When 14-year-old Bessie Baumfeld-Kaufman went backstage after a play to meet the beautiful female lead, she had little idea what was in store for her. For starters, the gorgeous actress turned out to be an actor, a 19-year-old man. His name, he told her, was Boris Thomashefsky and he ran the Yiddish theater company. But he must have been even more attractive to Bessie as a man, for a year later she ran away from home to join the Thomashefsky Players, and the two would get married. And together the couple, the Thomashefskys, became legendary Jewish-American cultural icons.
Singing was pretty much the family business when Boris Thomashefsky was born in a shtetl near Kiev in Ukraine. The Thomashefskys had produced many chazzans, or cantors, over the years and so Boris’ father sent him to a leading cantorial school where he became a star pupil. Boris sang in local synagogues and when he was 12, in 1881, the family moved to New York City.
Settling on the Lower East Side, Boris continued to sing at synagogues on the Sabbath, when he would supplement his weekly wages earned as a sweatshop cigarette maker. To pass the time at work, his fellow sweatshop workers sang songs they recalled from the Yiddish theater in the Old Country that they had left for America. Although Boris had never been to the theater back in Ukraine, the songs captivated him. He soon fell in love with the idea of Yiddish theater.
So while still just a young man, and an immigrant at that, Boris decided to bring Yiddish theater to the goldene medina, America. He had a vision of bringing it to America and the imagination to visualize how big Yiddish theater could be in the United States. The Lower East side, after all, was thronging with Jews, why wouldn’t they enjoy a show or two?
Although Boris was now in the new world, tradition and the Old Country still held a strong influence on his Yiddish theater’s early days. The first music he performed sounded like typical East European klezmer; only in time would it gradually become Americanized and end up sounding like Gershwin or Berlin. And, again due to tradition, Boris started his career playing female parts as a soprano in deference to religious Jews’ disapproval of a Jewish girl performing on stage. In fact, some religious men felt so strongly that they abducted Thomashefsky’s company’s female soprano, leaving Boris, who was still just as teenager, to play the part. So Boris continued to play female roles, and was doing so when he met Bessie.
She, too, was an immigrant from Ukraine. Bessie was 5 or 6 years old when her family arrived in Baltimore and only went to school until the age of 12, whereupon she started work at a factory. In 1887, the Thomashefsky Company came to town and Bessie, no doubt in need off a night off, received a ticket. The young girl who had to work instead of study like a character from Dickens was immediately enchanted by the female lead. “Her hair was piled high with ringlets,” Bessie said, “and she had all this sparkling jewelry … She was the center of attention and flirting and all the men were watching her.” Bessie had to meet her, so she made her way backstage.
The actress, of course, was Boris, and whatever he said to Bessie seduced her as effectively as his female character attracted men, for shortly afterwards Bessie ran away from home to join the company. She and Boris eloped, and Bessie began to perform too, taking over the female roles from Boris. (The couple would marry a few years later.)
At first Bessie portrayed young innocent girls but in time she came to specialize in comic parts while Boris often played heroic, adventurous roles. Often, in a kind of inversion of Boris’ previous portrayal of women, the characters Bessie played would disguise themselves as men in order to enjoy the educational and professional advantages reserved for men. Bessie became a vital part of the Thomashefsky Company, and a champion of the suffragette movement.
The Thomashefskys put on quite a show. These were huge productions. There were hundreds of performers on stage, elaborate sets, live orchestras, sometimes even horses too. It was remarkable that within a few years, immigrants to the United States who had come with nothing, worked in sweatshops and lived in poverty could create such a spectacle. The Thomashefskys became big stars, with rabid fans, and some 30,000 people attended Boris’ funeral in 1933. While the Thomashefskys became the biggest name in Yiddish theater, they were by no means the only, for this immigrant culture took over much of lower Manhattan.
Between 1890 and 1940, there were as many as a dozen Yiddish theater companies in New York City, with another 200 or so traveling around the United States on tour. Yiddish theater was central to many immigrants’ lives and was widely and wildly popular. It not only served as a link to the Old World and life in Eastern Europe but helped foreigners adjust to life in America. Theater provided a stage on which the psychological, social, emotional and cultural dramas inherent in transitioning to a new life could be explored. In many cases, it taught greenhorns how to be Americans. It also provided respite from the drudgery and penury of tenement and sweatshop life. In Henry Roth’s brilliant immigrant novel “Call it Sleep,” the one time the protagonist’s parents go out is to the Yiddish theater, which Roth describes as “a stage that is never empty of tears—at least one good death rattle is heard every night.”
New York City became home to the world’s leading Yiddish theater district, with its heart on Second Avenue between Houston Street and 14th Street. There were also major venues on Grand Street and the Bowery. On any night, one could find as many as 20 or 30 performances, including new plays, Yiddish translation of a classics, vaudeville shows and musicals. The quality of the plays—be they melodramas, farces, operettas or whatever—was so high that it rivaled Broadway. And the downtown Yiddish theater inspired and improved Broadway—it’s no coincidence that the composers and lyricists George and Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin grew up in the heart of the Yiddish theater district, where Gershwin regularly went to Yiddish performances and wrote about Yiddish music.
During the time Yiddish theater dominated the cultural landscape of New York and spawned Broadway musical theater, the Thomashefskys contributed more than anyone. So they did not just influence Yiddish theater and Jewish cultural life but also the development of American culture. They helped bring about the musical and by addressing social issues, like workers’ rights and the role of women in society, they helped to popularize political struggles.
Despite her small and youthful appearance, Bessie was a strong woman. And one day it took a future president to arrest her. At the time, blue laws in New York forbade performances on Sunday. But in Yiddish theater Sunday was a big day because, of course, Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath, when there were no performances. So one Sunday Theodore Roosevelt, who was police commissioner of New York, and his men raided one of the Thomashefsky theaters. Roosevelt was himself leading the raid when he spotted Bessie, who looked much younger than she was.
”Look out little girl,” said the future President of the United States.
“Little girl my ass,” Bessie replied. “I’m the star here. If anybody’s being taken in here, it’s me.”
So it was Bessie was arrested alongside her staff.
She wanted it that way, and not just due to vanity. Gender equality and women’s rights were a big part of Yiddish theater, as were other social issues like child labor, degrees of religious observance and assimilation.
“Their theater was entirely a theater of social consciousness,” the Thomashefskys’ grandson Michael Tilson Thomas told NPR. “Their great concern was for the audience, and they wanted to open up the worlds beyond the ghetto experiences of their audiences. They wanted to introduce them to the full possibilities of what freedom could mean in the United States through the plays they presented, through the music they gave the public and also through the kinds of topics their plays addressed.”
Yiddish theater was a cultural phenomenon that helped immigrants to assimilate, although in time this assimilation would kill off the culture for no one spoke Yiddish. But its mission, at least for the Thomashefskys, who were political liberals, was progressive. It was to entertain, sure, but also to portray life as it is and as it ought to be.
One example was the play “Chantzhe [Hannah] in Amerika,” in which a young girl, played by Bessie, disguises herself as a man so she can go to driving school to become the chauffeur of a wealthy New York family. As Bessie played her, the independent-minded character starts as chauffeur but ends as an outspoken suffragette, adapting to her society and fighting to improve it. For as Hannah argued, “What is the good of being in America if one couldn’t drive a car?”