He Himself Was A Sprawling Symphony

Remembering Isaiah Sheffer, the artistic director of Symphony Space and quintessential Jewish New Yorker.

11/20/12
Special To The Jewish Week
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There is a certain kind of Jewish New Yorker whose outsize personality can barely be contained within the contours of this island. Some of them, in fact, for this very reason end up leaving New York for wider spaces. Barbra Streisand (more later) immediately comes to mind. 

But there are also those who can exist nowhere else because their very essence is both Jewish and New York. No other place makes sense to them. Their entire being is wrapped up in the persona of Jewish New York. The bagel is in their bones; the Lower East Side is their destination regardless of which neighborhood they actually inhabit.

Isaiah Sheffer, the co-founder and longtime artistic director of Symphony Space, who died last week at age 76 from complications of a stroke, was just such a Jewish New York character — raconteur, impresario, pied piper, carnival barker, modern-day vaudevillian, and compulsively entertaining shtetl-dweller. While he brought all sorts of artistic adventures to Symphony Space — from African dances to Wall to Wall Stravinsky — it was Jewish New York that largely defined him and had claims on some of his most memorable moments. He wrote the book and lyrics for such Off-Broadway musicals as “Yiddle with a Fiddle” and “The Rise of David Levinsky.” His last play was “Dreamers and Demons: The Three Worlds of Isaac Bashevis Singer.” 

Even the annual public reading of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which for over 30 years under the direction of Sheffer became known as “Bloomsday on Broadway,” is named for Leopold Bloom, an Irish Jew who walks the streets and observes the life of Dublin on June 16, 1904. With a whimsical touch, a literary bent and a robust Rolodex of Broadway and Hollywood actors who were also his friends, Sheffer had Leopold and his wife Molly re-materialized and immortalized each year on the Upper West Side.

Such re-imaginings, of course, were no great stretch for Sheffer, a Jewish actor, singer, composer and director. Born in the Bronx and reared in Greenwich Village, he came from a family of Yiddish actors and made his first appearance on stage with his mother while he was still in the womb. (And yet he managed to take his own curtain call.) He was a child actor in both Yiddish and English plays, and, in fact, once appeared in a play directed by the then young but rising theater director, Sidney Lumet, who himself also started out as a child actor on the Yiddish stage. (Not long after, when he was a young New York theater director, Sheffer directed Dustin Hoffman and, yes, Barbra Streisand in one of their first New York stage debuts.)

Sheffer’s uncle, Zvee Scooler, hosted a Yiddish radio broadcast on WEVD. Years later, Sheffer, a tremendous mimic, was able to recreate for me the voices of immigrant New York City life that lived on those broadcasts — the Greeks, Irish, Italians, and, of course, the Jews. No doubt the romance of radio’s golden era influenced Sheffer to help spearhead its revival with his long-running, phenomenally successful series on NPR, “Selected Shorts,” which features the power of the human voice, telling a story, without pictures.

Sheffer possessed such a voice, which he used in many ways and to great effect. In fact, he regularly took “Selected Shorts” on the road with him. Like a vaudevillian with actors in tow, Sheffer introduced people from as far away as Montana to the simple pleasure of hearing a story read aloud.

A New Yorker’s existence always comes down to real estate, no matter how humble the origins or how much of the street still lingers within. For Sheffer, Symphony Space was not just his artistic home; it was also his soapbox, his public forum, his Brooklyn Bridge to a life of cultivated, energized, non-stop entertainment. He seemed to be everywhere, and that’s because he was. He seemed to know everyone, and that’s because he did. He moved gracefully within New York’s cultural elite, and yet his Jewish instincts for shtick and showmanship always left behind an ironic wink. He was like an Orchard Street peddler selling his wares, which in this case just happened to be the most electric, eclectic mix of raw talent and rich culture on any New York stage. 

Symphony Space resounded with more than just a symphony, and seemed to take up more space than its square footage allowed. It became New York’s big top tent, and Sheffer, as its blazing comet, hovered over its proceedings like a human proscenium, and bellowed from its stage like a larger than life P.T. Barnum.  Indeed, Sheffer will doubtlessly be remembered as having been created from the same New York Jewish theatrical mold as David Belasco, Billy Rose, and, of course, Joseph Papp. If Isaiah Sheffer had not already existed, some inventor of New York legends would have had to conjure him up from scratch, and that still would not have been enough to describe his essence.

Years ago when Symphony Space was undergoing its major renovation, Isaiah and I had one of our usual lunches — well, actually, in this case, a most unusual one. He was fascinated by the construction of the theater and the conjoining of the Thalia, which would soon become part of his expanding portfolio. But most of all, with almost childlike wonder, he was amazed at what was springing out from that hole in the ground — a fully uncovered crater from which his beloved Symphony Space would arise, anew.

It was a scorching New York summer day, but Isaiah had an original idea for an outing. He ordered in sandwiches, we got two lawn chairs, and we sat on West 95th Street, eating our lunch.  “What’s wrong with two Jews having lunch and staring into a hole?” Isaiah quipped.

Nothing at all, my friend. Rest well. Isaiah may be buried elsewhere, but his soul will always belong to that stretch of Jewish Broadway, and that New York City earth below.

Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist, essayist and law professor, is the author of, most recently, “The Stranger Within Sarah Stein.”

Last Update:

11/27/2012 - 18:49

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A delightful remembrance of a delightful human being. Thank you for bringing more depth to the voice I have enjoyed so much on the radio.

This essay is bringing tears to my eyes. I knew Isaiah only remotely as an attendee at Symphony Space events--which were so varied and creatively conceived, the force of nature that was Isaiah Sheffer was felt even when he was not on stage. But every description here resonates perfectly, and I feel as if I know Isaiah better now than I did or ever could when he was living.

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