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

Joel Berkowitz and Bar­bara Hen­ry, eds.
  • Review
By – January 16, 2013

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.

Find more books about Jews and the the­ater here.

Nor­man J. Fed­der, Ph.D., is dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of the­atre at Kansas State Uni­ver­si­ty. He is cur­rent­ly on the fac­ul­ty of the Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Arts Pro­gram at Nova South­east­ern University.

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