The Charms of Yiddish Theater, and a Chandleresque Tale
Stefan Kanfer invokes Twain’s celestial metaphor for the title of his entertaining new book, “Stardust Lost: The Triumph, Tragedy and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theater in America” (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95). You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy his wry take on a nearly extinct institution that left an indelible mark not only on the Lower East Side, but also on Broadway and the American stage, and whose history echoes in today’s headlines about immigration and assimilation.
The Adlers, the Thomashefskys, Bertha Kalish, Maurice Schwartz, Abraham Goldfaden and Molly Picon are among the largely forgotten stars of Mr. Kanfer’s hyperkinetic ensemble. Their outsize personalities, coupled with excerpts of the skits and scripts they performed and adapted, provide some of the most memorable passages in his book.
Readers gratefully tag along as Jacob Gordin escorts Henry James on a tour of the Lower East Side, and listen in as Paul Muni theatrically transforms himself during his interrogation by an immigration judge from a crippled, heavily accented greenhorn into a proud and polished young man who speaks English eloquently. “Your honor, it’s remarkable,” Muni announces. “Now that you’ve made me a citizen, I can speak perfectly!”
Mr. Kanfer traces Yiddish theater from its roots in Romania to America, where it thrived for decades, and retells the odyssey of the first Yiddish crossover hit, a 1932 song called “Bei Mir Bist du Schoen.”
Mr. Kanfer calls Yiddish “the Velcro language” because words and phrases from all over Europe affixed themselves to it. Somehow, it survives and, like the Yiddish theater, “not only changed the ghetto dwellers, it had altered the history of Broadway and Hollywood, and thus, to a certain extent, America.” In the end, he concludes, the stardust has not been lost: “Scattered to the winds, perhaps — but lost? Never.”
Another ensemble lost to history from roughly the same era is revived by Stanley Cohen in the latest retelling of “The Execution of Officer Becker: The Murder of a Gambler, the Trial of a Cop, and the Birth of Organized Crime” (Carroll & Graf, $26.95).
The chief protagonists in this tale are Herman Rosenthal, a gambler, and Charles Becker, the police lieutenant whom Rosenthal ratted out. The gambler’s vengeance delivered Becker to Sing Sing and the infamy of being the only New York City police officer executed for murder.
Despite the author’s occasionally circuitous chronology and flowery conclusions (“1913 would be the last year of its kind”), his book is an appropriately melodramatic account enhanced by snippets of testimony that convey the reader to the courtroom, and by dollops of Chandleresque description (“with him was a woman by the name of either Rose Harris or Regina Gordon, depending on who was asking and when”).
The supporting cast includes Herbert Bayard Swope, the journalist, and Arnold Rothstein, perhaps the most notorious gambler in America. There are walk-on parts for, among others, the novelist Stephen Crane and Tammany Hall’s Big Tim Sullivan, whose mental lapses disqualified him for renomination to the State Senate, although party leaders and the voters found him perfectly fit to serve in Congress.
Guess what? “Squandered Opportunities: New York’s Pataki Years” is no paean to the departing governor (St. Augustine’s Press, $35). Instead, George Marlin, the Conservative Party mayoral candidate in 1993 and a Pataki appointee as executive director of the Port Authority, delivers an unforgiving appraisal of what he considers the three-term governor’s betrayal of the principles of the Conservative Party. The party provided his margin of victory against Mario Cuomo in 1994.
The author, an investment banker and author, meticulously dissects the administration’s fiscal record (state debt has grown an “astonishing 80 percent” since Mr. Cuomo left office, Mr. Marlin maintains, although the book jacket says, somewhat more soberly, that it rose by “over 70 percent”). He also attacks the Pataki administration for what he considers its ideological transgressions over abortion, the death penalty and gay rights, although he acknowledges that Mr. Pataki’s challengers were even worse.
Mr. Marlin makes too many disparaging references to “Upper East Siders” and to Manhattan’s “fashionable salons” instead of devoting his intellect to exploring issues such as whether stampeding Medicaid costs — in part a result of Mr. Pataki’s political opportunism — affected the delivery of health care.
He also neglects to amplify on his own record at the Port Authority or explain why he left. Pataki aides said at the time that he was making inroads in cutting the agency budget and focusing it on transportation, but that he lacked finesse.
Still, “Squandered Opportunities” contains enough lessons on government to be required reading for two potential audiences: Americans who might consider voting for Mr. Pataki for president, and anyone who works for his successor, Eliot Spitzer.
New York is so vast, and is evolving so quickly, there’s never a shortage of new and even old things to discover. Marci Reaven and Steve Zeitlin do just that in “Hidden New York: A Guide to Places That Matter” (Rivergate Books, $22.95).
The authors are the managing director and the founding director of City Lore, an organization committed to exploring, preserving and promoting New York’s heritage. They describe their book as “an invitation to engage with New York City” — first by visiting 32 relatively obscure special places (the wall surrounding the Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral downtown, the New York Doll Hospital, a bait and tackle shop in Sheepshead Bay, a Hindu temple in Flushing) and then by revisiting, researching and advocating on behalf of those places.
The profiles are poignant, almost poetic and intensely personal. “The exhilaration of urban living,” the authors write, “is the chance to create one’s very own metropolis, one’s very own New York, in one’s own moment of time.” The text is perked up by first-person reminiscences.