Bay nakht afn altn mark (At Night at the Old Market). Isaak Rabichev, Moscow, 1925. Pen and India ink on paper. Poster design for a GOSET production of the play by Y. L. Peretz. (Hillel Kazovsky)

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Moscow State Yiddish Theater

One of the most famous and critically acclaimed Yiddish-language theaters in the world. The Moscow State Yiddish Theater (also referred to as MosGOSET or simply GOSET, from [Moskovskii] Gosudarstvennyi Evreiskii Teatr) was, in the words of the Yiddish literary critic and cultural activist Nakhmen Mayzel, “our greatest theatrical marvel.” Widely considered one of the best theaters in the Soviet Union, it was often heralded by the government as a model of Jewish cultural achievement under communism.

Solomon Mikhailovich Mikhoels presiding over a reading at the Moscow Yiddish Theater, ca. 1930s. Photograph by D. Sholomovich, Press Photoagency. (YIVO)

GOSET was established in 1920, when the Petrograd-based Jewish Chamber Theater, directed by Aleksandr Granovskii (1890–1937), was taken over by the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment and relocated to Moscow. Situated in the center of Moscow, GOSET emerged as one of the Soviet Union’s foremost theaters. Its leading actors, Solomon Mikhoels (1890–1948) and Veniamin Zuskin (1899–1952), became national celebrities, and it employed many of the country’s major Jewish playwrights, artists, and musicians. Its Yiddish theater school, established in 1929, trained new cadres of performers for both the Moscow stage and Yiddish theaters throughout the Soviet Union.

GOSET emerged in a period in which the Soviet government actively fostered the development of Yiddish language and culture, along with the cultures of other national minorities. During its first decade in power, the Soviet government believed that it could best reach minorities by appealing to them in their native languages. GOSET thus functioned along with Yiddish-language newspapers, schools, courts, and governmental organizations as part of a network of Yiddish-language institutions intended to influence the Jewish population. The ideological success and international reputation of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater helped it survive the curtailment of Yiddish cultural activity in the 1930s. The theater, which remained open until 1949, was one of the last surviving Jewish institutions in the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Natan Al’tman’s set design for Le Trouhadec by Jules Romain, Moscow State Yiddish Theater, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

GOSET began its 30-year history with a series of performances that adapted works of popular Yiddish writers into modernist theatrical frameworks. It made its Moscow debut with a highly successful series of one-act plays by Sholem Aleichem, which were presented together under the title Sholem Aleykhem ovnt (An Evening of Sholem Aleichem; 1921). The sets and theater decorations, designed by Marc Chagall, included the artist’s now famous mural Vvedenie v evreiskii teatr (Introduction to the Jewish Theater).

Over the next six years, the theater followed this success with adaptations of Avrom Goldfadn’s Di kishef-makherin (The Witch; 1922), Sholem Aleichem’s Tsvey hundert toyznt (Two Hundred Thousand; 1923), Y. L. Peretz’s Bay nakht afn altn mark (Night in the Old Marketplace; 1925), and Mendele Moykher-Sforim’s Masoes Binyomin hashlishi (Travels of Benjamin III; 1927). These productions all interpreted prerevolutionary Yiddish works within a social and ideological structure corresponding to Soviet ideals. Through symbolist and expressionist theatrical techniques, the theater emphasized themes of class struggle and antireligious rebellion.

Regular summer tours through Ukraine and Belorussia kept the theater in contact with the large Jewish populations of these regions. During the 1920s, GOSET became one of the Soviet Union’s leading avant-garde theaters and a prototype of Yiddish art theaters. New York Times reviewer C. Hooper Trask wrote of the production of Masoes Binyomin hashlishi: “it was one of the most originally conceived and beautifully executed evenings in the modern theater” (24 June 1928).

Set design by Robert Fal'k for Mendele Moykher-Sforim's Kitser masoes Binyomin hashlishi (The Brief Travels of Benjamin III), produced by Aleksandr Granovskii, Moscow State Yiddish Theater, 1927. Oil on canvas. (GDC 989. 313889; © Federal State Institution of Culture "A.A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatrical Museum," Moscow)

During the theater’s European tour in 1928, Granovskii defected, leaving Mikhoels as its new director. Under pressure from the state, Mikhoels reoriented the theater toward a repertoire of works by leading Soviet writers on contemporary themes. Dovid Bergelson’s Der toyber (The Deaf; 1930) and M. Daniel’s Fir teg (Four Days; 1931) were both intended to teach audiences about revolutionary ardor and the ideological principles of Soviet communism. Although these plays were not popular favorites, they helped assure that the theater was on safe ideological ground.

Although the theater experienced artistic decline beginning in the early 1930s, this trend was halted in 1935 with its critically acclaimed production of Shakespeare’s King Lear, starring Mikhoels and Zuskin, and translated into Yiddish by Shmuel Halkin. This production was widely regarded as the theater’s greatest moment. However, the lack of Jewish content threatened to turn GOSET into a theater of translation with no direct connection to Jewish culture.

The theater responded to the 1934 formula “national in form; socialist in content” with two adaptations by Halkin of works by Avrom Goldfadn: Shulamis (1937) and Bar Kokhba (1938). Both were set in the Land of Israel during the Roman era and portrayed Jews as heroic warriors. Although many of the overt religious motifs in Goldfadn’s originals were removed, the plays retained distinctly national elements in line with the new Soviet toleration of expressions of national pride among minority nations. During this period, the theater also achieved success with Perets Markish’s Birobidzhan epic, Mishpokhe Ovadis (Family Ovadis; 1937) and Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye der milkhiker (Tevye the Dairyman; 1938). Both productions, about the generational conflict within individual families, were intended to aid audiences in adjusting to postrevolutionary changes to the Jewish community.

Zrelishscha (Entertainment), no. 89 (June 1924). The cover of this Moscow journal features a montage by I. Makhlis celebrating the GOSET (Moscow State Yiddish Theater), with Aleksandr Granovskii as the locomotive that pulls the train and actor Solomon Mikhoels as the conductor atop the engine. (YIVO)

After the Nazi invasion of the USSR in June 1941, GOSET was evacuated to Tashkent, where it added to its repertoire plays glorifying the Soviet war effort. Perets Markish’s An oyg far an oyg (An Eye for an Eye; 1942) and Yekhezkl Dobrushin’s A vunderlekhe geshikhte (A Marvelous History; 1944) presented a narrative of the war in accord with the Soviet doctrine of the Friendship of Nations. The plays emphasized the cooperation between Jews and other nationalities in defeating the fascist enemy. The theater celebrated the Soviet victory with Zalman Shneer-Okun’s Freylekhs (Joy; 1945), a wedding story about the renewal of life; it was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1946.

The Soviet postwar political climate was hostile to Jewish culture and Yiddish theater. Official Russian national chauvinism and the emergence of Zhdanovism and the anticosmopolitan campaigns against Soviet Jews restricted the repertoire and frightened many potential audience members away. In January 1948, Stalin unleashed a new wave of antisemitic violence with the assassination of Mikhoels, under the guise of a truck accident. This was followed by the arrest of many of the theater’s leading writers and activists. Zuskin, who had replaced Mikhoels, was arrested in December 1948. Throughout the following year numerous Jewish institutions in the Soviet Union were shut down. The Moscow State Yiddish Theater was closed in November 1949.

Suggested Reading

Mordechai Altshuler, ed., Ha-Teatron ha-yehudi bi-Verit ha-Mo‘atsot (Jerusalem, 1996); Béatrice Picon-Vallin, Le théâtre juif soviétique pendant les années vingt (Lausanne, Switz., 1973); Jeffrey Veidlinger, The Moscow State Yiddish Theater: Jewish Culture on the Soviet Stage (Bloomington, Ind., 2000); Seth Wolitz, “Shulamis and Bar Kokhba: Renewed Jewish Role Models in Goldfaden and Halkin,” in Yiddish Theater: New Approaches, ed., Joel Berkowitz, pp. 87–104 (New York and Oxford, 2003).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 118, Theater, Yiddish, Collection, 1890s-1970s; RG 8, Esther-Rachel Kaminska Theater Museum, Collection, ca. 1900-1939.