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Lecture Notes: the joys of Yiddish theater



Maynard I. Wishner has devoted his life to the law. A founding partner of the firm Cole, Wishner, Epstein and Manilow, he also spent time in the 1950s as the head of Chicago's ordinance-enforcement division and as the executive director of the city's Commission on Human Relations.

But for a while there in the 40s, his life was taking a different direction. That was when Wishner was a regular performer at Chicago's last remaining venue for Yiddish theater, the Douglas Park Theatre. "It was at Kedzie and Ogden Avenue. It was a resident professional theater with a company of actors and a star system. The stars of Yiddish theater would come into town from New York and perform there. Do you know Maurice Schwartz?" he asks, referring to the illustrious founder of the New York-based Yiddish Art Theatre. "He performed there."

Yiddish, spoken by central and eastern European Jews, has a long history as both the language of religious scholars and a vernacular tongue used in literature, storytelling, and song. Most scholarly sources place the birth of the professional Yiddish-theater movement in 1876, when a Russian, Abraham Goldfaden, and two musicians put on a sketch at a tavern in Romania. It spread to Russia and later England and America--wherever there were large populations of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe.

The genre had its heyday in the teens and twenties, when theaters were packed with both recent and established immigrants yearning to be entertained in the language of their home. "There were two streams of Yiddish theater in America," Wishner says. "One strain aspired to literary greatness--this was the Yiddish Art Theatre. The other branch of Yiddish theater just wanted to please the crowds with melodrama and musicals." The latter form played shamelessly with the emotions of its audiences, moving them to laughter one minute, to tears the next, and then capping it all with a schmaltzy song. "The shows focused on conflicts between cultures," says Wishner. "Between immigrants and Yankees, or between immigrants who had moved uptown and those who stayed downtown, between those who had made it and those who hadn't, or the tension between generations." At its height in America, Yiddish theater had its own cadre of writers and composers and allied movie studios that cranked out film versions of hits like Yiddle With a Fiddle.

In New York Yiddish theater was a veritable hothouse of talent. Luther and Stella Adler, children of the great Yiddish actor Jacob Adler, cut their teeth on its stages, as did--oddly enough--a tough-looking Irish hoofer named James Cagney. The Chicago scene was neither as huge nor ultimately as influential, but it found many patrons in the Jewish neighborhoods on the near west side. "In the 1890s there was a Yiddish theater, the Metropolitan, on Jefferson near 12th Street," says Wishner. "Later there was the Standard, at Halsted and Adams. The Empire Theater and the Haymarket Theater, both were on Madison near Halsted. And in 1929 the Palace [no relation to the downtown vaudeville house of the same name] on Blue Island near Roosevelt.

"The Douglas Park Theatre did not aspire to great artistic theater. This was a people's theater. This belonged to the people, they patronized it, it played to them." When asked to name some of the shows he remembers, Wishner just laughs. "They were all so alike." He rattles off likely, but fictional, titles: "'A Mother's Heart,' 'A Mother's Tears,' 'A Mother's Heart and Tears.' I did appear in one show that translated as Sweet Dreams, another called Penthouse on Riverside Drive, and in a Yiddish version of Anna Lucasta."

By the time Wishner, the son of immigrants, was in elementary school in the 30s, Yiddish theater was in decline, but he still studied the language at a special school. "From my very young years I was reciting Yiddish poetry and monologues. And in the school settings we would do little plays in Yiddish. Mostly I did character parts. In high school I played Tevye in a production of one of Shalom Aleichem's stories about Tevye and his daughters."

Yiddish theater was on its last legs by the time Wishner started performing. But the Douglas Park Theatre had one last brush with greatness before it closed its doors in 1951. "In an attempt to bring more young people into the theater they hired three young actors: me, a young woman, and a young actor from the Catskills. He called himself Bernard White. He was very handsome. Whenever he would come out on the stage you could hear the women's voices whispering 'Shain shain shain,' which is Yiddish for 'beautiful.' His original name had been Bernard Schwartz. He was very serious about his acting." After a season at the theater White decided to try his luck in Hollywood. "I remember the wife of the manager of the company, Rose Wallerstein, telling him, 'Don't go out there, Bernie, they will break your heart.'" The next thing Wishner knew, he was watching White on the big screen, riding a horse through the desert with a beautiful Hollywood starlet. The young actor, who had changed his name to Tony Curtis, had hit the big time.

Does Wishner wish he had followed Curtis to Hollywood? "No, a career in acting was not what I wanted." These days, however, the Yiddish language is experiencing a revival, and Wishner suddenly finds he's something of a celebrity after all. "Most of the people I worked with had no idea of this part of my past," he says. "They find it quaint." He's not surprised about the renewed interest in all things Yiddish. "It was the language of the people. Very earthy. But it did have an elite. It had a literature, academics, hundreds of writers, hundreds of Yiddish songs. Magnificent stuff."

Wishner will give a lecture, "A People's Theater: Yiddish Theater & the Chicago Immigrant Experience," from noon to 2 on Thursday, April 6, at the Spertus Museum, 618 S. Michigan. Admission is $15, $10 for students. For reservations and information, call 312-322-1747.

--Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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