Performance and Activism

In Yiddish theater, art and activism intersect with stories that compel reflection on what was, grapple with what is, and imagine what could be. Worldwide, countries have alternated between suppressing and championing Yiddish language and culture, but Yiddish theater has withstood the test of time. Below, our narrators share stories about Yiddish theater serving as an escape from turmoil, a stage for political and social resistance, and a space to propagate Yiddish culture.

The Origins of the Vilna Troupe

Caraid O’Brien—writer, performer, and director—discusses the founding and emergence of the Vilna Troupe during World War I. She references Leib Kadison, Luba Kadison, and Joseph Buloff’s involvement in the theater company that served as departure from all the pain of the war.

Watch her full interview and excerpts

Yiddish Theater Suppressed in Israel

Lea Szlanger, Yiddish actress born in Poland, recalls the state of Yiddish theater in Israel when the government suppressed the language and culture. Lea describes how performers circumvented this law.

Watch her full interview and excerpts

Wasn't Art for Art's Sake

Tom Oppenheim reflects on his grandmother Stella Adler’s role in Yiddish theater as inseparable from her activism—a view Stella instilled in her student Marlon Brando. Her influence led Brando to his Broadway debut role in Ben Hecht’s A Flag Is Born, a political play meant to raise money for European Jews after World War II.

Watch his full interview and excerpts

Getting Cowgirls to Speak Yiddish

Performer and theater director Eleanor Reissa explains that while she has never thought of herself as a Yiddish activist, she has developed her own methods for keeping the language relevant, including directing her non-Jewish cast members with Yiddish instructions.

Watch her full interview and excerpts

Politicizing Our Needs

Saul Rubinek, actor, describes the influence of American draft dodgers on the politicization of theater in Canada. Whereas Canadian theater had revolved around cooperation with the status quo, the Americans brought with them a dedication to social criticism.

Watch his full interview and excerpts