Omaha has been a city of many languages, part of a country of many languages, and those languages each tell their own stories. There was Yiddish, as an example. The language comes from the same linguistic source as modern German, called High German. But Yiddish developed into its own language in the 9th century, and, following Jewish migrations eastward, picked up a number of Slavic words and grammatical forms, as well as borrowing a number of words from Hebrew. Yiddish became the common language of the Jews of Eastern Europe, and, as the migrated to America, they brought the language with them.
It’s hard to know precisely when Yiddish first came to Omaha. There have been Jews in the city since at least 1856, but it is likely many of them were of German extraction, and probably 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, but their language goes unmentioned in local newspapers until October of 1879, when the Bee ran an article about a performance of “In Gay New York” that would appear at the Boyd theater downtown and featured a “novel Yiddish specialty.”
Notices like this would continue to appear, such as one from June of 1899, when the World-Herald ran an ad for the Trocadero vaudeville theater of 14th Street downtown, which featured a performance by Julius Rose, who offered Yiddish ragtime songs and dances.
It is likely these performers were doing something called “dialect comedy,” in mostly English but with thick accents, but it does indicate that the character and language of the East European Jews was starting to get some stage time. Indeed, one such performer was local: Carl Reiter, manager of the Orpheum, would occasionally appear onstage performing “Yiddish” stories.
Local use of Yiddish as a daily language first found its way into the papers in 1903, in a 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. According to the US Census, and by 1930, Omaha would home to more than 2,000 Jews from the former Russian Empire.
Soon, we find our first performance entirely in Yiddish. In June of 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. Also in 1904, 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.
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 downtown, where film star Harold Lloyd made his debut. It must have gone well, as he was followed by another legend of Yiddish theater: Jacob Adler in 1910, whose daughter Stella taught Method Acting to Omaha’s Marlon Brando, who also picked up some Yiddish and used to read Yiddish newspapers in New York.
In 1911, the World-Herald listed three Omaha synagogues where the primary language 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 story, the paper opined within a generation or two, Yiddish would be a dead language.
It isn’t, as there is still a vibrant Yiddish-speaking community in the United States, but the language usage has dwindled in Omaha. There was a film in Yiddish, 1975’s “Hester Street,” that was largely in Yiddish and was written and directed by Omaha Joan Micklin Silver, and the town still sees Yiddish performance, including Mandy Patinkin, who sings traditional Yiddish songs.
It’s too early to count out Yiddish as a language. Studies have shown a growing interest in the language, especially among a younger generation of Jews. There may yet be a time when Omaha’s Market district, now it’s Old Market, is home to multiple languages, and Yiddish will be among them.