The Rise of the Mod­ern Yid­dish Theater

Alyssa Quint

January 1, 2013

Alyssa Quint focus­es on the ear­ly years of the mod­ern Yid­dish the­ater, from rough­ly 1876 to 1883, through the works of one of its best-known and most col­or­ful fig­ures, Avrom Gold­faden. Gold­faden (né Gold­en­faden, 1840 – 1908) was one of the first play­wrights to stage a com­mer­cial­ly viable Yid­dish-lan­guage the­ater, first in Roma­nia and then in Rus­sia. Gold­faden’s work was rapid­ly dis­sem­i­nat­ed in print and his plays were per­formed fre­quent­ly for Jew­ish audi­ences. Sholem Ale­ichem con­sid­ered him as a forg­er of a new lan­guage that breathed the Euro­pean spir­it into our old jar­gon.” Quint uses Gold­faden’s the­atri­cal works as a way to under­stand the social life of Jew­ish the­ater in Impe­r­i­al Rus­sia. Through a study of his libret­ti, she looks at the expe­ri­ences of Russ­ian Jew­ish actors, male and female, to explore con­nec­tions between cul­ture as artis­tic pro­duc­tion and cul­ture in the sense of broad­er social struc­tures. Quint explores how Jew­ish actors who played Gold­faden’s work on stage absorbed the the­ater into their every­day lives. Gold­faden’s the­ater gives a rich view into the con­duct, ide­ol­o­gy, reli­gion, and pol­i­tics of Jews dur­ing an impor­tant moment in the his­to­ry of late Impe­r­i­al Russia.

Discussion Questions

The Rise of the Mod­ern Yid­dish The­ater sheds impor­tant new light on the his­to­ries of both Yid­dish cul­ture and impe­r­i­al Rus­sia. Alyssa Quint offers a cor­rec­tive account of the life and career of Avrom Gold­faden, the father of mod­ern Yid­dish the­ater, whose artis­tic mer­it was min­i­mized by rivals and his­to­ri­ans alike. Quint argues that Gold­faden was an impor­tant artist and the­atri­cal entre­pre­neur who wrote for an urban mid­dle class audi­ence of Jews and non-Jews alike. Yid­dish the­ater was remark­ably broad in its appeal and adapt­able in its con­tent and form, she shows, and it devel­oped in dynam­ic rela­tion­ship with life off of the stage up until 1883, when it was banned by the czar. Goldfaden’s plays chan­neled live con­cerns about Jew­ish cul­ture and inte­gra­tion, even as they encour­aged new means of per­for­mance and self-fash­ion­ing in their audi­ence. Draw­ing on diverse sources, Quint care­ful­ly recon­structs Goldfaden’s work and the vivid social world of com­peti­tors, actors, and audi­ences in which it was writ­ten and performed.