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Criticism and Scholarship

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Criticism of and scholarship on Jewish theater in Eastern Europe have largely focused on Yiddish theater. Hebrew productions in Eastern Europe, however, nearly exclusively those of the Habimah company, were extensively reviewed in the contemporary Yiddish and Hebrew press, where they fueled a discourse on the issue of Jewish national rebirth. But histories of Habimah tend to focus on its work in Palestine and Israel. Jewish-themed theater in non-Jewish languages was regularly reviewed in the press, but little attention has been devoted to its history, with some recent exceptions. For Polish theater, there are studies by Michael C. Steinlauf, and critical and historical essays have been collected in a volume edited by Eleanora Udalska; for Russian theater, the work of Viktoriia Levitina is also to be noted.

Yiddish Theater Criticism

For a quarter of a century after its beginnings in Iaşi, Romania, in 1877, professional Yiddish theater provoked only negative reactions in the Jewish press. Successive versions of operettas by Avrom Goldfadn (as well as his American imitators), performed by semiliterate actors on primitive stages, evoked tears and rude laughter from lower-class audiences, but elicited little beyond derision from middle-class writers accustomed to the conventions of bourgeois theater. Indeed, it is difficult to gain much of an idea of what early Yiddish theater was like, as writers treated it as beneath description. One remarkable exception was the Galician Jewish writer Ignacy Suesser (1870–1903), who in 1890 hailed Yiddish theater as folk theater that could not be judged by the standards appropriate to artistic theater. Here was a theater, Suesser declared, that was in every respect the opposite of its “artistic” counterpart. It was intimately involved with its audience and existed to meet its needs, however coarse.

During the first years of the twentieth century, critics began to pay more attention to Yiddish theater and its reform. In the United States, regular Yiddish theater criticism had already developed in the pages of the Forverts; its editor, Abraham Cahan, had even discovered a champion in Jacob Gordin, whose melodramas were the first to reflect contemporary social reality. In Eastern Europe, the birth of Yiddish theater criticism was linked to the emergence of Yiddish-language mass culture during the Russian Revolution of 1905 and above all to the legalization of the Yiddish theater and daily press.

In Warsaw, inspired by the example of Stanisław Wyspiański and other Polish neoromantic dramatists, Y. L. Peretz urged Jewish intellectuals to “return to the people” to shape an art that would not only educate the masses, as Cahan preached in New York, but serve exalted national aspirations as well. Peretz and his followers demanded a new repertoire that leading Yiddish writers were to create and a new type of actor capable of ensemble acting, as opposed to the widespread practice of ostentatious declamations by “stars.” By contrast, existing Yiddish theater was attacked as shund, meaning trash. In a column in Der veg, the first Yiddish daily in Warsaw, Peretz spoke of the need for a new theater in the same breath as he called for a cleaned-up sukkah, shul, heder, and cemetery (Peretz, 1947, vol. 7, pp. 174–177). To root Yiddish theater in such ground was to affirm, if only potentially, the presence of the holy on the Yiddish stage. This was not only an aesthetic and national struggle but a social and a moral one, since Warsaw theater owners of this period apparently had connections to the underworld, and Jewish pimps and prostitutes were a conspicuous presence in the front rows.

Beginning in 1905, Peretz was joined in the pages of Der veg by the young Yiddishist Noyekh Prilutski (Noah Pryłucki), the first regular Yiddish theater critic in the Russian Empire. Prilutski had been arrrested two years previously for demonstrating against an antisemitic Polish play. In 1909, Alexander Mukdoyni (Aleksander Kapel; 1878–1958), arriving in Warsaw after years of higher education in Western Europe, began to write Yiddish theater reviews as well. And for two Saturday afternoons in January 1910, Peretz, accompanied by Mukdoyni, A. Vayter, and Hersh Dovid Nomberg, filled the Warsaw Philharmonic to overflowing for a “symposium” (a series of lectures) about improving Yiddish theater.

It was not until a year after Peretz’s death, however, that his aims began to be fulfilled with the founding of the Vilner Trupe in 1916, followed by other dramatic companies, such as Warsaw Yiddish Art Theater (VYKT) and Yung-teater. By the interwar years in Poland, theater criticism, along with theater listings, had become a regular feature of the Yiddish press. Arn Aynhorn (pseud. Eyner, 1884–1942), and Menakhem Kipnis (1878–1942), who was also an ethnomusicologist, were theater reviewers for Haynt for many years, while Ber Karlinski (1886–1935) reviewed for Der moment. Most theater reviews, however, were not written by specialists. The celebrated theater director and activist Michał Weichert, as well as Nakhmen Mayzel, editor of the influential weekly Literarishe bleter, wrote numerous reviews, as did journalists and art critics such as Yekhezkl-Moyshe Nayman (1893–1956) and Feliks Fridman (1897–1942). Polish-language Jewish writers, including Jakub Appenszlak, editor of the Warsaw daily Nasz Przegląd, and the Kraków critic Mojżesz Kanfer, also devoted considerable attention to Yiddish theater. The latter, indeed, who also wrote in Yiddish, called himself a “champion” of Yiddish theater and was a key figure in the founding of a communally funded Yiddish art theater in Kraków.

Theater reviews concerned the “better” theater and cabaret exclusively. The popular Yiddish theater was ignored or mentioned derisively as it had been in the previous generation; war was regularly declared against the “plague” of theatrical shund. Two tendencies, in general, were particularly acclaimed. One was the aspiration to stage masterpieces of European and world theater, a way of making Yiddish culture an equal among equals, which was the dream of Yiddishist intellectuals. Another was the presentation of Jewish folklore and folkways, but in a conscious, self-reflective way, using modernist staging, thereby creating further links in Peretz’s golden chain of Jewish national culture. After World War II, productions of the State Yiddish Theaters in Poland and Romania were regularly reviewed in the local Yiddish and occasionally in the non-Jewish press.

In the Soviet Union, Yiddish theater criticism helped develop a vibrant Yiddish theater in the period before World War II. Moyshe Litvakov (1875/80–1939), editor of the Yiddish party organ Der emes, was a stalwart champion of Yiddish theater. In his numerous reviews and in a book-length monograph, he championed the Moscow State Yiddish Theater as a novel medium for the promotion of Communist ideals among the Jewish masses. As a member of the theater’s governing board and a prominent member of the Communist Party, Litvakov was able to directly influence the development of Yiddish theater in the Soviet Union. His repeated admonitions to the theater to portray revolutionary themes and the victories of Soviet communism led to the construction of a new repertoire and helped prevent the theater from straying far from the party line.

Yekhezkl Dobrushin (1883–1953), also a member of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater’s governing board, helped provide suitable material for performance in the Soviet Union by reworking prerevolutionary plays and penning original productions on Soviet themes, as well as writing critical scholarship on Yiddish theater. Others who wrote Yiddish theater criticism included the well-known literary critics Yitskhok Nusinov (1889–1950) and Ovsei Liubomirskii; the latter wrote a book on the actor and director Solomon Mikhoels. Yiddish theater was also regularly reviewed in the Russian-language press and received attention from Moscow’s leading theater critics. Iakov Grinvald reviewed Yiddish theater for Vecherniaia Moskva and also published a book on Mikhoels. The prominent Yiddish and Russian writer Grigorii Ryklin (1894–1973) regularly reviewed Yiddish theater for Pravda. With the closure of the State Yiddish Theaters in 1949 and the advent of official antisemitism in the Soviet Union, Soviet writing on the topic was severely curtailed, and was largely restricted to the Yiddish periodical Sovetish heymland, which began publication in 1961.


“Unique and almost unnatural is the path of Jewish theater research,” declared Yankev Shatzky in 1930, a judgment even truer today than 70 years ago (Shatzky, 1930, p. v). The first history of Jewish theater was not published until decades after the beginnings of the professional Yiddish stage. Its author was the journalist Bernard Gorin (Yitskhok Goydo; 1868–1925); his work was titled Di geshikhte fun yidishn teater: Tsvey toyznt yor teater bay yidn (The History of Jewish Theater: Two Thousand Years of Theater among Jews; 1918). Though Gorin lived in the United States from 1894 and most of his history concerns the American Yiddish stage, his work contains valuable material on the Goldfadn era, based on Gorin’s discussions with Yiddish actors whom he knew in New York. Gorin’s is not a work of reliable scholarship, however; much of his narrative cannot be verified. The same holds true of the extraordinary undertaking of Zalmen Zylbercweig, whose Leksikon fun yidishn teater, consisting of more than 3,000 entries published in six volumes from 1931 to 1969, is often our only source for vast amounts of information about actors and productions.

During the interwar period in Eastern Europe, with the emergence of a small group of trained Jewish historians, only a handful devoted their attention to theater. These included, first and foremost, Shatzky, who produced pioneering essays on the earliest Yiddish theater, on Goldfadn, and on Polish–Jewish relations in theater. He was also responsible for the first and nearly the only anthology devoted to serious scholarship on the history of Yiddish theater, Arkhiv far der geshikhte fun yidishn teater un drame (Archive for the History of Jewish Theater and Drama; 1930). This volume was intended as the first in a serial publication that never developed, presumably because of lack of funding. Its 500 pages include more than 20 articles and a similar number of annotated documents. Shatzky also edited a volume of scholarly writings devoted to Goldfadn, Hundert yor Goldfadn (A Hundred Years of Goldfadn; 1940).

In addition, the Polish Jewish historian Ignacy Schiper contributed a massive work of scholarship on Jewish theater and entertainment in premodern times, Geshikhte fun yidisher teater-kunst un drame fun di eltste tsaytn biz 1750 (History of Jewish Theater Art and Drama from the Earliest Times until 1750; 1923–1928). In the Soviet Union, the literary scholars Aron Gurshteyn and Nokhem Oyslender were able to devote attention to a subject that, seen as an example of popular mass culture, was relatively inoffensive to party ideologues. Gurshteyn produced essays on early Yiddish theater; and Oyslender assembled materials on Goldfadn and published a monograph on Yiddish theater in prerevolutionary Russia, Yidisher teater, 1887–1917 (1940). Shloyme Bilov and A. Velednitski also edited an excellent collection of Goldfadn’s plays. While Soviet scholarship, especially from the 1930s on, is bathed in Marxist jargon, it is nevertheless work of a high order.

For half a century after the Holocaust, scholarship on Yiddish theater was nearly nonexistent. Nahma Sandrow’s Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater, which appeared in the 1970s, is a useful synthetic study, and is the only such volume in English. The work of the Israeli scholar Khone Shmeruk, which appeared during the same decade, was pioneering. Shmeruk published annotated versions both of the earliest purim-shpiln and of Peretz’s masterpiece Bay nakht afn altn mark (Night at the Old Marketplace), accompanied by substantial scholarly introductions. But only since the mid-1990s has scholarship on Yiddish theater in Eastern Europe begun to revive. Israeli scholars have continued Shmeruk’s work on premodern performance: Ariela Krasney and Ahuva Belkin have investigated the badkhn (wedding jester) and the purim-shpil, respectively. Soviet Yiddish theater has been the subject of an anthology published in Israel and an English-language monograph by Jeffrey Veidlinger. And five volumes of scholarship have appeared in Poland: a special annual of the theater history journal Pamiętnik Teatralny, the proceedings of the first international conference on Yiddish theater in Poland (held in 1993), two volumes devoted to Yiddish theater in Kraków, and one to Łódź.

Suggested Reading

Mordechai Altshuler, ed., Ha-Te’atron ha-yehudi bi-Verit ha-Mo‘atsot: Meḥkarim, ‘iyunim, te‘udot (Jerusalem, 1996); Ahuva Belkin, Ha-Purim-shpil: ‘Iyunim ba-te’atron ha-yehudi ha-‘amami (Jerusalem, 2002); Yisroel Berkovitsh (Israil Bercovici), Hundert yor yidish teater in Rumenye, 1876–1976 (Bucharest, 1976), also in Romanian as O Suta de ani de teatru evreiesc în România (Bucharest, 1982); Mirosława Bułat, Krakowski teatr żydowski: Między szundem a sztuką (Kraków, 2006); Abraham Goldfaden, Geklibene dramatishe verk, ed. S. Bilov and A. Velednitski (Kiev, 1940); Bernard Gorin (Y. Goydo), Di geshikhte fun yidishn teater: Tsvey toyznt yor teater bay yidn, 2nd enl. and illustr. ed., 2 vols. (New York, 1923); Aron Gurshteyn, “Der yidisher teater in di 60-er yorn funem XIX yorhundert,” in Mendele un zayn tsayt: Materyaln tsu der geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur in XIX yorhundert, pp. 197–220 (Moscow, 1940); Bohdan Korzeniewski and Zbigniew Raszewski, eds., Pamiętnik teatralny 41.1–4 (161–164) (1992), special issue on Yiddish theater in Poland prior to 1939; Ariela Krasney, Ha-Badḥan (Ramat Gan, Isr., 1998); Anna Kuligowska-Korzeniewska and Małgorzata Leyko, eds., Teatr żydowski w Polsce: Materiały z Międzynarodowj Konferencji Naukowej (Łódź, 1998); Viktoriia Levitina, Russkii teatr i evrei, 2 vols. (Jerusalem, 1988); Viktoriia Levitina, I Evrei: Moia krov’ (Moscow, 1991); Viktoriia Levitina, Evreiskii vopros i sovetskii teatr (Jerusalem, 2001); Małgorzata Leyko, ed., Łódzkie sceny żydowskie (Łódź, 2000); Moyshe Litvakov, Finf yor melukhisher yidisher kamer-teater (Moscow, 1924); Jan Michalik and Eugenia Prokop-Janiec, eds., Teatr żydowski w Krakowie: Studia i materiały (Kraków, 1995); Nokhem Oyslender, Yidisher teater, 1887–1917 (Moscow, 1940); Nokhem Oyslender and U. Finkel, A. Goldfaden: Materyaln far a biografye (Minsk, 1926); Yitskhok Leyb Peretz, Ale verk, vol. 7 (New York, 1947), pp. 174–191, 201–208, 214–221, 228–255; Noyekh Prilutski, Yidish teater, 1905–1912, 2 vols. (Białystok, Pol., 1921); Noyekh Prilutski, Far vos iz dos yidishe teater oyfgekumen azoy shpet? (Vilna, 1940); Nahma Sandrow, Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater (Syracuse, N.Y., 1996); Ignacy Schiper, Geshikhte fun yidisher teater-kunst un drame fun di eltste tsaytn biz 1750, 3 vols. (Warsaw, 1923–1928); Jacob Shatzky, ed., Arkhiv far der geshikhte fun yidishn teater un drame, vol. 1 (Vilna and New York, 1930); Jacob Shatzky, ed., Hundert yor Goldfaden (New York, 1940); Chone Shmeruk, Peretses yiesh-vizye (New York, 1971); Chone Shmeruk, Maḥazot mikra’iyim be-yidish, 1697–1750 (Jerusalem, 1975); Michael C. Steinlauf, “Mark Arnshteyn and Polish-Jewish Theater,” in The Jews of Poland between Two World Wars, ed. Yisrael Gutman, Ezra Mendelsohn, Jehuda Reinharz, and Chone Shmeruk, pp. 399–411 (Hanover, N.H., 1989); Michael C. Steinlauf, “Mr. Geldhab and Sambo in Peyes: Images of the Jew on the Polish Stage, 1863–1905,” Polin 4 (1989): 98–128; Michael C. Steinlauf, “Fear of Purim: Y. L. Peretz and the Canonization of Yiddish Theater,” Jewish Social Studies 1.3 (1995): 44–65; Michael C. Steinlauf, “Sources for the Study of Jewish Theater in Poland,” in Gal-Ed 15–16 (1997): 83–103; Ignacy Suesser (Süsser), “Kilka słów o żargonie i teatrze żydowskim,” Izraelita 25–27 (27 June–11 July 1890); Eleonora Udalska, ed., Żydzi w lustrze dramatu, teatru i krytyki teatralnej (Katowice, Pol., 2004), summaries in English and German; Jeffrey Veidlinger, The Moscow State Yiddish Theater: Jewish Culture on the Soviet Stage (Bloomington, Ind., 2000); Michał Weichert, Teater un drame, 2 vols. (Warsaw and Vilna, 1922–1926); Zalmen Zylbercweig (Zilbertsvayg), Leksikon fun yidishn teater, 6 vols. (New York, Warsaw, and Mexico City, 1931–1969).