The Triumph, Tragedy, and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theater in America
By Stefan Kanfer
(Knopf, Hardcover, 9781400042883, 352pp.)
Publication Date: October 24, 2006
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
Enter your zip code below to find indies closest to you.
From the author of the best-selling and critically acclaimed biographies Groucho and Ball of Fire comes a definitive look back at the Yiddish Theater. In this soulful and entertaining elegy Stefan Kanfer traces its meteoric rise, its precipitous fall, and its lasting mark on American theater, film, and culture in general.
The Yiddish Theater’s star seems to have burned out. The venues in New York City have all gone. So have the performers and their immigrant audiences. But in Stardust Lost they live again as Kanfer brings the colorful stage roaring back to life. Meticulously unraveling the history of Jewish theater, he begins with the drama of the Old Testament and moves through time and space to the cultural explosions of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the oppressions of nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, and the pogroms of early twentieth-century czarist Russia. Fleeing anti-Semitic edicts, the Jews of Eastern Europe push westward, migrating first to England and then to America. With them come the extravagant personages who bring drama—in every sense of the word—to Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Stardust Lost invokes the energy, belief, and pure chutzpah it took to establish and run the thriving, influential theaters. En route, Kanfer reveals the nightly drama and comedy that played out behind the scenes as well as onstage, and introduces all the players—actors, divas, playwrights, directors, designers, and producers—who made it possible. Along with the beating pulse of the Yiddish tradition come the larger-than-life stars: Boris Thomashefsky, Jacob P. Adler, Molly Picon, Paul Muni, Bertha Kalisch, David Kessler, Maurice Schwartz, and many others, most with libidos to match their oversized egos. The book grants us views of genuine artistic achievement along with tales of cutthroat competition, adulterous liaisons, and hilarious wrangles. As we see in detail, assimilation, world events, and great shifts in American entertainment—the very entertainment that the Yiddish Theater encouraged by providing talent to uptown stages and film studios—lead to a poignant finale.
From the daring Yiddish interpretation of The Merchant of Venice to Stella Adler’s influence on young actors to John Garfield’s and Marlon Brando’s impact on the screen, Kanfer traverses lower Manhattan, Broadway, and Hollywood to give us the tumultuous birth, flourishing, and decline of a great art form. It is a richly evocative chronicle that resurrects the forgotten landmarks and the vital personalities of the Yiddish Theater, whose work has gone but whose achievements can never be lost.
Stefan Kanfer is the author of The Eighth Sin, A Summer World, The Last Empire, and Serious Business. He was a writer and editor at Time for more than twenty years. A Literary Lion of the New York Public Library and the recipient of numerous writing awards, Kanfer is currently in the Distinguished Writer program at Southampton College, Long Island University. He lives in New York City and on Cape Cod.
“Written in a crowd-pleasing style that ladles on the irresistible anecdotes. . . . Kanfer conveys the excitement and impact of Yiddish theater, not to mention its long shadow.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“A lively history, capturing the spirit of the times and the sensibilities of the actors, writers and impresarios who, with great energy, passion and no training created an altogether new art. . . . In stylish prose that’s a pleasure to read, Kanfer fuels the narrative with anecdotes and insights.”
—The Jewish Week
“Kanfer must be commended for conveying his narrative in such vivid, sensual and often hilarious terms. . . . More than worth the price of admission.”
—Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Kanfer’s prose is clear, breezy, and entertaining. . . . Rivalry. Jealousy. Sabotage. Histrionics. Then as now, that’s entertainment.” —The New York Sun