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

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Soviet State Yiddish Theaters

Known by the acronym GOSET (Gosudarstvennyi Evreiskii Teatr), the Soviet State Yiddish Theaters were part of a network of state-subsidized theaters in the Soviet Union. At its height in the 1930s, the network included four major theaters in Ukraine, Belorussia, Birobidzhan, and Moscow, as well as some 15 minor theaters in smaller Jewish population centers.

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

The Moscow State Yiddish Theater (MosGOSET), established in 1920 under the directorship of Aleksandr Granovskii (1890–1937), was the archetype. Its success both as a tool of Soviet propaganda and as an artistic endeavor prompted the establishment of a Yiddish State Theater School, staffed by members of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater. Graduates of the school were expected to relocate to provincial theaters, where the majority of the Soviet Jewish population was concentrated, and to bring with them the artistic skills and ideological perspectives they had acquired in the capital.

In 1925, Ukrainian and Belorussian divisions of the State Yiddish Theater were established in Kharkov and Minsk, respectively. Efraim Loyter, the former director of the Kultur-lige theater section, was appointed artistic director of the Ukrainian GOSET (UkrGOSET). Moyshe Rafalskii, former director of Unzer Vinkl Theater, was appointed artistic director of the Belorussian GOSET (BelGOSET).

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, smaller local Yiddish theaters were also established within the state system, including the State Yiddish Children’s Theater, established in Kiev in 1929; the State Yiddish Theater of Odessa in 1930; the State Yiddish Theater of Vinnitsa in 1934; and the Sholem Aleichem Yiddish State Theater of Zhitomir in 1935. In 1934, the Ukrainian GOSET was relocated to Kiev, which in that year reverted to being the capital of the Ukrainian republic. The Birobidzhan State Yiddish Theater (BirGOSET), directed by the poet and theater activist Emmanuil Kazakevich, was established in 1934. It achieved its greatest artistic successes under Moyshe Goldblatt, who directed the theater in 1937 and 1938. Following the Soviet annexation of the Baltic republics, western Ukraine, and Bessarabia in 1939–1940, State Yiddish Theaters were added in L’vov, Ternopol’, Białystok, Grodno, Vilna, Kovno, Riga, and Kishinev.

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)

Repertory decisions for the State Yiddish Theaters were largely coordinated, decided through a process of negotiation among the individual theaters, the Moscow State Yiddish Theater, and the theaters’ state and party overseers. The theaters were obliged to perform predominantly productions on revolutionary themes by contemporary Soviet Yiddish playwrights. Most were propaganda pieces of questionable artistic merit and little popular appeal by writers such as Yekhezkl Dobrushin, Lipe Reznik, Avrom Vevyorke, and Arn Kushnirov. Some plays on Soviet themes, such as Dovid Bergelson’s Der toyber (The Deaf) and Perets Markish’s Mishpokhe Ovadis (Family Ovadis), were both widely performed and genuinely popular. Modern adaptations of prerevolutionary Yiddish plays by Sholem Aleichem and Avrom Goldfadn were also performed, typically after first being interpreted in accordance with Soviet ideals by the Moscow State Yiddish Theater.

With the official promotion of Russian chauvinism in the postwar period, the Soviet State Yiddish Theaters had trouble finding an acceptable repertoire. The state-sponsored assassination of Solomon Mikhoels, director of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater, in January 1948 signaled the spiraling of official antisemitism. The following year, the Soviet State Yiddish Theaters were all closed down, and many people associated with the theaters were arrested.

Suggested Reading

Mordechai Altshuler, ed. Ha-Teatron ha-yehudi bi-Verit ha-Mo‘atsot (Jerusalem, 1996); Avraham Greenbaum, “The Belorussian State Jewish Theater in the Interwar Period,” Jews in Eastern Europe 2.42 (Fall 2000): 56–75; Jeffrey Veidlinger, The Moscow State Yiddish Theater: Jewish Culture on the Soviet Stage (Bloomington, Ind., 2000).

YIVO Archival Resources

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