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Lower East Side story

Stardust Lost The Triumph, Tragedy, and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theater in America Stefan Kanfer Alfred A. Knopf: 326 pp., $26.95

October 22, 2006|Charles McNulty | Charles McNulty is The Times' theater critic.

IMPOSSIBLE as it is to imagine contemporary music without African Americans, try picturing American theater without Jews.

Where, for example, would serious drama be without Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller, Tony Kushner and David Mamet? Comedy without Neil Simon and Wendy Wasserstein? Acting without Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner, the teachers who bickeringly transformed Stanislavsky's method into the Method?

It's hard to say whom we'd be humming without the musicals of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim. If your answer is Cole Porter, you might be surprised that Porter claimed the secret to hit-making lay in "writing Jewish tunes."

To think that so big a debt is owed to a dingy, crowded, not particularly sweet-smelling section of Manhattan known as the Lower East Side. It was there that Yiddish theater, the fountain of so much mainstream histrionic talent, flourished most in America. From the late 19th century through the first half of the 20th, it was a haven for Eastern European Jews, whose lingua franca made possible a subculture destined to repay its comparatively safe new homeland in ways that would leave it infinitely better entertained than before.

In "Stardust Lost: The Triumph, Tragedy, and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theater in America," Stefan Kanfer tells the rollicking history of a bygone era in New York. Relighting the stages that used to dot 2nd Avenue below 14th Street, he dramatizes the heated rivalries among actor-managers who strode the Bowery like demigods and traces how the brilliant success of a community's assimilation spelled the demise of shtetl life in Manhattan, although not before it passed down its unique charm to the rest of the culture.

This storied milieu, a small, old-world town in a bustling new-world city, is best known in literature through the postwar writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who didn't need to be reminded just how theatrical it was, even if he, an emigre scribbler at the Jewish Daily Forward, kept a little distance from the showbiz craziness. Kanfer, a witty stylist whose previous books include biographies of Groucho Marx and Lucille Ball, does just the opposite, diving into the comic contretemps and chaos that had everyone buzzing at the Cafe Royal, the Lower East Side's answer to Sardi's.

But first he takes us back to the beginning, to Romania on Oct. 5, 1886, where Abraham Goldfaden, an ambitious writer and editor, performed a piece with singer Israel Gradner that later was described as "a nonsense, a hodgepodge," but that nonetheless marked the birth of Yiddish theater.

Why was it so late in developing? The factors are many, not least the Jews' precarious status in Europe. Kanfer doesn't say much about the religious proscriptions that forbade Jewish men from dressing up as women and that made a connection between drama and idolatry. Instead, he posits a simple question: Why would the Jews need theater when their history was giving them more melodrama than they could handle?

It wasn't natural beauty, after all, that made the Lower East Side a destination point for Yiddish-speaking immigrants. Nor was it a mystery why Yiddish theater would have an easier time in the United States than in the lands of marauding Cossacks and czarist pogroms.

If Goldfaden's name isn't widely known today, the title character of his farce "Shmendrik" has added a memorable word to the fecund Yiddish vocabulary for "loser." His legacy, however, extends beyond his all-but-forgotten operettas, folk songs, sentimental comedies and historical pageant. The tradition he launched in Europe was continued in America by three consummate men of the theater whom Kanfer calls Goldfaden's "spiritual sons" -- Jacob Adler, David Kessler and Boris Thomashefsky. Actors, producers and indefatigable egomaniacs, they furthered the development of Yiddish theater not just by helping it to flower but also by challenging it to reach higher than the shund, or trash, that was its mainstay.

Kanfer depicts their struggles to create theater that was respectable as well as commercially viable. More a populist than the other two, Thomashefsky flirted with Shakespeare but always in the hand-waving, foot-stomping way that epitomized 2nd Avenue style. Kessler, a performer whose hypnotic naturalism was an inspiration to Strasberg, fought valiantly against the hambone aesthetic, succumbing to burlesque showboating only when his audience seemed on the verge of walking out.

The turning point was Adler's majestic performance in a Yiddish adaptation of "King Lear" by the uncompromising Jacob Gordin. "From here on," Kanfer writes, "audiences would no longer be content to have a diet composed of nothing but shund any more than they would sit still for a dinner composed solely of kreplach."

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