Between 1890 and 1940, 200 Yiddish theaters were established in New York City; in 1937 alone, Yiddish theaters in the city sold 1,250,000 tickets. Yet before the 1870s, there was not a single professional Yiddish theater anywhere in the world. How could this be?
My wife, Sandy, and I learned the answer to this question at the end of April, when we once again enjoyed a weekend at the Yiddish Book Center, in Amherst, Massachusetts. Between Shabbat dinner and Sunday morning, Debra Caplan, an assistant professor of theater at Baruch College, City University of New York, delivered four lectures introducing us to the world of Yiddish theater – a vital, bustling world that seemed to arise miraculously out of virtually nothing.
Over the centuries, traditional rabbis had consistently frowned upon theatrical enterprises in their many forms. These arbiters of Jewish mores considered the life of the stage to be a violation of the norms of halakhah, Jewish law – except for one day a year, on Purim. On that one day, as far back as the 15th century, Jews were permitted to take part in Purim spiels (plays). On that one day, Jews were given license to express their pent-up need to act up, to act out, to assume the roles of Mordecai or Esther or even the wicked Haman.
In some Purim plays, the actors even took on the roles of well-known contemporaries who had no relationship whatsoever to the Biblical Purim story. During the Purim spiel anything – or almost anything – goes.
With the dawning of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, the authority of the rabbis gradually waned. Many Jews began to shift from a religious to a secular identity, which enabled the explosive growth of Yiddish theater.
Shloyme Ettinger (1802-1856) is credited with writing the first Yiddish play, “Sirkele,” which is based on the Cinderella story. Written in 1839, “Sirkele” was originally conceived as a “closet play” – that is, a play not intended to be staged, but rather to be read in the company of friends in the safety of a private home. It was not until seven years after Ettinger’s death that the play was publicly performed for the first time, at a rabbinical seminary in the Ukrainian town of Zhitomir during Purim in 1863.
While Ettinger wrote the first Yiddish play, Avrom Goldfaden (1840-1908) is considered the “Father of Yiddish Theater.” He is known not only for the prodigious number of plays that he wrote but also for the great breadth of his work, ranging from farce to Biblical operetta. Most significantly, Goldfaden brought Yiddish theater from the realm of amateur diversion into the world of professionally produced, directed, acted and staged plays.
Those attending the Yiddish Book Center’s program were asked to read one of Goldfaden’s early plays, “The Two Kuni-Lemls,” before coming to Amherst.
At first reading, this farce seems somewhat shallow. The plot is a variation of the often told tale of a young couple, Max and Carolina, deeply in love, who defy the woman’s father, who is attempting to arrange a “suitable” marriage for his only daughter. The title refers to Max assuming the role of a double for the intended groom, the clueless Kuni-Leml. Our lecturer, Caplan, assured us that the play drew enthusiastic audiences, reminding us that there is a huge difference between reading a play and seeing it performed.
The “Golden Age of Yiddish Theater” in the United States was made possible by the massive influx of 1.5 million Eastern European Jews between 1881 and 1910, a large number of whom settled in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Proving the adage that truth can be stranger than fiction, Boris Tomashevsky (1868-1939) was still in his early teens when he almost single-handedly created Yiddish theater in New York City. In 1882, Tomashevsky produced “The Sorceress,” which became an instant success.
Tomashevsky was not only the first producer of Yiddish plays in New York, but, with his good looks and beautiful singing voice, he also became one of the most renowned stars of the Yiddish stage.
On Sunday morning, Caplan delivered her final lecture of the weekend, which she titled “Nomadic Chutzpah: The Vilna Troupe, Yiddish Theater, and the Avant-Garde.” In her brief introduction, Caplan noted that the Vilna Troupe (1915-1936) was “an experimental Yiddish theater company founded by a motley group of teenaged amateurs, impoverished war refugees, and out-of-work Russian actors who banded together to revolutionize the Yiddish stage during the First World War.”
Despite their humble origins – often subsisting on just one boiled potato per day, frequently fainting from hunger during rehearsals – members of the troupe managed to perform in 60 cities on five continents in a single year. Though they performed only in Yiddish, their innovative approach to theater exerted a profound influence on scores of actors, regardless of their native tongues.
In 1920, the Vilna Troupe introduced the world to “The Dybbuk,” by Solomon Rappaport Ansky (1863-1920), perhaps the best-known Yiddish play of all time. Ansky subtitled his play “Between Two Worlds, A Dramatic Legend in Four Acts.” I would suggest that “The Dybbuk” dramatizes the contrast between the world of the living and the world of the dead, the world of the present and the world of the past, the world of truth and the world of illusion and superstition.
In their avant-garde production of “The Dybbuk” – a giant tallit serves as the stage’s inner curtain – the Vilna Troupe seems to connect the world of yesterday with the worlds of today and tomorrow.
What is the future of Yiddish theater in America? In the words of an old song from my alma mater, Columbia College: “Tomorrow’s the future still; this is today!”
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.