The Yiddish Theater Walk of Fame is fading and with it the memory of actors who starred on the “Yiddish Broadway” on New York City’s Lower East Side.
Among the actors recognized on the walk are Ida Kamińska, best actress Oscar nominee in 1965 for her performance in the English-language “Shop on Main Street,” and Fyvush Finkel, who won an Emmy in 1994 for his role on TV’’s “Picket Fences.”
Both began their careers in Yiddish theater and are among the 37 actors whose names are engraved on brass stars on Second Avenue. Four are unreadable.
Holocaust survivor Abe Lebewohl commissioned the walk 35 years ago. It was modeled on the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame and placed in front of his iconic Second Avenue Delicatessen. Lebewohl, known as the “Mayor of the East Village,” was murdered in 1996 on a trip to the bank.
The deli has since relocated uptown and the fading stars lay in front of a Chase Bank branch, ignored by harried customers. Now, preservationists hope to revive the walk.
Yiddish was the language spoken by Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern and Central Europe. It’s written in Hebrew letters but evolved from German, along with Slavic and Romance languages, and even a bit of Aramaic, a language of ancient Israel.
Jewish immigration at the end of the 19th Century filled the Lower East Side with Jewish families who attended Yiddish interpretations of dramas, musicals and the classic plays of Shakespeare and Tolstoy. There was a Yiddish “King Lear,” as well as plays that portrayed the immigrants’ struggles in a new land, where they worked in sweatshops and confronted an alien culture.
Elissa Sampson, who teaches a course about the Lower East Side at Cornell University, said the walk is a fitting memorial.
“The walk shows the conflicts and the successes of an immigration that changed America and changed the neighborhood,” said Sampson. “It is a model of how theater and community can work synergistically together to create powerful performances.”
Among the Yiddish actors who went on to perform in English-language productions were Molly Picon, who played with Frank Sinatra in the 1963 movie “Come Blow Your Horn” and was in 1971’s “Fiddler on the Roof”; Edward G. Robinson, famous for his tough guy roles in films; and Stella Adler, the renowned acting teacher.
Also memorialized in the walk is Boris Thomashefsky,who acted in the first Yiddish production done on the Lower East Side, in 1882. That was a play called called “Kolduyne or Di Kishefmakhern,” or, in English, “The Witch or The Sorceress.”
By 1918 there were more than 20 Yiddish theaters in the Second Avenue neighborhood.
“Immigrants, even poor immigrants who were struggling to learn English or adapt to a job a or understand its children and have them become an American, an immigrant could walk into that theater and feel that somebody was talking directly to him,” Sampson said.
No Yiddish theaters are left, but area preservationists hope to stop the walk´s decay in a neighborhood that has gone from Jewish to Hispanic and Chinese. Today, the area is gentrifying with renovated buildings and upscale new bars and restaurants.
“It’s very urgent,” said Harry Bubbins ofthe Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.“They have been worn down by traffic and weather over many years.”
Bubbins recently organized a tour of the walk and stood under the rain for an hour, asking passersby to sign petitions to raise funds to renovate the walk. Most didn’t know what the walk was or where it was located, even as they walked on it.
Jeremiah Shea signed the petition. He knew Abe Lebewohl while he was growing up in the Lower East Side
“This walk is our history and we need to preserve it,” said Shea.
Bubbins said renovating the walk will cost up to $165,000. However, the society has even bigger plans for the stars.
“They could serve in a museum or an exhibition space, and certainly that’s going to require more money,” Bubbins said. “The Lower East Side, like no place in the world, was the center of numerous theaters and performance places in Yiddish language.”
Valentina Palm is a reporter in the Caplin News’s New York City Bureau.