Ask West Orange builder and philanthropist David Steiner if he speaks Yiddish and he’ll answer “Do I speak Yiddish? A bissel. I have enough trouble with English. Are you kidding?”
But his ardent interest in preserving the linguistic foundation of Eastern European Jewish art, literature, and culture has earned Steiner and his wife, Sylvia, places of honor from Folksbiene, the only surviving professional Yiddish theater company in the United States.
Together with Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony and founder and artistic director of the New World Symphony, the Steiners will be honored April 6 at Lincoln Center with a concert and reception.
Folksbiene is an enduring remnant of what was once the centerpiece of much immigrant Jewish culture. When it was founded in 1915, it was one of 15 Yiddish theater companies in the city. Today it is the only one still in existence, with a current season that included a musical revue starring Picket Fences star Fyvush Finkel and two one-acts by the celebrated writer I.L. Peretz.
The gala honoring the Steiners at Avery Fisher Hall will feature Tilson Thomas conducting “The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theatre,” a multi-media concert.
Tilson Thomas is the grandson of Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, two leading lights of the Yiddish theater.
A civil engineer by profession, David Steiner is a builder, real estate developer, and a commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He has another connection with show business, as owner of Steiner Studios, a filmmaking center in Queens. A past president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he is also a vice chair of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Both Steiners have provided major support to numerous Jewish causes and organizations, including United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ and the Rachel Coalition.
They are also strong supporters of the National Yiddish Book Center, a campus built around a collection of some one million Yiddish volumes. The Steiner Summer Internship Program offers students a chance to spend summers at the center in Amherst, Mass. He hopes such efforts will trigger a rebirth of the Yiddish theater and, eventually, the building of a museum of Yiddish language and culture.
“Yiddish may not be an important part of Jewish life around here,” he said, “but I hope to change that.”
Steiner said his strong support of the Folksbiene (which means “the people’s stage”) is motivated by his desire “to make sure Yiddish culture is around.”
“It is very important for us to preserve it — in books, in schools, and especially in the theater,” he told NJ Jewish News in a Feb. 28 phone interview. “The theater was such an important part of Jewish life in America, and it would be a shame for it not to be here. I hope by my encouraging it, the next generation might get an appreciation of the role it played and maybe participate more in Yiddish culture.”