The stars are faded; the sidewalk is chipped; the letters are mostly unreadable. The 32 stars—all embedded in the sidewalk in front of the Second Avenue Deli in 1984, each named for a theatrical icon of the “Jewish Rialto”—are in danger of being entirely lost. They were installed by beloved Second Avenue Deli owner Abe Lebewohl in his signature impassioned and quirky way, designed to commemorate his favorite theater artists. But Lebewohl was murdered during a robbery in 1996; the Second Avenue Deli closed in 2006 and moved uptown in 2007. There’s now a bank at the corner of Second Avenue and Tenth Street. (The once-scruffy East Village is now filled with endless gleaming banks.) No one is maintaining the memorial any more.
The Yiddish Theatre Walk of Fame was established to spotlight some of Lebewohl’s favorite actors: Molly Picon, the Thomashevskys, The Barry Sisters, Fyvush Finkel, Moishe Oysher, Joseph Rumshinsky, Maurice Schwartz, the married couple Henrietta Jacobson and Julius Adler, and many more. Today, their metaphorical and literal stars are dulled, nearly lost to history.
But the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation wants to change that. “This is an important aspect of neighborhood history,” Harry Bubbins, East Village and Special Projects Director of the GVSHP told me in an email interview. “The Walk of Fame is an important historical and educational resource.” The GVHP has launched Friends of the Abe Lebewohl Yiddish Theatre Walk of Fame, in collaboration with Lebewohl’s survivors and a coalition of neighborhood groups. It seeks to “preserve, educate, inspire and reinstall a recreation of the historic plaque tiles in the area of cultural relevance and with long term stewardship.” The goal is to remove the original tiles and restore them as well as possible, then create a permanent or traveling exhibition to display them and to educate people about the history of Yiddish Theatre in America.
Also underway is an effort to recreate the Walk of Fame somewhere else in the neighborhood, using newly fabricated reproduction plaques better designed to withstand the elements and foot traffic. “We have had discussions with the ownership of the stunning landmarked Jaffe Art Theater at 189 Second Avenue, formerly known as the Yiddish Art Theater,” Bubbins told me. “Someplace of relevance to the neighborhood history of Yiddish Theater is important.” The Yiddish Art Theatre, founded by Maurice Schwartz in 1918, moved into that building, at Second Avenue and 11th Street, in 1926. Today it houses the Village East movie theater, but you can still see a cornerstone, written English and Yiddish in an Art Deco font, commemorating its establishment as the Yiddish Art Theatre, and inside, it’s full of ungapatchka, spectacular Jewish and Moorish architectural detail. A chandelier hangs from the center of a Star of David, surrounded by curvy Spanish-ish scrollwork. The outside of the building would be the perfect location for the Yiddish Theatre Walk of Fame.
“This initiative will necessitate a six-figure investment,” Bubbins told me, “and once we have community and other stakeholders on board for the plan of action, we will work together to ensure the necessary resources are in place.” You can earmark contributions toward the project at GVSHP.org.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.