Yiddish Theatre District

Yiddish Theatre District

Picture of poster with worn edges and yiddish writing

The Yiddish Theatre District, also called the Jewish Rialto and the Yiddish Realto, was the center of New York City's Yiddish theatre scene in the early 20th century. It was located primarily on Second Avenue, though it extended to Avenue B, between Houston Street and East 14th Street on the Lower East Side and East Village in Manhattan.[1][2][3][4][5] The District hosted performances in Yiddish of Jewish, Shakespearean, classic, and original plays, comedies, operettas, and dramas, as well as vaudeville, burlesque, and musical shows.[3][6][7]

By World War I, the Yiddish Theatre District was cited by journalists Lincoln Steffens, Norman Hapgood, and others as the best in the city. It was the leading Yiddish theater district in the world.[1][8][9][10] The District's theaters hosted as many as 20 to 30 shows a night.[7]

After World War II, however, Yiddish theater became less popular.[11] By the mid-1950s few theaters were still extant in the District.[12]


In 1903, New York's first Yiddish theater was built, the Grand Theatre. In addition to translated versions of classic plays, it featured vaudeville acts, musicals, and other entertainment.[13]

In addition to Yiddish theaters, the District had related music stores, photography studios, flower shops, restaurants, and cafes (including Cafe Royal, on East 12th Street and Second Avenue).[8][14][15] Metro Music, on Second Avenue in the District, published most of the Yiddish and Hebrew sheet music for the American market until they went out of business in the 1970s.[16] The building at 31 East 7th Street in the District is owned by the Hebrew Actors Union, the first theatrical union in the US.[17]

George Gershwin, c. late 1920s or early 1930s

The childhood home of composer and pianist George Gershwin (born Jacob Gershvin) and his brother lyricist Ira Gershwin (born Israel Gershowitz) was in the center of the Yiddish Theatre District, on the second floor at 91 Second Avenue, between East 5th Street and East 6th Street. They frequented the local Yiddish theaters.[1][18][19][20] Composer and lyricist Irving Berlin (born Israel Baline) also grew up in the District, in a Yiddish-speaking home.[19][21] Actor John Garfield (born Jacob Garfinkle) grew up in the heart of the Yiddish Theatre District.[22][23] Walter Matthau had a brief career as a Yiddish Theatre District concessions stand cashier.[6]

Among those who began their careers in the Yiddish Theatre District were actors Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni, and actress, lyricist, and dramatic storyteller Molly Picon (born Małka Opiekun). Picon performed in plays in the District for seven years.[24][25] Another who started in the District was actor Jacob Adler (father of actress and acting teacher Stella Adler), who played the title role in Der Yiddisher King Lear (The Yiddish King Lear), before playing on Broadway in The Merchant of Venice.[13][26][27][28][29]

The Second Avenue Deli, opened in 1954 by which time most of the Yiddish theaters had disappeared, thrived on the corner of Second Avenue and East 10th Street in the District, but it has since moved to different locations.[30][31] The Yiddish Walk of Fame is on the sidewalk outside of its original location, honoring stars of the Yiddish era such as Molly Picon, actor Menasha Skulnik, singer and actor Boris Thomashevsky (grandfather of conductor, pianist, and composer Michael Tilson-Thomas), and Fyvush Finkel (born Philip Finkel).[1][30]

In 2006, New York Governor George Pataki announced $200,000 in state funding would be provided to the Folksbiene, the last remaining historical Yiddish theatre company.[32][33]

See also



  1. 1 2 3 4 Andrew Rosenberg, Martin Dunford (2012). The Rough Guide to New York City. Penguin. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  2. Let's Go, Inc (2006). Let's Go New York City 16th Edition. Macmillan. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  3. 1 2 Oscar Israelowitz (2004). Oscar Israelowitz's guide to Jewish New York City. Israelowitz Publishing. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  4. Cofone, Annie (September 13, 2010). "Theater District; Strolling Back Into the Golden Age of Yiddish Theater". The New York Times. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  5. "East Village/Lower East Side Re-zoning; Environmental Impact Study; Chapter 7: Historic Resources" (PDF). 2007. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  6. 1 2 Cofone, Annie (June 8, 2012). "Strolling Back Into the Golden Age of Yiddish Theater". The New York Times. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  7. 1 2 Ronnie Caplane (November 28, 1997). "Yiddish music maven sees mamaloshen in mainstream". Jweekly. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  8. 1 2 "Yiddish Theater District June 3 Walking Tour". Lower East Side Preservation Initiative. June 26, 2012. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  9. Sussman, Lance J. "Jewish History Resources in New York State". nysed.gov. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  10. Ronald Sanders (1979). The Lower East Side: A Guide to Its Jewish Past With 99 New Photographs. Courier Dover Publications. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  11. J. Katz (September 29, 2005). "O'Brien traces history of Yiddish theater". Campus Times. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  12. Lana Gersten (July 29, 2008). "Bruce Adler, 63, Star of Broadway and Second Avenue". Forward. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  13. 1 2 CK Wolfson (October 14, 2012). "Robert Brustein on the tradition of Yiddish theater". The Martha's Vineyard Times. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  14. James Benjamin Loeffler (1997). A Gilgul Fun a Nigun: Jewish Musicians in New York, 1881–1945. Harvard College Library. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  15. Paul Buhle (2007). Jews and American Popular Culture: Music, theater, popular art, and literature. Praeger Publishers. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  16. Aaron Lansky (2005). Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books. Algonquin Books. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  17. Bonnie Rosenstock (July 8, 2009). "Yiddish stars still shine, just less frequently, on 7th". Thevillager.com. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  18. Howard Pollack (2006). George Gershwin: His Life and Work. University of California Press. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  19. 1 2 "Reviving, Revisiting Yiddish Culture", Mark Swed, LA Times, October 20, 1998
  20. "Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress: George Gershwin". Jewish Virtual Library. 2013. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  21. Jack Gottlieb (2004). Funny It Doesn't Sound Jewish: How Yiddish Songs and Synagogue Melodies Influences Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood. SUNY Press. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  22. Robert Nott (2003). He Ran All the Way: The Life of John Garfield. Hal Leonard Corporation. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  23. Henry Bial (2005). Acting Jewish: Negotiating Ethnicity on the American Stage & Screen. University of Michigan Press. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  24. Pennsylvania Biographical Dictionary. North American Book Dist LLC. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  25. Milton Plesur (1982). Jewish life in twentieth-century America: challenge and accommodation. Nelson-Hall. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  26. Morgen Stevens-Garmon (February 7, 2012). "Treasures and "Shandas" from the Collection on Yiddish theater". Museum of the City of New York. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  27. Hy Brett (1997). The Ultimate New York City Trivia Book. Thomas Nelson Inc. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  28. Cary Leiter (2008). The Importance of the Yiddish Theatre in the Evolution of the Modern American Theatre. ProQuest. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  29. Lawrence Bush (February 28, 2010). "February 28: Molly Picon". Jewishcurrents.org. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  30. 1 2 Adrienne Gusoff (2012). Dirty Yiddish: Everyday Slang from "What's Up?" to "F*%# Off!". Ulysses Press. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  31. Horn, Dara (October 15, 2009). "Dara Horn explains how ethnic food goes from the exotic to the mainstream. Then the nostalgia kicks in". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  32. Tugend, Tom (April 19, 2007). "Films: The little Yiddish theater that could". Jewish Journal. Retrieved April 9, 2016.
  33. Masha Leon (January 17, 2008). "Yiddish Theater: Going Strong". Forward. Retrieved April 9, 2016.

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