Jewish immigrants to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s loved their theater. And as I read about this history in an exhaustive post at Jewish-Theatre.com, I was struck by how much this tells us about what it means to be a fan, at any time, at any place, of any particular piece of culture.
The piece quotes director and critic Harold Clurman saying, “even more than the synagogue or the lodge, became the meeting place and the forum of the Jewish community in America between 1888 and the early 1920s.” This is what fandom is really about, even for fans of Game of Thrones who discuss the show on Facebook, Twitter, or other message boards the day after it airs: It is about people coming together, connecting. It gives them something to talk about, just for the sake of talking. Isn’t it the best when you discover a shared fandom with someone you otherwise find it hard to relate to? You know, when you can suddenly talk Sopranos with your dad or The Bachelorette with your great aunt. And real fandoms give people reasons to gather, too: My mom, for instance, watches The Bachelor with a friend of hers every Monday. They know it’s a dumb show. It doesn’t matter. They enjoy their time together, and this gives them a meeting time and place. Another example: My sister and I share a love of Britney Spears, and we planned an entire trip to Vegas last year to see Britney, who’s doing a residency at Planet Hollywood there. Sure, we could’ve planned a trip together to any place at any time, but this made it special, and gave us the impetus to actually do it.
The Yiddish theater also notably drew fans from across socioeconomic groups, something that was even more remarkable in those days. (Journalist Hutchins Hapgood noted that those who made just $10 a week would sometimes spend half their money on theater tickets—a sign either that humans are very foolish or that entertainment is an essential ingredient for basic human happiness.) Sure, a lot of fandoms tend to draw the same types of people overall. But they also have the power to give common interests to those who’d otherwise feel no connection to each other. At the same time, the Yiddish theater also allowed Jews to see people like themselves represented in art. The productions were in their language, featuring people who looked like them. Nowadays, most of us acknowledge the power of that; that’s why diversity is so important in mainstream entertainment. But it’s also why movies featuring women and minorities have so often been “surprise” blockbusters: The white men running Hollywood, for instance, never saw Tyler Perry coming. Now he’s a known brand name and one of the biggest success stories in showbusiness—simply because he wrote movies about black people, starring black people.
As Jews assimilated into American culture in the 1930s and beyond, demand for Yiddish-language theater naturally declined. But the idea of Yiddish theater fandom lives on in fandoms dedicated to everything from Game of Thrones to Britney Spears.