Nina Warnke
Immigrant Popular Culture as Contested Sphere:
Yiddish Music Halls, the Yiddish Press, and the Processes of Americanization, 1900-1910
Theatre Journal. Vol. 48, issue 3, 1996, pp. 321-335.

Copyright © 1996 by The Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.
Full electronic version is published by Project Muse at

There are already [Yiddish] concert halls where they play cat music and idiotic vaudevilles and sing dirty songs, where painted women and shady men gather, and where small children are taken to whom they sell beer and cigarettes and teach obscene language. These halls are a great danger, and we in our community have to do our utmost to protect the ghetto from this new plague. 1

In the spring of 1902, a heated discussion broke out in New York's Yiddish-language press over the role of Yiddish music halls and variety entertainment in the immigrant community. Writers for conservative as well as socialist papers expressed their dismay by describing the halls as a "plague," a "scandal," and a "disgrace," and performers and audience members alike as "depraved" and "immoral." As immigrant performers eagerly appropriated this American entertainment form and young entertainment-seekers found in music halls a space in which to experience and express "American" modes of social and sexual behavior, the Yiddish press, particularly, the socialist daily Forverts (Jewish Daily Forward) and its editor, Abraham Cahan, regularly warned its readers of the immoral influence of this institution. Judging music hall entertainment primarily as a social problem rather than a cultural phenomenon, the Yiddish press attacked its social context, the nature of its audience and performers, and the content of the shows. While an overriding concern with the immigrants' moral fabric lay at the heart of this critique, other issues, such as the socialists' concept of the role of art in society and their deep ambivalence, if not opposition, to this expression of the immigrants' Americanization, formed the subtext for their arguments. In particular, the controversial and titillating status of the music halls served the press as a convenient way to increase readership.

Following the lead of Bernard Gorin, the first historian of Yiddish theatre, scholars like Irving Howe, David Lifson, and Nahma Sandrow have provided us with much needed and insightful documentations of major Yiddish actors, dramatists, and [End Page 321] dramatic trends. 2 These works and others have generally stressed the theatre's cultural particularity and have analyzed how its themes have expressed Jewish immigrants' sentiments. 3 Lately, research has begun to branch out into investigations of cross-cultural influences between American and Yiddish theatrical forms and the complex role of the Yiddish press in defining and shaping the theatre. 4 A serious discussion of early music hall entertainment as a social as well as cultural institution is, however, conspicuously absent. 5 In presenting early Yiddish music halls as a contested site of Americanization, I hope to illuminate how aesthetic principles, moral concerns, commercial interests, and the social pressures of assimilation come together in the battle over Jewish American cultural identity at the turn of the century.

Socialist Critique of Yiddish "Legitimate" Theatre

By the turn of the century, close to 300,000 Jewish immigrants from all over Eastern Europe were living on the Lower East Side, and their numbers were increasing dramatically each year. Coming mostly from small towns to the huge, modern, foreign metropolis of New York, immigrants confronted a variety of fundamental changes in their social and class status, gender roles, community cohesiveness and religious and cultural traditions. As Andrew Heinze argues, one of the most powerful organizing principles in the immigrants' Americanization was "adapting to abundance," embracing mass consumption, from ready-made clothes to all forms of commercial leisure. 6 Until the turn of the century, the Yiddish stage served as the central entertainment institution for Eastern European Jewish immigrants, having become increasingly important in the lives and imaginations of tens of thousands, mostly uneducated, people since its beginnings in New York in 1883. 7 [End Page 322]

Due to the relative weakness of community structures and social control on the Lower East Side, immigrant socialist intellectuals, many of whom were newspaper editors, writers, and political activists, regarded themselves as the immigrants' cultural and political educators, as guardians of immigrant morality and as guides on the road to a cautious Americanization. One of the most prominent figures of this group was Abraham Cahan. By the time he became editor of the Forverts in 1902, he had lived in New York for twenty years (almost half of his life), had helped to launch the Jewish labor movement, and had edited several socialist publications. In 1896, upon the publication of his first novella, Yekl, he achieved mainstream recognition when novelist and literary critic William Dean Howells hailed him a "New Star of Realism." 8

A few years earlier, Cahan and playwright Jacob Gordin, who became the primary intellectual presence in, and reformer of, the Yiddish theatre, had been the driving force behind a campaign to transform the community's theatres from establishments for "lowbrow" entertainment into institutions for "highbrow" and cosmopolitan European culture. As "part of the general Euro-American tradition which centered on melodrama," 9 Yiddish theatre offered plays incorporating sentimental songs, jokes, elaborate scenery, and special stage effects. Eager to control the quality, content and effects of this theatre, the Yiddish socialist press used appeals to theatre as art to influence this popular entertainment.

Considering theatre "one of the most powerful factors of education, enlightenment, and development" 10 --a civilizing agency par excellence for the uneducated masses--they attempted to teach their uneducated readers an "appreciation of art." Defining theatre art primarily as literary drama with "realistic" character development and psychologically motivated action in the latest European tradition of Ibsen, Tolstoy, and Hauptmann, they demanded the elimination of historical operettas and melodramas--so-called shund (trash) entertainment. They particularly condemned those performance elements, such as songs, dances, or jokes which were extraneous to the representation of "real life" or which they considered vulgar because of sexual suggestiveness. While they treated shund as stupid and stupefying entertainment, they hoped that literary and, especially, realist drama, would teach audience members an awareness of social ills and so trigger the demand for change. Like socialists in Germany and other European countries, many Jewish socialists in New York embraced and promoted realism because, unlike popular melodrama, it attacked the established bourgeois social norms and moral order. 11 Already in 1889, Cahan, who [End Page 323] remained a staunch proponent of realism all his life, put forth "a vision of realism and socialism marching hand-in-hand 'with gigantic strides on the path of progress and happiness.'" 12

By the 1900s, the socialists' efforts appeared to have been successful: "highbrow" art, in the form of translations from European realist dramas and Gordin's own problem plays, had become a more visible part of the repertoire, some were even box office hits. The advocates of realism were hopeful that the theatres could rise to an artistic standard higher than most English-language stages. Despite realism's moments in the limelight, the more predictable financial successes were still shund plays. As one journalist noted in 1901, "Jewish theatre-goers demonstrate great enthusiasm for couplets, dances, jokes, acrobatic stunts, and funny scenes which belong to vaudeville." 13

Yiddish music halls, then, presented exactly those aspects that socialist intellectuals were fighting so hard to reduce on the stages of the theatres: bawdiness, vulgar jokes, gratuitous and showy singing and dancing. More important, they provided a false pleasure; not only were they distracting the audience from the need for edification but, worse yet, they pulled them in the opposite direction. As the theatres seemed finally to have become artistically "purer" and some of the audience more receptive, the variety elements reemerged even more boldly, in a setting that would become even more embattled. Horrified at realizing their obvious lack of power over immigrant entertainment, the critics constructed the music hall as the new "low-Other," relegating it to a position even lower than the shund plays in the theatres. 14

The Image of American Music Halls

The unease of Yiddish intellectuals with these new entertainment establishments was rooted in this amusement's obvious affiliation with its model, the American music halls. Their response to the Yiddish versions was not only informed by what they actually witnessed there but, more important, was pre-conditioned by long-established [End Page 324] notions about English-language music halls and concert saloons in America as centers of vulgarity and vice. As historian Timothy Gilfoyle notes, "between 1870 and 1895, concert saloons and masked balls gradually supplanted theaters and brothels as the most public, commercialized venues for prostitution." 15

Even if English-language music halls did not all cater to the sex trade, their atmosphere, according to social reformer F. H. McLean, who echoed the general criticism of this kind of commercial entertainment culture, was of "cheap and sometimes nasty character. The wit is of a dull and sodden sort, and when it treads on forbidden ground it is brutishly vile in innuendo." 16 For McLean, writing in 1899, the only exception to this seemingly pervasive immoral atmosphere on the Bowery were the Yiddish theatres: "To pass to the Hebrew theaters is to pass into the clean atmosphere of a family resort." 17 However, he discerned an alarmingly infectious influence from the American entertainment scene, an influence that the Jewish intellectuals desperately tried to counter: "The same restless tendency which has affected the American theater in general is beginning to show itself in these race theaters. . . . It has been prophesied that eventually the variety show would even invade these sacred precincts." 18 Two years later, when the prophecy had come true, Gordin noted in his typical acerbic and condescending tone,

[t]he worst part of it is that the growing generation is completely under the influence of this tendency [of American commercial theatre]. The young are not able to estimate and profit by the good sides of American life, but the bad qualities are at once appropriated and everything else is met with scornful impudence. The young, naturally, consider themselves cultured gentlemen, . . . when they can contemptuously ridicule in slang English everything Yiddish and by unscrupulously imitating the American taste become 'like unto Yankees.'
It can be said that due to this 'imitation' there have recently sprung up, at the tail of theatrical business, the lowest kinds of music halls, with disgusting shows, demoralizing recitations, vulgar witticisms, emetic beer, and debauchery. 19

Writing for the University Settlement Society, Gordin referred explicitly to young immigrants' desire for Americanization as the central motivation for frequenting music halls. Although he did not oppose Americanization per se, he considered the appropriation of "low" expressions of culture, such as slang and commercial entertainment, the "wrong" kind of Americanization. While never expressly thematized in the Yiddish press, this connection between the Yiddish music halls and "wrong" Americanization informed all subsequent discussions.

Yiddish Music Halls, Saloon Culture, and Prostitution

Underlying these notions of depravity was a deep seated distrust of commercial entertainment which was thought--by American social reformers as well as immigrant intellectuals--to exploit working people's need for cheap urban recreation, to [End Page 325] corrupt the innocent, and to break up family life. Like their English-language models, Yiddish music halls offered songs, dances, sketches, and jokes, usually spiced with double entendres and suggestive gestures. Reformers reacted not only to the stage acts but also and even more emphatically to the corrupting influence of alcohol and to the idea as much as the actual practice of prostitution in these venues. Jewish intellectuals such as Cahan were especially disturbed by the fact that the Yiddish music halls, unlike their English counterparts, accommodated women and even children in the audience and therefore, in his view, exposed whole families to vice. As we take a closer look at the relationship between what might be called saloon culture in urban America and the Yiddish music hall as a gathering place for immigrants of all ages and both sexes, we ought to bear in mind that the moral or immoral character of commercial amusements and their audiences, female as well as male, was a contested and contentious subject, rather than a universally acknowledged source of corruption. 20

In the early years, variety entertainment was staged in the backrooms of saloons, or adjacent halls. As one former star reminisced in his description of a typical Yiddish music hall of the early years:

In the front was the coffee [house] or rather the beer saloon, with an announcement in the window: 'Extra! Extra! Tonight we will present 'The Unlucky Girl' . . . best Romanian peppers, Hungarian meat patties, liver; a large glass of beer, five cents; admittance free.' The room where the performance took place was behind the bar and kitchen. It was a large room with round tables and chairs around them. The stage was put together with planks . . . . 21

According to this performer, on weekends the tables were covered with tablecloths and customers were required to order two glasses of beer. Throughout the performance, waiters rushed back and forth calling out the orders.

Because the Yiddish music halls did not charge admission for shows but required consumption of beer, Cahan denounced them as "schools for drinking." He charged that "the only reason for these new entertainment places" was "to turn Jews into drunkards."

Hundreds of respectable people who never drink any intoxicating drinks come together to have a good time. All that is demanded of them is that they take a glass of beer. They can't refuse. They will be kicked out. And besides: how could one be so unfair and not pay in a place where they sing and dance for 'free'? . . . One evening, another evening--one gets used to it, one starts to want beer, one goes to a saloon where one gets a large glass of beer--one turns into a real drinker. 22

Cahan was the only one to employ the rhetoric of temperance advocates to scare his readers away from the halls. The conservative Tageblatt, which was similarly concerned about the halls, merely advised its female readers to find out where their husbands have their beer. Although many Jews avoided saloons, both anecdotal evidence and the number of saloons within the district attest that drinking in commercial settings was, in fact, not uncommon among Jewish immigrants. [End Page 326]

Within the context of music halls, the selling of beer and potential intoxication seemed particularly threatening. Not only was the audience "corrupted" by alcohol, but the entire setting was also sexually charged. Cahan claimed that male customers were induced to invite women, usually the performers themselves, to their tables and buy them drinks. To complete the picture of depravity, he described the performers as "clumsy creatures, a wild, rude bunch of people without any reason or humaneness, who have gestures and routines like the former [Russian] captors of army recruits and volunteers--that's how most of the singers are. They compete amongst themselves with their obscenities and stupid gestures. That's their stock. Another merchandise they don't have." 23

The problem, according to Cahan, was that the indiscriminate commercialization of mainstream American culture threatened the cohesiveness of the Jewish immigrants as a community. To compel readers to pay attention to this threat in general and to deter them from going to the music hall, in particular, Cahan painted the music hall as dens of vice and especially prostitution. He was not the only writer do so. The Tageblatt's first article on "concert halls" (as it called the music halls), with which this campaign began, conceded that some music halls deserved praise, but nonetheless treated the halls overall as dens of vice. It referred to concert halls such as the famous "Haymarket" in the Tenderloin District, where "the city's most notorious women and most dangerous men congregated," whose "owners were the kings of all sorts of criminals" and whose "waiters were brokers between men and women." 24 The danger that the Yiddish music halls would imminently turn into brothels was painted in vivid colors. "(T)here are halls behind saloons [managed] by people who will make money on anything and are willing to let anyone in. Even if those halls are not yet like the Black Rabbit and the Haymarket, with time they will sink to that level because competition is already great. There are too many concert halls already and hardship will get them there." 25

While the Tageblatt outlined only the potential dangers of the music halls, Cahan, in an editorial entitled "The Scandal Has to Be Stopped," went a step further. He claimed that

(t)he street walkers who roam through the streets have turned the music halls into a market for themselves. . . . Every music hall is a house of assignation. And the waiters and door keepers--some of them are honest, and others--well, they stem from those kinds of procurers who have remained without income and have become pick-pockets, and since there is a slack-season among the pick-pockets, they also qualify for this business. It is the same trade as a bouncer in an Allen Street brothel. If someone does not want to drink and has to be forced or even thrown out--for that, one has to be a learned procurer with a degree. 26

References to the sex trade were meant to touch a sore spot with Jewish immigrant readers. "Prostitution was a pervasive part of immigrant life on the Lower East Side. [End Page 327] Along with the Bowery, Allen Street, four blocks east, was the most notorious thoroughfare of commercial sex" in all of New York. 27 While it is impossible to gauge to what extent this preoccupation with prostitution was based on evidence and to what extent it was convenient rhetoric in order to exploit immigrants' fears and scare potential customers away, Cahan's depictions of the evils in prostitution rested, at least in part, on the opinions and actions of city reformers. 28 At the same time, as Rosemarie K. Bank has argued in the context of earlier (antebellum) debates about prostitution and the Bowery theatres, critics' perception of a "moral problem" in the auditorium was "a cloaked reading of social transformations" and prevalent anxiety about those transformations, rather than objective assessments of documented commerce in sex. 29 Similarly, the Yiddish journalists' attack on the moral fabric of audience and performers was their response to transformations in immigrant social behavior which, in their view, threatened the cohesiveness of the Jewish immigrant community as they knew it.

Both the Tageblatt and the Forverts writers voiced opinions which were essentially shared by American social reformers. 30 They assumed that lack of wholesome and uplifting diversion rather than free choice drove the people to the music halls. While the Tageblatt demanded more settlement houses to remedy the dearth of entertainment, the Forverts pointed to singing and literary societies as positive alternatives in which young people might "spend time in a respectable way." Acknowledging that the latter places might be too "dry," Cahan suggested that one talented society member narrate a literary story and, to lighten up the program, "good anecdotes, fine, clean jokes, recitations, and songs" could be added. 31 Both papers agreed that recreation and entertainment organized and supervised by secular Jewish social or communal institutions, such as landsmanshaftn (home-town associations), would provide the necessary shield against the morally corrupting influences of commercial entertainment.

Newspaper Wars

The press coverage of 1902 reveals another layer of motivations behind this debate: competition between newspapers, each promoting its own commercial interests and moral concern. Ten days after the Tageblatt, the Lower East Side's most powerful paper with a circulation of 45,000, published its front-page "warning in due time," Cahan became the editor of its competitor, the moribund socialist Forverts. He had recently [End Page 328] worked on the staff of the Commercial Advertiser under Lincoln Steffens who, with the help of an exceptionally gifted group of writers, turned this stiff and dull publication into a lively and interesting paper. 32 This experience made Cahan feel certain that he could transform the dry, sectarian Forverts into a successful and widely read paper. He accepted the position on the condition that he be given complete editorial control. Cahan was to turn the Forverts into a paper modeled after the new urban American press. "The use of emphatic, sometimes sensational headlines, the attention to skillful editing, the emphasis on human interest stories, and the responsiveness of editors to popular taste--all emerged as prominent aspects of the leading Yiddish newspapers in the early twentieth century." 33 In order to increase the paper's readership, Cahan reduced the lengthy, academic articles on socialist thought and theory. As he suggests in his memoirs, his editorials on the music halls, which he started on the second day of his editorship, were indicative of this vision to change the make-up of the paper. "I started to write editorials . . . which did not deal with political or social questions but with issues of daily life." 34

Cahan seized on the topic of the music halls and their supposed depredations. He used the charged and tantalizing quality of the topic and the fame of an actor like Adler to stage his own show on the pages of the Forverts. Choosing a topic for his first series of editorials that his competitor, the Tageblatt, had already exposed seems to have been a good strategy to win over new readers who wanted to learn more. Cahan's first editorial "Yiddish Music Halls Are a Scandal without a But" was a direct reply to the Tageblatt's "The Concert Halls: Merits and Faults of These Places." The day after Cahan's editorial, the Tageblatt published a short follow-up article, in which it took credit for having been the first to warn readers and deter them from going to music halls. Cahan, on the other hand, railed against the halls for weeks, taking on as his targets, variously, the Variety Actors Union, the respected and beloved theatre star and impresario Jacob P. Adler, and the audience. 35 Cahan attacked Adler because he prided himself in being a promoter of art. Cahan berated Adler by declaring that "what is happening [in People's Music Hall] is, according to the law, a crime against decency and can be punished," but also played on Adler's vanity by comparing him with Henry Irving. "Well," he asks rhetorically, "would it be appropriate for Henry Irving to be the owner of a music hall . . . ?" 36 Over and over again, he urged his readers to use their power as "respectable" people to boycott the halls in order to demonstrate to their owners that they could not make money off indecency. 37

In making these moves, Cahan capitalized on readers' familiarity and concern with questions of community morality and leisure pursuits, already introduced by his competitor, the Tageblatt. In order to differentiate his paper from that of his competitor, which had granted the music halls "merit" as well as "faults," Cahan invoked moral [End Page 329] absolutes, calling the music hall "a Scandal without a But." This invocation of moral absolutes, as well as the creation of a series of articles, built up readers' interest and sense of suspense in the manner of a sensationalist novel. At the same time, he demonstrated his personal interest in the community's welfare and the Forverts's commitment to tackling social problems. Whether the readers actually followed Cahan's suggestions or not, the campaign seemed to have had an effect: one month after his initial editorial, Cahan announced triumphantly that four of the halls had closed and that the volume of sexually explicit material had subsided. He congratulated the readers on how quickly they responded to the Forverts's call to close the halls down. He thus demonstrated to his audience that the Forverts was an activist paper able to organize and lead its readers in transforming troubling aspects of community life. By uniting his readers behind a compelling cause, Cahan was able to strengthen a sense of community. The Forverts was also able to attract non-socialist readers since most immigrants, notwithstanding their political leanings, would have been interested in protecting the community from any institution linked to prostitution.

Cahan's "triumph" over the music halls served as a generative moment for his paper. The paper grew from approximately 6,500 at the time when Cahan took over, to over 19,000 four months later, and kept growing steadily over the years until it became the largest Yiddish daily in the United States. 38 Creating these debates in the papers served Cahan's economic and political interests. This newspaper circulation bid, underlying the debates on the music halls, thus fixed the positions from which later discussions of the halls could be held. The extensive coverage and overwrought arguments in the Yiddish press can thus be understood as a fight over commercial power, as well as a battle within the Jewish immigrant community about the "merits" and "faults" of mass cultural practices--including newspapers as well as music halls--in America. Cahan's role in this battle can only be described as ambiguous. Part manipulative mass-market editor and sensationalist huckster, part moral reformer, and part socialist agitator, he exemplified the potential and the pitfalls of Americanization.

Taking on the Audience

Despite Cahan's 1902 campaign, music halls continued to flourish. By 1905 "every important street on the Lower East Side ha[d] its glaring electric sign which announce[d] 'Jewish Vaudeville House' or 'Music Hall.''' 39 A year later, the Lower East Side, Brooklyn, and Bronxville together boasted fourteen music halls, each employing 10-15 actors, actresses, and chorus girls as well as an equal number of musicians, projectionists for moving pictures, and stage hands. 40 By that time, some of the more successful companies had moved into larger halls, which were usually rented out for such diverse occasions as commercial dances, weddings, or political rallies. According to one contemporary estimate, these music halls could "be arranged to accommodate any [End Page 330] number, ranging from three hundred to over fifteen hundred [visitors]." 41 The Grand Street Music Hall even held as many as two thousand spectators.

Jewish audiences, enjoying the new possibilities for leisure, flocked to the halls in ever increasing numbers. "'Going out,'" according to David Nasaw, "was more than an escape from the tedium of work, it was the gateway into a privileged sphere of everyday life. The ability to take time out from work for recreation and public sociability was the dividing line between old worlds and new. Peasants and beasts of burden spent their lives at work; American workers and citizens went out at night and took days off in the summer." 42 These thousands of "poor workers" who attended the performances every week went in search of diversion, not edification. According to a contemporary observer, "the audience does not consider the music halls a holy place or a 'temple' of art, they go in for a few hours to watch moving pictures, to hear a few songs, and once in a while also a good sketch. That's all; no one comes here to use his brains, to search for criticism or learn about morality." 43 While contemporary commentators may have characterized the pursuit of leisure as merely diversion, historians such as Kathy Peiss have pointed out that commercial urban amusements played a key role in the Americanization of immigrants: "For many immigrants . . . , participation in urban recreation was part of the broader experience of Americanization. . . . saloons, lodges, socials, dances, and excursions were common in all working-class neighborhoods. Forged in an urban industrial society, these American amusements offered a novel conception of leisure to the newly arrived immigrant--the idea of segmenting and organizing leisure into a distinct sphere of activity," separate from work and family alike. 44

While going out was a welcome opportunity that came with living in America, the immigrants' crowded living conditions fomented this desire to seek evening recreation away from home. Young couples brought their small children and many teenage sons and daughters chose to go out rather than spend the evening in a single room with their younger siblings or their parents. Likewise, boarders were glad to escape to the music halls since their living quarters often offered them no more than a bed. At one third the price of a regular theatre ticket, music halls offered entertainment which even poor families could afford and which allowed young working men to treat their girlfriends to a show. Unlike the English-language music halls, which catered primarily to a male audience, the Yiddish establishments attracted women as well as men. Although the Forverts encouraged the dismantling of some family constraints on the social interaction of young men and women, its writers were troubled by the consequences for young unmarried women. Even though the music hall clientele in fact included families and members of fraternal organizations and landsmanshaftn, which used music halls as venues for fund-raising and other respectable activities, Cahan characterized the music hall patrons as lascivious men and loose women. The Forverts reserved its most emphatic criticism for the moral fabric of the female audience. One writer noted with dismay that some young women would go to the music halls to strike up an acquaintance with men in the auditorium. He also [End Page 331] purportedly watched young women's reactions to the suggestive songs and jokes and noticed various effects--from bashfulness and discomfort to an uninhibited expression of excitement. "Some of the girls, especially those who come with their boyfriends, lower their heads and their faces turn all sorts of colors from shame." 45 Insisting on the pervasive and demoralizing influence of this environment, he claimed that even the bashful girls lost their inhibitions as they picked up the habit of regular attentions and grew used to the sexual innuendo on stage and in the house.

The loosening of conduct mores and of restriction on heterosexual socializing that so worried the Forverts was precisely what made the music halls attractive to young immigrants. Like the dance halls, the music halls provided a social space where they could escape from the watchful eyes of their elders, meet other young people informally, and experiment with new forms of social and sexual interaction. Like many other immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe in this period, Eastern European Jewish immigrants came from a background of arranged marriages and strictly chaperoned contact between unmarried men and women. 46 Since music halls offered a casual atmosphere in which talking among audience members was not discouraged as it was, for instance in the "legitimate" theatre, it was an ideal place for socializing. Many young immigrants preferred the ribald songs and jokes and the titillating dances, adapted from the neighboring American houses, to the communally organized entertainments or the Yiddish theatres, which were preferred by the older generation. "Commercial amusements" like the dance and music halls, provided young immigrants, especially women, with the opportunity to "experiment with new cultural forms," which not only "articulated gender in terms of sexual expressiveness and social interaction with men" (the very forms of behavior that apparently horrified even secularized Jewish elders), but also, and crucially, linked these new forms of "heterosocial culture to a sense of modernity, individuality, and personal style" associated with American society. 47

Music Hall Entertainers Caught in the Cross Fire

Just as audiences regarded music halls as an open space in which to experiment with "American" behavior, music hall actors viewed the place of their performance as a point on the road to assimilation. Witnessing the boom of the entertainment industry in turn-of-the-century New York, many immigrants were eager to participate as producers and performers as well as consumers. Inspired by the seeming glamour of show business, they saw the process of becoming professional performers as a first step out of the drabness of industrial labor and the poverty of the immigrant environment. Some immigrants, such as Eddie Cantor, were able to start out directly on the American vaudeville stage, but, even those who, for linguistic and possibly also social-psychological reasons, remained within their own ethnic enclaves, managed to shed their perception of cultural marginality by appropriating American material into their performances. [End Page 332]

It was precisely this imitative aspect of Yiddish music hall performance that drew the contempt of Cahan and the Forverts, however. Cahan contended that one of the reasons for the shund on stage was the actors' general lack of intelligence, talent, and willingness to work hard for artistic success:

One has to have talent to tell a good joke. But one doesn't need brains to make the audience laugh at dirty insinuations. It is the nature of indecent jokes that one laughs more about the filth than the joke. . . . Every word . . . can be interpreted in an indecent way. One just needs to wink and give a certain kind of smile at the same time. . . . (I)n all the songs and jokes that I heard in the Yiddish music halls, there was much more winking than humor, a lot more dirty smiles than sense or charm. 48

As if adopting Cahan's views, the Hebrew Actors' Union, which represented actors at "legitimate" theatres, barred vaudevillians and any newly arrived immigrant performers from joining the union, rejecting them purportedly on the grounds of insufficient talent. When the older union permitted the formation of the new Variety Actors Union, it did so only under the condition that a complete separation would be maintained between the two organizations. In accordance with the Forverts's view of the separation between "high" and "low" art, the Hebrew Actors Union created a two-tiered system in which they occupied the higher ranks while the vaudevillians remained "low-Others" below them. They were motivated less by considerations of taste, however, and more by the desire to protect their turf, their status, and their income.

Despite the Hebrew Actors Union's attempts to control the market for actors and the press's campaigns to curb the spread of "low" commercial culture, music halls and vaudeville houses multiplied. In fact, the negative campaigns of the establishment may have contributed to the growth of the new houses. Cahan's diatribes gave the music halls valuable publicity and the Hebrew Actors Union's closed-shop policy led to a decline of performance quality as older actors were not replaced and replenished by younger actors who were not allowed to join the union. Thus audiences began to complain that they had to watch old actors playing the roles of young lovers in the "legitimate" houses, while they were deprived of the pleasure of watching young vaudeville stars, who were twenty or thirty years younger, in "legitimate" roles.

Many of these "vaudevillians by default" were dreaming of a more glamorous stage career based on roles more substantial and challenging than afforded by the songs and short sketches of the music hall. Intent on denying music hall entertainment any cultural or social legitimacy, the Forverts and other papers kept representing its repertoire as almost exclusively made up of bawdy songs and dances. At the same time, however, many music halls were transforming their evening bills. From a predominance of songs, dances, and jokes with an additional short sketch in the early years, they increasingly featured a short operetta, as well as a one to three act play, supplemented by turns, songs, dances, or moving pictures. The material, from songs and dances to plays and operettas, was often adapted from older or recent hits of both the Yiddish stage and Broadway: for example, the three-act play "The Old Hillel" performed in 1909 at Agid's Clinton Vaudeville House was based on Jacob Gordin's [End Page 333] well-known The Jewish King Lear from 1892. In 1910 the People's Music Hall presented a three-act sketch "The Musician from the East Side" adapted from Alexandre Dumas' La Dame aux camélias. Even if these plays were a far cry from the originals, by playing them vaudevillians expressed their desire to break out of their "low" existence.

By 1910 the title "music hall" was used less often than "vaudeville house" and an increasing number of variety companies called their establishments simply "theatre," for example, Golden Rule Theatre, Grand Suffolk Street Theatre, and International Theatre. The change in appellation suggests that many companies tried to shed the stigma associated with their early roots in saloon culture. But it was also a tacit indication that programming had shifted away from a predominance of short sketches, songs, and dances to longer plays and operettas. In terms of repertoire and acting talents, the distinction between "legitimate" houses (with actors from the Hebrew Actors Union) and vaudeville houses (with actors from the Jewish Variety Actors Union) became increasingly blurred during the teens as "legitimate" houses performed fewer literary plays than in the previous decade and both favored light comedies and operettas as their staple entertainment. 49 Socialist critics acknowledged and lamented that the "legitimate" theatres had brought their own "fall" due to the Union's closed-shop policy--which the socialist intellectuals opposed on political grounds--by barring new talents from entering their ranks. At the same time, however, they maintained that "legitimate" theatres had been forced by the growth and popularity of variety entertainment to include more shund plays in their own repertoires and thus blamed the music hall for the decline of the "legitimate" Yiddish theatre.


Like the dance halls and nickelodeons, the Yiddish music halls around 1910 shaped and reflected the changing mores of a new generation of working-class immigrants. The popularity of these institutions both highlighted and contributed to the estrangement of a younger generation from their elders as they eagerly embracing the opportunities of a new urban American culture. The battles--in the newspapers and elsewhere--over commercial entertainment within the Jewish immigrant community illuminates the complex entwinement of political, cultural, social, and commercial interests. The relationship between this new form of Yiddish entertainment and its American model was at stake. Yiddish music halls did not resolve these conflicts but rather reflected the immigrants' own equivocal responses to the pressures of assimilation; they offered a meeting point between the cultures and identities of the immigrants and the new host country, simultaneously being generated by and generating themselves tensions that affected the social fabric of an immigrant population in transition.

Although Cahan and his ilk regarded the young immigrants' need to imitate and appropriate American material and behavior as a corrupting tendency, the immigrant [End Page 334] performers and audiences alike found in the music hall a social space that invigorated and liberated them. It is exactly this appropriation of American popular entertainment within the geographical, cultural, and linguistic realm of New York's Jewish immigrants which allowed them to experiment with new modes of living as they were struggling with the shifting ground of their cultural, socioeconomic, and ethnic heritage and their new identities as immigrants in urban America.

Nina Warnke is a lecturer in the Department of Germanic Languages at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in YIVO Annual and Film History. She is currently completing her PhD dissertation on Jewish Cultural Politics and the New York Yiddish Theatre.


I wish to thank my friends and colleagues Ilana Abramovitch, Bettina Brandt, Ellen Gruber Garvey, Imke Lode, and Nancy Robertson for their extensive comments and invaluable criticisms on various drafts. Thanks also to Loren Kruger and Vicki Olwell for editorial input. Unattributed articles are anonymous. All translations from the Yiddish are my own.

1 "Di kontsert hols: mayles un khesroynes in dize pletser," Dos yidishes tageblatt, 6 March 1902.

2 See Bernard Gorin, Di geshikhte fun yidishen teater (New York: Forverts, 1929); Irving Howe, The World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made (New York: Harcourt Brace Janovich, 1976; reprint New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), 460-96; David S. Lifson, The Yiddish Theatre in America (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1965) and Lifson, "Yiddish Theatre," Ethnic Theatre in the United States, ed. Maxine Schwartz Seller (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1983); Nahma Sandrow, Vagabond Stars: A World History of the Yiddish Theater (New York: Harper & Row, 1977).

3 Ilana Bialik, "Audience Response in the Yiddish 'Shund' Theatre," Theatre Research International 13.2: 97-105. Through a textual analysis of a popular play, Bialik demonstrates the playwright's strategies to satisfy the particular needs of a Jewish audience. In her study of Yiddish vaudeville, Sandrow acknowledges the American influence on this art form, but highlights the specifically Jewish themes. See Nahma Sandrow, "'A Little Letter to Mamma': Traditions in Yiddish Vaudeville," American Popular Entertainment: Papers and Proceedings of the Conference on the History of American Popular Entertainment (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1979), 87-95.

4 See Sarah Blacher Cohen, Nahma Sandrow and, notably, Mark Slobin in From Hester Street to Hollywood, ed. Sarah Blacher Cohen (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983). In his discussion of Among the Indians, a vaudeville playlet that preceded the rise of the music halls, Slobin also points to its parallels to contemporary American popular entertainment. Mark Slobin, Tenement Songs: The Popular Music of the Jewish Immigrants (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982), 107-15. A full translation of Among the Indians is published in Slobin, "From Vilna to Vaudeville: Minikes and Among the Indians," The Drama Review 24.3 (1980): 17-26.

5 Under the heading "The Music Hall Plague," Gorin accords them no more than one page. Similarly, Howe does not include them in his discussion of the theatre but mentions them briefly under "A Bit of Fun on the East Side."

6 Andrew R. Heinze, Adapting to Abundance: Jewish Immigrants, Mass Consumption, and the Search for American Identity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990).

7 The three theatres, together seating 9,000, sold over 2.5 million tickets during the season of 1900/1901, when almost 300,000 East European Jews lived in New York.

8 William Dean Howells, "New York Low Life in Fiction," Selected Literary Criticism, v. 2, ed. Donald Pizer (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 278.

9 Mark Slobin, Tenement Songs, 87.

10 Jacob Gordin, "The Yiddish Stage," Fifteenth Annual Report of the University Settlement Society of New York (1901), 30.

11 Socialists in Germany in the 1890s, for example, regarded realist and naturalist drama as "revolutionary" and, in conjunction with the classical repertoire, important to the education and edification of a working-class audience. The programs of the Freie Volksbühne (Independent People's Theatre) and Neue Freie Volksbühne (New Independent People's Theatre) in Berlin--both institutions were created specifically to foster a working-class audience--consisted of contemporary dramatists such as Ibsen, Hauptmann, Suderman, Tolstoy, and Schnitzler, as well as of the classics. See Cecil W. Davis, Theatre for the People: The Story of the Volksbühne (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977) and Heinrich Braulich, Die Volksbühne: Theater und Politik in der deutschen Volksbühnenbewegung (Berlin/GDR: Henschelverlag, Kunst, und Gesellschaft, 1976).

Jewish socialists in New York seem to have been familiar with the German Volksbühne movement and its goals: in 1897 they founded the (albeit short-lived) fraye yidishe folksbine (Independent Jewish People's Theatre). Similarly, anarchist Emma Goldman, in her Social Significance of Modern Drama (Boston: Badger, 1914) acknowledges the radical element in the dramas of Ibsen, Hauptmann, Tolstoy, and others. For a discussion of German socialist amateur theatre in America, see Carol Poore, "German-American Socialist Workers' Theatre, 1877-1900," Theatre for Working-Class Audiences in the United States, 1830-1980, eds. Bruce A. McConachie and Daniel Friedman (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985), 66.

12 Cahan's article "Realism," quoted in Ronald Sanders, The Downtown Jews: Portraits of an Immigrant Generation (New York: Harper and Row, 1969), 150.

13 "Di kontsert hols," Tageblatt, 6 March 1902.

14 I take the term "low-Other" from Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), 5. Yiddish-speaking socialists were of course not the only intellectuals in turn-of-the-century America to defend "high art" against "low entertainment." Recent cultural history has amply documented the efforts of community and national elites to marginalize and stigmatize the commercial amusement of the majority of urban Americans. See especially Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), Robert Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), and Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986).

15 Timothy J. Gilfoyle, City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920 (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1992), 224.

16 F. H. McLean, "Bowery Amusements," Yearbook of the University Settlement Society of New York (1899), 17.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.

19 Gordin, "The Yiddish Stage," 29.

20 Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements.

21 Y. Kirshenboym, "Luis kremer velkher hot gekenigt in vodevil iz itst a 'fargesener,'" Morgen zhurnal 17 November 1939, 4. For a similar description of early music halls see also Boaz Young, Mayn lebn in teater (New York: Ykuf farlag, 1950), 138-41.

22 "Di yidishe muzik hols zaynen a skandal on an 'ober,'" Forverts, 17 March 1902.

23 Ibid.

24 "Di kontsert hols," Tageblatt, 6 March 1902.

25 Ibid. The Black Rabbit was located on Bleecker Street; as part of its entertainment it staged live sexual acts for both a heterosexual and homosexual audience. See George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 34, 37.

26 "Vayter vegn di tsoredike muzik hols: der skandal muz gestopt vern!" Forverts, 20 March 1902.

27 Gilfoyle, City of Eros, 216. Public awareness of commercial sex had increased sharply only a year earlier when the full extent of the business became known during the 1900-1901 municipal clean-up efforts by the anti-Tammany Committee of Fifteen. The campaign succeeded when Tammany, which was deeply involved in prostitution through graft, lost the elections to reform mayor Seth Low. Subsequently, many brothels were closed. Cahan's mention of "procurers who have remained without business" refers to those in the trade who had been dislocated by the Committee's efforts.

28 Only Paul Klapper, a progressive reformer, writing around 1905, speculated about the possibility of prostitution in some small music halls but admitted that he could not prove it. Klapper, "The Yiddish Music Hall," University Settlement Studies, 2.4 [n.d.]: 22.

29 Rosemarie K. Bank, "Hustlers in the house: the Bowery Theatre as a mode of historical information," The American Stage: Social and economic issues from the colonial period to the present, eds. Ron Engle and Tice L. Miller (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 58.

30 See Peiss, Cheap Amusements, 178-84.

31 "Onshtendik di tsayt tsu farbringen," Forverts, 18 March 1902.

32 Moses Rischin, introduction to Grandma Never Lived in America: The New Journalism of Abraham Cahan, ed. Moses Rischin (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), xxi.

33 Heinze, Adapting to Abundance, 150.

34 Abraham Cahan, Bleter fun mayn leben (New York: Forverts Association, 1928), 4:286.

35 On Adler's central role in the Yiddish theatre, especially his collaboration with Gordin, see Lulla Adler Rosenfeld, Bright Star of Exile: Jacob Adler and the Yiddish Theatre (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1977).

36 Cahan, "An adler ferayn un an adler muzik hol," Forverts, 4 April 1902.

37 "Eyner fun di ergste yidishe muzik hols tsugemakht; andere farlirn mut," Forverts, 28 March 1902.

38 In 1917, the Forverts had a circulation of 148,560, while the Tageblatt's readership had only increased to 55,000. Harry Roskolenko, The Time That Was Then: The Lower East Side 1900-1914: An Intimate Chronicle (New York: The Dial Press, 1971), 118.

39 Paul Klapper, "The Yiddish Music Hall," University Settlement Studies, 2.4 (New York: University Settlement Society of New York), [n.d.]: 20.

40 Khayim Malits, "Yidishe myuzik hols in nyu york," Der amerikaner, 30 November 1906.

41 Klapper, "The Yiddish Music Hall," 20.

42 David Nasaw, Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 4.

43 Malits, Der amerikaner, 30 November 1906.

44 Peiss, Cheap Amusements, 31.

45 "Ver geyt in di yidishe muzik hols?" Forverts, 14 November 1906.

46 But, as Peiss notes, Cheap Amusements, 88-114, Jewish immigrant women were typically allowed more freedom of movement than the daughters of other immigrant groups, such as Italians.

47 Peiss, 6.

48 Cahan, "A shpatsir iber di yidishe myuzik hols," Tsaytgayst, 13 October 1905.

49 Institutionally, however, the distinction was maintained until the two unions merged in 1918. By that time, many of the old stars of the "legitimate" houses had retired or died. This fact, together with the merger of the unions and the subsequent rise of younger actors opened unprecedented possibilities for Yiddish theatre and, in fact, allowed a new flowering of the theatre.