Isaiah was born into the Yiddish theatre – not quite literally but almost, as his mother Esther Scooler acted in a show for the New Deal’s Federal Theatre Project throughout her pregnancy. Isaiah (then called Sonny) soon became a child actor, making his debut at age 7.
Isaiah and his uncle Zvee Scooler acting in The Theatre of Peretz at the Gate Theatre on Second Avenue in New York City, 1963
In this short excerpt from Pierre Sauvage’s 1979 documentary Yiddish: The Mother Tongue, Isaiah talks about how the Yiddish theatre seemed to him like a “richly laden table.”
Helping him to get his start in the Yiddish theatre world was Isaiah’s maternal uncle Zvee Scooler. Zvee had watched his young nephew imitating his father shaving and, seeing talent, began to cast him in shows. In addition to his work as an actor on stage and screen, Zvee was known as the “Grammeister” (rhyme master) on the legendary Yiddish radio station WEVD. Isaiah joined the station as “der English announcer” in the 1960s and became known for his own love of rhyme and language and his own made-for-radio voice.
In this clip from a 2011 Gala celebrating The Jewish Daily Forward, Isaiah talks about working with composer Abraham Ellstein on The Forward Hour at WEVD and tells how they created the first-ever Yiddish Halloween song.
In another clip, Isaiah reads from founding Forward editor Abraham Cahan’s advice column "A Bintel Brief "(a bundle of letters). Actress Jill Eikenberry reads the letter from a woman seeking help.
Both Cahan and Ellstein were crucial influences on Isaiah’s artistic life, Cahan as an historical figure and Ellstein as a living composer with whom Isaiah worked. In the 1970s, Isaiah wrote the book and lyrics that adapted Cahan’s novel The Rise of David Levinsky into a musical (with composer Bobby Paul). Before that show had its run in English, it opened at the Folksbiene Theatre in a Yiddish translation by Zvee Scooler.
Later, Isaiah adapted Abraham Ellstein’s Yiddle with a Fiddle into an English-language musical.
Isaiah discusses the making of The Sheik, a burlesque revue about Jewish immigrant life, in this interview.
Isaiah’s play Dreamers and Demons: The Three Worlds of Isaac Bashevis Singer drew from stories, sketches, interviews, and personal conversations with Nobel Prize-winning author. Isaiah’s association with Singer spanned several decades and included their collaboration on Singer’s play Shlemiel the First. Isaiah discusses his friendship with Singer and long involvement with Singer’s work in this article and this podcast and transcript.
Also in later decades, Isaiah collaborated with the National Yiddish Book Center on several programs. Here, Book Center founder and president Aaron Lansky talks about their friendship and about Isaiah’s “deep and abiding knowledge of Yiddish literature and culture.”
In an interview for the National Yiddish Book Center's Wexler Oral History Project, Leonard Nimoy talks about his own Yiddish roots and, beginning at 6:58, tells how Yiddish played a role in his friendship with Isaiah.