Arts and Culture

PBS captures memories of Yiddish theater

Shuler Hensley and Eugene Brancoveanu in “The Thomashefskys”

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome! Tonight we’re here to tell you a story. It’s the story of Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, two kids from little shtetls in the middle of the Ukrainian nowhere who came to America and became the founders and pioneers of the American Yiddish Theater … they also happened to be my grandparents.”

So begins “The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater,” written, hosted and conducted by San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas, which will air on PBS’s Great Performances on Arizona Public Media on March 29 at 8 p.m.

On March 30 at 8 p.m., Arizona Public Media will present “Great Performances: San Francisco Symphony at 100,” with Michel Tilson Thomas conducting.

Bessie and Boris Thomashefsky immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe in the 1880s. While still in their teens, they began to play major roles in the development of New York City’s Yiddish theater. For Jewish immigrants on the lower East Side of Manhattan, Yiddish theater was central to their lives, providing a stage for the new ideas that were shaping the transition to an American way of life. It also influenced American popular culture, including the works of composers such as Irving Berlin and George Gershwin. The Thomashefsky name even became an idiom of the day. If you were doing something dramatic or over-the-top, someone might say: “Look at him, he’s a real Thomashefsky!”

Tilson Thomas’ grandfather died before he was born, but his grandmother lived until he was 17. Performing at the New World Symphony’s Frank Gehry-designed home in Miami, Tilson Thomas shares the stage with a 30-piece orchestra and ensemble cast to bring the repertoire and world of his grandparents to life.

The stage version of “The Thomashefskys” has been performed to sold-out houses in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Miami and at the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts. A DVD and digital version will be released April 24 by New Video.