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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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Marvin Miller

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Marvin Miller

Marvin Miller

On Tuesday,November 26.2012, a great Bronx-born but Brooklyn-bred American Jewish hero, Marvin Miller died. The Malach Hamoves (Angel of Death) claimed him at age 95. His daughter Susan cited liver cancer as the cause but, denied elevation to Baseball’s Hall of Fame, Miller, an outstanding economist and labor leader, may have succumbed to a broken heart.

Several years prior, at the Workmen’s Circle building, I shared a podium with this protean figure. Deeply honored and almost speechless, I greeted him in Yiddish. Why? According to my late mother, at the Workmen’s Circle — home of mame loshen (mother tongue) –one must speak Yiddish. Moreover, I pointed out that baseball’s peerless union leader, Marvin Miller owes his success to the Golden rule, that is to say the Harry Golden rule.  Dress British.  Think Yiddish.

To this paradigm, add a social conscience, rooted in trade union culture, grounded in prophetic tradition, and leavened with core values — and you have an unbeatable force. Marvin Miller recalled that his father worked in lower Manhattan dispensing tsadaka (charity) and wisdom in Chinese, English, and Yiddish.

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Growing up in the Williamsburg Housing Projects

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by Joe Dorinson I grew up in the Williamsburg Housing Projects and lived there from 1939 to 1960. To qualify for residence in this FDR crafted New Deal experiment in public housing, you had to be poor. That didn’t bother my lifelong friends, Irving, Ivan, Mike, Vinny, Bernie, Richie, Leslie, Barbara, Howie and me because we were all poor. Fineshmecker snobbery did not appeal and we thought everyone was in the… Read More »Growing up in the Williamsburg Housing Projects

Avi Hoffman and Suzanne Toren on ‘Death of a Salesman’ and Yiddish

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By LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES NOV. 10, 2015 Before he was a salesman, Willy Loman was a peddler on the Lower East Side. You won’t find any proof of that in the script of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” but it makes intuitive sense to Avi Hoffman, the actor playing Willy in New Yiddish Rep’s Yiddish-language production. In the back story Mr. Hoffman has settled on, Willy is a Jewish immigrant who… Read More »Avi Hoffman and Suzanne Toren on ‘Death of a Salesman’ and Yiddish

Brooklyn, the Most Jewish Spot on Earth

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By Hilary Danailova January 2018 A dozen years ago, I moved from a Park Slope brownstone to a rent-controlled apartment south of Kings Highway in Brooklyn. It turned out to be next door to the Ocean Avenue building where my grandmother, Shirley, had spent her first married years. “Tell me,” she demanded over the phone, her Brooklyn accent undimmed by 20 years in Florida, “is it one of those units with a sunken… Read More »Brooklyn, the Most Jewish Spot on Earth

Ben Zion Miller

Cantor’s World

The purpose of the organization is to promote cantorial music and the study of Jewish liturgy through lectures on Jewish prayer and cantorial music. A key goal of cantors World is to continue to promote the role of the cantor in bringing inspiration to the community. See data on Cantors, both in Brooklyn and in New York City. 

Rabbi Miriam Grossman

Kolot Chayeinu |Voices of Our Lives

Rabbi Miriam Grossman is a multi-generational Jewish educator, community organizer, and an energizing leader of Jewish ritual. At the heart of her leadership is the idea that through communal ritual and communal action we all can become more spiritually and politically awake- awake to our inner lives and awake to the world around us. She believes that ritual, learning and action all honor our collective ancestors and their dreams of… Read More »Kolot Chayeinu |Voices of Our Lives

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