many parks, enjoying the beaches of Coney Island in the summer, playing street games after school, taking in a Brooklyn Dodgers game or weekend matinees. Whatever it was, we would love to hear about your Brooklyn Jewish experiences. Click here to share Your Story with us!

Congregation Ahavas Israel

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Congregation Ahavas Israel is a 120 year-old synagogue located in the Greenpoint Historic District in North Brooklyn, New York. The synagoguge holds Sabbath and holiday  services, all of which are followed by communal meals. It also organizes classes by visiting rabbis and scholars, and hosts Hanukah and parties as well as other communal events. Ahavas Israel is the only remaining Jewish congregation in a neighborhood that once supported five synagogues.… Read More »Congregation Ahavas Israel

Sandy Koufax

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Sandy Koufax 1961 Just in: Koufax was a baller of more than one kind Apparently Brooklyn Jewish baseball legend Sandy Koufax had short legs but also ups. He played basketball for Lafayette High School in Bath Beach, Brooklyn in the early 1950s, setting himself apart as an extraordinary player on the court before going on to his career as an all-star pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers. As an early teenager… Read More »Sandy Koufax

Growing Up In Bensonhurst

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Sarina Roffe, interviewed May 30, 2012, Brooklyn Borough Hall: My most favorite memories from growing up as a Jew in Brooklyn are playing street ball and street games with the Italian neighbors that I had growing up in Bensonhurst. I used to live on 69th Street between 21st Avenue and Bay Parkway, and all of the kids, and all my cousins would go to the Marboro Theater, and we would go for matinees… Read More »Growing Up In Bensonhurst

Synagogues and Jewish Centers

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Brooklyn synagogues are important centers for Jewish communities. For generations, synagogues in Europe and the Middle East were primarily for adult male prayer and study.  In the US, they began to expand their roles to include other spiritual, cultural and educational activities for the whole family. The synagogue became a place to congregate, to celebrate life cycle events and social occasions. Many synagogues began to build social halls where a… Read More »Synagogues and Jewish Centers

Brooklyn’s Syrian Jewish Community

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Bensonhurst, Brooklyn 1950Bazaar in Bensonhurst, 86th Street east from Bay 32nd Street, Brooklyn.

Emigration to New York began in about 1907, although a few arrived earlier. The Syrian Jewish community in New York originally consisted of two groups, Jews from Aleppo and Jews from Damascus. At first the convergence of the two groups was not easy. The Aleppan Jews, or Halabis, thought themselves superior, largely due to their history in Syria as a center of Jewish learning. They followed the traditions of Aram Soba. The Damascene Jews, or shammies, prayed in a different house of worship, although the two groups lived side by side, socialized and intermarried.

After living on the Lower East Side, in the 1920s the Syrian Jews began moving to Bensonhurst, a Brooklyn neighborhood, where they established a cemetery (first in Queens, then on Staten Island), two synagogues, a Talmud Torah and a ritual bath. The Damascene Jews prayed at Ahi Ezer Synagogue on 71st Street, led by Rabbi Murad Maslaton, while the Aleppan Jews prayed at Magen David Synagogue on 67th Street. With few exceptions, the families follow Orthodox Jewish religion, following Jewish law and the traditions and values of Sephardic and Syria tradition. They are highly respectful of their elders and of family values. In 1933, Rabbi Jacob S. Kassin, a Talmid Hakham from Jerusalem and a descendant of an unbroken chain of rabbis dating back to 1600, was hired as the community’s chief rabbi.

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The Arts

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Brooklyn is famous for its writers, as well as its visual and performing artists. Much of the latter talent has been forged through the public high school system. “SING,” an annual Brooklyn high school tradition of student-run musical theater production, which was started by a music teacher at Midwood High School in Brooklyn in 1947, continues today across the city. Students develop their skills in choreography, singing, lighting, building sets,… Read More »The Arts

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