In This Article Yiddish Theater

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies and Guides
  • Anthologies
  • Wedding Jesters and Purim Plays
  • Dramas of the Jewish Enlightenment
  • Avrom Goldfaden and His Legacy
  • Biographies
  • Theater Companies
  • Yiddish Theater Music
  • Vaudeville and Puppetry
  • Film and Radio

Jewish Studies Yiddish Theater
by
Joel Berkowitz
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0114

Introduction

Yiddish theater is a global, multidimensional phenomenon that has been central to the cultural experience and achievements of Yiddish-speaking Jews for centuries. Exactly when the first Yiddish performances began is the subject of scholarly debates that have yet to be definitively resolved, and in any case that depend in part on how one defines “theater.” This article sees the term broadly. While most of the sources here address traditional, scripted dramas, and productions of those dramas, it also embraces related performance forms as well. That is true in particular of the figure of the badkhn, or wedding jester, who emerges in the Middle Ages as the person most responsible for making the wedding celebration festive, with his impromptu rhymes, songs, and sketches—though he also sang to the bride of the end of her carefree days and the beginning of new, often difficult, responsibilities. The badkhn’s act had a great influence on particularly the earliest professional performances, and would be immortalized in plays and films. An even more important precursor to the professional Yiddish theater is the purimshpil, or Purim play: usually fully or partly scripted plays performed around the holiday of Purim, their content often inspired by the Book of Esther, but also taken from other biblical stories and from contemporary life. The Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) that started in the late 18th century opened a new chapter in the story of Yiddish drama, when a number of its leaders, the maskilim, wrote satires to promote their agenda and attack their enemies. Attempts were made to professionalize Yiddish performers in Warsaw in the early 19th century, but they failed to take hold. That changed in Romania in 1876, when Avrom Goldfaden formed his first troupe and began touring Romania and southern Russia. Within a year, two rival companies were formed, and the three troupes’ playwrights—Goldfaden, Joseph Lateiner, and Moyshe Hurwitz—scrambled to create their repertoire. New troupes splintered off of these for the next few years. In the meantime, the pogroms that followed the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 led to mass migrations out of Eastern Europe, ultimately bringing Yiddish theater to Western Europe, North and South America, South Africa, and Australia. The roster of playwrights, composers, and performers grew exponentially, and in the most significant centers of Yiddish culture, such as New York, Warsaw, and later Moscow, Yiddish theater would become a vital component of Yiddish cultural activity until World War II. The Holocaust decimated Yiddish culture, but new plays would continue to be written, and newly conceived versions of standards from the repertoire would still be staged, continuing a long tradition of Yiddish theater and drama, helping its audience come to terms with the turbulent times in which they lived.

General Overviews

To get a sense of the narrative sweep of the story of Yiddish theater from its beginnings to modern times, countless readers have turned to two sources: Gorin 1923 and Sandrow 1999 (both happen to be revised editions). Both authors are lively storytellers with a keen sense of theater. Gorin’s history must be used with care by the serious historian, for he was more interested in vivid stories than in facts and figures. Sandrow’s book, though not an academic study, is much more scrupulous, while remaining a good read. It is valuable for the scholar and the general reader alike. For the microscopic view rather than the macroscopic, Perlmutter 1952 and Avisar 1996 are both useful, in different ways. Perlmutter provides short chapters on many of the most notable Yiddish playwrights and composers, while Avisar focuses on plays themselves. More recently, Yiddish Stage tells the story of the Yiddish theater not in linear fashion, but piecemeal, through the commentary of a collective of researchers rather than one individual author.

  • Avisar, Shmuel. Ha-makhaze ve-ha-te’atron ha-ivri ve-ha-yidi. Jerusalem: Reuven Mas, 1996.

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    A useful introduction to Hebrew and Yiddish drama to 1900. After a broad introduction to Jewish drama, Avisar provides short chapters on individual plays. The first quarter of the book looks at Hebrew drama in Italy and Amsterdam from 1550 to 1790. Most of the rest of the book is devoted to Yiddish Haskalah dramas, with the last chapter discussing major Goldfaden plays from Di bobe mitn eynikl to Meshiekhs tsaytn?!

  • Gorin, B. Di geshikhte fun idishn teater. 2 vols. New York: Max N. Mayzel, 1923.

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    The first narrative history of the Yiddish stage from its medieval origins to the 20th century. Highly anecdotal and not to be taken as gospel truth, but offers a lively big-picture overview and keen insights into the development of Yiddish theater.

  • Perlmutter, Sholem. Yidishe dramaturgn un teater-kompozitors. New York: YKUF, 1952.

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    An introduction to the work of many of the leading Yiddish dramatists and theater composers, arranged in roughly chronological order and divided into three sections: (1) sixteen early modern playwrights, from Haskalah dramatists to figures active around the turn of the 20th century; (2) thirty-three playwrights ranging from the late 1800s to the mid-20th century; and (3) twenty-four composers.

  • Sandrow, Nahma. Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1999.

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    The only popular history to date that spans Yiddish theater’s history from the Middle Ages to the late 20th century. Sandrow’s study is stronger on narrative than on dates, facts, and figures, but it is the best place to start to get an overview of the subject, and the work is full of keen insights about Yiddish theater’s nature and essence.

  • Yiddish Stage.

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    This site hosts the blog of the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project (DYTP), a research consortium created by theater historians Joel Berkowitz and Debra Caplan. DYTP members and invited guest contributors publish posts on a wide range of topics connected to Yiddish theater and performance, making this blog international and multidisciplinary in scope.

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