Monday, May 14, 2012

The Thomashefskys: Pioneers Of American Yiddish Theatre (2012)

Yiddish Theater: This is a clip from The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories Of A  Life In The Yiddish Theater, which took place at New World Center in Miami, Florida, on April 2011. It was originally broadcast on PBS-TV on Thursday, March 29, 2012.
Courtesy: Youtube

Yesterday was Mother’s Day, and I wish all the best to all the wonderful mothers who devote themselves to their children. This program, "The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories Of A  Life In The Yiddish Theater," is certainly a post-Mother's Day treat, but any one and any gender can enjoy this performance.

Yiddish theatre transcends gender and holds an universal appeal. The first Yiddish theatre performance in America (in New York City's Lower East Side) was in 1882. If you like Yiddish Theatre, and want to know more about the life of Boris & Bessie Thomashefsky (nee Kaufman), pioneers of the American Yiddish theatre, you'll enjoy this engaging performance from the PBS TV Great Performances series on The Thomashefskys:
The Thomashefskys brings to life the words and music of the American Yiddish theater.  The story's lead characters—Bessie and Boris Thomashefsky—also happen to be the grandparents of San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas. Bessie and Boris emigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe in the 1880s, and while still in their teens, they began to play major roles in the development of New York City's Yiddish theater. For Jewish immigrants who settled on the lower East Side of Manhattan, the Yiddish theater was central to their lives, and provided a stage for the new ideas that were shaping the transition to an American way of life.
In The Thomashefskys, Tilson Thomas serves as guide through the lives and repertoire of his  grandparents. His grandfather died before he was born, but his grandmother lived until he was 17. His close relationship with her is a source of much of the performance material. Performed at the New World Symphony's spectacular new Frank Gehry-designed home in Miami, Tilson Thomas shares the stage with a 30-piece orchestra and ensemble cast to bring the repertoire and words of Bessie and Boris to life. With time, aspects of klezmer and cantorial sounds became more integrated and more American, as Jewish composers became immersed in their new surroundings, greatly influencing composers like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin.

Boris [1866-1939] & Bessie Thomashefsky [1873-1962]: From their 1890 engagement photo. They married a year later.

Yiddish theatre was primarily the domain of the immigrants, the working class and the owners of small businesses, where they could relax and be themselves in a safe environment, and where they could laugh and cry within a space of a few hours. It is where my grandparents on my mother's side went to escape, chiefly the drudgery of work and life's hardships, in the early part of the 20th century. It is also where my parents went in the 1960s and 1970s, when I was youngster growing up with many interests. It still survives in some urban centres, including in Montreal, where I reside. It might be surprising to some to find out that Montreal has had a Yiddish Theatre since 1897.

You can watch the full program on The Thomashefskys on the PBS channel here


  1. My parents went to Yiddish theaters on Second Avenue in Manhattan regularly. I saw my first play, in Yiddish, when I was about 7. I loved actors like Menashe Skulnik, Yetta Zwerling, and Leo Fuchs. I continued to attend Yiddish plays through my college years. The music was wonderful and the comedies were really funny.

    1. Yes, they were. I should have mentioned that my parents often attended Yiddish theatre in Montreal, as well. They sometimes took my brothers and I along, but we didn't enjoy it as much as they did. I appreciate it more in my later years.


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