The end of Yiddish theatre

A century ago it was the hottest ticket in town. Yiddish theatres all around the East End would pack in thousands, with several shows a night. And visiting actors from as far afield as Eastern Europe and the United States came to perform for the huge Yiddish-speaking population of Whitechapel. But the recent demise of actor Bernard Mendelovitch wrote one of the last chapters in the story of the theatres. His was a remarkable story, all the more so because Mendelovitch was unique among his peers in being born and bred in England.

To take the dictionary definition, Yiddish is ‘a language spoken as vernacular by Jews in Europe … a dialect of High German with words of Hebrew, Romance and Slavonic origin … developed in Eastern Europe during the Middle Ages’. Most importantly, it was a vernacular the Jews arriving in the East End had in common, whether they were arriving from Poland or Russia. And being a fluid and flexible language, taking from the home languages of the countries where displaced Jews settled, the tongue was peculiarly rich in idiom and humour, a great medium for jokes and songs. It was tailor made for the stage.

And there were many stages, among them the colossal Pavilion Theatre on Whitechapel Road, a Yiddish opera house on the Commercial Road, and dozens more intimate little East End theatres. The growth in the scene was fuelled by the Russian government banning Yiddish performances in 1883. Just as the Jewish population had fled west to London to escape persecution, so the entertainers moved to find them, and carry on making a living.

Actor manager Abraham Goldfaden arrived in the East End from Riga in 1883, and his company performed in halls and clubs all over the East End. Their first permanent home was the Hebrew Dramatic Club in Princes Street (later Princelet Street), which opened in 1886.

By the early years of the 20th century, the Pavilion was the home of Yiddish theatre in London. Anything went on stage: musicals, sentimental plays about life back in Eastern Europe, and translations of Shakespeare were popular. Anything went in the audience too. Pavilion-goer Cyril Spector remembers ‘the noise, everyone talked incessantly; there were arguments going on all over the auditorium; the noise was devastating, people eating, muttering approval or disapproval of what was happening on stage, explaining what was going on to those who couldn’t follow it. And everyone overacted like mad. The more hammy the performance, the more rapturous the applause …nostalgia and sadness were the dominant themes’.

Unsurprisingly though, by the inter-war years, Yiddish theatre was in decline. The language depended on a tight-knit community, and with East End Jews moving out to the suburbs that community had begun to fracture. The second and third generation immigrants increasingly spoke only English, and there were no new Yiddish speakers coming in to replace them. Just a decade or so after its heyday, the Pavilion was to close in 1935.

And that might have been an end to East End Yiddish theatre. But yet again war and persecution in mainland Europe forced Jewish entertainers west, and gave the scene a shot of fresh blood. Fanny Waxman and Meier Tzelniker founded the Jewish National Theatre at Adler Hall, and the East End got the Grand Palais, run by Mark Marcov and Etta Topel.

This is where Mendelovitch enters the East End story. Throughout the fifties and sixties, resourceful writer and manager Harry Ariel kept the Palais going. And much of the material was co-written with Ariel’s on and off stage partner, Bernard Mendelovitch.

Bernard, born in 1925, had joined the company in 1948, after being demobbed from the services. His father Avrom, a Polish-born tailor, had spent most of his life in England, but never learned to read or write English. He loved the Yiddish theatre though, and passed his passion – and his language – onto his son. So it was that Bernard could amaze visiting Yiddish performers, who could not believe that this fluent speaker was an ‘Englender’.

Ariel and Mendelovitch started writing together in their flat behind the London Hospital. The output was as diverse as it was prolific: adaptations of plays such as Hobson’s Choice rolled off the production line alongside Yiddish versions of My Way and Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.

But the end was in sight. Dwindling audiences saw the Grand Palais finally close in 1970. Mendelovitch and Ariel took their show on the road, in a three-handed act with Anna Tzelniker, and after Ariel’s death in 1989, Bernard played his one-man show to large audiences in the US and Canada. There were fewer Yiddish speakers by the year though, and the actor retired to Bournemouth, where he died in February this year.

So has Yiddish spoken its last words? Michael Grade, the new boss of the BBC thinks not. This scion of an East End Jewish dynasty, and vice president of the International Forum for Yiddish Culture said last year that ‘Yiddish is not dying because my generation, still young enough to remember its power, wants it to survive.’ Perhaps this language that so enthralled East End audiences just a generation or so ago has life in it yet.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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