Setting the Stage
Whenever the German Wiedergutmachung checks arrived, my grandfather hummed a little tune. Up until his death at 103, he danced on his way to deposit the reparation payments for “slave labor” during Nazi times. His face would crinkle as he grinned toothlessly because he had far outlived his tormentors and could revel in the good fortune that brought him to New York. Then he and my dad would retell one of the awful yet hilarious jokes about their imprisonment.
“How can you laugh?” I’d ask, horrified but intrigued.
He’d reply in Yiddish, “Bin a tummler.” It meant more than he was an emcee or a jokester or an actor. It meant he lived theater every day, and, in his world, a world where survival was a matter of luck, every moment survived was a triumph and cause for celebration.
This was the 1980s, and through my grandfather I came to understand Yiddish theater as a framework for which a novice museum professional like me might parse the Shoah, the Holocaust, even if my comprehension of the language was limited.
In our home on the Upper West Side of New York, we listened to Yiddish radio and subscribed to The Forward, the Yiddish daily newspaper, and my parents took me to the Folksbiene, the National Yiddish Theater, to absorb the drama of immigrant life. The plays, broadly acted and frugally staged, featured ardent renditions of labor rallying cries and patriotic anthems, slapstick intervals tempered by tender lullabies, heartrending tragic moments leavened by love songs, all in Yiddish. The so-called dying language was very much alive in my house. My father was one of the few mechanics in New York who could repair the keys on a Yiddish typewriter.
Decades later, the language still hasn’t expired. I saw the Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof just last year. I scanned the sold-out theater, awestruck as the rousing chorus opened the show. “Traditisye, traditisye, traditsye!”
That a 1960s-era Broadway musical, adapted from stories written in Yiddish about 120 years ago, would continue to resonate shouldn’t have surprised me. Language is culture, and culture moves backward, as well as forward. A child and grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home. The language was my mameloshen, my mother tongue. Sitting there in the audience, bathed in the words of my childhood, my mind turned to one of the most profound places my family life ever led me: to the creation of a Smithsonian traveling exhibition exploring Yiddish theater in America.
Looking back today, a generation later, as we are subject to increasingly stringent and conflicting immigration policies, as we face global cultural, climate, health, and economic crises, as the world loses a language every two weeks, and as we try to adapt to these changes with new technologies, I can only wonder at our audacity at presenting an exhibition about such a little-known and underappreciated topic.
In college, I studied anthropology, fascinated by the cultural practices of peoples around the world, the similarities and differences. When I started working in museums, it never occurred to me that the culture I was most familiar with, and had overlooked as not worth studying, was mysterious or unknown to so many of my peers. Up until the 1980s, Jewish history in museums was told primarily through displays of ceremonial objects or items used to celebrate life-cycle events, interspersed with art exhibitions by a limited catalog of well-known Jewish European-born artists, or through stories of the Holocaust.
In 1978, President Carter established the President’s Commission on the Holocaust; one year later, the commission recommended the creation of a national memorial museum. The museum world—indeed, the entire world—focused on Holocaust education and presentation. In Washington, D.C., debates raged, construction stopped and started. It took ten years to build the museum.
In the early part of my career, I supported the planning committee for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and explored opportunities at the Smithsonian, getting my start in traveling exhibitions. From there, it was a short move to the Jewish museum community and a job at the B’nai B’rith Klutznick Museum in D.C. We hosted exhibitions of Jewish life around the world and produced our fair share of Holocaust-related programs.
While on a research trip, museum director Linda Altshuler and her curator-scholar husband, David Altshuler, discovered a trove of Yiddish theater posters from the American Jewish Historical Society at Brandeis University; an exhibition idea quickly germinated. And then, we deliberated: was Yiddish theater too light-hearted, too off-beat, too Lower East Side to make for a serious exhibition? But then again, wasn’t it time to tell a different story about Jewish history? As far as we could tell, no one had looked at this material seriously for years, if ever.
We decided to go ahead, and a loan of the posters was easily arranged. Then began the serious research work. I took advantage of the project to reconnect with my grandfather’s Folksbiene friends. Joseph Mlotek reintroduced me to his son, Zalmen, best known today for working with actor and director Joel Gray on the Yiddish Fiddler. Zalmen connected us to Seymour Rexite and his wife, Myriam Kressyn, former stars of the Yiddish stage. They too recognized our family name and agreed to answer a few questions. I only wish I had taped those conversations.
Grandpa also wrote a note, in Yiddish, introducing me to his acquaintance Marek Web, archivist and historian at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, who generously granted me access to the archives. There, I found a treasure trove of letters, photographs, programs, scripts, and theater reviews in English and Yiddish: ideal ephemera to contextualize the posters. I found costumes and props and an old glass-fronted display case with puppet heads depicting characters from a Maurice Schwartz play. My verbal skills had always been the better, so the late George Washington University professor Max Ticktin taught me to read enough Yiddish to decipher the posters, and several old-time Yiddish theater actors agreed to interviews.
Producing the Exhibition
Our exhibition, named Hooray for Yiddish Theater in America!, traced the history of the theater from its earliest days of itinerant players (“Purimspielers” in the Old Country) to theater as a way for established immigrants to teach “greenhorns” the ways of the New World.
We showcased impresarios like Bessie and Boris Thomashefsky, whose grandson conductor Michael Tilson Thomas visited the exhibition. A photo of a very young Sidney Lumet in the Yiddish-language version of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here was displayed across from announcements that Yiddish film star Paul Muni would voice Scarface in the Yiddish version of Calling All Cars, the popular radio drama that preceded Dragnet.
In the collections of the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, I came across autographed black-and-white promotional photos signed by celebrities like George Gershwin, Jimmy Durante, Sugar Ray Robinson, and early Western film actor Tom Mix all dedicated with love and honor to Yiddish glamour star of stage and screen Molly Picon. The exhibition included little-known stories of regional theater troupes around the country, relics from modernist art theater of the 1920s, and posters from contemporary feature films inspired by the Yiddish theater tradition, including Yentl and Annie Hall.
In December 1985, our modest exhibition opened at the B’nai B’rith Klutznick Museum with over 250 posters, photos, costumes, and other objects. Hooray for Yiddish Theater in America! was reviewed in the New York Times and Washington Post. We partnered with the Smithsonian’s education office to create a popular eight-week series of programs, lectures, films, and performances. Visitors flocked to the exhibition. It was an undisputed hit, and we extended the run for several months.
“It is a loving look at the art form that nourished and sustained thousands of Jewish immigrants who came to these shores and felt like castaways from their cultural moorings,” Barbara Gamarekian wrote for the Times.
Colleagues from all over the country called asking whether the show would travel. Every person we spoke with from the Jewish museum world reiterated that even as the national conversation continued around the creation of the new Holocaust museum, they were looking for ways to reclaim a positive Jewish story. Curators at Jewish cultural organizations around the country saw this as a way to celebrate a mostly hidden aspect of immigrant culture.
Uncertain, I called my former colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES for short). When they said they had been following the local press, we decided it was time to collaborate.
Taking the Show on the Road
It took a year to reconfigure the exhibition for travel. In February 1987, we opened at the Mizel Museum of Judaica in Denver, and the tour was on its way. The West Palm Beach Jewish World, a regional weekly declared, “Yiddish theater exhibit has wheels… the Smithsonian sponsors a traveling show.”
For the next two years, under the Smithsonian banner, the show crisscrossed the nation: from the Jewish Community Museum in San Francisco, to the Spertus Institute in Chicago, and the Yeshiva University Museum in New York City. We made a quick stop at the Museum of Temple Israel in Lawrence, New York, and then on to the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, and the Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“While the exhibition… exemplifies one immigrant group’s experience, it contributes to a better understanding of group life in America and the processes of acculturation and assimilation,” Gail F. Stern wrote for the Journal of American Ethnic History.
…and Back Again
By the time the Hooray for Yiddish Theater! tourended in the spring of 1989, the Holocaust Museum planning was well under way. I returned to SITES with a renewed commitment to take exhibitions to museums in communities large and small around the country.
The next exhibition I helped travel focused on the Great Migration, when between the world wars, masses of African American citizens left the rural South for the promise of a better life in the urban North. The stories of ordinary people re-establishing themselves in new, foreign places resonated deeply with me. Their accounts of family tribulations, of love and laughter triumphing over hardship, of music to ease pain, the confusion of being a stranger in a strange land—these were the stories so familiar to me from the Yiddish theater, only retold by another community.
Replicas from the exhibition still adorn my office. And every so often, Yiddish finds its way back into the spotlight. The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s Yiddish language revival of Fiddler on the Roof is breaking all kinds of audience records on and off Broadway. For more than forty years, the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, has taught the language to young people and collected, translated, and redistributed Yiddish books. The Smithsonian’s own Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage is uncovering treasures, like Ruth Rubin’s Yiddish song archive.
When my dad took his young daughter along on a house call to repair Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Yiddish typewriter, Singer hadn’t yet been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Nor could I imagine that decades later, I would be quoting from the acceptance speech he delivered in both English and Yiddish: “[The Yiddish] language is a sick language. But, in our people’s history, the difference between sick and dead is a big one.”
Fredie (Frederica) Adelman currently directs the Smithsonian Associates, the world’s largest museum-based education program. She’s still working on improving her Yiddish.