AN OVERVIEW OF YIDDISH THEATRE HISTORY

By Katherine Altman

Origins

-       Storytelling in Judaism has always been a common pastime as well as a cultural and religious practice, from rabbis’ delivery of sermons to Bible stories told in the home. As with many other cultures, Jewish religious ritual frequently intersects with performativity, such as in bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies. Jewish jesters and clowns (often seen as precursors to modern standup comedians) traveled and performed customary roles at weddings, Purim festivals, and other special occasions. Slapstick, music, rhyming, word play, and comedy, as well as instruction and learning, all served important roles in the varied styles of performance.

-       The primary source of Yiddish theatre performance is the Purimshpilm, the plays put on during the annual spring festival of Purim where Jews commemorate Esther and Mordecai saving the Jewish people from Haman, who planned to kill all the Jews in the Persian Empire. They typically included some reenactment of the story from the Book of Esther, along with other Bible stories, monologues, skits, pantomime, parody, at times even burlesque, and of course, music, both sung and instrumental. Like many spring holidays, Purim is a celebration associated with joy and revelry, featuring parades, public celebrations, costumes, and masks (and it was also traditionally the only time Jewish men were allowed to dress up as women). The Purimshpilm developed in the 15th century and peaked in popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries but continue as a pastime in Jewish communities even today. They were hosted by a master of ceremonies, much like Lemml’s character in Indecent, who would bless the public, instigate and summarize the stage action to guide the audience through the performance, and introduce the performers. Purimshpilm were held at the festival meal and, particularly before the 1700s, traveled throughout a community and most commonly performed in rooms in yeshivas (Jewish schools) or living rooms of larger, more prominent households, with actors and musicians waiting outside until their cue because so many audience members and performers would be crammed into such a tiny space. Purimshpilm were in many respects similar to the tradition of commedia dell’arte: They were a little naughty and irreverent at times; they were very presentational, with only indications of character or space and more symbolic stage action than realistic; and they acknowledged and made use of their found performance spaces and adapted and improvised based on their surroundings and audiences. They had stock characters as well, often inspired by commedia characters directly (for example, Goliath as performed like the commedia Capitano role).

-       Due to many factors, including spatial limitations (temples in shtetls and ghettos were often prohibited from expanding their spaces, so performances were limited to living rooms, courtyards, schools, and narrow streets), to the risk of retaliation from authorities and the need to maintain a low profile within the towns and communities in which Jews dwelled, to the negative view of performance and imitation in Jewish law and among religious leaders, to the lack of ability for Jews to truly have a stable and prosperous community within which to develop and grow a new art form, Yiddish theatre did not actually flourish, and was not performed on a stage, until the 19th century.

Yiddish Theatre 19th Century and Beyond

-       The European Enlightenment of the 18th century spread to Jewish communities, first to German speaking countries in the late 18th century, and then to Eastern Europe in the 19th. The Jewish Enlightenment, known as the Haskalah, and championed by individuals known as the Maskilim, was a movement which sought to modernize the Jewish people and to bring elements of secular culture and education to Jewish culture in order to achieve social and political emancipation. Haskalah opened the door to Jewish theatre not only by introducing world literature, including drama, but also because a secularizing movement meant that performance could be removed from religious context. At first, the Haskalah movement embraced Hebrew, the sacred language of Jewish scholars and of the Torah and Talmud, as the language of Jewish literature and enlightenment, and rejected Yiddish, calling it “profanes,” and a “jargon” instead of a language. It was believed that Yiddish was low brow, a language of the uneducated masses, and a language which cut the Jewish people off from larger European culture. Though this negative legacy for Yiddish continues in many ways today, ultimately most of the Maskilim came around to embracing Yiddish as the best way to reach the Jewish people and to communicate the knowledge and ideas they wished to impart from the secular world.  

⁃       The first two known Yiddish plays were written at the end of the 18th century, by two Maskilim in Germany: Yitskok Euchel wrote Reb Hennoch in 1793 and Aaron Wolfsohn wrote Frivolity and Religiosity in 1796. In 1830, Shloyme Etinger, a Maskil, wrote Serkele, which, though it was only passed around for private reading in salons and not even published until 1861 due to censorship for Jewish writers, was the first Yiddish play to contain real stage directions, included new Yiddish words for “act” and “scene,” and had distinct diction for different characters. By the 1860s, Jewish writers had by and large begun to embrace the stigmatized Yiddish as the new preferred literary language to reach their communities, and not only were more writing plays in Yiddish (at this time more academic than stage-focused), but there were also many more pieces of secular literature and drama translated into Yiddish, and Jews had begun to develop a modern literary language – just in time for Avrom (Abraham) Goldfaden to come onto the scene.

⁃       Yiddish theatre began with Goldfaden and the performers known as broder singers. Broder singers, popular in the 19th century, were the first true professional, secular performers in Yiddish communities; their emergence created not only a social role for the performer in Jewish cultural life, but also the role for an audience for professional performance. Broder singers often performed in cafes and had one-man routines consisting of songs (usually somber), poems or monologues, and character routines. Goldfaden, born in 1840 in what is today Ukraine, was already known as a poet and lyricist when he moved to Jassy (Iaşi), Romania in 1876. Though his initial dream was to run a Yiddish language newspaper, he began to work with broder singer Israel Grodner and crafted what are widely accepted to be some of the first true Yiddish theatre plays. He ultimately started his own traveling Yiddish theatre troupe, the first of its kind in the world. While the first performances from Goldfaden and Grodner (aided by a musician) were little more than Goldfaden songs loosely strung together with small scenes of largely improvised dialogue and flimsy plots, over time his work expanded in complexity into fully staged and scripted operettas (his most popular and best known creations), plays, operas, and melodramas (but always with music). He grew from a company of two men, to two men plus a chorus, to a full troupe. Actors began with no experience, learning and honing their craft on the road with him and the troupe as they toured medium sized towns across Eastern Europe. Goldfaden served as producer, director, manager, writer, publicist – whatever was needed to get the job done – and many of the most significant performers of the first generation of Yiddish stage performers can trace their roots back to him. Jacob Adler got his start in Goldfaden’s troupe. Within a year of the troupe’s formation, many more had cropped up all across Eastern Europe and a new tradition had begun.

⁃       In 1882, when Alexander III took the czarship in Russia, a wave of new laws and restrictions against Jews swept Russia and pogroms broke out in Eastern Europe. Jews  were no longer allowed to practice their professions and were forced out of the countryside into crowded slums. Facing economic persecutions across all of Eastern Europe, Jews began to emigrate west, often to Paris or London and then on to New York. This wave of emigration, along with an 1883 ban from the czar on Yiddish language theatre (which didn’t mean that Yiddish theatre ceased in Russia, rather that it had to be done in secret and was often camouflaged with a bastardized German-Yiddish), further increased the number of Jewish theatremakers, and audiences, flocking to the United States. Yiddish language theatre still continued to flourish in Europe through the 1930s, even in the most difficult of circumstances, with theatre troupes and informal bands of artists performing even in the ghettos and camps of World War II.

⁃       Yiddish theatre in the United States accessed many performance genres in serving its important cultural role reflecting to a new generation of Americans both their shared past and experiences from the homeland and their new lives as immigrants and citizens in a new country. In the 1880s and 1890s, the most popular performances were melodrama operettas, featuring high romance and spectacle, along with domestic dramas (in the vein of Scribe’s well-made-plays). These plays were largely agreed to be poorly written; they were churned out as fast as possible to meet audience demands and often made with recycled or borrowed material. This type of highly commercial, purely entertainment-based work was known as shund (trash). The “Golden Era” of Yiddish theatre came out of the shund movement, with Jacob Gordin spearheading a more realistic, more thoughtfully crafted movement of refined domestic dramas, inspired by Ibsen, Strindberg, Gorki, Tolstoy, etc. Along with these new works were many adaptations and translations of works by the aforementioned playwrights, and of course, by Shakespeare, Moliere, and other classic Western playwrights. The anti-commercial Yiddish art theatre movement gained strength in pre-World War I years, with smaller companies putting on more literary-driven works and intellectual dramas and incorporating many different styles from Europe and Russia in particular, including symbolism, expressionism, and naturalism.

⁃       In 1882, the United States had its first Yiddish stage production, Goldfaden’s operetta The Witch, in New York City. As more Jewish immigrants arrived in the city, the Yiddish theatre scene rapidly expanded. By 1900 New York City had the second largest Yiddish speaking community in the world and a Jewish population of almost 600,000; in that year, the three existing Yiddish theatre playhouses put on 1,100 performances and sold approximately 2 million tickets. For the Yiddish speaking communities of New York, the theatre replaced the synagogue was the new cultural hub and community gathering site. Even though a huge percentage of the audiences were poor sweatshop workers and menial laborers, they saved to be able to spend a night a week at the theatre – a means of comfort and escape from such difficult living and working conditions. Intermissions were said to have taken as long as the acts, and audiences were very involved throughout the show – eating, drinking, and talking back to the stage to share their approval or disapproval. Audiences were also incredibly loyal and devoted fans to the stars of the Yiddish stage, reading about them in the Yiddish language newspapers, carrying them through the streets, and taking great interest in their personal lives, often to the extent of confusing their personal histories with their stage personas. Very few repertory companies existed and most theatre was run by a star actor/manager; most performers spent the majority of the year in New York and toured to regional theatres and resorts, like the Catskills, during the summer months. The Yiddish theatre district was centered around the Bowery neighborhood on the Lower East Side, but with the economic decline of that area and the migration of Jews to uptown, the theatre community shifted to a small strip of Second Avenue from the 1910s until the ultimate decline of the Yiddish theatre scene in the 1940s. This strip was the hub for the entire Jewish entertainment industry, including cafes, restaurants, cabarets, vaudeville and cinema houses, and many other related businesses. Grand playhouses constructed specifically for Yiddish theatre performances went up alongside small rooftop theatres or basement spaces.

⁃       By the 1920s and 1930s, many factors were beginning to lead to the decline of Yiddish theatre in the United States. A 1924 law placing restrictions on Jewish immigration, a more decentralized Yiddish speaking community as more Jews assimilated and/or left Manhattan or immigrant neighborhoods across the United States, fewer Yiddish speakers, and the Great Depression all took their toll on the audiences for Yiddish theatre. The actors, who had frequently crossed back and forth between the Yiddish and English language stages since their arrival in the United States, followed the work and increasingly worked in English instead, which fragmented the star power formerly associated with the Yiddish stage. World War II and the Holocaust further diminished the theatre community and its audiences, and by the mid 1950s Yiddish theatre was largely finished in the United States. However, there are still theatre companies performing in Yiddish sporadically across the country, and across the world, keeping Yiddish language theatre alive.


 

Sources

Nahshon, Edna. New York's Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway, 2016.

 

Oh Mama, I'm in Love! The Story of the Yiddish Stage. Course 103, Shine Online Educational Series, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, https://learnonline.yivo.org/courses/course-v1:YIVO+YIVO103+2017/info

 

Sandrow, Nahma. Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater. Syracuse: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1996.

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