Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
Last week, the Museum opened “New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway,” a fabulous new exhibition that explores the history and influence of Yiddish theater in New York City. Continuing March’s theme of celebrating women in history, this week we take a brief look at a few of the beautiful, daring, complicated, and incredibly talented women from Yiddish theater.
Born on the Lower East Side in 1901, Stella Adler–youngest daughter in what many consider to be the greatest acting family of the Yiddish stage–grew up watching her parents and siblings perform in Yiddish. She made her stage debut at the tender age of four, and her first English-language Broadway appearance at 21, performing in The World We Live In under the name Lola Adler. In the 1930s, Stella was a member of the influential Group Theatre, a company dedicated to finding an authentically American voice for the stage. She starred in several Group Theatre productions including Awake and Sing!, in which she played the matriarch of a poor Jewish family living the Bronx.
The Group Theatre focused extensively on actor training utilizing techniques adapted from the Moscow Art Theatre, actor training that came to be known as the “Method,” and focuses on character development. In 1949, after a short stint in Hollywood, Stella founded her own school in New York, Stella Adler Studio of Acting, in 1949. Students included Elaine Stritch, Cloris Leachman, and Diana Ross, as well as some famous male actors.
Stella learned her first lessons on life and the theater from her performing parents. Her mother, Sarah Adler, not only acted, but also ran her own theater in Brooklyn for a while, Sarah Adler’s Novelty Theatre. Sarah grew up in Odessa and her first speaking roles were in Russian. As anti-Semitism pushed her out of her homeland, Sarah found her way to New York City, where she and her husband pioneered serious drama in the Yiddish language.
Stella’s older half-sister, Celia, was also known for her portrayals of complex characters. Often called the “First Lady of the Yiddish theatre,” Celia grew up performing with her mother, Dinah. Early on, she considered a career as a teacher, but the encouragement of Yiddish and English stage star Bertha Kalich convinced her to stay with theater. She toured Europe and in New York acted with the influential Yiddish Art Theatre and Jewish Art Theatre.
One of Celia’s fellow actors in the Yiddish Art Theatre was Berta Gersten. Born in Poland, Berta emigrated to New York with her family as a child. To help support her family, she worked variously as a performer and in a factory. Her first serious role came in 1908 with a small part in Mirele Efros, “the Jewish Queen Lear.” One of the great roles for Yiddish actresses, Mirele is a powerful matriarch whose son and daughter-in-law usurp her control over the family business. Later, Berta played Mirele on stage and in a 1939 film version.
In 1944, Berta performed with the New Jewish Folk Theatre in Der nes in geto (The Miracle of the Warsaw Ghetto). One of the first plays to depict World War II while the war was still being fought, the plot relates true events involving Jewish resistance in Poland. Facing their demise in death camps, the residents of the ghetto rally and fight back. Berta played Esther, the wife of the rebellion’s leader. In Act I, she enters the scene smuggling firearms and ammunition in to the ghetto.
In her late fifties, Berta made her English-speaking Broadway debut in The Flowering Peach, a performance that was widely praised. She continued performing in English and Yiddish until just the year before her death in 1972.
Another Yiddish theater actress who found success on the English-speaking stage later in life was Molly Picon. Molly was born in New York City, but began her Yiddish stage career in the theaters of Philadelphia. After returning from a successful European tour, she resettled in New York and made her Broadway debut in 1940. The 1961 musical Milk and Honey gave Molly her first English-speaking smash hit. In it she played Clara Weiss, the leader of a group of widows touring Israel in search of new husbands.
Prior to her Broadway career, Molly had been the biggest little name in Yiddish theater (she stood just 4′ 11″). Playing boys, playing girls, playing girls who were playing boys, she not only starred in dozens of musical comedies in the 1920s, but also wrote the lyrics to many of her own songs. For the 1928 hit Dos tsirkus meydl (The Circus Girl), Molly sang, danced, and performed acrobatic feats–at one point dangling from a rope by her foot. Eventually, as the popularity of Yiddish theater waned, Molly would also star in movies and on television. She kept working well into her 80s.
It seems an injustice to try to cram the full lives of Molly, Berta, and the Adler women into a few paragraphs, and they are but a few of the amazing women that came out of the Yiddish theatrical tradition. I would be remiss not to mention Bertha Kalich, Vera Rozanko, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, and the great Barbra Streisand. And I haven’t even gotten to the men–the beautiful, daring, and complicated men. For all these stories and more, come visit the Museum to see New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway, on view through July 31st!