From Publishers Weekly
In this highly readable social history of Yiddish theater, Kanfer traces the genre from its genesis in eastern Europe to its flowering on New York's Lower East Side in the early 20th century. He explores its success within the New World's intellectual ferment, as Jewish writers and performers introduced greenhorn audiences to Shakespeare and Tolstoy in a bid to enlighten the masses and stoke their social aspirations. But the plays' irony and rapid-fire timing made their flavor uniquely Yiddish, as they expressed and framed the immigrant experience—tackling issues from poverty to assimilation that elevated them above mere escapism. With the character-driven narrative skill and assiduous research that mark his biography of Lucille Ball (Ball of Fire)
, Kanfer limns delightful portraits of genre stalwarts like playwright/director Abraham Goldfaden and actor Jacob Adler. Though Yiddish theater had faded by mid-century, its demise hastened by Hollywood, Kanfer makes a salient case that it was more than a momentary fad. He argues for the pliancy of the "Velcro language," its DNA carried in the era's most influential acting teacher, Adler's daughter Stella—whose students included Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando. Through them, the legacy endures. Photos not seen by PW
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The Yiddish theater sprang up in Crimean War-era eastern Europe when a ragtag group of writers, actors, and hangers-on began cobbling together plays in Yiddish and performing them in any place large enough for two planks and passion. The form reached its ultimate expression two generations later in New York, where artists of the stature of actor Jacob Adler and playwright Sholem Aleichem transformed it into highly literate entertainment and set the stage for the American theater's ascent to world-class status. Kanfer's fascinating, sprightly book charts the Yiddish theater from Ukraine, Russia, and Romania to transplantations to London and, later, New York. He briefly (sometimes too briefly) sketches the actors, writers, and producers who helped it evolve from provincial crudity. Major players, Adler in particular, are given larger coverage, as are such other important figures of the era as Abraham Cahan, founder-editor of the Jewish Daily Forward.
A book to satisfy both lovers of Yiddish culture and aficionados of the golden age of American theater and its immediate antecedents. Jack HelbigCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved