In a sense, it won’t matter when you finally can’t read the names, because most people already don’t recognize the names. Or at least they wouldn’t recognize the names if they tried to, which, at least for the most part, they don’t.
The names are of stars of New York City’s Yiddish theater. They’re engraved in granite slabs, which are on Second Avenue at 10th Street. Unfortunately, the granite slabs are embedded in the sidewalk, and the sidewalk is often used by people heading for Ninth or 11th Street.
So the people walk on the slabs, which is forgivable, and the names get gradually scuffed away, which is regrettable. But the man who got them embedded has been dead for sixteen years, and now the slabs, apparently, are the domain of nobody in the world.
Yiddish theater flourished here from the 1890s through the 1930s. Theaters for its shows clustered on Second Avenue below 14th Street. The stretch, which was then regarded as part of the Lower East Side, came to be something of a second Broadway, at least if you understood Yiddish.
Many of its stars moved on to the first Broadway, as well as to movies and television. Probably the most famous of them was Paul Muni. He starred in classic films like “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.” But even his is no longer a household name, which doesn’t bode well for Maurice Schwartz.
Moved by the stars’ fate, Abe Lebewohl came to their rescue, perhaps because he was in a unique position to do so. In 1954, he had opened the 2nd Ave Deli. In 1985, he installed the Yiddish Theater Walk of Fame in front of it.
It consists of about thirty markers, mostly in two rows, mostly with two names to a marker. Most of the names are inside of stars — not Jewish stars but Hollywood-Walk-of-Fame stars, signifying that the tribute was as much to talent as it was to heritage.
There is David Kessler with Zvi Scooler. There is Leon Liebgold with Lilly Lilyana. There is Boris Thomashevsky with Bessie Thomashevsky. Boris, at 13, helped to bring Yiddish theater to New York. His grandson is the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.
In 1996, Abe Lebewohl was murdered. His brother, Jack, took over the deli, but ten years later he closed it. The year after that, his sons Josh and Jeremy reopened the 2nd Ave Deli — but on 33rd Street, between Lexington and Third.
Last year they opened a second branch, on First Avenue at 75th Street. There they installed an Automat section that had been on display at the original store. I’m sure that they’d like to have the walk of fame at the new store, too. It’s kind of hard to fault them for not dislodging and moving a city sidewalk.
On the site of the original store there now stands a Chase bank. Neither the bank nor its building manager seems to want much to do with the walk. Nor does the city, which has reportedly said that it never actually approved it. David and Zvi and Leon and Lilly and Boris are on their own.
I’ve never quite gotten the concept of being honored on a sidewalk. I’m too conscious of the substances that are bound to find their way there. Jazz greats were honored with a walk of fame on 52nd Street. The last time I looked, Thelonious Monk had turned into Niou Mon.
Still, many people have embraced the Yiddish Walk. Some years ago, Jack Lebewohl told me of one. “One Rosh Hashana,” he said, “I actually saw a woman stand out there, drop a rose on the sidewalk and say a Hebrew prayer.”
And just maybe, all those names were meant to fade away, before the day when not a single one is known to pedestrians.
So if you want to go look at the names, don’t put the trip off too long.
This walk isn’t going to be preserved. You can bank on that.See the stars on the Yiddish Theater Walk of Fame, on Second Avenue at 10th Street, in New York City.