Yiddish OmahaOct 05, 2016 06:00AM ● By Max Sparber
Omaha is a city of many languages, in a country of many languages. Each language tells its own story. Take Yiddish, for example. The language comes from the same linguistic source as modern German, called High German. Yiddish, however, developed into its own language in the ninth century. Following Jewish migrations eastward, the language picked up many Slavic words and grammatical forms while borrowing a number of words from Hebrew. Yiddish became the common language of the Jews of Eastern Europe; as they migrated to America, they brought the language with them.
There have been Jews in Omaha since at least 1856. But it is likely many of those migrating from Germany spoke German, rather than Yiddish. We know that a large number of Jews from Ukraine came to Omaha after they were expelled from the city of Kiev in 1886. The first mention of their language appears in local newspapers in October 1879, when The Bee ran an article about a performance of In Gay New York that appeared at Boyd’s Theater downtown and featured a “novel Yiddish specialty.”
In 1911, the World-Herald listed three Omaha synagogues in which the primary language spoken was Yiddish, all downtown, two of them new. In the story, a local rabbi estimated there were 1,000 Yiddish speakers in the city.
This makes sense, as Yiddish culture has a rich theatrical tradition. The Purim shpiel, an outrageous comedic improvisational play based on the biblical book of Esther, is often performed in synagogues as part of festivities related to the Purim holiday.
Notices like the one in The Bee continued to appear, such as one from June of 1899, when the World-Herald ran an ad for the vaudeville Trocadero Theater of 14th Street downtown. The Trocadero at that time featured a performance by Julius Rose, who offered Yiddish ragtime songs and dances.
These performers were likely creating “dialect comedy,” productions staged mostly in thickly accented English, but it does indicate that the character and language of the Eastern European Jews was starting to get some stage time. Indeed, Carl Reiter, manager of the Orpheum, would occasionally appear onstage performing “Yiddish” stories.
Local use of Yiddish as a daily language emerged in a 1903 World-Herald story titled “Looking to Nebraska as a Haven of Refuge.” The story detailed the plight of Russian Jews, who were then experiencing anti-Semitic violence, and their need to find American cities that could accept them as refugees.
Soon after, we find evidence of the first theatrical told entirely in Yiddish. In June 1904, a performance of Alexander, Crown Prince of Jerusalem took place at the Krug Theater, formerly the Trocadero; the theater would be home to similar events for years to come. That same year, the World-Herald reported a new police officer in the downtown “Market District” would be expected to understand a variety of languages, including Yiddish. By 1906, local Zionist meetings in English and Yiddish were reported at 17th and Farnam streets.
The year 1909 brought a Yiddish giant to Omaha: Boris Thomashefsky, one of the biggest stars in Yiddish theater, who was responsible for the first professional Yiddish theater production in America. Thomashefsky appeared at the Burwood Theater, where film star Harold Lloyd made his debut. He was followed by another legend of Yiddish theater: Jacob Adler, whose daughter Stella taught method acting to Omaha’s Marlon Brando. Brando himself used to read Yiddish newspapers in New York.
In 1911, the World-Herald listed three Omaha synagogues in which the primary language spoken was Yiddish, all downtown, two of them new. In the story, a local rabbi estimated there were 1,000 Yiddish speakers in the city. In a follow-up story, the paper opined within a generation or two, Yiddish would be a dead language.
Omahan Joan Micklin Silver wrote and directed the largely Yiddish 1975 film Hester Street. Today, a vibrant Yiddish-speaking community remains in the U.S., but the language usage has dwindled. Even so, studies have shown a growing interest in the language, especially among a younger generation of Jews.
Max Sparber is a research specialist at the Douglas County Historical Society. He publishes a blog about Yiddish culture at brityiddish.com.