01 June 2008

Yiddish Theater: The Thomashefsky Family

The Thomashefsky Project has unearthed some 1,000 documents relating to the private and public lives of famed Yiddish theater stars Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, the grandparents of San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas.

In 1998, Tilson Thomas set up a foundation to research the archives of Yiddish theater and collect and curate Thomashefsky artifacts. As a result of seven years of family history research, the project has uncovered photographs, posters, scores, scripts and more. Fragments of musical manuscripts were pieced together and transcribed, while scripts have been preserved and translated. Items were found in the family's own collection, at YIVO and the New York Public Library.

A multimedia show, "The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater," will be at Chicago's Symphony Center on Tuesday, June 3; click here for details. Tilson Thomas will conduct Chicago Symphony Orchestra members in a program ranging from Kaddish to Thomashevsky originals.

In a Chicago Sun Times story, he relates one of his grandmother's stories:

"In the late 1890s, Bessie was arrested by Theodore Roosevelt, who, well before he was elected President of the U.S., was New York City's Police Commissioner. My grandparents' theater had apparently violated the 'blue laws' which required businesses to close on Sunday. But Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath, so Sunday was a golden day for the Yiddish theater box office. My grandmother, who was then in her twenties, but always looked much younger than she actually was, recalled how Roosevelt barged into the place and shouted 'Look out little girl!,' to which she quickly replied, 'Hey, I'M the star'.

Born in 1868 in Tarasche (Tarasche) near Kiev, 12-year-old Boris Thomashefsky arrived in New York in 1881, and organized the first Yiddish theater performance only a year later. The teenager took Yiddish theater on the road in the 1880s, performing in Philadelphia, Washington DC, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Boston and Chicago.

Among his famous roles: Hamlet in "Der Yisheve Bokher," (the yeshiva student); the poster read "translated and improved upon by Boris Thomashefsky;" King Lear, Romeo, Judah Maccabee and the "Jewish Yankee Doodle." The theater also performed Ansky, Chekhov, Faust, and even Wagner's Parsifal.

In addition to Shakespeare, the Yiddish theater covered Ibsen (who, says Tilson Thomas, was censored in English, but not in Yiddish), American themes such as "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and operettas. It also looked at controversial and topical issues such as birth control, women's rights, assimilation and class struggle.

For more information, read this story.

Want to know more about the Yiddish theater? click All About Jewish Theatre, and an additional link to the Library of Congress pdf file, Lawrence Marwick Collection of Copyrighted Yiddish Plays.

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