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).