Dos khupe kleyd (The Wedding Dress). Hungarian poster advertising a performance of the Warsaw Yiddish Theater at the Hungarian Music Academy, Budapest, ca. 1930s. “This comedy will bring an endless storm of laughter to old and young alike.” (YIVO)

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For historical reasons, Yiddish theater did not develop in Hungary as it did in Romania, Russia, Poland, or Ukraine. During the nineteenth century, most Jews adopted first German and then the Hungarian language and culture as their own. Nevertheless, old forms of Yiddish theater such as the purim-shpil were performed in some traditional communities until the Holocaust, and some Yiddish dramatic works have surfaced too, primarily in Transylvania, a territory that was annexed to Romania in 1920, and Subcarpathian Rus’, which was annexed to Czechoslovakia in 1920 and is currently part of Ukraine.

The earliest known written record of a purim-shpil in Hungary is from 1839. Antónia Kölcsey describes a play called Hámánfutás (Haman’s Run) that she witnessed in Szatmárcseke in northeastern Hungary. A group of Jews dressed as shepherds chased a Haman figure, who was on horseback, through the streets of the town, with children in hot pursuit. The Orthodox community of Balmazújváros in northern Hungary staged colorful purim-shpil performances until the late 1930s. A game called royberbande, which Jews probably adopted from their neighbors, was also widespread; in it, players performed the roles of thieves, police, and peddlers. There were also more serious purim-shpils with religious subjects; these were generally performed in heders or yeshivas.

The central figure in Hungarian purim-shpils was the marshelik (elsewhere known as the badkhn or jester). One of the best known was Berl Bas of Hunfalva (today in eastern Slovakia). At the court of Zalmen Leyb Teitelbaum in the large Hasidic community of Máramarossziget (Sighet), Hersh Leyb Gottlieb (1829–1930) was known as the Szihoter (later Sigheter) marshelik. He was also a poet, newspaper editor, Yiddish playwright, and translator.

In the absence of historical scholarship, the study of Jewish folk theater must rely on literary sources. József Dombér of the Neolog community of Losonc (now in Slovakia) based his 1921 play, Eszter: Tréfás színmű öt felvonásban énekkel és tánccal (Esther: A Comic Play in Five Acts with Song and Dance) on sources that are now lost. The novels Istenkeresők a Kárpátok alatt (Godseekers under the Carpathian Mountains; 1935) by Dezső Schön and Hanele (1980) by György Láng (1908–1976), set in Subcarpathian Hasidic communities, are filled with ethnographic details, including material on traditional Yiddish theater.

The earliest known Hungarian Yiddish playwright was Moritz Gottlieb Saphir (1795–1858). About 1820, he wrote a satirical farce called “Der falshe Kashtan” (The False Kashtan) that was never published but long circulated in manuscript. Yoysef Holder (1893–1945) translated Hebrew and Yiddish plays, as well as the Hungarian national drama, Az ember tragédiája (The Tragedy of Man), by Imre Madách, into Yiddish, as Di tragedye funem mentshn. Emil Makai (1870–1901), a poet from Makó, translated Avrom Goldfadn’s Shulamis into Hungarian. S. An-ski’s Dybbuk was first translated into Hungarian by the short story writer Leó Spielberger of Kassa (now Košice in eastern Slovakia).

Yiddish theater was rarely staged in Hungary. The only venue where such plays were performed regularly was the Wertheimer Nightclub, known as the “jargon music hall,” on Népszínház Street in Budapest. Between 1886 and 1912, director Lajos Wertheimer staged Yiddish farces and musical comedies that invoked the tradition of the Broder Singers. One star of this theater was Pepi Littmann (ca. 1874–1930); guest troupes from Galicia and Russia performed as well.

The figure of the Jew first appeared in Hungarian dramatic literature in the mid-eighteenth century. Initially, in the popular nineteenth-century genre of so-called folk plays, the Jew was a negative figure—a speculator, a cunning merchant, or someone with an inner conflict, at best (such Jewish figures are found in Christian carnival plays even today). It was not until 1847, when Károly Hugó (1808–1877), the first relatively important Hungarian Jewish playwright, wrote his first play, Bankár es báró (Banker and Baron), that a more positive image was presented.

Aside from a few such early precursors, Jews were not portrayed sympathetically on the Hungarian stage until after the 1880s with the emergence of bourgeois drama and the subsequent appearance of acclaimed and (by language and identity) completely assimilated playwrights of Jewish origin such as Dezső Szomory (1869–1944), who articulated the voice of the urban middle class in his remarkable dramas; writer-playwright Ferenc Molnár (1878–1952), author of A Pál utcai fiúk (The Paul Street Boys), one of the best-known youth novels of the twentieth century; Sándor Bródy (1863–1924), whose naturalist plays evoked heated debates; and Menyhért Lengyel (1880–1974), a prominent dramatist for two decades and later a screenwriter in Hollywood. These Jewish dramatists were not regarded as a separate group in Hungarian society, though several also became key figures in the Jewish community. Their Hungarian-language works, however, belong to the national drama and literature; their Jewish origin had no real significance for their artistic activity.

The number of Jewish actors and playwrights steadily increased after the mid-nineteenth century. The comprehensive Magyar Zsidó Lexikon (Hungarian Jewish Lexicon) includes the biographies of 78 actors, 151 playwrights, and 32 directors. Jews also began to make up a substantial portion of the Hungarian theater audience. Yiddish plays reached Hungarian Jewish audiences primarily in Hungarian translations. The Kisfaludy Theater, founded by Lajos Serly, opened in 1897 in Óbuda, a section of Budapest with a large Jewish population. It grew into a Hungarian-language, partially “Jewish” theater, under the direction of the actor and playwright Albert Kövessy (1860–1924). Among the plays performed there were Ne hagyd magad Schlesinger (Stand up for Yourself, Schlesinger) by Antal K. Lorényi, Zsidó honvéd (The Jewish Soldier) by Andor Lukácsy, Az új honpolgár (Goldstein Számi) (The New Citizen [Sammy Goldstein]) by Albert Kövessy, and Goldstein Számi mulat (Sammy Goldstein Makes Merry) by Adolf Müller. In 1898, this theater staged Goldfadn’s Shulamis as Sulamith, Jeruzsálem leánya (Shulamit, Daughter of Jerusalem); the play remained in its repertoire for almost 30 years. Parodies of this play were staged too, as well as a large array of farces with Jewish themes, including Ben Hur by Miklós Siliga and Nehéz zsidónak lenni (It’s Hard to Be a Jew) by Mátyás Feld in 1930. The theater closed in 1934.

In Pest, the Városligeti Theater, founded by Zsigmond Feld (1849–1939) put on performances with Jewish themes, including A mádi zsidó (The Jew of Mád) by Vilmos Lászy, Blitzweiss Kóbi (Kobi Blitzweiss), A hét Schlézinger (The Seven Schlesingers), and Pollatschekék Japánban (The Pollatscheks in Japan) by Mátyás Feld, as well as Karl Gutzkow’s classic Uriel Acosta. Many of these productions were adopted from the repertoire of the theater in Óbuda.

The Országos Magyar Izraelita Közművelődési Egyesület (OMIKE; National Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association), founded in 1909 in Budapest, organized a wide variety of cultural activities. In 1938, when legislation forced Jewish artists off the Hungarian stage, OMIKE created the Művész-akció (Artists’ Action) company, the only Jewish company in the history of Hungarian theater. They performed at Goldmark Hall, the cultural center of the Budapest Jewish community from 1939 to 1944, and staged some 150 to 200 performances per season. The rich repertoire of the company included works on Jewish themes by Hungarian authors (Lajos Szabolcsi, Károly Pap, Lajos Bálint) as well as other Jewish writers (Y. L. Peretz, S. An-ski, Goldfadn).

Plays with Jewish themes were occasionally staged during the Communist era, among them Lessing’s Nathan the Wise in 1986 and a very popular production of Fiddler on the Roof by the Budapest Operetta Theater in 1973. Contemporary issues, however, were avoided as being too sensitive. After the fall of communism, Yehoshu‘a Sobol’s Ghetto was quite popular, as was a production of The Dybbuk directed by József Ruszt (1991), and several plays about the Holocaust by György Spiró, including Szappanopera (Soap Opera; 2000). The latter, which the author called “a modern Antigone,” focuses on the tragic situation of a contemporary recipient of Holocaust reparations.

Suggested Reading

Ágnes Alpár, Az Óbudai Kisfaludy Színház, 1892–1934 (Budapest, 1991); Imre Ferenczi, “Purimi népszokások és dramatikus játékok Balmazújvároson, 1880–1943,” in A hagyomány kötelékében, ed. Ildikó Kríza, pp. 136–148 (Budapest, 1990); Róbert Füzesi, Színház az árnyékban (Budapest, 1990); Antónia Kölcsey, Kölcsey Antónia naplója (Budapest, 1938); Péter Ujvári, ed., Magyar Zsidó Lexikon (Budapest, 1929), see p. 393.



Translated from Hungarian by Veronika Szabó