Jewish New York

We get ahead of ourselves in the narrative and must fill in a few details. When Baruch Lumet moved his family from Philadelphia to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he brought them into an aggressively Jewish world. In the late 1920s, this region could be characterized as an urban melting pot before the pot did much melting. Recent immigrants of varied tongue and hue settled into low-cost housing, near their low-paying jobs, and at least for a time stayed close to their familiar transplanted cultural surroundings. Well past midcentury, a stroller would still pass easily within a few blocks from the Jewish Lower East Side to Chinatown to Little Italy. These and other ethnic groups re-created the old world as they struggled to gain a toehold in the new. Languages and cuisine varied from street to street. The neighborhood, as horrific as conditions often were, provided a safe haven until the new arrivals learned enough English and gained the confidence to sail into the open seas of Uptown, Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx. Only later would their children commute by PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) trains to northern New Jersey, by Long Island Railroad to Nassau County, or, if they really made it, by New Haven Railroad (now Metro North) to the comfortable suburbs of Westchester County and Connecticut.

This intercity long-distance commuting would come later. By 1928, much had changed from the earlier days of Jewish immigration, but much remained the same. The coming of the subways at the turn of the century allowed the workforce to disperse uptown and to the other boroughs, but as the partially assimilated rode the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) into the middle class, the newest arrivals continued to come to the Lower East Side, at least until they were able to function in English. For the second generation, the old neighborhood still provided the most authentic food and the best opportunity to preserve a sense of ethnic roots through native-language newspapers, churches and synagogues, social clubs, and contact with newcomers bringing news from the old country. Of course, in many Jewish communities, the rise of National Socialism in Germany and the political climate of Central Europe would be a matter of concern. What was it really like for family and friends back home in the 1930s? The new arrivals brought more stories to explain their flight from the old country.

Baruch Lumet's career provides a perfect example of the immigrant's movement from the ethnic neighborhood to the mainstream. Trained at the Warsaw Academy of Dramatic and Musical Arts, he debuted on the Polish stage in 1918, spent a brief time in London, and then moved to Philadelphia.2 At first he sought his livelihood in the thriving cultural world of Yiddish theater. By 1926, he began to work for Maurice Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theater in New York and soon after, the family took up residence on the Lower East Side. His was a familiar voice on Yiddish radio. Before many years had passed, Baruch Lumet had English-language roles on Broadway, toured Mexico and Canada, and after World War II became a pioneer in the new medium of television. He appeared in several of his son's films, most notably as Mendel, the dying father of Nazerman's mistress, in The Pawnbroker (1965). From 1953 to 1970 he served as director of the Dallas Institute of Performing Arts. He died in 1992.

Sidney Lumet followed his father's footsteps from ethnic theater to the mainstream, but at the accelerated pace typical of the second generation. As a toddler he made the trip from Philadelphia to the Lower East Side, and by the age of four, he made his own debut in the Yiddish theater.3 Following his father, he appeared as a child actor in Yiddish-language radio as well as theater, and he made his Broadway debut in the original production of Dead End in 1935. Through the following years, he had several parts in English-language plays with Jewish-related themes, like The Eternal Road, Journey to Jerusalem, and Morning Star. During these years, he attended the Professional Children's School in New York. Many of his early plays also had notable social-justice themes, like Brooklyn, USA, and One Third of a Nation. Continually typecast as "the tough Jewish kid," he began to sense the limitations of his career as a character actor and decided to pursue a more academic approach to the theater. World events intervened. After his one-semester career with dramatic literature at Columbia University, he joined the army at the age of seventeen and was assigned to the Signal Corps.

After the war, he returned to the New York stage and appeared in several "problem" dramas with Jewish themes, such as A Flag Is Born, about the founding of the state of Israel, and Seeds in the Wind the story of Holocaust survivors who try to found a utopian community. By 1947, he had formed a workshop for actors who had rejected the Method style adopted by Lee Strasberg (1901-1982) at the Actors Studio. (Ironically, Lumet would become noted for his success in encouraging his actors to provide the kind the gritty "naturalistic" performances often associated with Method actors.) During this period he also taught acting at the High School for Performing Arts, which achieved widespread recognition as the setting of Fame (Alan Parker, 1980) and its spin-off television series of the same name.4

Lumet's work with actors in the workshop led inevitably to directing. During the late 1940s he gravitated toward plays that mirrored his own social concerns.5 Directors with experience, who needed steady income, found a ready home in the new medium of television, which was—so it seemed at the time—an offshoot of radio, and thus housed near the corporate headquarters and production facilities in New York. One of the earliest television directors at CBS was Yul Brynner, who invited Lumet to join the pioneer venture of live drama on television. Ironically, the career trajectories of the two men crossed for the benefit of both. Brynner the director, whose Swedish accent made him a natural to play the king of Siam, was headed to an extraordinary career in acting. Lumet the actor found his niche as a director, but not without a period of incubation.

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