The Yiddish Book Center's Weekend Program: The Plays of Sholem Asch

November 1-3, 2019 at the Yiddish Book Center

Sholem Asch was Yiddish literature’s first modern celebrity, almost a one-man global brand. Born in Poland in 1880, he shot to fame in the 1900s thanks to acclaimed productions of his early plays in Polish, German, and Russian translation. One of the best-known Jewish public figures for over half a century, Asch’s prolific output of novels and plays included bestsellers in English translation and smash hits on the Yiddish stages of Warsaw and New York. The obscenity trial surrounding his play Got fun nekome (God of Vengeance), as well as its frank depiction of two women in love, inspired Paula Vogel’s recent Broadway hit, Indecent—but Asch wrote over twenty more plays exploring interfaith love, the Jewish underworld, Messianic dreams, and class and power in the Jewish world. Join us for a weekend program of lectures, readings, and discussions about this remarkable body of work.

The program will be led by three leading scholars of Asch and the Yiddish theater: Professor Joel Berkowitz of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Yiddish Book Center Bibliographer David Mazower; and actor, translator, and author Caraid O’Brien.

Sholem Asch in 1903.

LECTURES & ACTIVITIES:

Lecture 1: Becoming Sholem Asch
By David Mazower
From radical ex-yeshiva student to provocative dramatist, bestselling novelist, and embattled prophet, Sholem Asch carved out a unique place in Yiddish literature. This lecture by Asch’s great-grandson will put his career as a playwright in the wider context of his life and work, charting his migrations from Poland to America, France, England, and finally Israel. Theater posters, stage stills, and a wide variety of other images will be combined with unseen photos from family albums, showing the private face of this most public figure.

Lecture 2: Sholem Asch’s Onstage Shtetl 
By Joel Berkowitz 
Asch’s novella A shtetl helped launched his literary career, and his novels are noted for their rich descriptions of shtetl and shtot: town and city. Many of his one-act and full-length plays are set in the shtetl as well. This lecture will survey the shtetlekh depicted in Asch’s plays and provide an overview, with illustrations, of how his dramas depict life in those Eastern European market towns.

Lecture 3: Women in Sholem Asch’s Dramas
By Joel Berkowitz 

Asch’s third drama, God of Vengeance, became an immediate international sensation, in large measure thanks to its frank treatment of female sexuality and of women’s roles in Jewish society. Less familiar today is Asch the playwright’s ongoing preoccupation with gender roles spanning the entirety of his dramatic oeuvre. This lecture will focus on a number of the vivid and memorable women who populate Asch’s dramas, and discuss their place in Asch’s dramatic universe and the wider world of early twentieth-century Yiddish drama.

Play Reading Workshop
Joel Berkowitz and Caraid O’Brien will lead a workshop session of selected readings from Asch’s plays in Yiddish and English translation, followed by a Q&A.

Joel Berkowitz and Caraid O’Brien in Conversation with David Mazower
Join our speakers for a wide-ranging discussion of Asch, his plays, and the world of Yiddish theater. Themes covered will include: Asch’s evolution from playwright to novelist; his impact and influence in the Yiddish and English theater; translating, staging and adapting Asch’s plays; and the relevance of Asch’s plays for audiences today.

COST:

$350 for Yiddish Book Center members; $425 for nonmembers. Join or renew your membership now to take advantage of the member discount. Then return here to continue the registration process. Registration closes October 28, but space is limited, so early registration is advised.

Cancellation Policy: Cancellations by October 18 will be refunded, minus a $30 administration fee per registered participant. Unfortunately, we are not able to provide a refund for cancellations after October 18.

Scene from the premiere of God of Vengeance at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, 1907.

HOTEL INFORMATION:

Due to various university events happening in the Amherst area, hotels tend to fill up quickly, so we encourage you to make arrangements for accommodations as soon as possible. The local Econo Lodge (413-582-7077) and Howard Johnson (413-586-0114) are offering our participants discounted rates, pending availability at the time you call. To ensure the rate, please book no later than October 1.

Please contact these hotels directly and mention that you are part of our event and would like the “Yiddish Book Center rate.” If they have availability, they will give you the discounted rate.

PROGRAM SCHEDULE:

Friday, November 1
5:30 p.m.
 — Check in
6:00 p.m. — Shabbos dinner
7:30 p.m. — Lecture 1: “Becoming Sholem Asch” 

Saturday, November 2
10:00 a.m. — Coffee and nosh
10:30 a.m. — Lecture 2: “Sholem Asch’s Onstage Shtetl”
12:00 p.m. — Lunch
1:00 p.m. — Tour of the Center, with a behind-the-scenes look at rare volumes of Asch's work
2:30 p.m. — Lecture 3: “Women in Sholem Asch’s Dramas” 
4:30 p.m. — Play reading workshop
6:00 p.m. — Dinner

Sunday, November 3
10:00 a.m. — Coffee and nosh
10:30 a.m. — Joel Berkowitz and Caraid O’Brien in conversation with David Mazower
12:00 p.m. — End of program

Scene from God of Vengeance, 2013-14
Scene from a production of God of Vengeance at the Jewish Theatre in Warsaw, 2013-14.

ABOUT THE SPEAKERS:

Joel Berkowitz is Professor of Foreign Languages and Literature and Director of the Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. A historian of the Yiddish theatre and translator of Yiddish drama, he is the author of Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage, editor of Yiddish Theatre: New Approaches, and co-editor of Landmark Yiddish Plays: A Critical Anthology and Inventing the Modern Yiddish Stage. He is the co-founder of the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project (yiddishstage.org), the leading online forum for new research and writing on Yiddish theater.

David Mazower is the Yiddish Book Center’s Bibliographer and Editorial Director and a co-editor of Pakn Treger, the Yiddish Book Center's English-language magazine. He is the author of Yiddish Theatre in London and has published widely on Yiddish culture and book publishing, British Jewish history and Jewish art. He is the great-grandson of Sholem Asch, contributed to the volume Sholem Asch Reconsidered, and has written several articles about Asch for the Digital Yiddish Theater Project. He is also closely involved with the biennial Szalom Asz Festival in Kutno, Poland.

Caraid O'Brien received three new play commissions from the Foundation for Jewish Culture, and her translation of Sholem Asch's God of Vengeance “set Show World aflame” according to the Village Voice. As an actress, she has performed in her translations of Asch's plays Motke Thief and The Dead Man as well as in two different Yiddish language productions of God of Vengeance. Caraid’s book Seymour and Miriam: Yiddish Theater and Radio in the 20th Century is forthcoming from Harvard Judaica.  As a 2019 Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow, Caraid is working on Sholem Asch: Plays of My People, a collection of four dramas written by Asch that explore Jewish identity. (caraidobrien.com)