Written by Liz Richards
February 28, 2017
I’ve been doing it out on my blog, fyeahgreatplays.com, for a while now, so it seemed only natural to migrate here in a more official Advice Columnist capacity. I’ve freelanced as a stage manager around New York as well as regionally, I’m a member of Actor’s Equity and a total contract junkie, and I occasionally cohost a podcast on theater and performance (Maxamoo).
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How did the Jewish community get so involved in New York theater? Is there a historical basis or do Jews simply love live theater more than a lot of other groups?
I had my theories, but as a goy, I wanted the opinion of some actual Jews. To the experts!
David Levy, who holds a master’s in Jewish Studies from Hebrew College, confirmed my theory that historically, Jews (and many other immigrant populations) have been excluded from many professions, and began to pick up the undesirable jobs, like money collectors, miners, and actors. Together, they created a tight-knit community of playwrights, actors, and directors, There’s also the Yiddish theater tradition.
Stage & Candor‘s own Esther Cohen reminds me that “Yiddish was a dying language because Jews were assimilating in America, but Yiddish theater still provided a cultural connection for Jews.” It was a rallying cultural event for American Jews, especially Jews emigrating to New York City as the vaudeville and Broadway scenes grew, and may have led to more crossover and involvement in the theater scene later on. There is a whole documentary specifically about Jews and Broadway Musicals that aired on PBS and is still available to watch for free on their website here.
If you want to learn more, Levy recommends the book “Making Americans: Jews and Musical Theatre” by Andrea Most. It’s a more academic take that looks for Jewish themes in works like Oklahoma!, Annie Get Your Gun and more.