Synopses & Reviews
From the author of the best-selling and critically acclaimed biographies Groucho
and Ball of Fire
comes a definitive look back at the Yiddish Theater. In this soulful and entertaining elegy Stefan Kanfer traces its meteoric rise, its precipitous fall, and its lasting mark on American theater, film, and culture in general.
The Yiddish Theater’s star seems to have burned out. The venues in New York City have all gone. So have the performers and their immigrant audiences. But in Stardust Lost they live again as Kanfer brings the colorful stage roaring back to life. Meticulously unraveling the history of Jewish theater, he begins with the drama of the Old Testament and moves through time and space to the cultural explosions of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the oppressions of nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, and the pogroms of early twentieth-century czarist Russia. Fleeing anti-Semitic edicts, the Jews of Eastern Europe push westward, migrating first to England and then to America. With them come the extravagant personages who bring drama—in every sense of the word—to Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Stardust Lost invokes the energy, belief, and pure chutzpah it took to establish and run the thriving, influential theaters. En route, Kanfer reveals the nightly drama and comedy that played out behind the scenes as well as onstage, and introduces all the players—actors, divas, playwrights, directors, designers, and producers—who made it possible. Along with the beating pulse of the Yiddish tradition come the larger-than-life stars: Boris Thomashefsky, Jacob P. Adler, Molly Picon, Paul Muni, Bertha Kalisch, David Kessler, Maurice Schwartz, and many others, most with libidos to match their oversized egos. The book grants us views of genuine artistic achievement along with tales of cutthroat competition, adulterous liaisons, and hilarious wrangles. As we see in detail, assimilation, world events, and great shifts in American entertainment—the very entertainment that the Yiddish Theater encouraged by providing talent to uptown stages and film studios—lead to a poignant finale.
From the daring Yiddish interpretation of The Merchant of Venice to Stella Adler’s influence on young actors to John Garfield’s and Marlon Brando’s impact on the screen, Kanfer traverses lower Manhattan, Broadway, and Hollywood to give us the tumultuous birth, flourishing, and decline of a great art form. It is a richly evocative chronicle that resurrects the forgotten landmarks and the vital personalities of the Yiddish Theater, whose work has gone but whose achievements can never be lost.
"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." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
An in-depth study of the history of Yiddish theater in America follows it from its origins in nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, its journey to the Lower East Side of New York in 1910s and 1920s with Jewish immigrants, and its ultimate decline in the face of assimilation and changing world events. 40,000 first printing.
From the author of the bestselling biographies "Groucho" and "Ball of Fire" comes a definitive, openhearted history of Yiddish theater in America. of photos.
About the Author
Stefan Kanfer is the author of The Eighth Sin, A Summer World, The Last Empire, and Serious Business. He was a writer and editor at Time for more than twenty years. A Literary Lion of the New York Public Library and the recipient of numerous writing awards, Kanfer is currently in the Distinguished Writer program at Southampton College, Long Island University. He lives in New York City and on Cape Cod.