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August-05-03 Issue: 4.08  
The Yiddish Theater in New York City (part one)
this is column
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We are about to embark on a journey down a road called Memory Lane. I have to tell you that for me Memory Lane is more of a super highway with lots of on ramps, off ramps, service roads and cloverleaves.

Why write about the Yiddish Theater now, in 2003? Or for that matter why write about the Yiddish theater at all?

Well, back in April of this year my middle son, Josef, wrote  asking me to clarify some memories he had about the Yiddish Theater housed at The Eden Theater in New York City. I responded with a note that set me off on my present journey. Shortly thereafter a member of my congregation here in Jacksonville, Florida forwarded a copy of the Gantseh Megillah,  I'm now writing this for. What followed was my "letter to the editor"; his answer, and so forth and so on. Strange, you might say, so I suppose that the best way to relay this chain of events would be to let y'all read the exchange of correspondences which lead up to my writing this first, of what I hope will be many articles.

So, fasten your seat belts, here we go!

April 14, 2003
Dear Dad,
I need to know more about Harry and the theater. I love my job because of the thrill-of-the-production. Some may not see the similarity between production manufacturing and stage production, but to me, (who has always seen life as poetry in constant motion), the lines have been blurred. I remember the day Radio City Music Hall was going to close. Harry took all of his grandchildren to wait on line outside and get in for what was to be the last show, until someone came up with necessary funds to keep the landmark open. I wish the same could have been done for the Eden. I recently saw a movie there in the multiplex cinema that stands on the spot. What memories! Those were the days! Harry didn't want us to miss out on the production over at Radio City. I think it was the production that meant the most to him in some ways. He thought of himself as Willy Loman and yet when I think of him, after the smell of cigars fades, I picture him larger than life, and more like P.T. Barnum or George M. Cohan. I remember making cassettes from all of his eight-track tapes and reel-to-reels. I listened to a lot of those old plays and recordings. I wish I could get my hands on those tapes now and preserve them on CD. I wonder what else you can tell me about the theater that I don't remember.

Love, Josef


April 16, 2003
Dear Josef,

O.K. The Eden Theater on 12th street and 2nd Avenue was originally built as The Yiddish Art Theater. Maurice Schwartz was like to the Yiddish Stage as Mel Gibson is to the movies. He had a worldwide following including my father. Harry sought him out and they became friends as did Seymour Rexite, Morris Strasburg, Helen Blay, Miriam Kressen, etc.

Harry always supported them much in the same way I picked up young musical
talent and supported them. One day he got an idea to immortalize the late, great Maurice Schwatrz by taking over the Eden Theater and making it what it used to be; staging shows from the Yiddish Art Theater repertoire of Maurice Schwartz. He took a net lease on the place for three years and the fun started.

When I said he did three shows that meant three years. Each show started pre-production in June, went into rehearsal in August, and opened usually after the high holidays in September. There were eight performances a week. One each on Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, and two performances on Wednesday and Sunday, (matinee and evening). Thursday's the theater was "dark", (closed).

So when you recall things always going on there you're not wrong, but it all took place during the set-up, performance and take-down of three shows. Those three shows were "Yoshe Kalb", "Schver tsoo zein a Yid", ("Hard to be a Jew"), and "der grosse gevince", (the Big Winner).

The first show attracted all the Yiddish-speaking people from the tri-state area and lasted about three months, (losing about $60,000.00).

The second show was a hit. It went for over 100 performances and actually made money. It was a prince and pauper story with the prince being a Russian university student and the pauper being a poor Jewish student. It had great music, staging and dancing. I tried to convince Harry, along with several other people, to translate it to English and re-open it the next season, as an off-Broadway competitor to Fiddler On The Roof, which by the way was an adaptation of a Maurice Schwartz production called "Tevye der milchada", ("Tevye the dairy-man")

Well, he wouldn't listen and went ahead with plans to do a third show in Yiddish, "The Big Winner", starring David Opotasho.

It flopped, grandpa got discouraged and he didn't renew the lease for another three years.

That's about it. He employed a lot of his friends for three years, left me holding the bag, while the shows were running and he was off cruising on the Israeli ocean liner the Shalom with grandma. Since I spent almost every weekend at the theater so did you and your brothers. If you have any specific questions I'd be happy to answer them if I can recall the answers.

Love, Dad

I received my first on-line issue of Yiddishkeit shortly after this exchange. My letter to Michael Fein and his response were next, but I have too many words already.

Shalom for now. I'll pick up the chain of events next month.

 

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