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Yiddish theatre

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Title: Yiddish theatre  
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Subject: Yiddish literature, Boris Aronson, Yiddish song, Abraham Goldfaden, Herschel Bernardi
Collection: Jewish Theatre, Yiddish Literature, Yiddish Theatre
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Yiddish theatre

Visual arts
Made by Jews
Yiddish Ladino
Judeo-Arabic Hebrew
Israeli English and American
Performance arts
Music Dance
and Yiddish Theater District
Israeli Sephardi
Ashkenazi Mizrahi
Other aspects
Humour Languages
Symbols Clothing
Yiddish theatre

consists of plays written and performed primarily by Jews in Yiddish, the language of the Central European Ashkenazi Jewish community. The range of Yiddish theatre is broad: operetta, musical comedy, and satiric or nostalgic revues; melodrama; naturalist drama; expressionist and modernist plays. At its height, its geographical scope was comparably broad: from the late 19th century until just before World War II, professional Yiddish theatre could be found throughout the heavily Jewish areas of Eastern and East Central Europe, but also in Berlin, London, Paris, Buenos Aires and New York City.

Yiddish theatre's roots include the often satiric plays traditionally performed during religious holiday of Purim (known as Purim spiels); other masquerades such as the Dance of Death; the singing of cantors in the synagogues; Jewish secular song and dramatic improvisation; exposure to the theatre traditions of various European countries, and the Jewish literary culture that had grown in the wake of the Jewish enlightenment (Haskalah).

Israil Bercovici wrote that it is through Yiddish theatre that "Jewish culture entered in dialogue with the outside world," both by putting itself on display and by importing theatrical pieces from other cultures.[1]

Themes such as immigration, assimilation and poverty can be found in many Yiddish theatre productions.


  • Sources in traditional Jewish culture 1
  • Early years (Pre-1876) 2
  • Goldfaden and the birth of Yiddish theater in Romania 3
  • Yiddish theater in Russia 4
  • Yiddish theater in London 5
  • Yiddish theater in Poland 6
  • Yiddish theater in the Americas 7
  • Post-Holocaust Yiddish theater 8
  • In popular culture 9
  • See also 10
  • References 11
  • External links 12

Sources in traditional Jewish culture

Noah Prilutski (1882–1941) noted that Yiddish theatre did not arise simultaneously with theatre in other European "national" languages; he conjectured that this was at least in part because the Jewish sense of nationality favored Hebrew over Yiddish as a "national" language, but few Jews of the period were actually comfortable using Hebrew outside of a religious/liturgical context.[2] Nonetheless, the culture of the Eastern European Jews was permeated with music, song, and dance. These elements were to figure prominently in the Yiddish theatre.

As with ancient Greek drama, many elements of Yiddish theatre arose as an artistic refinement of religious practice. In a Jewish context psalms to the glory of God were almost always sung rather than spoken. Religious services involved what was known in Hebrew as menatseach, essentially call-and-response. Traditional dances were associated with certain holidays, such as Sukkot, but above all there were the Purim plays.[3]

Often satiric and topical, Purim plays were traditionally performed in the courtyard of the synagogue, because they were considered too profane to be performed inside the building. These made heavy use of masks and other theatrical devices; the masquerade (and the singing and dancing) generally extended to the whole congregation, not just a small set of players. While many Purim plays told the story in the Book of Esther commemorated by the Purim holiday, others used other stories from Jewish scripture, such as the story of Joseph sold by his brothers or the sacrifice of Isaac. Over time, these well-known stories became less a subject matter than a pretext for topical and satiric theatre. Mordechai became a standard role for a clown.[4]

Purim plays were published as early as the early 18th century. At least eight Purim plays were published between 1708 and 1720; most of these do not survive (at least some were burned in autos da fe), but one survives in the Jüdische Merkwürdigkeiten (1714), a collection by Johann Jakob Schudt (1664–1722).[5]

Another similar current in Jewish culture was a tradition of masked dancers performing after weddings. The most elaborate form of this was the Dance of Death, a pageant depicting all layers of a society, which had originated among Sephardic Jews in Spain in the 14th century and had spread through Europe among both Jews and Gentiles. 16th century Italian Jews had taken music and dance to an even more refined level of art: at that time in Italy there were Jewish virtuosi and dancing masters in Mantua, Ferrara, and Rome, and the first known troupes of Jewish performers in Europe. Less refined versions of the same also occurred in 18th century Germany.[6]

Additionally, there was a rich tradition of dialogues in the Jewish poetry known as Tahkemoni, dating back at least to Yehuda al-Harizi in 12th century Spain. Al-Harizi's work contained dialogues between believer and heretic, man and wife, day and night, land and ocean, wisdom and foolishness, avarice and generosity. Such dialogues figured prominently in early Yiddish theatre.[7]

The origin of theatre in Christian societies in Europe is often traced to Passion Plays and other religious pageants, similar in some ways to the Purim plays. In the Middle Ages, few Jews would have seen these: they were often performed in the courtyards of Christian churches (few of which were near the Jewish ghettos), on Christian holidays, and they often had significant antisemitic elements in their plots and dialogue. However, in later times, the Romanian Orthodox Christmas tradition of Irozii — minstrel shows centered around the figure of Herod the Great (Rom: Irod), which were the origin of Romanian-language theatre — definitely influenced Purim plays and vice versa.

Jews had far more exposure to secular European theatre once that developed. Meistersinger Hans Sachs' many plays on Old Testament topics were widely admired by the Jews of the German ghettos, and from the 16th century through the 18th, the biblical story of Esther was the most popular theatrical theme in Christian Europe, often under the Latin name Acta Ahasuerus.[8]

Early years (Pre-1876)

Professional Yiddish theatre is generally dated from 1876; however, there are earlier claimants to the title.

According to a contemporaneous record, there was briefly some professional Yiddish-language theatre in and around Warsaw in the 1830s, although it apparently left no immediate heirs. The source reports that, besides some 19 amateur Yiddish-language theatrical troupes in and around Warsaw at that time, there was one professional company that performed before a large and receptive audience of both Jews and Gentiles a five-act drama about Moses, written by A. Schertspierer of Vienna, with "well-drawn characters and good dramatic situations and language." This professional company is said to have rejected a Hebrew-language play about Esther on the grounds that Hebrew would be incomprehensible to most of its audience. The same source relates that this theatre had among its patrons a number of Russian military officers, including a certain general who was a great "protector" of it, a circumstance perhaps suggestive of why it did not long prosper.[9]

Thalia Theatre poster (Josef Kroger, New York, 1897)

Around the same time, there are indications of a traveling Yiddish-language theatre troupe in

  • Jewish Theatre in Vilna in the Interwar Period on the Yad Vashem website
  • New Yiddish Rep
  • Overview of Yiddish theater
  • Yiddish Theater in America
  • Yiddishpiel Theatre in Tel-Aviv
  • Folksbiene
  • Yiddish Theatre in London, online exhibition of the Jewish Museum, London
  • National Jewish Theatre in Warsaw
  • Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, Segal Centre for Performing Arts
  • Yiddish theater placards collection at the New York Public Library, including items from New York and Buenos Aires
  • Yiddish Research Bibliography and Guide at the New York Public Library
  • Contemporary Posters – Jewish Theater Posters
  • YIVO Encyclopedia entry on Yiddish Theater
  • Finding Aid for the Records of the Yidisher Artistn Farayn at the Center for Jewish History
  • Finding aid for the Collection on Yiddish Theater at the Museum of the City of New York

External links

  • —, "Actors Own New Theater," New York Times, February 8, 1903, 32. This article also reviews a production of Lateiner's melodrama Zion, or on the Rivers of Babylon at the Grand Theater, and gives a quick survey of the history and character of Yiddish theater and its audience in New York at that time.
  • —, "Burial of a Yiddish Poet," New York Times, January 12, 1908, 8.
  • —, Partial list of plays by Goldfaden; the names are useful, but some of the dates are certainly incorrect. Retrieved January 11, 2005. [Note: this list contains fewer than half of Goldfaden's plays, and many of the names as well as dates are incorrect.]
  • Adler, Jacob, A Life on the Stage: A Memoir, translated and with commentary by Lulla Rosenfeld, Knopf, New York, 1999, ISBN 0-679-41351-0.
  • Bercovici, Israil, O sută de ani de teatru evreiesc în România ("One hundred years of Yiddish/Jewish theater in Romania"), 2nd Romanian-language edition, revised and augmented by Constantin Măciucă. Editura Integral (an imprint of Editurile Universala), Bucharest (1998). ISBN 973-98272-2-5. See the article on the author for further publication information. Bercovici cites many sources. The information on professional Yiddish theater in 1840s Warsaw comes from a contemporaneous account published in the Allgemeine Preussische Staatszeitung, Nr. 341, 6.XII.1838, apparently recounting an article that appeared November 12, 1838 in a Frankfurt am Main paper. The quotation from the New Yorker Yiddishe Ilustrirte Zaitung is dated January 11, 1888.
  • Berkowitz, Joel, "Avrom Goldfaden and the Modern Yiddish Theater: The Bard of Old Constantine" (PDF), Pakn Treger, no. 44, Winter 2004, 10–19, gives a good sketch of Goldfaden's career, and also discusses 20th century approaches to the Goldfadenian repertoire.
  • Berkowitz, Joel, Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002.
  • Berkowitz, Joel, ed., Yiddish Theatre: New Approaches. London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2003.
  • Chira, Susan, "100 Years of Yiddish Theater Celebrated," New York Times, October 15, 1982, C28.
  • Goldberg, Isaac, "New York's Yiddish Writers" in The Bookman, volume 46 (684–689), Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, 1918.
  • Gottheil, Richard and Wiernik, Peter, "Drama, Yiddish," in the Jewish Encyclopedia (1901–1906).
  • Melamed, S.M., "The Yiddish Stage," New York Times, September 27, 1925 (X2)
  • Peñalosa, Fernando. The Dybbuk: Text, Subtext, and Context. Tsiterboym Books, 2012.
  • Peñalosa, Fernando, tr. Parodies of An-sky’s “The Dybbuk.” Bilingual Edition. Tsiterboym Books, 2012.
  • An-sky, S. Four Plays, Bilingual Edition, tr. Fernando Peñalosa. Tsiterboym Books, 2013.
  • Sandrow, Nahma, Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater. Harper & Row, 1977; reissued by Syracuse University Press, 1995.
  • Sandrow, Nahma, "The Father of Yiddish Theater," , Autumn 2003Zamir (PDF), 9–15. This publication from the Zamir chorale of Boston contains numerous articles on topics related to Yiddish theatre.
  1. ^ Bercovici, 1998, 103.
  2. ^ Bercovici, 1998, 18.
  3. ^ Bercovici, 1998, 18–19.
  4. ^ Bercovici, 1998, 24, 27
  5. ^ Bercovici, 1998, 26, 28; Gottheil and Wiernick, Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901–1906.
  6. ^ Bercovici, 1998, 25, 27
  7. ^ Bercovici, 1998, 23
  8. ^ Bercovici, 1998, 25–26, 47
  9. ^ Bercovici, 1998, 30; Gottheil and Wiernick, Jewish Encyclopedia (1901–1906), also mention performances of Schertspierer's Moses at a new Jewish theater in Warsaw, citing an article in the German-Jewish newspaper , 1838, issue 155 (December 27)Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthums, which is the source for the quotation and details given.
  10. ^ a b Bercovici, 1998, 29
  11. ^ Sandrow 2003, 9–10
  12. ^ Partial list of plays by Goldfaden on
  13. ^ a b Gottheil and Wiernick, Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901–1906.
  14. ^ Bercovici, 1998, 28
  15. ^ Byli tu anebo spíš nebyli (in Czech)
  16. ^ Bercovici, 1998, 31–37
  17. ^ Bercovici, 1998, 31–37, 59
  18. ^ Bercovici, 1998, passim
  19. ^ Sandrow, 2003, 11
  20. ^ Bercovici, 1998, 73–74
  21. ^ Cited in Bercovici, 1998, 71–72
  22. ^ Cited in Bercovici, 1998, 68
  23. ^ Cited in: David A. Brenner (2008), German-Jewish Popular Culture Before the Holocaust: Kafka's Kitsch (Oxford: Routledge), p. 19.
  24. ^ cited at Bercovici, 1998, 72
  25. ^ Bercovici, 1998, 82–83
  26. ^ Bercovici, 1998, 79
  27. ^
  28. ^ Adler, 1999, passim
  29. ^ Adler, 1999, 218
  30. ^ Itsik Manger, Jonas Turkow, and Moyshe Perenson, eds., Yidisher teater in Eyrope tsvishn beyde velt-milkhomes, vol. 1, Poyln (New York, 1968); p 13
  31. ^ Adler, 1999, 221, 222, passim
  32. ^ Adler, 1999, 256
  33. ^ Adler, 1999, 248
  34. ^ Adler, 1999, 257
  35. ^ Adler, 1999, 276, 280–282
  36. ^ Glasgow Jewish Institute Players, University of Glasgow. Accessed online November 9, 2009.
  37. ^ Finding Aid for the Records of the Yidisher Artistn Farayn at the Center for Jewish History
  38. ^  , pp.1138–1139
  39. ^ Hutchins Hapgood, The Spirit of the Ghetto: Edited by Moses Rischin. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1967), 114–15; Edmund J. James et al., The Immigrant Jew in America (New York: B. K.
  40. ^ David S. Lifson "Writers and Plays." The Yiddish Theatre in America. New York: T. Yoseloff, 1965. 77.
  41. ^ Judith Thissen, Reconsidering The Decline Of The New York Yiddish Theatre In The Early 1900S (Theatre Survey 44:2, 2003) 177.
  42. ^ Adler, 1999, 370 (commentary)
  43. ^ Jacob Dinezon, Zikhroynes un Bilder, Chapter 11
  44. ^ Office of the City Register, Pre-1917 Conveyances, Section I, liber 70 cp 157. Fischel paid $200,000 for the lots 255–261 Grand Street and lots known as 78–81 Forsyth Street.
  45. ^ "Actors Own New Theatre: Culmination of Methods Which Have Been Followed in East Side Playhouses for Several Years Reached by Building of Grand Street House" (February 8, 1903). New York Times.
  46. ^ Adler, 1999, 361 (commentary)
  47. ^ A. Mukdoyni, Zikhroynes, 397
  48. ^ " Nina Warnke, Going East: the impact of American Yiddish plays and players on the Yiddish stage in Czarist Russia, 1890–1914 (American Jewish History, March 2004)
  49. ^ Adler, 1999, 361–364, 367
  50. ^ Adler, 1999, 367 (commentary)
  51. ^ a b New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission; Postal, Matthew A. (ed. and text); Dolkart, Andrew S. (text). (2009) Guide to New York City Landmarks (4th ed.) New York: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-470-28963-1, p.67
  52. ^  
  53. ^ Goldberg, 1918, 685
  54. ^ Melamed, 1925
  55. ^ Peñalosa, 2012.
  56. ^ Peñalosa, tr. 2012.
  57. ^ Peñalosa, tr. 2013.
  58. ^ Michael Terry, Yiddish Theater Collection at The New York Public Library, All About Jewish Theatre. Accessed online November 9, 2009.
  59. ^ Paula Ribeiro and Susane Worcman (October 2012). "Yiddish Theatre in Eldorado".  


See also

The 1987 musical On Second Avenue is an off-Broadway musical and looks back at Yiddish theatre on New York's Second Avenue. It had a successful revival in 2005, with a cast led by Mike Burstyn, and was nominated for two Drama Desk Awards.

In popular culture

Although its glory days have passed, Yiddish theatre companies still perform in various Jewish communities. The Folksbiene (People's Theatre) company in New York City is still active 90 years after it was founded. New Yiddish Rep, founded in New York City in 2007, has been very successful at producing Yiddish shows for a younger audience than the senior-citizen oriented Folksbiene. The Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre of Montreal, Quebec, Canada has been active for over 49 years. The Ester Rachel and Ida Kaminska Jewish Theater in Warsaw, Poland and the State Jewish Theater in Bucharest, Romania also continue to perform plays in Yiddish, with simultaneous translations into Polish and Romanian respectively. Although Yiddish theatre never truly caught on in the state of Israel, the Yiddishpiel Theatre company (founded in 1987) is still producing and performing new plays in Tel-Aviv. The longest-running Yiddish production in Israel, which was also one of the few commercial Yiddish theatrical successes post Holocaust, was Pesach Burstein's production of Itzik Manger's Songs of the Megillah (Yiddish: Megille Lider). It also released on Broadway in 1968 to favourable reviews as Megilla of Itzik Manger. The career of the Burstein troupe has recently been documented in the documentary film The Komediant.

Like the rest of Yiddish-language culture, Yiddish theatre was devastated by the Holocaust. Most of the world's Yiddish-speakers were killed and many theatres were destroyed. Many of the surviving Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim emigrated to Israel, where many assimilated into the emerging Hebrew-language culture, since Yiddish was discouraged and looked down upon by Zionists.

Post-Holocaust Yiddish theater

Several of America's most influential 20th century acting teachers, such as Stella Adler (daughter of Jacob and Sara Adler and sister of actor Luther Adler) and Lee Strasberg, had their first tastes of theatre in Yiddish. Though some of the methods developed by them and other members of the Group Theatre were reactions to the often melodramatic and larger-than-life style of Yiddish theatre, this style nonetheless informed their theories and left its stamp on them. Yiddish theatre was also highly influential on what is still known as Jewish humor.

Yiddish theatre after the Second World War was revived with the writing and performance of The Warsaw Ghetto.

Buenos Aires, Argentina figured prominently in Yiddish theatre between the wars. While pre-war Yiddish theatre in Argentina had bordered on burlesque, shortly after World War I Thomashefsky and others brought their companies to Buenos Aires for the off-season when New York theaters were closed for the summer (the Argentine winter). According to Michael Terry, Buenos Aires experienced a "golden age" of Yiddish theatre in the 1930s and 1940s, becoming "the second city of the world history of Yiddish theater."[58] There were also theatre performances in Yiddish in many Brazilian cities.[59]

Also notable are The Golem by H. Leivick (1888–1962), as well as the plays of Sholem Aleichem.

An-sky wrote a number of other plays, four of which are included in his Gezamelte shriften, long out of print.[57] One (“Day and Night”) is, like The Dybbuk, a Hasidic Gothic story. The other three plays have revolutionary themes, and were originally written in Russian: “Father and Son.” “In a Conspiratorial Apartment,” and “The Grandfather.” All four have recently been republished in a bilingual Yiddish-English edition.

Famous plays of this second golden era were The Dybbuk (1919), by S. Ansky, considered a revolutionary play in both Yiddish and mainstream theatre. It has been translated into many languages and performed thousands of times all over the world, on stage and on television; there have been several movies. It is now regarded as the crown jewel of the Jewish theatre. Operas, ballets, symphonic suites and other musical compositions have been based on The Dybbuk.[55] In earlier years it was considered so significant that parodies about The Dybbuk were written and performed in Europe and the United States.[56]

The Yiddish theatre continued to have its ups and downs. In 1918, Isaac Goldberg could look around himself and reasonably write that, "...the Yiddish stage, despite the fact that it has produced its greatest dramatists only yesterday"... is already, despite its financial successes, next door to extinction."[53] As it happens, it was on the dawn of a second era of greatness: a 1925 New York Times article asserts that "the Yiddish theater has been thoroughly Americanized... it is now a stable American institution and no longer dependent on immigration from Eastern Europe. People who can neither speak nor write Yiddish attend Yiddish stage performances and pay Broadway prices on Second Avenue." This is attributed to the fact that Yiddish theatre is "only one of... [the] expressions" of a New York Jewish cultural life "in full flower".[54]

In 1926, developer Louis N. Jaffe had the Yiddish Art Theatre built for actor Maurice Schwartz, "Mr. Second Avenue". The area was known as the "Jewish Rialto" at the time. After four seasons it became the Yiddish Folks Theatre,[51] then a movie theatre, the home of the APA-Phoenix Theatre, the Entermedia Theatre, and now a movie theater again.[52] It was designated a New York City landmark in 1993.[51]

This first golden age of Yiddish drama in America ended when the period from 1905 to 1908 brought half a million new Jewish immigrants to New York. Once again, as in the 1880s, the largest audience for Yiddish theatre was for lighter fare. The Adlers and Keni Liptzin hung on doing classic theatre, but Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky returned to the earlier style, making a fortune off of what the Adlers despised as shund ("trash") theatre. Plays like Joseph Lateiner's The Jewish Heart succeeded at this time, while Gordin's late plays like Dementia Americana (1909) were initially commercial failures. It would be 1911 before the trend was reversed, with Adler's commercially successful production of Tolstoy's The Living Corpse (also known as Redemption), translated into Yiddish by Kobrin.[49] Both the more and the less serious Yiddish theatre persisted. As Lulla Rosenfeld writes, "Art and shund alike would find their audience."[50]

Some of the most important Yiddish playwrights of the first era included: Jacob Gordin (1853–1909), known for plays such as The Yiddish King Lear and for his translations and adaptations of Tolstoy, Solomon Libin (1872–1955), David Pinski (1872–1959), and Leon Kobrin (1872–1946).

"Mukdoyni was certainly correct in realizing that the center of Yiddish theatrical production was in New York, and that Poland was turning into its cultural colony. This theatrical expansion eastward, which had begun slowly in the 1890s because of the great need in Eastern Europe to fill the vacuum of repertoire, turned into a conscious American export item during the 1910S. At that time, the immigrant community in New York as a whole, and the Yiddish theatre in particular, had matured, and they were confident enough of their power and unique status to begin to actively seek acknowledgement, accolades, and financial gain beyond the local and regional spheres. The war would only briefly interrupt this emerging trend. What Clara Young was one of the first to discover, actors such as Molly Picon and Ludwig Satz would realize during the interwar period: Poland offered not only a lucrative market for American Yiddish actors, but also an environment where up-and-coming performers could more easily achieve a career breakthrough than in New York. In the early years of immigration, Eastern Europe had served as a necessary recruitment pool to feed the American Yiddish theatre with new stage talent; shortly before World War I, it began to provide new audiences and marketing possibilities for the creative energies that had gathered in New York."[48]
Nina Warnke wrote: "In his memoirs, A. Mukdoni summed up the ambivalent feelings Russian Jewish intellectuals had about the influx of American plays and players onto their soil on the eve of the war: 'The American repertoire—be it the good or bad one—and the American actors—be they the good or bad ones—made us realize that the Yiddish theatre is really in America and that here in Poland and Russia the Yiddish theatre lives off the fallen crumbs that it collects under the rich American table.'[47]

In fact, this was a tremendous understatement of what was going on in Yiddish theatre at the time. Around the same time, Shaw long before these works played on Broadway, and the high calibre of Yiddish language acting became clear as Yiddish actors began to cross over to Broadway, first with Jacob Adler's tour de force performance as Shylock in a 1903 production of The Merchant of Venice, but also with performers such as Bertha Kalich, who moved back and forth between the city's leading Yiddish-language and English-language stages.

“In February 1902, Jewish builder and philanthropist Harry Finschel bought a piece of land of about 10,000 square feet, at the south corner of Grand and Chrystie Streets with the intention to erect on the site a theatre for Yiddish performances.”[44] At the time of the opening of the Grand Theatre in New York (1903), New York's first purpose-built Yiddish theater, the New York Times noted: "That the Yiddish population is composed of confirmed theatregoers has been evident for a long time, and for many years at least three theatres, which had served their day of usefulness for the English dramas, have been pressed into service, providing amusement for the people of the Ghetto."[45]


Yiddish theatre is said to have two artistic golden ages, the first in the realistic plays produced in New York City in the late 19th century, and the second in the political and artistic plays written and performed in Russia and New York in the 1920s. Professional Yiddish theatre in New York began in 1886 with a troupe founded by Zigmund Mogulesko. At the time of Goldfaden's funeral in 1908, the New York Times wrote, "The dense Jewish population on the lower east side of Manhattan shows in its appreciation of its own humble Yiddish poetry and the drama much the same spirit that controlled the rough audiences of the Elizabethan theatre. There, as in the London of the sixteenth century, is a veritable intellectual renascence."

Beginning in 1882 and throughout the 1880s and 1890s, amateur theatrical companies presented Yiddish productions in New York City, leading to regular weekend performances at theatres such as the Bowery Garden, the National and the Thalia, with unknowns such as Boris Thomashefsky emerging as stars.[38] The Thalia Theatre sought to change the material of the Yiddish stage to better reform the material that was being produced. “The reformers of the Yiddish stage, Jacob Gordin later explained, wanted to “utilize the theatre for higher purposes; to derive from it not only amusement, but education.”[39] Jacob Gordin himself had numerous times tried to get his plays onto the Windsor stage without luck. “Gordin successfully challenged Lateiner and Hurwitz in 1891–1892 when he entered the Yiddish theatre with an avowed purpose of reforming Yiddish drama.”[40] Rather than “pandering to the public's taste for cheap shund (trash) plays, he sought to secure goodwill of the East Side’s intelligentsia with literature and increasingly incorporated the concepts of “true art” and “serious drama” into their public image.” [41] Professional companies soon developed and flourished, so that between 1890 and 1940, there were over 200 Yiddish theaters or touring Yiddish theatre troupes in the United States. At many times, a dozen Yiddish theatre groups existed in New York City alone, with the Yiddish Theater District, sometimes referred to as the "Jewish Rialto", centered on Second Avenue in what is now the East Village, but was then considered part of the Jewish Lower East Side, which often rivaled Broadway in scale and quality. At the time the U.S. entered World War I, there were 22 Yiddish theaters and two Yiddish vaudeville houses in New York City alone.[42] Original plays, musicals, and even translations of Hamlet and Richard Wagner's operas were performed, both in the United States and Eastern Europe during this period.

In this era, Yiddish theatre existed almost entirely on stage, rather than in texts. The Jewish Encyclopedia of 1901–1906 reported, "There are probably less than fifty printed Yiddish dramas, and the entire number of written dramas of which there is any record hardly exceeds five hundred. Of these at least nine-tenths are translations or adaptations."[13]

The 1883 Russian ban on Yiddish theatre (lifted in 1904) effectively pushed it to Western Europe and then to America. Over the next few decades, successive waves of Yiddish performers arrived in New York (and, to a lesser extent, in Berlin, London, Vienna, and Paris), some simply as artists seeking an audience, but many as a result of persecutions, pogroms and economic crises in Eastern Europe. Professional Yiddish theatre in London began in 1884, and flourished until the mid-1930s. By 1896, Kalman Juvilier's troupe was the only one that remained in Romania, where Yiddish theatre had started, although Mogulesko sparked a revival there in 1906. There was also some activity in Warsaw and Lvov, which were under Austrian rather than Russian rule.

WPA poster, Boston, 1938

Yiddish theater in the Americas

Yiddish theater in Poland reflected the political preoccupations of its time. They struggled financially, like all Jewish cultural institutions during that period, even while flourishing for a time during a more liberal political atmosphere. Actors and directors, just like others during that period, were highly aware of labor relations, and tried to create egalitarian working relationships. Organizations such as the Yiddish Actors’ Union, based in Warsaw, played a crucial role in providing a forum for theater professionals to discuss these issues and try new solutions, such as collectively run theaters. [37] Theatrical performances themselves also addressed social issues. Michal Weichert’s Yung-teater was particularly known for political engagement, staging an attention-getting avant-garde performance of the play Boston, by Bernhard Blum, about the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, in 1933.

In addition to the serious artistic efforts of the art theaters, cabaret flourished in Poland during the interwar period, combining musical performances with standup comedy. The most celebrated practitioners of this kind of performance were Shimen Dzigan and Yisroel Shumacher, who began their lifelong Yiddish comedy career at the theater Ararat in Łódź in 1927. Puppet and marionette theater also attained great artistic significance, often staging satirical shows on contemporary social issues.

Poland was an important center of Yiddish theatrical activity, with more than 400 Yiddish theatrical companies performing in the country during the interwar period. One of the most important companies, the avant-garde Vilner trupe, formed in Vilna, as its name suggests, but moved to Warsaw in 1917. The Vilner trupe employed some of the most accomplished actors on the Yiddish stage, including Avrom Morevski, who played the Miropolyer tsaddik in the first performance of The Dybbuk, and Joseph Buloff, who was the lead actor of the Vilner trupe and went on to further accomplishments with Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theater in New York. It was in Warsaw that the Vilner trupe staged the first performance of The Dybbuk in 1920, a play that made a profound and lasting impression on Yiddish theater and world culture. The Vilner trupe inspired the creation of more avant-garde and ambitious Yiddish theatrical companies, including the Warsaw Yiddish Art Theater, founded by Zygmunt Turkow and Ida Kaminska in 1924, the Warsaw New Yiddish Theater, founded by Jonas Turkow in 1929, and the Young Theater, founded by Michal Weichert in 1932.

Yiddish theater in Poland

In this period, the plays of Schiller first entered the repertoire of Yiddish theatre, beginning with The Robbers, the start of a vogue that would last a quarter of a century. Adler records that, like Shakespeare, Schiller was "revered" by the broad Jewish public, not just by intellectuals, admired for his "almost socialist view of society", although his plays were often radically adapted for the Yiddish stage, shortening them and dropping Christian, antisemitic, and classical mythological references[35] There were several smaller Jewish theatre groups in Manchester and Glasgow.[36]

Of the next era of Yiddish theatre, Adler wrote, "...if Yiddish theater was destined to go through its infancy in Russia, and in America grew to manhood and success, then London was its school."[32] In London in the 1880s, playing in small theatre clubs "on a stage the size of a cadaver",[33] not daring to play on a Friday night or to light a fire on stage on a Saturday afternoon (both because of the Jewish Sabbath), forced to use a cardboard ram's horn when playing Uriel Acosta so as not to blaspheme,[34] Yiddish theatre nonetheless took on much of what was best in European theatrical tradition.

Yiddish theater in London

What seemed, for a time, a boundless future in Russia was cut short by the anti-Jewish reaction following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II; Yiddish theatre was banned, under an order effective September 14, 1883.[31] This ban caused an exodus of Yiddish actors and playwrights to other countries – Poland, in particular – where they had the freedom to perform.

However, even this increased sophistication could not compare to later, more ambitious efforts of the Yiddish theater. Looking back on this period, although acknowledging certain of Goldfaden's plays from this era as "masterpieces", Jacob Adler saw this as a period of relative mediocrity compared to what came later. "For three years I... wandered in the cave of the Witch and the motley of Shmendrick and what did I really know of my trade?" he describes himself as thinking in 1883. "If someday I return to Yiddish theater let me at least not be so ignorant."[29] Much of the theater performed during this period was later referred to as shund, or trash, though critics such as Itsik Manger felt it possessed a naive energy and was unfairly maligned.[30]

Russia offered a more sophisticated audience than rural Romania — many Russian Jews were regular attendees of Russian-language theatre, and Odessa was a first-rate theatre city — serious melodramatic operettas, and even straight plays, took their place among the lighter vaudevilles and comedies. All three major troupes did their own productions of Karl Gutzkow's Uriel Acosta (Goldfaden's was an operetta).

If Yiddish theatre was born in Romania, its youth occurred in Imperial Russia, largely in what is now Ukraine. Israel Rosenberg's troupe (which later had a series of managers, including Goldfaden's brother Tulya, and which at one point split in two, with one half led by actor Jacob Adler) gave Russia's first professional Yiddish theatre performance in Odessa in 1878. Goldfaden himself soon came to Odessa, pushing Rosenberg's troupe into the provinces, and Osip Mikhailovich Lerner and N.M. Sheikevitch also founded a Yiddish theatre at Odessa, which for several years became the capital of Yiddish theatre.[28]

Yiddish theater in Russia

Poster for Jewmuzdramcomedy (Jewish theatre). USSR, Moscow, 1920

Goldfaden's importance lay in the fact that his plays formed a canon of Yiddish theater, which later playwrights could use as a yardstick to measure their own efforts. His plays were performed continuously for over fifty years, and other playwrights referred to them as a kind of "Torah from Sinai," a source text that gave rise to an explosion of creativity over the coming decades. [27]

Writing of Sigmund Mogulesko's troupe in Romania in 1884, and probably referring to the plays of Moses Horowitz and Joseph Lateiner, Moses Gaster wrote that Yiddish theatre "represents scenes from our history known by only a tiny minority, refreshing, therefore, secular memory" and "shows us our defects, which we have like all men, but not with a tendency to strike at our own immorality with a tendency towards ill will, but only with an ironic spirit that does not wound us, as we are wounded by representations on other stages, where the Jew plays a degrading role."[26]

While Yiddish theatre was an immediate hit with the broad masses of Jews, was generally liked and admired by Jewish intellectuals and many Gentile intellectuals, a small but socially powerful portion of the Jewish community, centered among Orthodox and Hasidic Jews remained opposed to it. Besides complaints about the mingling of men and women in public and about the use of music and dance outside of sacred contexts, the two main criticisms from this quarter were (1) that the Yiddish "jargon" was being promoted to the detriment of "proper" Hebrew and (2) that satire against Hasidim and others would not necessarily be understood as satire and would make Jews look ridiculuous. Bercovici quotes an anonymous 1885 article as responding to these criticisms by saying (1) that all Jews speak some modern language and why should Yiddish be any more detrimental to Hebrew than Romanian, Russian, or German, and (2) that the Gentiles who would come to Yiddish theatre would not be the antisemites, they would be those who already knew and liked Jews, and that they would recognize satire for what it was, adding that these criticisms were "nothing" when weighed against the education that Yiddish theatre was bringing to the lower classes.[25]

B. Nathansohn, correspondent of the Warsaw-based Jewish newspaper Hamelitz visited Romania in the summer of 1878 and wrote, "When a Jew enters a Yiddish theatre in Bucharest he is thunderstruck hearing the Yiddish language in all its splendor and radiance," and called upon Goldfaden to create similar theatres in Warsaw, Lublin, Vilna, Berdichev, and Balta.[24]

Both the nature and aspirations of early professional Yiddish theatre are reflected in Moses Schwarzfeld's 1877 remarks calling for serious and "educational" Jewish theatre: "If we write only comedies or if we only imitate German, Romanian and French pieces translated into Yiddish, all we will have is a secondary Jewish stage ... just making people laugh and cry is an evil for us Jews in Romania."[21] Goldfaden himself agreed with such sentiments; later recalling his views at the time, he wrote: "If I have arrived at having a stage, I want it to be a school for you ... Laugh heartily if I amuse you with my jokes, while I, watching you, feel my heart crying. Then, brothers, I'll give you a drama, a tragedy drawn from life, and you shall also cry — while my heart shall be glad."[22][23]

At its high end, early Yiddish theatre was noted for its pageantry. A pageant about the coronation of Solomon, presented on the occasion of the 1881 coronation of Carol I of Romania was described by Ion Ghica as "among the most imposing things that paraded the coronation"; he acquired the costumes for the Romanian National Theatre, which he headed at the time.[20]

Goldfaden's troupe began as all-male; while they soon acquired actresses, as well, it remained relatively common in Yiddish theatre for female roles, especially comic roles, to be played by men. (Women also sometimes played men's roles: Molly Picon was a famous Shmendrick.) Many early Yiddish theatre pieces were constructed around a very standard set of roles: "a prima donna, a soubrette, a comic, a lover, a villain, a villainess (or "intriguer"), an older man and woman for character roles, and one or two more for spares as the plot might require," and a musical component that might range from a single fiddler to an orchestra.[19] This was very convenient for a repertory company, especially a traveling one. Both at the start and well into the great years of Yiddish theatre, the troupes were often in one or another degree family affairs, with a husband, wife, and often their offspring playing in the same troupe.

Abraham Goldfaden is generally considered the founder of the first professional Yiddish theatre troupe, which he founded in Iaşi, Romania in 1876, and later moved to Bucharest. His own career also took him to Imperial Russia, Lvov, and New York City. Within two years of Goldfaden's founding of his troupe, there were several rival troupes in Bucharest, mostly founded by former members of Goldfaden's troupe. Most of these troupes followed Goldfaden's original formula of musical vaudeville and light comedy, while Goldfaden himself turned more toward relatively serious operettas about biblical and historical subjects, especially after his own company left Bucharest for an extended tour of the cities of Imperial Russia.

Goldfaden and the birth of Yiddish theater in Romania

Finally, at the time Yiddish theatre first evolved, the Jews were among the most literate people in Europe and Yiddish was establishing itself as a literary language. Most educated Jews were comfortable in as three or four languages. Some Jews with secular interests were familiar with the dominant theatrical traditions of their respective countries, but, as the New Yorker Yiddishe Ilustrirte Tsaitung wrote in 1888, for most Jews prior to the advent of Yiddish theatre, "Books were our stages, their letters our actors." As a result of a strong literary intellectual culture, within a year or two of Goldfaden founding the first professional Yiddish theatre troupe, there were multiple troupes, multiple playwrights, and more than a few serious Yiddish theatre critics and theoreticians.[18]

Such performers, who performed at weddings, in the salons of the wealthy, in the summer gardens, and in other secular gathering places of the Eastern European Jews, were not mere singers. They often used costumes and often improvised spoken material between songs, especially when working in groups. Israel Grodner, later Goldfaden's first actor, participated in an outdoor concert in Odessa in 1873 with dialogues between songs comparable to much of what was in Goldfaden's earliest plays. Goldfaden himself was already a noted poet, and many of his poems had been set to music and had become popular songs, some of which were used in that 1873 performance.[17]

Another current that led equally to professional Yiddish theatre was a tradition resembling that of the troubadours or Minnesänger, apparently growing out of the music associated with Jewish weddings, and often involving singers who also functioned as cantors in synagogues. The first records of the early Brodersänger or Broder singers are the remarks of Jews passing through Brody, which was on a major route of travel, generally disapproving of the singing of songs when no particular occasion called for music. The most famous of the singers from Brody was the itinerant Berl Margulis (1815–1868), known as Berl Broder, "Berl from Brody"; 24 of his 30 surviving songs are in the form of dialogues. Another influential performer in this style was Benjamin Wolf Ehrenkrantz (1826–1883), known as Velvel Zbarjer. Bercovici describes his work as "mini-melodramas in song".[15][16]

Hersh Leib Sigheter (1829–1930) wrote satirical Purim plays on an annual basis and hired boys to play in them. Although often objected to by rabbis, these plays were popular, and were performed not only on Purim but for as much as a week afterwards in various locations.[14]

In 1854, two rabbinical students from Zhytomyr put on a play in Berdichev. Shortly afterward, the Ukrainian Jew Abraham Goldfaden, generally considered the founder of the first professional Yiddish theatre troupe, attended that same rabbinical school, and while there is known to have played (in 1862) a woman's role in a play, Serkele, by Solomon Ettinger. Shortly after that (1869, according to one source), Goldfaden wrote a dialogue Tsvey Shkheynes (Two Neighbors), apparently intended for the stage, and published with moderate success.[10][11][12] A short-lived Yiddish theater in Odessa in 1864 performed dramas Esther and Athalia. Abraham Baer Gottlober's Decktuch, like Ettinger's Serkele, was written between 1830 and 1840, but published much later; Israel Aksenfeld (died c. 1868) wrote several dramas in Yiddish, which were probably not staged in his lifetime. Another early Yiddish dramatist was Joel Baer Falkovich (Reb Chaimele der Koẓin, Odessa, 1866; Rochel die Singerin, Zhytomyr, 1868). Solomon Jacob Abramowitsch's Die Takse (1869) has the form of a drama, but, like Eliakim Zunser's later Mekirat Yosef (Vilnius, 1893), it was not intended for the stage.[13]


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