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An ovnt bay Littmans: A Night at Detroit’s Historical Yiddish Theater

Nadav Pais-Greenapple

In the fall of 1928, the actor Chaim “Herman” Yablokoff arrived in Detroit to play a season at Detroit, Michigan’s premier destination for Yiddish plays, musicals, and movies: Littman’s People’s Theater, Though Yablokoff would eventually become legend, he was at that time merely a supporting player, and was displeased with the fact that he would be stuck for the season in, as members of the Yiddish theater referred to anywhere outside New York, a “provincial” city. However, Yablokoff’s low expectations of Detroit would be quite outmatched by the reality of what he was soon to experience. Detroit’s Yiddish theater, despite its distance from the center of American Yiddish culture in New York, was home to big personalities and bigger stars. And Yablokoff’s time in Detroit would see not only the beginning of his rise to international stardom, but run-ins with gangsters, multiple deaths, and a devastating flu epidemic which would tear through the theater.

From its opening in 1927 to its closure in 1944, Littman’s Peoples’ Theater at 8210 12th Street was Detroit’s premier destination for Yiddish-language theatrical performance and film. Managed and founded by its eponymous impresario, Abraham Littman, the theater served as one of the most significant hubs of Yiddish-language cultural production and consumption in Detroit’s bygone network of Yiddish cultural institutions which flourished during the 1920s and 30s. In recent years some Yiddish cultural institutions in the United States have received significant academic attention, especially those in the world of theater. Unfortunately, as is typical in the field of Jewish studies, continued bias toward research on the Jewish-American cultural-geographical center of New York City and its environs has left more peripheral regions such as the Midwest almost uniformly neglected. Thus a holistic understanding of the history and role of Yiddish cultural institutions in the United States must, if it is to be truly comprehensive, incorporate scholarship regarding more “provincial” Yiddish-speaking communities and their cultural production.

Act I: Setting the Stage

Abraham Littman, the future impresario of the People’s Theater which bore his name, was born in 1882 near Minsk in what is now Belarus. At the age of fifteen he and his sister arrived in New York, where he began working in a sweatshop making jackets. Jackets did not, however, hold his attention. He found himself enraptured by the myriad Yiddish theater performances available to him on the Lower East Side, and soon the young Littman had abandoned the sweatshop entirely for any chance he could find to help out at the theater. For the next two decades he learned to manage a company of actors and directed troupes in cities such as Buffalo, Rochester, Toronto, and Philadelphia. 1 1 Zalman Zylbercweig, Leksikon fun yidishn teater, Vol. II. (Warsaw: Hebrew Actors Union of America, 1934) col.1034. His tenacity and determination are communicated clearly in stories from this period collected by Littman’s colleague and friend Zalman Zylbercweig in the book Hintern forhang (Behind the Curtain), published 1928. In one anecdote, a Yiddish theater troupe headed by Littman was touring the Pittsburgh region. In the city of Greensburg, PA, a theater venue could not be rented at a reasonable price. Thus Littman, at the suggestion of a local actor, begged the gabbai of the local synagogue to allow the troupe to perform at the shul itself. He succeeded, and that Saturday evening after havdole the shul’s shammes walked the streets shouting “Yidn, kumt arayn in shul morgn nokhmitog, vu dos yidishe teater vet shpiln!” “Jews, come back to shul tomorrow afternoon, where Yiddish theater will be performed!” The show went on, despite the lack of an actual theater. 2 2 Zalman Zylbercweig, Hintern forhang. (Vilnius: Vilner Farlag fun B. Kletskin, 1928) 220.

It was likely in his role at the head of one of these touring companies, sometime before 1924, that Littman visited Detroit for the first time. He saw in Detroit an opportunity: it was a large, and rapidly growing, city with a significant enough Yiddish-speaking population to warrant a more permanent Yiddish theatrical presence than the 500-seat Circle Theater on Hastings Street which only saw the occasional Yiddish touring company. And so, in 1924 Littman and his business partner and director, Misha Fishzon, bought the Circle Theater and renamed it the Yiddish Playhouse.

The first few years at Hastings Street saw meager success. Though there was indeed a large Jewish community in the city, Littman and company had arrived just as that community was undergoing a major geographic shift. Since the establishment of Detroit’s first Yiddish-speaking communities in the 1880s, the Hastings Street corridor had been the center of Jewish life for newly arrived immigrants. Now, as Jewish immigration ebbed dramatically due to new restrictive federal policies, the upwardly mobile community was quickly leaving Hastings Street behind as a place of residence for wealthier, less crowded, and more ethnically homogenous neighborhoods to the northwest. It was at this time that our next player entered the stage. In 1925, a young Irish-American named James Miller took a job with Littman as a scenepainter. For the next two years he would be part of the Yiddish Playhouse’s tight-knit community of cast and crew. He would become a lifelong friend of Littman’s, and toward the end of his life Miller would dedicate himself to chronicling the bygone world of Detroit’s Yiddish theater in which he spent those years of his youth. In 1967, just a few years before his death, he published Detroit’s Yiddish Theater: 1920-1937, the only academic text to date fully dedicated to this topic.

In this book, he described the mood in the Yiddish Playhouse as it became clear in the summer of 1925 that, in order to stay alive, the theater would have to move:

With Tomashevsky’s departure a silence settled over the old playhouse; only the sounds of the caretaker making his rounds and the scene painter refurbishing the tattered drops and wings for the next season could be heard, and accompanying them the smell of the glue pot and the musty odor of tempera paint. In through the open stage door, sounds of change were heard, sounds of new voices, not those of the old neighborhood Yiddishkit, but new accents portending the coming of new neighbors. The little schneiderlik (tailor) still pressed his eternal pants behind the dressing room walls where his complaining voice could still be heard, the ever-present rats scampered in the alley beside the theater, and the iceman still hawked his wares, but Jewish sounds and signs were disappearing. The ‘uptown Jews’ were chary about visiting the old neighborhood, for it was a part of the past. The old theater lay simmering in the late summer heat, resting before the final convulsive shudder of death, and with it the ghetto itself was dying. 3 3 James Miller, The Detroit Yiddish Theater: 1924 to 1937. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1967), 61.

However, as with all things, this death was but a transformation. A fundraising effort commenced, land was purchased, an architect hired, and before long a brand new dedicated building for Yiddish theater was rising from foundations at 8210 12th Street. And after one interim season at The Majestic theater on Woodward Avenue, the new Littman’s Peoples’ Theater had its grand opening in September 1927. Quoted in the Detroit Jewish Chronicle on that occasion, Littman described in his typical “humble” fashion the arduous journey undertaken to arrive at this great success:

I have had the hardest struggle of perhaps any actor or manager in the profession,” said Mr. Littman. “I have gone hungry many times. I have worn shoes with shined tops even when the soles were worn thin and torn. Even the building of this house was not always smooth sailing. There were terrible obstacles to overcome and many times it looked as if the project were doomed to failure. 4 4 “New Home of Jewish Drama.” Detroit Jewish Chronicle, 2 September 1927. Accessed 2 May 2022, https://digital.bentley.umich.edu/djnews/djc.1927.09.02.001/1

From his correspondence with the Hebrew Actors’ Union in New York and the testimony of those who knew him, we see that Littman was a man determined beyond a shadow of a doubt to provide a Yiddish theater to the people of Detroit. His stubborn – perhaps quixotic – insistence on this point led to personal and professional conflict for him more than once. Actor Herman Yablokoff described him as a man whom “the title of impresario described . . . to a tee! He even spoke with haughty authority!” 5 5 Chaim Yablokoff, Der Payatz. (Bartleby Press, 1995) 258. Despite this, Yablokoff credited Littman with, practically by himself, ensuring the success of Detroit’s Yiddish theater. Littman – remembered by former usher Jack Rosman as a kindly, flamboyant man who was nearly blind and required thick glasses to read – saw the continuation of Yiddish theater in Detroit as his personal mission to complete at any cost. 6 6 Jack Rosner, interviewed by Leah Jordan Bisel c.2007. Museum of Family History. Accessed 2 May 2022, https://www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/yt-recollections-rosner-detroit.htm

Act II: A Night at the Theater

In the winter of 1928-1929, one of the many individuals to pass through the ornate stone halls of Detroit’s Michigan Central Station was the Yiddish communist writer Moshe Nadir. 7 7 I have dated Nadir’s story to this period for several reasons: first, his play Der letster yid was performed at Littman’s in early January 1929. It is not unreasonable to assume that, given his status as a reasonably well-known writer, he may have been present for the production. Second, his story mentions that the Fisher building was recently completed, thus placing his visit after its completion in 1928. Third, his story mentions that the President of the United States was Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge was President until the inauguration of Herbert Hoover on 4 March 1929.
With his troupe of singers and ensemble actors in tow, it is certain that he cut a striking figure in the snow-robed winter city when he arrived, for, as described by biographer Berl Kagan, he was “Tall, slender, with a head full of black tresses, a dark-complexioned face, with deep brown eyes, in a cape, his neck wrapped in a multi-colored scarf, with his lazy, melodic gait, he forged an impression of an aristocratic-Bohemian artistic likeness.” 8 8 Berl Kagan, comp., Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers) Trans. Joshua Fogel, (New York, 1986), col. 386. Accessed 2 May 2022, http://yleksikon.blogspot.com/2017/12/moyshe-moishe-nadir.html

Likely writing on assignment for Frayhayt, the New York based communist newspaper he wrote for, he traveled throughout Detroit observing the brutal deprivations and contradictions of proletarian life in America’s model industrial city. He skewered the city’s leadership, its Jewish middle class, and its industrialists with his trademark sardonic wit and ruthless wordplay. The Detroit into which Moshe Nadir ventured that winter was as beautiful as it was brutal, as ornate as it was unequal – and ripe for dissection under his empathetic but uncompromising Marxist’s gaze.

Detroit boulevards are long and bright. Tree-lined and grassy. Go for a drive on one of these streets away from the most-used boulevard, soon you will come to streets of confusion and destitution… dirty children run alongside the wheels of your automobile, reeking with odors of putrid food. . . .

Oh, Detroit has certainly grown a bit the last few years! Expanded until Belle Isle, starting with the heights, where there was nothing in the way. The wondrous Fisher Building was built, which at night from the 5th to the last floor is drowned in light… Swimming out of the darkness it emerges in fantastic brightness! At its peak the roof is decked in gold leaf, with priceless mosaics in the Eastern style. All arches, wall pleats, and soffits are covered with handmade art.

And from the other side: poor little streets, with benumbed horizons. Grass and trees grow only crooked. They waste away quickly. To every wilted patch of grass there comes only a man, saying: “Looking for work. Bread! Bread!” This is the bitter cry of men whose bloody battlefield is called the world. 9 9 Moshe Nadir, “Di ford fabrik” In Di Nayste Verk. (New York: Farlag Morgen Frayhayt, 1931) 16.

Yet unacknowledged in his polemical essay, which would eventually be published in the fourth volume of his collected Di nayste verk in 1931 under the title Der ford fabrik, was the world of Yiddish cultural arts in Detroit. This is somewhat ironic, not least because it is highly likely that Littman’s theater was in fact the impetus for the playwright’s visit to the city. This is because, on the first weekend of January, 1929, in the midst of the country’s worst outbreak of influenza in a decade, Nadir’s play Der letster yid – The Last Jew – was performed at Littman’s Theater.


Though at present a full script of Nadir’s Der letster yid is unavailable, it is nonetheless possible to reconstruct with a reasonable degree of accuracy the experience of attending a typical performance at Littman’s Peoples’ Theater circa 1929. For the purposes of this thought experiment, let us imagine that we are in the shoes of Moshe Nadir himself on a frigid January evening as he walks to the theater to view his play.

The theater – a stately brick building designed by local architect and former Yiddish theater actor Maurice Finkel – stood at the corner of 12th Street and Seward. Located in the heart of Detroit’s Jewish neighborhood, it was walking distance to numerous Jewish-owned barbershops, clothiers, furriers, restaurants, and, of course, synagogues. The marquee, reading “Littman’s,” stood tall along the west side of 12th Street, bright bulbs accentuating an ornate window with a Star of David motif at the center of the brick facade. 10 10 “New Home of Jewish Drama.” Detroit Jewish Chronicle, 2 September 1927. Accessed 2 May 2022, https://digital.bentley.umich.edu/djnews/djc.1927.09.02.001/1

As Nadir approaches the building, we can imagine the crowd of potential audience-members milling about in the cold: excited Yiddish voices, young and old, rising into the evening with their steaming breath. Having typically heard about the evening’s performance either in print advertisements in the Detroit Jewish Chronicle or the local edition of the Forverts – or on Harry Weinberg’s Yiddish Radio Hour – the loyal audience members would flock to the lobby box office en masse just minutes before curtain. Emphasizing both the theater-going public’s tendency for procrastination and Littman’s short temper, historian Nahma Sandrow described a typical scene at the box office in the minutes just before showtime:

On Saturday nights the theater would be only half full five minutes before curtain time, but there were always crowds quarreling, shoving, leaning, and elbowing around the box offices, till Littman himself became exasperated and bawled them out:

“Where were you all week? From nine to five every day we were sitting, waiting to sell tickets, and you didn’t come. Now it’s too late.”

He worked himself into a fury and slammed down his window. But his public knew him ‘‘from the old country,’’ as the saying went; they simply stood around the lobby till he calmed down enough to stalk back and let them buy their tickets. The following week they would again wait until the last minute. 11 11 Nahma Sandrow, Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater. (New York: Harper & Row, 1977) 252-3.

It is not certain how large the crowd would have been that night — the city was in the midst of a brutal flu epidemic, therefore newspapers and radio stations discouraged the public from going to crowded spaces such as theaters. Nonetheless, some braved the cold and the risk of illness. Of course, the actors and crew had no choice: the show must go on. 12 12 Chaim Yablokoff, Der Payatz. (Bartleby Press, 1995.) 259.

Though we have no photographs of the building’s interior, it is possible to gain an idea of what the building’s decor may have looked like by examining the lavish appointments of the Michigan Theater forty miles away in Ann Arbor. One of two surviving buildings also designed by Finkel, and completed only a year after Littman’s in 1928, that theater, restored professionally to its original condition in the 1990s, boasts gilt moldings and ornate sculptural details in the typical style of the period. Described in the Chronicle on the occasion of its opening, Littman’s was likely just as fancy, if not more so:

“. . .[The theater represents] an outlay of $250,000 and compares favorably with the finest Jewish playhouses in the country. In seating capacity it equals the famous Jewish Art Theater, Maurice Schwartz’s playhouse, in New York. The interior decorations . . . are in the Assyrian style, rich in color and in the best artistic taste. In stage equipment it ranks with the best theaters in the city. Its construction is modern, fireproof, and of the best quality of materials.” 13 13Chronicle, 7 September 1929.

Let us imagine that Nadir, on his way into the theater, is called into the box office by Littman to retrieve his ticket. What might Nadir have seen there? Littman was a perpetually harried man, constantly writing letters, sending telegrams, and making phone calls on behalf of his theater. It is not difficult to imagine the box office covered in papers of all sorts. Perhaps a letter to the manager of the Hebrew Actors’ Union in New York, Reuven Guskin, half-finished by his secretary on the English typewriter; a cash register in constant operation behind the sliding window; rolls of tickets; stacks of programs and playbills fresh from the printer; old posters hanging from the walls. The ordered chaos of a lifelong impresario truly dedicated to his chosen craft.

Nadir, having been busy with his tour of the city, would like to meet the cast of the play before taking his seat in the theater. He will not find them in dressing rooms backstage, however. As Yablokoff explained in his memoir, the theater’s ornate design and lavish appointments did not extend beyond the realm of the audience. Though the auditorium and stage were decorated with “gilt cherubim around the proscenium,” Morris Finkel had, inexplicably, omitted dressing rooms for the actors from the building’s design. As Yablokoff resignedly lamented, “One could hardly demand that the theater be rebuilt just for the comfort of the actors! So, we had to make the best of it.”

On the third floor, way up under the roof, where the flies were hung, several cubicles were partitioned off, and the actors each got their corner where they could change and makeup. In the summer one could stifle up there and in the winter one could freeze. But this was only the half of it. The real hardship was running up and down the three flights to make our changes. It was hard enough on the men. But, the women, for whom it was a never-ending process of on-with-a-costume, off-with-a-costume, it was pretty rough. In a pinch we changed in the wings. Climbing up and down on that spiral stairway during the nine shows a week, we referred to ourselves as the angels in Jacob’s dream, ascending and descending the ladder to heaven! 14 14 Yablokoff 257.

The mood that night in the attic dressing room of Littman’s Peoples’ Theater was an odd stew: pre-show jitters, the typical excitement associated with the local premier of a play, the chaos of a visiting chorus’ arrival, and genuine mortal danger. Only a week earlier, in the midst of a flu epidemic which was ravaging the city, the actor Wolf Shumsky had fallen gravely ill just before the opening performance of Moshe Schorr’s In mitn veg (In the middle of the road). At the last minute he was replaced by troupe regular David Reitz, who had traveled to Detroit all the way from Australia at the Union’s behest with his wife and two sons.15 His star turn would not last. The next day, Christmas, he was escorted to the stage door by his two sons, barely able to stand on his own and pale with fever. Though he completed the matinee performance alongside the season’s guest star, Madame Berta Kalish, by the time of the evening show he was too weak to go on. Yablokoff called an ambulance and Reitz was taken to the hospital with his family by his side.

That evening, Harry Jordan stepped in to Reitz’s part, while Ostroff took over for Jordan and the show went on. People applauded… Madame Kalish held her curtain speech… and none of us knew– least of all the audience– that Reitz was no longer among the living. 15 15 Yablokoff 261.

Reitz’s death was reported that Thursday in the Chronicle, along with the news of the theater’s closure in his memory the following day. Shumsky, too, soon succumbed to the flu which ravaged the city that winter. Barely a week later, the atmosphere in the frigid attic dressing rooms before the performance of Der letster yid was subdued to say the least. Reitz and Shumsky’s deaths remained fresh and unexpected enough that it was too late to change the cast list as it appeared in the program. Reitz was still credited as “the Merchant,” and Shumsky as the titular “Jew.” It is unknown who filled in for their roles. Yablokoff, in the role of Kozakov the Revolutionary, was himself in the midst of fighting off the flu with heavy doses of cognac, prescribed by his doctor and smuggled across the river from Windsor, Canada by the Purple Gang.


Illness was not an uncommon occurrence in the ranks of Yiddish theater actors. In usual circumstances – i.e. not an epidemic – the Hebrew Actors’ Union provided the necessary funding for medical treatment, transportation, and compensation for missed performances. The Union had even paid for the funerals of both Reitz and Shumsky, and for Reitz’s family’s passage back to Australia.

The near total reliance of the Detroit theater on logistical aid from New York is plainly visible in yet another anecdote from Yablokoff’s memoir regarding the 1929 flu epidemic:

A rumor spread in New York that the actors in Detroit were dropping dead one after another. So the top stars, naturally, gave us a wide berth. Even the lesser luminaries were afraid to venture near our theater. When Auerbach and Sadie left the company, the entire burden of continuing our season fell on my shoulders. I took over the responsibility of directing, staging, and taking part in every type of play. Any suitable old script I was able to dig up in Littman’s archive, which he hoarded like a treasure—on it went! We struggled to keep the theater going until some new attraction would have mercy and come to rescue the season. 16 16 Yablokoff 261-2.

Littman’s Theater, suddenly at the heart of the city’s flu epidemic, found itself cut off from its essential logistical lifeline to New York by its reputation of plague, and suffered greatly for it. Littman’s office in Detroit was linked by appendages of telegram wire, phone line, and paper not only to the HAU headquarters in New York, but to Yiddish theaters elsewhere in the country. This exchange was, in fact, central to the theater’s perception in the eyes of its audience and the greater Jewish community of Detroit; with the theater itself serving as a cultural and material link to the distant coastal center of Jewish American culture. But throughout his theater’s tenure as the home of Yiddish theater in Detroit, this implicit question – whether or not a theater in this city on the periphery of the Jewish-American world could survive without constant aid from the HAU – hung heavy like a storm cloud over Littman.

As the stage manager, Isaac Arko, calls “places” backstage and the actors rush down the spiral staircase, Nadir takes his seat in the auditorium. All around, the audience is filing in: married couples out for a break from their children; bearded old rebbes and wrinkled bobes from the old country hoping for a nostalgic vision of their past; Purple Gang bruisers beginning a night out on the town; throngs of single greenhorn factory workers spending their pay on a well-deserved diversion; leftist artists and teachers looking for a rich cultural experience. Anticipation builds in the air as the pit orchestra tunes their instruments and the living murmur of the crowd turns its collective attention palpably toward the great velvet curtain which hangs between them and the waiting stage. Just before the lights go down, Nadir opens the playbill handed to him by Littman with the ticket and begins to leaf through it.

Who were the regular patrons of Littman’s Peoples’ Theater? How did the theatrical performances staged within its walls speak to them and to their experiences? How did the theater fit into their lives, and into the greater community of Yiddish-language cultural institutions of Jewish 12th Street? A semblance of an answer can be gleaned from the pages of a Yiddish-language playbill distributed to audiences who visited the theater during the week of October 15-22, 1933. Along with a bilingual cast list for that week’s performance – Khaloymes fun libe – Dreams of Love – by noted shund author Isidor Lillien – audiences could peruse advertisements for local businesses, laugh at Yiddish jokes ranging in length from a sentence to a few paragraphs, and read an article regarding the newest developments in the New York Yiddish theater entitled “Di yiddishe teater velt.

The eleven Yiddish theaters, which great New York possesses this season, present: The former Yeshiva student, Josef Rumshinski, opposite the eleven stars, the ekhod-esar khohkvim, which appeared to [the biblical] Joseph in his dream, bowing to him.

Who, then, you’ll ask, is our Joseph, if the eleven theaters are the eleven stars which also appeared and bowed to him? Rumshinski answers that Joseph is not so different than the old-time New Yorker, “Moyshe,” whom today is already no longer “Moyshe:” He has settled down, become smart, gotten his taste of the finer things, and today is already in the category of the ben-poret [beloved son] Joseph, who can no longer be satisfied by a “Potiphar’s wife” whose best accessory is a couple of tinkle bells. 17 17 Collection of YIVO, Esther-Rachel Kaminska Theater Museum Collection, Box 82, Folder 942.

The biblical tale of Joseph, who rose from slavery to priviliged advisor to the Pharaoh of Egypt, would certainly have resonated with an audience member at Littman’s Peoples’ Theater in the 1930s. Though economic conditions were dire for many, Jews in general suffered less than other ethnic groups during the Great Depression. Thus it is unsurprising that the hypothetical “Moyshe,” – a byword for the average Jewish immigrant – who has found his taste for the finer things in life, turns to the stars of the theater for his rich man’s entertainment. For audiences in peripheral Detroit, this article would have provided a sense of connection to the center of Yiddish theater in New York and framed Littman’s as a locale of high culture and global connection.

Also essential to the theater’s continued existence was its patronization by Detroit’s stalwart community of Yiddish cultural activists, as evidenced by a full-page advertisement for the Umpartaishe folkshul gezelshaft – the Non-Partisan Folks-School Association, later known as the Sholem Aleichem Institute – and their “hundert toyznt taler kampayn.” This announcement described an upcoming fundraiser by the organization, which was founded to provide secular Yiddish-language cultural education to Jewish children from a non-Zionist, non-Communist perspective. By advertising in Littman’s playbill, the organization hoped to reach Yiddish-speaking families who desired a continued education in the “mame-loshn” for their children.

In one anecdote, Yablokoff described the relationship between the actors of the theater and their patrons in the infamous Purple Gang, revealing the degree to which the theater was a meeting place for those taking part in the legitimate – and not so legitimate – ways of life on offer in early 20th century Detroit:

Some of our staunchest theater fans were the Jewish “boys” from the notorious Purple Gang . . . Their “activities,” such as they were, never kept them from attending all of our shows. . . . in the theater one would never suspect that these fellas were any such thing as mobsters.

Interestingly enough, when one of our actors was burglarized, our devoted fans got wind of it, and assured us that the missing stuff would turn up—as indeed it did! Before long the stolen goods were returned and the burglar got a few bones broken for his daring to lay hands on the worldly possessions of a Yiddish actor. 18 18 Yablokoff 258-9.

By the same token, the clergy of Detroit’s Jewish community were relied upon in sticky situations just as much as the community’s criminal element. After receiving sudden word just before a performance that his father had died in Belarus, Yablokoff broke down crying, wracked with grief. Though Littman excused the actor from the day’s rehearsal, he made sure the performer knew that the show could not go on without him. But did Yablokoff not have a religious duty to mourn for his father? Only a rabbi could solve this problem.

“You have our deepest sympathy,” said Littman. “But you know, we have absolutely no one to take over for you. Under the circumstances, even a rabbi would sanction your performing tonight. If you don’t come to play, Yabby, I will be forced to close the theater.”

Distraught beyond words, I was persuaded to go and discuss my situation with the rabbi at the little shul on Twelfth Street. I would then abide by his ruling. The rabbi took into consideration the extenuating circumstances peculiar to my profession. He also took into consideration the plight of the other theater families, who would be deprived of a living if the theater closed.

The good rabbi then gave consent to my working that same evening, with the promise that I will recite the Kaddish in memory of my father three times daily, for the entire year of mourning— a promise I religiously fulfilled. 19 19 Yablokoff 263.

Despite the curtain between them, the actors and crew at Littman’s People’s Theater were integral members of the community as much as the audience who filled the auditorium. Seated, then, among the crowd of upwardly mobile Jewish Detroiters of all stripes, Nadir watches as his play begins in earnest.


Act III: The Final Curtain

Nadir’s experience taking in a performance at Littman’s People’s Theater is one snapshot in the longer history of that theater and the space it currently occupies. Its later history is one of a slow decline caused by a plethora of complex structural factors that led to a steady hemorrhaging of actors, financiers, and audiences. Throughout the late 1930s, each successive season of performances was shorter than the last. Often, in the place of flesh-and-blood actors, Yiddish-language “talking pictures” played for the shrinking audiences who still graced Littman’s opulent auditorium. As the immigrant community of 12th Street raised itself from poverty and continued its march to the northwest, and eventually to affluent suburbia, the theater was left behind. Its final regular season, having started two months late due to contract difficulties and lack of audience interest, ended in May 1944. 20 20 “Littman Presents Green Yankees May 28, 29, 30.” The Detroit Jewish News, May 19 1944. Accessed 3 May 2023. https://digital.bentley.umich.edu/djnews/djn.1944.05.19.001/10 One final attempt would be made to revive the theater via communal subsidization from 1941-43, though that too was doomed to failure. No longer would Yiddish theater Littman’s opulent auditorium. The Jewish community would have to make do with touring companies making temporary visits to English-language theaters such as the Masonic Temple. Littman’s lifelong effort to ensure the permanent presence of Yiddish-language artistic expression in this “provincial” city, as Yablokoff called it, had been admirable. But history had other plans.

The building itself remained for a few decades longer. After its final closure, it reopened in 1945 as a movie theater under the name “Abington Theater.” 21 21 Brian Krefft, “Goldcoast Theater.” Cinema Treasures. Published c.2015. Accessed 2 May 2022, http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/2798 It closed once again in 1953, to reopen as the “Goldcoast Theater” in 1956. The final closure came two years later in 1958. By this time 12th Street was no longer a Jewish neighborhood and had become the economic core of Detroit’s black community. After the Rebellion of 1967, during which much of the 12th Street corridor was ravaged by arson, those buildings which survived were demolished in the name of “urban renewal.” 22 22 Historical Aerials, Accessed 2 May 2022. https://www.historicaerials.com/viewer 23 23 For five days during the “long, hot summer” of 1967, Detroit was convulsed by one of the largest urban rebellions in American history. Precipitated by an episode of mass police brutality at an illegal after-hours bar (in a building which, incidentally, had once been used as a synagogue), citizens of Detroit, both black and white, took to the streets in a massive upwelling of the simmering racial and economic tensions which had undergirded life in America’s “model industrial city” for decades. 23 black people were killed, mostly by police and soldiers, hundreds were wounded, and entire neighborhoods went up in flames. A bloody and ineffectual intervention by the Michigan National Guard did little to stem the violence. Finally, the city was occupied by two U.S. Army paratrooper divisions, which finally stemmed the bloodshed. Much of the destruction took place in the once majority-Jewish 12th Street neighborhood. Today the block is a group of townhome apartments.

Sources

Primary sources include: correspondence between, among others, Littman and representatives of the Hebrew Actors’ Union in New York City; Chaim Yablokoff’s 1981 memoir of the Yiddish theater Der Payatz; Moshe Nadir’s 1931 short story Der ford fabrik; and a collection of programs, playbills, and other ephemera from Littman’s Peoples’ Theater dating to throughout the 1930s, housed in the YIVO archives.

MLA STYLE
Pais-Greenapple, Nadav. “An ovnt bay Littmans: A Night at Detroit’s Historical Yiddish Theater.” In geveb, April 2023: https://ingeveb.org/blog/detroits-historical-yiddish-theater.
CHICAGO STYLE
Pais-Greenapple, Nadav. “An ovnt bay Littmans: A Night at Detroit’s Historical Yiddish Theater.” In geveb (April 2023): Accessed Jun 16, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nadav Pais-Greenapple

Nadav Pais-Greenapple (he/him) is a Yiddishist, writer, historian, and educator from metropolitan Detroit, Michigan.