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  • Written by Stefan Kanfer
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The Triumph, Tragedy, and Meshugas of the Yiddish Theater in America

Written by Stefan KanferAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Stefan Kanfer


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On Sale: March 12, 2009
Pages: 368 | ISBN: 978-0-307-54747-7
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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In Stardust Lost, Stefan Kanfer brings the colorful Yiddish stage roaring back to life.

Born of ancient traditions stretching back to the drama of the Old Testament, the Yiddish theater was a vibrant part of the immigrant experience. Kanfer invokes the energy, belief, and pure chutzpah it took to establish and run the thriving, influential theaters. He reveals the nightly drama and comedy that played out behind the scenes as well as onstage, and introduces all the players—actors, divas, playwrights, directors, and producers—who made it possible. A richly evocative chronicle of its brief but dazzling existence in America, this is both an elegy for and a tribute to Yiddish theater—lost, but not forgotten.




For almost five thousand years the Jews needed no theater to relate their story. They saw themselves as participants in an epic teeming with conquests and enslavements, revelations and miracles. A burning bush that speaks, the parting of the Red Sea, a rod turned into a snake, a woman turned into a pillar of salt—where was the playwright that could match God's imagination? Even the setbacks were of a grand scale: expulsions from Eden and Egypt, lost wars, subjugation. What stage could reproduce these incidents?

The scholar Max I. Dimont was so impressed by the theatrical quality of Jewish history that he divided it into three acts. "When the curtain rises on the first 2,000 years," he wrote in The Indestructible Jews, "we will note that it proceeds like a Greek predestination drama, with God seemingly the author and divine director." But there was a difference. In the classic Greek plays, the characters remain unaware of their destinies. In the Jewish predestination drama, Jehovah gives them their parts and tells them of His expectations—expectations that will require martyrdom and perseverance.

The Old Testament's pivotal scene is the essence of dramatic tension. Abraham, the man Kierkegaard dubbed the Father of Faith, makes ready to offer up his son Isaac—until Jehovah reprieves him. A covenant is struck between man and Jehovah: if this true believer remains obedient to the divine will, he and his descendants will be the Chosen People: "I will make of thee a great nation," promises the Voice, "and I will bless thee and make thy name great." From then on, human sacrifice is no longer necessary in this tribe; worship and a moral life are sufficient unto the day.

Unlike the multitude of pagan gods who surrender to temptations and war amongst themselves, Dimont observes, "the God of Abraham acts with a moral purpose and a preconceived plan. He is not a capricious god who acts on a day-to-day basis. The Jews know what God expects of them and can therefore make long range plans."

By the time Abraham's descendants settle in Egypt, they are suffused with the idea of monotheism. It will not be relinquished in the presence of their enemies. There will be many such adversaries over the course of history. Often these enemies come from without, like the Philistines; but sometimes they come from within, irresistible temptations that change the individual and threaten his people.

Those enticements become an integral part of the melodrama. The gods of the Hittites, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Greeks and Romans are subject to follies, passions, and mistakes. Jehovah never exhibits such weaknesses. He leaves the scandals to his all-too-human followers, who never experience a shortage of family violence. Cain murders Abel. Jacob betrays his brother Esau. Absalom rebels against his father, dies in the field, and King David's cry resounds through the eons: "Would God I had died for thee, O, Absalom, my son, my son!" Joseph is cast out by his jealous brothers, who rend his coat of many colors and falsely report his death.

And should the reader's attention flag, sexual adventures are there to pique it. Sodom is destroyed because of the uncontrolled lives of its citizens. David is so besotted by Bathsheba that he sends her husband off to war so that he can disport with her. The mighty Samson, seduced and weakened by Delilah, is destroyed for lust. The elders leering at Susannah, the ruinous fleshpots of Gomorrah, and, on a higher plane, the explicit love songs of Solomon ("My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and I was moved by him") all speak of the pleasures and snares of carnal desire.

And this is only the beginning. After the Holy Writ comes the second part of the Jewish saga, when Jehovah can no longer be seen in a burning bush or heard on Mount Sinai. Twice the great Temple in Jerusalem is destroyed, first by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. After it has been rebuilt and the city regained by the Hebrews, Roman troops raze the Temple and slay thousands of Jewish men, women, and children. This catastrophe in A.D. 70 marks the end of the Jewish state and the beginning of the Diaspora.

"Without Zion," remarks historian Nathan Ausubel, the Jews are "like children deprived of their mother." Wherever they disperse, they remember Jerusalem, setting up scrolls of the Torah—the first five books of the Bible—in their makeshift temples, nourishing the hope of a Messiah who will deliver them from their exile, endlessly poring over the scriptures in search of meaning, speaking in prayer—and sometimes in one-sided conversation with a silent Jehovah. This monological style, popularized by the "Tevye" short stories of Sholem Aleichem, and musicalized in Fiddler on the Roof, can be heard to this day: "Dear God, why did you have to make my poor old horse lose his shoe just before the Sabbath? That wasn't nice. It's enough you pick on me, bless me with five daughters, a life of poverty. What have you got against my horse? Sometimes I think that when things are too quiet up there, You say to Yourself, 'Let's see, what kind of mischief can I play.' "

The going out from the Middle East is only the first of many such sorrows. In the early Christian era, the Jews are singled out for refusing to accept Jesus as the Messiah. Preachers find a ready target: Gregory of Nyssa sees Hebrews as "Murderers of the Lord, assassins of the prophets, rebels and detesters of God." Saint John Chrysostom thunders, "Brothel and theater, the synagogue is also a cave of pirates and the lair of wild beasts." The legend of the Wandering Jew, whom Jesus condemned to roam the earth endlessly, though mentioned nowhere in the New Testament, is related by Christian speakers and takes root from the thirteenth century on.

By the Middle Ages this antipathy hardens into doctrine. Pockets of tolerance exist throughout Europe—the Jews enjoy an unprecedented economic and religious freedom in the Arab-Christian culture of Spain. Yet a sword dangles over them at all times. Some nations force them into ghettos; others make them wear special clothing and caps to identify them as outsiders. In Germany they are forced to swear an oath of fealty on the carcass of a pig. The Passion Play at Oberammergau features Jews in horned hats to suggest their connection to Satan, and Jewish religious figures are portrayed as evil and sadistic. The sights and sounds affront rabbis; they condemn theater as "the seat of frivolity."

Jews are considered the devil's allies whenever a plague surfaces. Martin Luther excoriates them when they fail to embrace his doctrines. "Therefore be on your guard against the Jews," he warns, "knowing that wherever they have their synagogues, nothing is found but a den of devils." Spain turns from oasis to killing ground during the Inquisition. Jews are burned, murdered, tortured, and finally expelled from the country in 1492, just as Columbus sets sail for America.

For centuries they're forbidden to live in England. The absence of Hebrews makes no difference; anti-Semitism without Jews is all the rage during the Elizabethan era. In The Jew of Malta, Christopher Marlowe makes his villain a scheming, outspoken Jewish merchant named Barabas: "Now I will show myself to have more of the serpent than the dove." Shakespeare, in his turn, seizes on the incident of Dr. Rodrigo Lopez, a visiting Spanish convert who has been supplying information about his native country to the queen. Lopez runs afoul of the Earl of Essex. The aristocrat dislikes foreigners who have greater royal access than he has, and attempts to frame the doctor for espionage. At first Elizabeth will have none of it; but Essex persists and eventually gets his way.

En route to the block, the crowd shouting with excitement, the executioner's sword glinting in the sun, Lopez protests that he loves Elizabeth even more than he adores Jesus Christ. It does no good; the converted Jew is publicly hanged, castrated, his carcass pulled into pieces by four horses, to the amusement of the crowd. Shakespeare follows the incident with his own contribution. The Bard, states Anthony Burgess in his biography, "was not above exploiting the general bitterness towards Jews by writing a play in which a Jew is the villain—not a treacherous one, however, but a usurious one. Barabas is a Machiavellian monster; Shylock merely, and literally, wants his pound of flesh."

Shakespeare, of course, is incapable of creating a two-dimensional character, and the man is immortalized by his famous plea: "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?" All very well for the modern playgoer, but in the Bard's time and long after, audiences would see only a beaky moneylender rubbing his hands, alternately purring at his Christian enemies and planning their destruction.

On rare occasions the Jews find a welcome. The city of Vilna is created by Gedymin, ruler of the grand duchy, when he ventures out on a hunt for game. He sleeps where one of his arrows falls, and dreams of a big wolf wearing an iron shield and howling as loudly as a pack of a hundred wolves. Awakening in fright, he asks his priest for an interpretation. The wolf, says the holy man, represents an important place that will rise where he stands, and the roar indicates its future reputation. Accordingly, Gedymin builds a city on the site and names it for the river Vilia flowing through it. Anxious for a population to fill his new streets, he invites all newcomers regardless of their religion, and Jews crowd into this newly safe place. But as always in Europe, East and West, they remain subject to someone else's dream.

They prosper for long periods in the Netherlands, where the heretical Baruch Spinoza finds a home for his ethical philosophy. And in post-revolutionary France there are Jewish statesmen, bankers, musicians, and philosophers. In Berlin a free education becomes available to indigent Jews willing to study German, French, and European history. Still, menace is never far away. The nearest approximation to Hitler's genocidal procedures comes in the seventeenth-century Ukraine, where Cossacks, urged on by a maniacal leader who blames the Jews for all evils, go on a lethal rampage. Historian and Holocaust survivor Alexander Kimel describes the results: The Ukrainian Jews "were destined to utter annihilation, and the slightest pity shown to them was looked upon as treason. Scrolls of the law were taken out of the synagogues by the Cossacks, who danced on them while drinking whisky. After this the Jews were laid down upon them and butchered without mercy. Thousands of Jewish infants were thrown into wells or burned alive."

Russia handles its Jews with slow-motion malice. Beginning in the eighteenth century its hundreds of thousands of Hebrews are forbidden to travel beyond the rural towns—shtetls—in which they already live. An invisible moat rings the Jewish communities of Poland, the Ukraine, and Russia. The Romanov czars, fearful of revolution in the wake of foreign wars and increased taxes, use them as convenient scapegoats. Pogroms are encouraged during the frequent periods of social unrest.

The mortality rate among Jews is twice as high as for Christians in the territories. That rate is accelerated by the military draft, which sweeps up Jewish boys and puts them into training schools far away from their homes. The Russian author Alexander Herzen witnesses one forced march in 1835. The officer in charge confides that less than half of the children will reach their destination. "They just die off like flies. A Jew boy, you know, is such a frail, weakly creature, like a skinned cat; he is not used to tramping in the mud for ten hours a day and eating biscuit-then again, being among strangers, no father, no mother, nor petting; well, they cough and cough until they cough themselves into their graves. And I ask you, what use is it to the government? What can they do with little boys?"

This method is judged insufficient to deal with the Jewish Problem. Some fifty years later Czar Alexander III resolves to find a way to deal with the obdurate, stiff-necked people once and for all. Konstantin Pobiedonostev, procurator of the Holy Synod, offers a three-pronged scheme: "one-third conversion, one-third emigration, and one-third starvation."

And yet, wherever Jews congregate, a saving remnant always manages to survive. What is the formula for their endurance against millennia of savagery, persecutions, murders, evictions? There are four ingredients.

The first is literacy. These, after all, are people of the Book. Sometime around A.D. 200, an epochal resolution is made. Some of the greatest wise men and teachers have perished at the hands of the Romans and they have left nothing behind. From here on, Judaism's traditions must be set down on paper, lest they be forgotten and lost forever.

The product of this decision is the Mishna. It deals with Jewish laws of diet, behavior, worship, justice, marriage. During the centuries following the writing of the Mishna, rabbis write down their discussions and commentaries in a series of books known as the Talmud. Together, the Torah, Mishna, and Talmud provide Jewish children with their moral education even in the worst of circumstances. Such study stays with them for a lifetime.

Well over a millennium later, the power of this textual base was still evident. An old book, preserved from the millions burned by the Third Reich and now housed in a New York City library, bears the stamp of the Society of Woodchoppers for the Study of Mishna in Berditchev. These axmen required no literacy to do their jobs, but that was beside the point. They were Jews, and therefore they met regularly to discuss Talmudic matters. The outside world, with its threats and exclusions, is forgotten during those hours. If they argue about religious matters, they agree about the special nature of their lives: gentiles drink away their leisure time; Jews analyze the Law.

The Yiddish novelist Mendele Sforim describes the education of a typical shtetl boy during this long period. From the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century there is hardly any variance: "Little Shlomo had accumulated before his bar mitzvah as much experience as if he were a Methuselah. Where hadn't he been and what hadn't he seen! Mesopotamia, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Persia, Egypt and the Nile, the deserts and the mountains. It was an experience which the children of no other people knew. He could not tell you a thing about Russia, about Poland, about Lithuania, and their peoples, laws, kings, politicians. But you just ask him about Og, King of Bashan. He knew the people who lived in tents and spoke Hebrew or Aramaic; the people who rode on mules or camels and drank water out of pitchers. . . . He knew nothing concerning the fields about him, about rye, wheat, potatoes, and where his bread came from; didn't know of the existence of such things as oak, pine and fir trees; but he knew about vineyards, date palms, pomegranates, locust trees. He knew about the dragon and the leopard, about the turtledove and the hart that panteth after the living waters; he lived in another world."

From the Hardcover edition.
Stefan Kanfer|Author Q&A

About Stefan Kanfer

Stefan Kanfer - Stardust Lost

Photo © Elena Seibert

Stefan Kanfer’s books include Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball; Stardust Lost: The Triumph, Tragedy, and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theater in America; and Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando. He was a writer and editor at Time for more than twenty years and was its first bylined film critic, a post he held between 1967 and 1972. He is also the primary interviewer in the Academy Award–nominated documentary The Line King and editor of an anthology of Groucho Marx’s comedy, The Essential Groucho. He is a Literary Lion of the New York Public Library and recipient of numerous writing awards. He lives in New York and on Cape Cod.

Author Q&A

Q: What first drew you to writing about the Yiddish Theater?

A: My grandfather Oscar Librescu hailed from Jassy, Romania, where the Yiddish Theater began. His uncles produced many of those early works. Thanks to family connections, when he migrated to the U.S., he became friendly with many leading lights of the New York Yiddish Theater, including Jacob Adler and the reigning diva of her time, Bertha Kalisch. In fact, a picture of Ms. Kalisch hung in my grandfather’s study, where, on visits to his country place, I slept as a child. I remember it well, because she was in costume as the witch in Hansel and Gretel. I found the image so frightening that it had to be turned to the wall before I would enter the room. As the years went on, I grew more and more interested in this Theater, how it started, how it flourished, and how it disappeared.

Q: In your opening chapter you describe the four ingredients that explain the endurance of the Jewish people as literacy, adaptability, humor, and the Yiddish language. How has Yiddish helped the Jews to survive “millennia of savagery, persecutions, murders, and evictions?”

A: As a group of Jews were forced to keep moving through hostile or (if they were lucky) indifferent foreign lands, they had the Hebrew Bible to keep their worship intact, but they also needed another language for everyday use. This was Yiddish, a tongue that picked up various phrases and idioms from every country in which Jews settled or traversed, but which had its own saline attitude. It also had a unique, trenchant quality reflected in its proverbs, for example: “Sleep faster, we need the pillows.”

Q: You go on to say that “for almost five thousand years the Jews needed no theater to relate their story.” What changed? Why did the outlet of theatrical performance become necessary?

A: “For almost five thousand years the Jews needed no theater to relate their story.” Then came the Enlightenment that swept Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Suddenly Jews were allowed to attend theatrical productions (formerly these had been forbidden as “frivolous” by the Orthodox rabbis.) The dramatic Jewish Experience could be represented on stage—and was in productions written by gentiles, such as in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. But after the establishment of the Yiddish Theater, Jews could tell their own story. And not only Biblical ones. Early in the 20th century Jacob Adler, the greatest Yiddish star, became the first Jew to play Shylock. The performance was so powerful a major producer brought it uptown, where Adler played his part in Yiddish, while every other Broadway actor spoke Shakespearean English.

Q: Most of the original theater companies, playwrights, and directors of the Yiddish Theater came from Europe, settling in cities throughout America. What was it about New York that allowed the Yiddish Theater to thrive more so than it did anywhere else?

A: The Yiddish Theater thrived in New York—specifically on the Lower East Side—as nowhere else. In part, of course, this was because there were more Jews here than anywhere else, particularly after the exodus from Russia in late 19th and early 20th centuries. But it was also because the intellectual ferment of the city drew Jewish writers and performers anxious to do daring things onstage—Shakespeare and Tolstoy, for example, the great Yiddish host plays, The Golem and The Dybbuk, as well as the neo-realistic works of Jacob Gordin and Sholem Asch.

Q: How did the Yiddish Theater differ from the plays and musicals that appeared uptown on Broadway?

A: The Yiddish Theater differed from its uptown counterparts in many ways. It addressed local problems, for one thing—the difficulties of living in poverty, the prejudice of the Old World and the pressures of the New—if you assimilated, were you really a Jew? And if you were insular and spoke only with your own, didn’t you run the risk of creating an American counterpart to the Russian ghetto? In addition, the early audiences were nowhere near as sophisticated as the Broadway attendees, and playwrights and actors had to bear this in mind. There was actually a Yiddish production of Hamlet that so pleased the onlookers that they cried, “Author! Author!” at the curtain, expecting the Bard to take a bow.

Q: Despite the popularity of these productions on the Lower East Side, the pioneers of the Yiddish Theater—Abraham Goldfaden, Boris Thomashefsky, Jacob Adler—faced incredible obstacles to establish and to maintain their companies. What inspired them to keep producing plays in Yiddish?

A: Adler, Goldfaden, Thomashefsky and the other central figures of the Yiddish Theater were inspired partly by ego—they were self-taught and wanted to show the world that they could compete with superstars the world over. And partly by a need to educate and improve the lot of poor Jews who could attend performances at very low prices.

Q: As new generations of immigrants began to assimilate more and more into the New World, how did these goals change? Was there a struggle between the Yiddish Theater and mainstream entertainment when commercialization began to reach immigrant

A: As immigration ebbed, and assimilation began in earnest, during the early 1920’s, the Yiddish Theater had to change. Theater producers began to make Yiddish motion pictures in order to complete with Hollywood, and more and more musicals and operettas were performed in order to entice audiences back into the theater. It was a losing fight, but it took years before the last big Yiddish Theater folded around 1950. Only the Folksbiene, founded in 1915, endures.

Q: Many people assume that the Yiddish Theater as an art form existed only around the turn of the century, but in fact it has an incredibly long legacy. What are some of the influences that the Yiddish Theater continues to have on theater and film today?

A: The style and substance of the Yiddish Theater survives, even if the language is spoken by a small percentage of the acting community. The most influential acting teacher of her time was Stella Adler, the daughter of Jacob Adler. Her students included Robert DeNiro, Martin Sheen, Harry Belafonte, Elaine Stritch, Harvey Keitel and, first among equals, Marlon Brando. As he saw it: “If there wasn’t the Yiddish Theater, there wouldn’t have been Stella. And if there hadn’t been Stella, there wouldn’t have been all those actors who studied with her and changed the face of theater-and not only acting, but directing and writing.”

Q: Perhaps one of the most well known stories to make the leap from the Yiddish Theater to mainstream Broadway is that of Tevye the milkman, featured in the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Do you think that Tevye’s creator would have approved of this adaptation?

A: Over the years Fiddler on the Roof has received a lot of criticism for being too commercial, for sliding too gently over the Russian oppressions, for making the shtetl—the Jewish village—too romantic. But the fact is that Tevye’s creator, Sholem Aleichem, never had a success in the Yiddish Theater, and neither did his adaptors. It was not until 1964 that Joseph Stein, who wrote the book for Fiddler, found a way to make the characters live onstage.

Q: In your last two books, Ball of Fire and Groucho, you showed yourself as an incredibly adept biographer. Was it a difficult to make the switch to writing about a host of different characters, or did you find it liberating? And what will your next project be?

A: Although my last two books were biographies, I have written many social histories, including A Summer World, a history of the Catskill resorts, and The Last Empire, the story of the De Beers diamond cartel and the founding of South Africa. It was enjoyable to return to a panorama rather than a single story—though, having had a good deal of pleasure writing about individual showfolk, I am returning to biography in my new book, a study of the art and life of Marlon Brando, with particular attention to his long war with theater, film studios and himself.

From the Hardcover edition.



“Written in a crowd-pleasing style that ladles on the irresistible anecdotes. . . . Kanfer conveys the excitement and impact of Yiddish theater, not to mention its long shadow.”
The New York Times Book Review

“A lively history, capturing the spirit of the times and the sensibilities of the actors, writers and impresarios who, with great energy, passion and no training created an altogether new art. . . . In stylish prose that’s a pleasure to read, Kanfer fuels the narrative with anecdotes and insights.”
The Jewish Week

“Kanfer must be commended for conveying his narrative in such vivid, sensual and often hilarious terms. . . . More than worth the price of admission.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Kanfer’s prose is clear, breezy, and entertaining. . . . Rivalry. Jealousy. Sabotage. Histrionics. Then as now, that’s entertainment.” —The New York Sun

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