Inventing the Modern Yiddish Stage: Essays in Drama, Performance, and Show Business

Wayne State University Press  2012


As popular as Yiddish Theatre was in its time, it was rarely considered a subject for scholarly research and writing – regarded by critics and academics, for the most part, as frivolous entertainment or maudlin melodrama.

Consequently, the history and nature of the genre has long been cloaked in myth and misinformation – except for the efforts in recent years of a handful of professors to give the subject its scholarly due.

This collection of essays admirably swells these ranks, rigorously investigating and demonstrating Yiddish theatre’s considerable achievements – with particular emphasis on its “relentless and far-ranging capacity for self-invention,” its continual reshaping of “its orientation in response to changing social and political conditions.”

Part I, “Origins, Influences, and Evolution,” explores the nineteenth century genesis of Yiddish theatre – focusing on the tensions between producing work of social import or mindless entertainment – tensions which have prevailed throughout its history: notably in the career of playwright and polemicist Jacob Gordin, featured in this part.

Part II, “Toward a Jewish Stage,” elaborates on these tensions – describing attempts by Yiddish theatre companies such as the Warsaw Yiddish Art Theatre to purge the Jewish stage of its pandering to the vulgar taste of the proverbial audience primitive, “Moyshe” – doing so through the writing and producing of plays on the level of the masterpieces of modern European drama: plays such as Karl Gutzkow’s Uriel Acosta, discussed in this part.

Part III, “Authors, Actors, and Audiences,” highlights and celebrates the personalities of the Yiddish theatre – both on and off stage, high brow and low – including the Patriotn (fanatic actor fans), Yiddish vaudeville, and a widely popular Yiddish theatre actor/troubadour in Argentina. This part also chronicles how market forces influenced what was performed on Yiddish stages.

Part IV, “Recoveries and Deconstructions,” concerns itself with ancillary matters: “Reconstructing a Yiddish Theatre Score,” “Sex and Scandal in the Encyclopedia of the Yiddish Theatre,” “Communist and Jewish Aspirations in a Postwar Purimshpil,” and the nachas and tsoris of producing Yiddish theatre in the Promised Land – particularly the work of its “founding father,” Avrom Goldfaden: “No Raisins and Almonds in the Land of Israel.” 

Comprehensive in coverage, engrossing in narrative, replete with ample notes, appendices, and bibliography – this book is a must for theatre lovers of all persuasions.

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