Second Avenue Runs In The Family

Michael Tilson Thomas remembers his grandparents, the Thomashefskys,
and the heyday of Yiddish theater.

03/29/2011
Staff Writer
In “The Thomashefskys,” Michael Tilson Thomas, recounts a good part of the history of Yiddish theater.
In “The Thomashefskys,” Michael Tilson Thomas, recounts a good part of the history of Yiddish theater.

The triple-barreled name Michael Tilson Thomas brings to mind gentility, aristocracy even. In fact, it is sort of prophetic: the real Michael Tilson Thomas is one of America’s blue-chip composers and conductors, a debonair figure whose elegant, long limbs and silver-draped hair suit the name well.

But if Thomas had had it his way, his name would have been something quite different: Michael Thomashefsky. “Thomashefsky” was the surname that of his paternal grandparents, whose names are synonymous with American Yiddish theater.

It is also the name Thomas has also given to the music-theater piece he created in 2005, “The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in Yiddish Theater,” which the New York Philharmonic performs this conductor performs with the New York Philharmonic this week under his baton.

“I might have changed it back,” Thomas said in an interview from his home in San Francisco, recalling the time when he had his first big interview after winning a prestigious award at Tanglewood, back in 1969. “But The New York Times was doing a story on me and I couldn’t reach my father in time to ask if he’d be okay with it.”

Thomas explained how it was actually his father who changed the family name to “Thomas” long before Michael was born, and only because he wanted to escape the shadow of his own grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky.

When asked if his father may have also been embarrassed by such a Jewish-sounding name, he replied: “It had nothing to do with that all. My dad simply wanted to live his own life.”

Which makes sense, since the lives of Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky were hard ones to follow. Boris was born in a shtetl near Kiev, in 1868, and immigrated to New York when he was 12. Like most Jewish immigrants, he arrived poor and went to work in a Lower East Side sweatshop, making cigarettes.

But, as the son of a cantor, Boris had a love for music. He earned extra money singing in local synagogues, but it was secular operettas performed in New York’s nascent Yiddish theaters that captured his imagination.

Boris convinced a local tavern owner to help pay for a few actors to come over from Europe, and shortly after, founded his own troupe. As a teenager, Boris Thomashefsky quickly became a pioneer of American Yiddish theater. The genre’s history is largely forgotten now, but in “The Thomashefskys,” Michael Tilson Thomas recounts a good part of it in the show’s narration.

He tells audiences, for instance, about his grandfather’s immense intellectual ambitions. Boris didn’t just perform light operettas and melodramatic fare, he also wrote Yiddish versions of “Hamlet,” “Faust” and what was then considered provocative and daring work: plays by Ibsen, Wilde and Strindberg.

Many artists who would go on to storied careers in both theater and music had their start in Thomashefsky productions, too. George and Ira Gershwin both performed in Boris’s shows, as did Irving Berlin. Then, of course, there was Boris’s wife, the revered Bessie Thomashefsky.

Bessie Baumfeld-Kaufman immigrated to Baltimore as a 10-year-old, in 1883, and saw Boris perform there not long after. She quit her job in a sweatshop making stockings and joined his company; quickly, she established herself as a star. In 1891, she married Boris; the two soon became wealthy celebrities and something like today’s version of a tabloid couple.

“They were like the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor of their time” is how Thomas recently put it. “They were subject to adulation and relentless scrutiny. Legions of crazed fans were obsessed with every detail of their work and their lives. It was a far cry from the simple Jewish family life in the Ukrainian villages of their origins.”

But Bessie had her own ambitions. By the 1910s, Boris’s infidelity and Bessie’s sense of her own power led her to separate from her husband and support herself independently. In addition to directing her own theater company, she became an outspoken advocate for progressive women’s causes, like the right to vote and parity in pay.

She espoused her opinions in the dozens of newspaper columns she wrote, as well as the theatrical roles she chose: taking male roles like Hamlet; a woman politician in “Jennie Runs for Mayor”; and the lead in “Minka di dinstmoyd” (“Minka the Housemaid”), which deals with birth control and class struggle.

“She was a pioneer, a pioneer Jewish American,” said Linda Steinberg, the executive director of The Thomashefsky Project, the non-profit outfit founded by Thomas in 1998, which spawned “The Thomashefskys” music-theater piece.

Commenting on the influence of both Bessie and Boris, she added: “Yiddish theater really became the central institution of Lower East Side life,” Steinberg added. “And [the Thomashefskys] helped start it, then developed it into the bridge to Broadway.”

Though Michael never met his grandfather, who died five years before he was born in 1944, he knew Bessie well. “I saw her virtually every weekend,” Thomas said. “She spent the weekends with us in the Valley,” he added, referring to his childhood in Southern California.

Bessie died in 1962, when Thomas was 17. But after Thomas’ father died in the early 1990s, he began to think of ways to honor both his own parents and his grandparents. “In some cases, I was becoming one of the few people who remembered this music and these stories,” Thomas said.

Thomas thought the Thomashefsky bricolage he inherited after his father’s death — posters, stage sets, costumes — might make for a good exhibition. So he contacted Steinberg, who was then working at the San Francisco Jewish Museum, to see if she could help.

The Thomashefsky Project was created a few years later with a goal to translate and catalogue the Thomashefskys’ works. “But then I thought, this is theater,” Thomas said. “I wanted to show what they did; otherwise it was just names, numbers, things in a glass case.” At that point, “The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in Yiddish Theater” was born.

Steinberg and Thomas continued to track down dozens of articles written by or about the Thomashefskys. They hired scholars to translate the plays they wrote, as well as both their memoirs. Steinberg put together a slideshow of rare archival photographs; Thomas recomposed many of the original show-tunes performed by his grandparents, fleshing them out for a full 30-piece orchestra.

Then, Thomas based the role of a narrator, which he plays, on Bessie, whom he knew when he was growing up. “Bessie, as you’ll discover in the show, is such a larger-than-life figure,” he said. “It’s really extraordinary that my mother gave her the space she did.”

Judy Blazer, a Broadway actress as well as an opera singer, plays the role of Bessie. It turns out that Blazer’s own grandparents in all likelihood saw the Thomashefskys perform live, too. In an interview with The Jewish Week, Blazer explained how her grandparents immigrated to New York from Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century.

“My grandmother worked in a sweatshop in the Lower East Side,” Blazer said. “My grandfather was very left, very socialist, a follower of Emma Goldman. You figure, this is when Boris and Bessie were performing, [so] they might have even encountered the Thomashefskys.”

There are three other actors in “The Thomashefskys,” but Thomas says this will be one of the last times he performs in the work himself. After this week’s New York performances, he will bring the show to Miami, where the orchestra he founded, the New World Symphony, will perform it in their much-publicized new theater designed by Frank Gehry.

“We’re L.A. mishpuchah,” Thomas said, referring to his familial-like bond with Gehry, the renowned architect. Also a descendant of East European Jewish immigrants, Gehry (né Goldberg) used to baby-sit for Thomas when Gehry was a student at the University of Southern California. Gehry knew Bessie too, and plans to attend the April 6 performance of “The Thomashefskys” in New York, when The National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene hosts a pre-concert award for Thomas.

But when Thomas performs that show, the final of two in New York, his thoughts will be on his father, he said. His father of course never got to see “The Thomashefskys,” even though at the time of his death he was working on a biography of Boris. “I guess the real beginnings were with my father’s desire to tell this story,” Thomas said. “I smile because I think he would have liked this.”

“The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in Yiddish Theater,” will be performed by the New York Philharmonic, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, on Tuesday, April 5, and Wed., April 6, at 7:30 p.m. $32-$133. Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, 64th St. and Broadway. The National Yiddish Theater – Folksbiene hosts a pre-concert awards ceremony and fundraiser, honoring Thomas, before the April 6 performance, 5:30-7 p.m., also at Avery Fisher Hall. Tickets to Folksbiene event and Apr. 6 performance are $75-$500. (212) 213-2120.

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