Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images
A crowd of people on the sidewalk in front of the Yiddish Art Theatre at Second Avenue and Fourth Street, New York, 1945. The theater marquee announces performances of Maurice Schwartz’s musical ‘Three Gifts,’ music by Joseph Rumshinsky.Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images
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Curtain Raisers

How attending live theater became an important part of the American Jewish communal experience

Jenna Weissman Joselit
November 25, 2020
Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images
A crowd of people on the sidewalk in front of the Yiddish Art Theatre at Second Avenue and Fourth Street, New York, 1945. The theater marquee announces performances of Maurice Schwartz’s musical ‘Three Gifts,’ music by Joseph Rumshinsky.Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images

Fifteen years ago, Spamalot made waves when Sir Robin, one of the musical’s protagonists, explains to another, the redoubtable King Arthur, that we “won’t succeed on Broadway, if we don’t have any Jews … To get along on Broadway, there is one essential thing … there simply must be, simply must be Jews.” Long before the Monty Python spoof had become a hit, the prominence of the Jews behind and in front of the footlights had people talking. In 1891, for instance, historian George Willard noted how the Jews of the early republic were “conspicuous” in their embrace of the theater. Several years later, in 1903, The New York Times, highlighting the proclivities of an entirely different constellation of American Jews, pointed out that “no part of the foreign population has been so persistent in its support of a drama distinctly its own as has the teeming populace which inhabits the crowded sections that lie east of the Bowery. That the Yiddish population is composed of confirmed theater-goers has been evident for a long time.” Its tongue lodged firmly in its cheek, the newspaper of record went on to add that the Jewish “public takes the actors almost as seriously as the actors take themselves.”

Shortly thereafter, inquiring minds wanted to know if there might be some “racial reasons” behind the seeming affinity of the Jews for the theater, especially given the growing proliferation of Jewish theater managers and owners on Broadway, whose ranks included the Shubert brothers, David Belasco, A.L. Erlanger, Henry B. Harris, Charles Frohman, and David Frohman. “Is there not something in the Jewish character that leads it to take up with this volatile, and in a measure, unconventional profession?” the American Hebrew wondered in 1910, noting an abundance of Jews in burlesque and vaudeville as well as in the higher reaches of commercial theater.

In search of answers, the paper interviewed a number of observers, one of whom, an anonymous but “influential manager,” put it this way: “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Jew, by nature, is a histrion of the highest grade, but where you can get the opportunity to combine both art and business, there the Jew finds himself thoroughly at home.” Another influential manager, said to be a “scholar” as well as a canny businessmen, agreed. The Jews, he claimed, redeemed the profession from its “former systemless and reckless methods. The Jews have systematized it. They have brought order, cooperation … the husbanding of resources, and general security.”

Momentarily satisfied by these answers and eager to lay the issue to rest, the Jewish newspaper was compelled to bring it up again a decade later when, in the face of mounting anti-Semitism that pilloried the Jews’ involvement in the theatrical arts, Thomas Dixon—yes, that Thomas Dixon, author of The Birth of a Nation—offered a ringing public affirmation of their presence on Broadway. “Anti-Semites have asserted vociferously that the Theatre in New York and the nation is in a bad way because of the Jewish manager and producer,” he told those assembled at a dinner of the Society of Arts and Science held in the spring of 1921. But the theater is thriving these days and it’s to the “organizing genius and the business integrity of the Jew we owe this development. The man who does not know this knows nothing of the history of the stage in America.” So heartened was the American Hebrew, and presumably its readers, by Dixon’s remarks that the newspaper published them under the title “What the American Stage Owes the Jew.”

In the years that followed, even more was made of the Jews’ dual capacity as creative forces and audience members. Fast forward to William Goldman’s The Season, a celebrated insider’s account of Broadway that went on to become required reading in university theater departments everywhere. Published to great acclaim in 1969, it devoted a chapter all its own to “Jews.” (It’s worth noting that no other religious, ethnic or racial group was singled out in this way.) Naming names—“Rodgers is a Jew, and so was Hart, and Hammerstein was half Jewish, and Lerner is a Jew, ditto Loewe, ditto Gershwin and his brother, and Romberg and Kern and Berlin …”—Goldman observed that without them, “there simply would have been no musical comedy to speak of in America. It is a remarkable contribution.” He continued: “And if a lot of the creators for the theatre have been Jewish, so are a lot of the people sitting inside,” conservatively estimating they accounted for 50% of Broadway attendees.

Is there any truth, any historical or sociological validity, to these long-running claims? Or are they more a matter of perception than of reality? Now that live theater has been shuttered throughout the country, it might be as good a time as any to try to hazard a guess or two and, in the process, to speculate on what might have given rise to these claims in the first place.

But first: a caveat. In the absence of quantitative data, of statistical profiling, the historian as well as the contemporary observer can only rely on anecdotal evidence. Fortunately, there’s a lot of that.

When it comes to showbiz, there’s no getting away from the hefty number of Jewish names involved in the financing and mounting of productions. “With the commercialization of the theatre the Jews have found a field that gives them an opportunity to develop all their talents,” one (of many) keen-eyed observers of the early 1900s acknowledged, adding that where some of their number might traffic in clothing, others put on plays. It was as simple as that: Both were commodities of the modern economy in which America’s Jews avidly participated.

As far as the their outsize, and collective, contribution to the cultural vitality of the theater is concerned, a later generation of commentators suggests that Broadway afforded the Jews—Goldman’s “dittos”—a congenial space in which to affirm their identity as Americans. “The social reality of being a Jew in America,” explains historian Andrea Most in Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical, “is fundamentally inscribed in the form of the American musical theater.”

Things get more fascinating still when tackling the question of theater-going as a communal Jewish practice. Did Jews from the Old World where, ever since the late 19th century, the stage had become a prominent feature of urban life, implant their affection for it in the metropolises of the New, or did theater-going really take flight and come into its own as an American phenomenon? To put it another way, when American Jews of yesteryear attended the theater, in what capacity did they do so: As Jews? As Americans? A little bit of both?

Consider this: By the early 1900s, the Lower East Side alone contained, and sustained, four theaters with a combined seating capacity of over 10,000. That one playhouse—the Windsor, say—was heavy on melodrama and heaving bosoms, while the bill of fare at the neighboring Thalia was far more restrained and cerebral points to competing levels of taste and sophistication within the downtown Jewish community, but that’s only a part of the big picture. More germane by far was the extent to which theater-going was integrated into and of a piece with the ecology and rhythm of Jewish immigrant life—at once an accessible, affordable leisure-time pursuit and an expression of the Jewish polity.

Interest in the theater ran high, drawing adolescents—male adolescents, in particular—as well as families and courting couples. These days, we’re apt to picture teenagers holed up in a video arcade, pinging away rather than watching a play. But more than a century ago, historian Nina Warnke relates, immigrant Jewish working-class youth in their teens or early 20s were routinely to be found in the cheap seats where, known as patriotn, they hooted and hollered when their favorite actors appeared on and exited from the stage or took their bows. Known as “Adler’s boys,” or “Thomashefsky’s boys,” after the performers they fancied, these teenage fans “did not attend the theatre to have a cultural experience or even to be entertained.” The Yiddish playhouse was where they hung out. “Group belonging and the sense of power and importance that arises from it,” she tells us, “appear to have been at the core of patriot culture.”

To this mix of factors, I’d add another: fundraising, or, as it was more commonly known within Jewish immigrant circles, the benefit. In an ongoing effort to attend to those in need or offset their operating expenses, landsmanshaftn, fraternal organizations, and unions would purchase theater tickets at a discount, sell them to their members at the regular price, and use the proceeds to do some good in the world. Helping to keep the Yiddish theater afloat, benefit performances simultaneously cultivated a steady audience for the theater at the grassroots. It got to the point, recalled Harry Golden, whose father was president of the Mikulinczer Verein, the sponsor of five to six benefits a year, where no one talked of going to the theater. Instead people spoke of “going to a benefit.”

That practice continued even after Jews left the Lower East Side for more middle-class neighborhoods; in fact, the circle of Jewish organizations resorting to benefit performances expanded to include synagogues. Writing in 1909, the New-York Tribune told its readers of how Temple Ansche Chesed was planning to hold one at the Belasco Theatre so that its members might “free” themselves of the financial burden of a $30,000 mortgage on their new facility, at 114th Street and Seventh Avenue. The congregation’s spiritual leader, the Reverend Dr. Hausman, “has many friends among actors and actresses and these, combined with the many men prominent in theatrical affairs who are worshippers in the temple, have united to support” the institution in this pleasing manner. A few years later, in 1912, Temple Emanu-El in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood followed suit, reserving the “entire house” of Kessler’s Theatre on Second Avenue to pay off its mortgage. Nothing new there, except for the language used to describe the event: Temple Emanu-El touted it as a “theatre party,” emphasizing the occasion’s association with personal pleasure rather than with civic responsibility.

It didn’t take long for the theater party to take hold as a popular convention across the board, prompting William Golden to devote an entire chapter to the “theatre-party ladies,” many of them Jewish, who, in booking the shows for group outings, often determined their fate. Harry Golden (no relation, near as I can tell) also made much of them. In his “Only in America” column, which appeared in Variety, he credited the Jews of the Lower East Side for having invented a practice that “everyone,” from the Hadassah ladies of Hempstead, Long Island, to the members of the Vassar Alumnae Association, now practiced as a matter of course. “It is a long way from a Mikulinczer benefit to the Daughters of the American Revolution Theatre Party,” he conceded, “but only the prices have changed.”

Where, then, does this admittedly breezy romp through American theater history leave us? Perhaps with the realization that for immigrant Jews and their descendants, going to the theater of an evening or a matinee bound together the disparate elements of their identity as both Americans and as Jews. Where so many aspects of modern life thrust the Jewish element and the American element in competition, or at least at odds and in tension with one another, theater-going tied them together. Attending a performance on a regular basis enabled American Jews to inhabit multiple roles—to signal their fidelity to modernity, their participation in public culture and their concern for one another—and to shift comfortably from one to another much like the “dancing feet” of a well-rehearsed Broadway chorus line.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.