Then and Now: Thumping heart of S.F.s Yiddish soul

As part of its “Great Performances” series, on March 29 KQED TV will telecast “The Thomashefskys,” Michael Tilson Thomas’ lavish musical tribute to his grandparents Bessie and Boris Thomashefsky, the premier Yiddish thespians of their day.

Yiddish pioneer Bassya Bibel in the 1920s photo/courtesy of magnes collection of jewish art and life

This combination of stories and music filmed with Miami’s New World Symphony, first presented at Tilson Thomas’ home base at the San Francisco Symphony in 2005, brings to life the world of the early 20th-century Yiddish theater on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which inspired so much of the dramatic and musical texture of subsequent American entertainment.

While the Thomashefskys were the thumping heart of Lower East Side culture, another Yiddish power couple — Bassya and Philip Bibel — made San Francisco’s Fillmore District a magnet for Yiddish life, bringing the world’s greatest Yiddish playwrights to their Yiddish cultural center on Steiner Street in the 1930s.

Their biggest triumph was a production of “The Dybbuk” at Congregation Emanu-El featuring local actors, immigrants from the Fillmore and congregants. It drew more than 8,000 people during its two-week run in 1928. The Bibels even lured Peretz Hirshbein, author of the classic Yiddish play “Green Fields,” to move to the Bay Area.

While Yiddish is no longer the lingua franca on Steiner Street, two generations later the Bay Area birthed the national klezmer revival, whose first notes were sounded in Berkeley and which continues with the vital KlezCalifornia Yiddish Culture Festival, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary at the JCC of San Francisco.

This column is provided to j. by the Contemporary Jewish Museum (, where “California Dreaming: Jewish Life in the Bay Area from the Gold Rush to the Present” is on view.