Jewish Studies Yiddish Avant-garde Theater
Diego Rotman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0221


Inspired by contemporaneous modernist artistic and literary movements, groups of Jewish writers and artists coalesced in Eastern Europe and Soviet Russia during the first two decades of the 20th century. The influence of modernism on theater, poetry, literature, music, dance, and plastic arts was reflected in the works produced by these Jewish artists, who subsequently took the new trends with them to other lands, especially the Americas (Jewish Aspects in Avant-Garde, cited under General Overviews). They sought to challenge both artistic language and Jewish literature, developing new, even revolutionary, means of expression in Yiddish, Hebrew, or the vernacular spoken in their surroundings (Challenging the Literary Community: The Warsaw Yiddish Avant-Garde and Khalyastre, cited under General Overviews). Many of those groups launched independent frameworks to disseminate their works: some organized readings and exhibitions or even established journals in which they published literary works, manifests, and reproductions of the works of art created by their members. Among these platforms were Eygns (Kiev, 1918–1920) edited by Dovid Bergelson; Yung-Yidish (Yung-Idish; Łódź, 1919–1921); Albatros (Warsaw, 1922; Berlin, 1923), and Khalyastre (Warsaw, 1922; Paris, 1924) (The Albatrosses of Young Yiddish Poetry: An Idea and Its Visual Realization in Uri Zvi Greenberg’s Albatros, cited under General Overviews). Some of these innovative Jewish writers, poets, theater directors, musicians, and visual artists took part in the development of a modernist and sometimes avant-garde Jewish theater (Authenticity and Modernism Combined: Music and the Visual Arts, cited under General Overviews). The “slippery” and fluid concept of Jewish avant-garde theater can be defined as theatrical projects created by Jews for a mainly Jewish audience that were influenced, aesthetically or ideologically, by historical avant-garde movements (such as the International Dada in Zurich, German expressionism, Italian and Russian futurism, and Russian constructivism and suprematism), movements that made radical aesthetic innovations in form and content. Such projects developed or attempted to develop a Jewish theatrical aesthetic that would subvert or provoke a break with popular Yiddish theater and the bourgeois style dominant in the contemporaneous Yiddish and Jewish theater scenes. These influences were evident in various aspects of the Yiddish stage: stage design and actors’ makeup (for example, the Vilner trupe’s Dybbuk, see Yiddish Empire: The Vilna Troupe, Jewish Theater, and the Art of Itinerancy, cited under General Overviews), in the representation of space (Yung-Yiddish breaking the fourth wall), in the design of visual materials (the playbills of Ararat or the Vilner trupe designed by Berlewi or Swarc, see Visual Artists and Yiddish Avant-garde Theatre in Poland and The Yiddish Stage as a Temporary Home—Dzigan and Shumacher’s Satirical Theater (1927–1980), both cited under General Overviews), and, of course, in the texts themselves (for example, Moyshe Broderzon’s texts, see Moyshe Broderzon: Un écrivain yiddish d’avant-garde, cited under General Overviews). This article, which focuses on Yiddish avant-garde theater in the interwar period, refers to the major figures who contributed to the development of these avant-garde aesthetics or approaches in different fields and ends with references to avant-garde approaches in Yiddish performance today. Accordingly, it considers Jewish avant-garde theater as a broad topic, one that includes an elastic and transnational corpus of varying quality that was characterized by a common attempt to reflect or express a contentious approach (or an alternative) to mainstream Jewish theater.

General Overviews

Poets, visual artists, musicians, choreographers, theater actors, and directors all contributed to Jewish avant-garde theater, which developed various approaches in different places, in a range of languages, under an array of material, political, and economic conditions, and was influenced by various movements: Russian constructivism, German expressionism, French cubism, and Polish modernism, among others. In order to delineate the qualities of Jewish avant-garde theater, it is necessary to employ a more fluid distinction between radical avant-garde and modernism. Likewise, we must also differentiate between the Jewish avant-garde in Eastern Europe, which was interested in radically breaking with traditional Judaism and was active in creating a national culture—developing secular art and a secular nation—and Jewish avant-garde in the West, which also functioned as way to return to Jewish tradition. There are no monographs discussing Jewish avant-garde theater per se. However, various scholars have examined Jewish avant-garde literature and the visual arts, and a rich corpus of articles and even books on these aspects emerged mainly over the last three decades. Books, articles, and book chapters refer to various Jewish theater companies, theatrical figures, or visual artists who worked in Jewish theater and who, even if they did not define themselves as belonging to the historical avant-garde or to the experimental theater of their time, were sometimes framed as avant-garde or related to those movements by scholars.

  • Brenner, Michael. “Authenticity and Modernism Combined: Music and the Visual Arts.” In The Renaissance of Jewish Culture in Weimar Germany. By Michael Brenner, 153–184. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

    This chapter provides an important contribution concerning modernist Jewish music and visual arts in Weimar Germany. It offers information about specific artists and theater companies that performed in Weimar Germany (the avant-garde Vilner trupe was based in Berlin between September 1921 and March 1923, GOSET toured Germany in 1928, and the Hebrew Habima Theater first toured in Germany in 1926; the local Kaftan cabaret was established in 1930). The book also includes reproductions of works of art.

  • Caplan, Debra. Yiddish Empire: The Vilna Troupe, Jewish Theater, and the Art of Itinerancy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.9533320

    Caplan’s book is the first comprehensive historiography concerning this important transnational Yiddish theater troupe. It discusses the emergence of the Vilner trupe within the context of Yiddish theater, characterizing it as an avant-garde company, and examines its performances, successes, and failures. The book is based on a wide range of sources that provide an excellent overview of this troupe and its members.

  • Gelber, Mark H., and Sami Sjöberg. Jewish Aspects in Avant-Garde. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110454956

    This book provides important insights regarding the significance of avant-garde movements for modern Jewish culture and the impact of Jewish tradition on the artistic production of the avant-garde. The book deals in particular with the Jewish Dada approach; Yiddish avant-garde movements in Warsaw, Romania, and the USSR; and discusses literary, artistic, philosophical, and theological works.

  • Lipsker, Avidov, and Ruth Bar-Ilan. “The Albatrosses of Young Yiddish Poetry: An Idea and Its Visual Realization in Uri Zvi Greenberg’s Albatros.” Prooftexts 15.1 (1995): 89–108.

    This article discusses the poetics and visualization of Uri Zvi Greenberg’s iconic Albatros journal. It also refers to the work of other visual artists, such as Marek Szwarc (Schwarz) and Henryk Berlewi, who were central figures in the development of the Yiddish avant-garde stage.

  • Malkin, Jeanette, and Freddie Rokem. Jews and the Making of Modern German Theatre. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010.

    The book includes a series of essays regarding the role of Jewish artists such as Max Reinhardt and Leopold Jessner in the development of modernist and avant-garde German theater.

  • Tordjman, Laëtitia. “Challenging the Literary Community: The Warsaw Yiddish Avant-Garde and Khalyastre.” In Jewish Aspects in Avant-Garde. Edited by Mark H. Gelber and Sami Sjöberg, 85–100. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110454956-007

    This work discusses and analyzes avant-garde Yiddish poetry by Perets Markish, Uri Tsevi Grinberg, and Melech Ravitsh published in the avant-garde Yiddish journal Khalyastre (Warsaw, 1922; Paris, 1924) edited by Perets Markish. In the article Tordjman refers to how Yiddish avant-garde theater influenced Yiddish literature, specifically examining the influence of the performance of The Dybbuk by the Vilner trupe on one of Markish’s poems.

  • Quint, Alyssa. “Visual Artists and Yiddish Avant-garde Theatre in Poland.” Digital Yiddish Theatre Project, June 2018.

    In this significant article, Alyssa Quint tackles the work of avant-garde visual artists who collaborated with Jewish theater companies, such as Władysław Weintraub (Chaim Wolf Wajntrojb, b. 1891–d. 1942), Yoysef Shlivniak (b. 1899 in Kiev), Zygmunt Balk (b. 1873–d. 1941), Fritz Klaynman (b. 1896), Dina Matus (b. 1895–d. 1940?), and Mané Katz (b. 1894–d. 1962), among others. The article is based on a wide range of important sources and includes interesting images.

  • Rotman, Diego. The Yiddish Stage as a Temporary Home—Dzigan and Shumacher’s Satirical Theater (1927–1980). Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2021.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110717693

    Rotman’s book surveys the creation of the Lodzer Teater Studio, founded by modernist Yiddish poet Moyshe Broderzon, and the history of the kleynkunst-bine (miniature theater) Ararat (acronym for Artistisher revolutsyonerer teater, or Artistic and Revolutionary Theater).

  • Rozier, Gilles. Moyshe Broderzon: Un écrivain yiddish d’avant-garde. Saint-Denis, France: Presses Universitaires de Vincennes, 1999.

    The book is an important contribution to the study of modernist Yiddish poet Moyshe Broderzon’s literary works. It also discusses the Ararat theater, which Broderzon founded, from historical and literary perspectives. The book focuses on Broderzon’s life and his literary output, examines how Vladimir Mayakovsky and Velimir Khlebnikov influenced Broderzon, his collaborations in Moscow with Yoysef Tshaykov, Yisakhar Rybak, and El Lissitzky, among others, and in Łódź with Yitskhok (or Vincenti) Broyner, Yankl Adler, and Marek Szwarc.

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