The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater
About the Program

The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater, a celebration of Yiddish theater pioneers Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky by their grandson, Michael Tilson Thomas, Artistic Director of the New World Symphony, airs Thursday, March 29 at 8 p.m. (check local listings), on THIRTEEN’s Great Performances.

Watch a preview:

Recorded in April 2011 at the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center in Miami Beach, The Thomashefskys is written and hosted by Tilson Thomas and stars Broadway performers Judy Blazer as Bessie Thomashefsky and Shuler Hensley as Boris Thomashefsky.  It also features Ronit Widmann-Levy and Eugene Brancoveanu and the New World Symphony.

Founding members of the Yiddish Theater in America, the Thomashefskys owned theaters, published their own magazine, wrote columns in the popular Yiddish newspapers, sponsored and encouraged generations of young artists, brought uncountable numbers of Yiddish artists to America, tirelessly raised funds for progressive social causes and, though it all, were adventurous trend setters.

This story, reclaimed by The Thomashefky Project, presents a musical sound that few have heard, assimilating Eastern European klezmer and cantorial modes with American tunes and rhythms. Over time, as the Jewish American music theater writers became absorbed in their new surroundings, they greatly influenced the American Songbook.

The Thomashefskys is a very personal project for Tilson Thomas, celebrating the lives and theatrical and musical legacies of his grandparents.  Born out of his desire to preserve the music of the Yiddish theater, The Thomashefsky Project, founded in 1998, expanded from an archival role to this stage production hosted and conducted by Tilson Thomas and directed for the stage by Broadway veteran Patricia Birch.

It features music reconstructed from the original Yiddish theater repertoire interwoven with projected images and stories from Bessie and Boris’s lively memoirs.  “My grandparents became mega-stars and found themselves smack in the public eye,” says Tilson Thomas. “They were subject to adulation and relentless scrutiny. Legions of crazed fans were obsessed with every detail of their work and their lives.”

The stage version of The Thomashefskys has been performed to sold-out houses in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Miami, and at Tanglewood in Massachusetts.  The San Francisco Chronicle said, “Thomas and his collaborators do what Yiddish artists always meant to do.  They make you forget your troubles for an evening, plunge into another world and feel your own more fully in the end.”

Following the national broadcast, The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater will be released on April 24 on DVD by New Video ( The New World Symphony was founded in 1987 by Michael Tilson Thomas and Ted Arison, and has launched the careers of over 800 musicians.

The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater is a production of The Thomashefsky Film Project LLC and THIRTEEN for WNET.

The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater is directed for television by Gary Halvorson. Producers: Joshua Robison, Michael Bronson, and Michael Kantor. For Great Performances, John Walker is producer; Bill O’Donnell is series producer; David Horn is executive producer.

Major funding for the telecast is provided by Arison Arts Foundation, Marcia and John Goldman, Carole and Jeffrey Hays and Lydia and Douglas Shorenstein, Stephen and Sandra Muss, the Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Foundation, the Koret Foundation, The Aaron Copland Fund for Music, and the Lisa and John Pritzker Fund.

Great Performances is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, Vivian Milstein, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, The Starr Foundation, the Filomen M. Di’Agostino Foundation, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, The DuBose and Dorothy Heyward Memorial Fund, public television viewers and PBS.

  • Elaine Pasternack

    What a meghia to watch this. It was done so well. Thanks for an enjoyable evening. Elaine Pasternack

  • Ruth-Anne Perliss

    TIf you have any interest in theater and great performances this should not be missed!

  • lewis cohen

    I am in the New York area and Missed most of Thursday nights showing. When will there be a rebroadcast in this area? Thank you for your response

  • Anita Shapiro

    A wonderful program . I was particularly struck by the marvelous young musicians of the orchestra and by Micharl Tilson Thomas’s “dramatic” performances. He’s obviously inherited some of his grandparents genes – and a superb musician.

    Many thanks for broadcasting it.

  • Goldie Zwiebel

    Brilliantly produced and performed. 100% up to the Tomashefsky standards. Michael, ya done them proud… Judy Blazer as Bessie Thomashefsky and Shuler Hensley as Boris Thomashefsky are as close to the originals as i could hope to see… Ronit Widmann-Levy and Eugene Brancoveanu and the New World Symphony are splendid performers too

    Than you.

  • Jonella

    Saw the program tonight and what a delight! Watched it on tv in my very rural home in the boondocks of Sullivan County (NY) – 80 miles from my old, sixth floor walk up, rent-controlled apartment in the West Village (where I livied for 44 years) – not far from Second Avenue and the Lower East Side! Loved Michael TT – and everyone else – the music! – how wonderful! – the story – very interesting – the characters – ditto.
    Thank you, Michael Tilson Thomas. Loved it!!!

  • Emilie

    This is a wonderful program – first-rate artistic choices and performances, pertinent history, and a wonderful feeling. In fact, this is television at its very best! Congratulations all round.

    As a film historian, familiar with Neil Gabler’s thesis (in “An Empire of their Own”) about the great cinema moguls in America, I am struck by the contrasts with the Tomashevskys, who presumably represented the music business in the way that Goldwyn, Warner, etc. represented movies. Gabler describes the movie men as eager to assimilate, to make super-patriotic films, and to espouse conservative political views and retrograde industrial relations in the Hollywood studio system. By contrast, the Tomashevskys embraced liberal content in their shows, and Boris had a connection with the fledgling state of Israel. This gives me a lot to think about.

    Thank you!

  • Hazel Melmed

    A wonderful evenings entertainment, well put together. Mazal tov to Michael Tilson Thomasl for bringing to life the old Jewish Theatre that had a wide influence on the music business in America. Most enjoyable

  • Judy

    watching this wonderful passionate enjoyable program. Grateful to PBS for screening it! To all those who made this possible, just wonderful. The voices are great, the entire show just beautifully put together. I will purchase the DVD to send to my mother and family who live in Israel…they will love it. And my 95 year old aunt is watching it now, remembering the world of Yiddish Theatre. Thank you Michale Tilson Thomas, obviously this is a show that comes from his heart. great!!!

  • myra hackett

    I would like to purchase but missed the address. Please advise.

  • David Kaye

    Why no mention that Michael Tilson Thomas leads and has led the San Francisco Symphony for decades? I know that New Yorkers don’t care about anything that happens outside their borders, but jeez, he leads one of the world’s premiere orchestras, the SAN FRANCISCO Symphony.

    An amazing show. I was not much of a fan of MTT, but seeing him as a song and dance man and pianist really floored me. I had no idea that he was such a showman.

    This show is extremely well put together, well-staged, and well-performed. I’m not all that much a fan of Yiddish theater, though I do like klezmer music, but this performance blew me away!

  • T Lasky

    Please upload video of them singing Pintele Yid – it was adorable, and very moving.

  • Stephanie Jatlow

    Thought the program excellent in all aspects.Pardon my ignorance -but MIchael Tilson Thomas I know about ..but Shuler Hensly and Judy Blazer were superb. Who knew???

  • david ernst

    Dear David,

    This particular program features The New World Symphony which Mr. Tilson Thomas founded in 1987 and where he is the current conductor and artistic director. It sounds like you’ll be interested in our program San Francisco Symphony at 100 which has the brilliant Tilson Thomas at the podium and airs tonight at 9 p.m. Click below for details.

  • Evelyn Robinson

    This performance was spellbinding. The music was so engaging and performed at the highest level with so much spirited music. The singers were topnotch in operatic tones and acting ability. The story, of course, engaging to the nth degree.

    I loved it all. At first I could not believe it was Michael TT, but if his grandma was called a genius–well, he is a super genius and such a friendly, outgoing one at that.

    Haven’t watched a better performance in my lifetime, I’ll tell you! I am thankful for all those that contributed to same.

  • Michelle

    Who knew Boris Thomashevsky from The Producers was real?? I sure didn’t and learned much more from this wonderful show…Thank you PBS and of course the incomparable Michael Tilson Thomas for bringing this show to ur homes.

  • Aredee

    Like the Thomashevskys, my grandparents came from shtetls near Kiev, so I felt a special link to their story. This was a wonderful presentation, with great music, drama, and plenty of humor. I hope PBS reschedules it soon for the benefit of those who missed it.

  • Dr. Cynthia Ellis

    What a true delight! Found this by accident! Mr. Tilson-Thomas is not only a skilled conductor but fabulous storyteller! Mazeltov!

  • Eric and Martina Williams

    We found this program by accident and enjoyed every minute of it. We watched other programs with this wonderful conductor and his orchestra and it is always music to our ears. Thank you PBS

  • Jerry Kane

    Finally, after months of begging, KRWG, the Las Cruces, NM PBS station broadcast this amazing, heartfelt tribute of a loving grandson to his grandparents. It was well worth the wait. Bravo and thanks to all!

  • Gail Frazer

    How often does one sit alone in their living room and applaud a television show? I just did, both during the show and hardest of all at the end. Applauded and laughed and even cried a little because it was all so wonderful. Am so glad I happened on it by pure chance.

  • Sheba Solomon

    We have a small Jewish film series at our synagogue and our Rabbi is interested in showing “The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater.” Can you tell us the cost for public performance rights and how we can obtain a video of this? Thanks so much for your help.

  • max843

    This is wonderful. Just flipping channels tonight to get away from politics for a while and came upon “The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater.”

    I feel as though I have a night at the theatre, with my own private showing. Especially meaningful as now I am housebound. And echo the earlier comment about being a fan of Michael Tilson Thomas but not knowing he is such a showman! Also as a trombonist I love the closeups of the musicians – sort of like Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” when I was in high school.

    Thank you.

  • Mimi freedman

    Am interested in buying DVD of thomashefskys: music and memories of life in Yiddish theatre.
    Please send me the phone number given at end of tv presentation.

    Thanks very much,

    Mimi Freedman

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