Considering Yiddish Theater: Past, Present, Future

Written by:
David Mazower
Summer 2014 / 5774
Part of issue number:
Photograph by John Sibilski

Guest Editor David Mazower had a few questions for Joel Berkowitz, who might be America’s foremost historian and observer of Yiddish theater. Berkowitz, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is the author of Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage and coeditor (with Jeremy Dauber) of Landmark Yiddish Plays: A Critical Anthology. Along with nine other Yiddish theater experts, he recently cofounded the Digital Yiddish Theater Project.

David Mazower: What was your first introduction to Yiddish theater—what got you hooked?

Joel Berkowitz: I got hooked on theater and Yiddish separately, and then decided they’d make a nice couple. I have a lifelong love of theater and was already pursuing my PhD when I started learning Yiddish and completely fell in love with it. At a certain point, when my Yiddish got good enough for serious research, I decided to write a doctoral dissertation on Yiddish theater.

If you could go back in time and see just one historical Yiddish theater production, which would you choose?

That’s a bit of a tease. If I’m to go back to, say, the late 1870s, couldn’t I linger there a little while before returning?

Okay, if I have to narrow it down, it would have to be something written, composed, and directed by Avrom Goldfaden. In 1876 he became the first person to assemble a professional Yiddish troupe that stayed intact long enough to gain any traction. Ever since, he has been the object of endless fascination among students of the Yiddish stage—I think not just because he was a pioneer. Among other things, he set himself the task of building a theatrical culture in a society that had never really had such a thing, except in very circumscribed ways. Within just a few years, his work was being performed in Jewish communities throughout eastern Europe, western Europe, the Americas, Palestine, South Africa, and Australia.

Goldfaden’s companies operated in very crude conditions, but you wouldn’t always know that from reading his plays. For example, the 1883 historical epic Bar Kokhba contains a scene in which our hero is tossed into a Roman arena to battle a lion. So brave and commanding is he that he effortlessly tames the lion, jumps on its back, and vaults over the gates of the arena to freedom. My hypothesis about such scenes is that Goldfaden wrote them with an eye toward posterity. His company might not have had the technical means to stage them convincingly, but I think he knew that Yiddish stagecraft would ultimately evolve so it could do justice to such moments. I would love to be able to see just what would have been possible in Goldfaden’s day, though.

Imagine that a Broadway producer takes you out to lunch to ask your advice about staging a Yiddish play in translation. What play would you suggest?

Another tough question! Most people, I think, would be astonished to learn that well over two thousand Yiddish plays have been published, and several times that number survive in archives. Among those are many gems—most of them largely unknown.

So it’s hard to choose, but I’ll suggest a play I fell in love with the moment I first read it. The play is Peretz Hirschbein’s Miriam (1905), which traces, quite sympathetically, the trajectory of a young Jewish woman from an innocent life in the countryside to a series of events in the big city that lead her to become a prostitute. Hirschbein later wrote in his memoirs that a chance encounter in the streets of Vilna with a prostitute who propositioned him—the innocent village boy only figured out later what she had meant—inspired him to imagine the backstory of such a person, and thus Miriam was born.

It’s an exquisite example of naturalistic drama. The first of Miriam’s four acts has almost no plot; it establishes atmosphere and character while planting seeds that will blossom into a dramatic story. But the plot remains spare, simple, and powerful; it gives us insight into and empathy for the lives of people who share certain kinds of hardship while also celebrating their strength and their humanity.

Speaking of Miriam, there are many great parts for women in the Yiddish theater and no shortage of famous female actors and singers. So why do all the well-known playwrights seem to be men? Are there any notable women waiting to be discovered?

The place of women in Yiddish theater history is curious. When Goldfaden formed his first troupe, in Romania, around the holiday of Sukes in 1876, it was initially all-male, since in Jewish tradition female performance was essentially forbidden.

Of course, once increasing numbers of Jews began questioning many fundamental tenets of Jewish tradition, that changed, and it’s remarkable how quickly women became not only accepted on the Yiddish stage but wholly embraced by audiences. Women also quickly became quite powerful behind the scenes.

Yet in spite of all this success onstage and in the managerial offices, women rarely became Yiddish playwrights—perhaps even more rarely than in many other Western cultures. That being said, one can find noteworthy examples here and there, and sometimes very good ones. One writer who has received plenty of well-deserved attention and kudos as a lyric poet but is almost unknown as a playwright is Kadya Molodowsky. I’ve done some work on her fascinating historical drama Nokhn got fun midber (After the God of the Desert, 1949), which uses the story of the sixteenth-century Sephardi philanthropist and communal leader Doña Gracia Mendes Nasi as a means of discussing how to rebuild Jewish individual and community life in the aftermath of the Shoah.

What parallels does she draw between the sixteenth century and the postwar period?

The play follows Doña Gracia, her family, and her entourage from Antwerp to Lyons to Venice to Ferrara as they attempt to stay one step ahead of the Inquisition. As many other Jewish writers have done, Molodowsky turns to an earlier period as a precursor, at least in a general sense, to the present; it would be impossible to read or watch the play without comparing the plight of Marranos fleeing or perishing under the Inquisition with contemporary Jews suffering under Nazism.

In spite of a noble and entirely admirable Gentile suitor invented by Molodowsky—I think in an effort to avoid suggesting that the Gentile world is entirely and inevitably hostile to Jews—she ultimately takes a dim view of Europe, and the play ends with Doña Gracia and her family and followers about to sail to Constantinople, where they will live under the protection of a sultan rather than in the shadow of the Church.

What do you see for the future of Yiddish theater?

It’s easier to predict the future of the study of Yiddish theater, which looks very promising to me. There’s a talented community of scholars doing serious work in the field, and new talent is emerging from graduate programs. In terms of performance, while we will never return to the golden age—the half century or so before the Holocaust—there’s more activity, and more interesting activity, right now than there has been in quite a long time, so there’s some hope for increasingly meaningful explorations of this largely overlooked body of work.

David Mazower, great-grandson of Sholem Asch, is a news program editor with BBC World Service radio in London.