Costume design by N. N. Nabokov for a Jewish role in A. N. Serova’s opera Iudif’ (Judith), 1863. Paper, gouache. (P 6.8. 62302. © Federal State Institution of Culture “A.A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatrical Museum,” Moscow)

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Despite early governmental prohibitions against Jewish participation in the theater, the period of the late nineteenth to early twentieth century saw strong and even leading Jewish contributions to all aspects of theatrical production, as performers, writers, and directors. This degree of involvement, as well as the changing depiction of Jews on stage over time, in many ways mirrors the history of relations between Russians and Jews and, later, of the Soviet government stance toward Jews.

Jewish Themes on the Russian Stage

The first Jewish theme to appear on the Russian stage was from the Bible. Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich (r. 1645–1676) gave instructions that the plot for the first play to be performed before the imperial court should be taken from the Book of Esther. Then the characters Judith, Daniel, and Solomon appeared on the stage. Plays with biblical themes remained in the repertoire of subsequent court, seminary, and town theaters into the eighteenth century. Biblical motifs were also widely used in poetry (especially by the Decembrists) in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. In 1810 the Saint Petersburg Theater performed A. A. Shakhovskii’s tragedy, Debora, ili Torzhestvo very (Deborah, or The Triumph of Faith), and in 1813, P. A. Korsakov’s Makkavei (The Maccabees). Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the church prohibited secular representations of biblical stories.

Tsetsiliia Mansurova as Beatrice and R. N. Simonov as Benedict in a Russian translation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, produced by I. Rapoport, E. Vakhtangov Theater, Moscow, 1936. (4128 FCD. 128032. © Federal State Institution of Culture “A.A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatrical Museum,” Moscow)

Jewish characters began appearing in the eighteenth century in satirical interludes at seminary theaters. Using traditional European stereotypes, Alexander Pushkin depicted a covetous Jew in Skupoi rytsar’ (The Avaricious Knight, 1830). By contrast, Mikhail Lermontov’s Ispantsy (The Spaniards), staged throughout the 1830s, is infused with sympathy for the Jewish people. Lermontov’s romantic hero, rejected by medieval Spanish society, finds refuge and love among persecuted Jews from whom he learns the secret of his own Jewish birth. Lermontov’s youthful play was not staged until the twentieth century, most significantly by the Moscow State Yiddish Theater in 1941. Most other classical Russian plays were unsympathetic or even overtly hostile in their attitudes toward Jews. A similar animus pervaded popular theater such as the anonymous Zhid obolvanennyi (The Duped “Yid”; 1840s), which portrays Jews as voluptuous and greedy.

Jewish characters were brought to the nineteenth century Russian stage through plays translated from other languages. The Russian actor Mikhail Shchepkin created many of these roles; like Vasilli Karatygin, known for his empathetic portrayal of the Jew Gonzales in Victor Séjour’s The Jew, or Fame and Infamy (staged 1845), Shchepkin approached these roles with sensitivity and compassion. One of the most frequently performed plays in Russia was Karl Gutzkow’s Uriel Acosta, whose Sephardic hero attempts to leave the backward Jewish world for the universal “torch of reason.” Uriel Acosta tended to be treated either in philosemitic or universalist fashion, as a plea for freedom of thought. The finest contemporary tragic actors played Acosta, including Konstantin Stanislavsky. When, in 1940, Aleksandr Ostuzhev assumed the title role, the Stalinist context made the play a notable cultural event. While never contradicting official ideology about the importance of “freedom-loving struggles” of the past, the production allowed audiences to identify privately with issues of contemporary freedom in the Soviet Union.

When antisemitic tendencies intensified in the late nineteenth century, Jewish bankers and entrepreneurs were stigmatized in Russian society. Nikolai Potekhin’s popular play Bogatyr’ veka (Hero of the Age; 1876) depicted the conflict between “vile Jewish pragmatism” and the “impracticality of the idealistic Russian soul.” This theme was developed further in Aleksei Suvorin’s melodrama Tat’iana Repina (1880). Plays of this type attracted actors, generally second-rate, who specialized in “Jewish” mannerisms of speech and behavior.

In the 1870s, a type of storytelling called “Jewish genre” became widespread on the outdoor summer stage. Pavel Veinberg (1846–1904), an actor from the Imperial Theater, became famous for depicting scenes from Jewish everyday life, most of which he wrote himself. His performances, in which he emphasized Jewish speech patterns, were sometimes called antisemitic. Other actors of Jewish backgrounds were also drawn to “Jewish genre.” Among them was Boris Borisov (Gurovich; 1873–1939), who would become the “laughter king” of the Soviet stage. Plays by Jewish authors became an important part of his repertoire.

A notorious theatrical event was the staging, in 1900, of the intensely antisemitic Kontrabandisty (Smugglers, initially entitled Syny Izrailevy [Sons of Israel]) written by Savelii Litvin (Efron) and Viktor Krylov. Shtetl Jews, caricatured for their lifestyles and religious faith, are depicted as smugglers who kill the young daughter of their leader because she might disclose their criminal activities to the authorities. The play provoked sharp protests from broad sectors of Russian society.

Evgenii Chirikov’s Evrei (The Jews; 1904) became, by contrast, a manifesto of understanding. Its heroes, the son and daughter of a shtetl watchmaker, have been expelled from the university for participating in student protests. Back with their father, they befriend young revolutionaries, with whom they discuss Zionism and the Jewish question; the play ends with a pogrom. Because of censorship, the premiere was performed with Russian actors, but in Berlin. It was performed in Russia in 1905, when censorship was eased. Another sympathetic production was the Moscow Art Theater’s Anatema (Anathema), based on Leonid Andre’ev’s drama of 1909, in which the theme of a righteous Jew tempted by the devil is set, with tragic expressiveness, in an impoverished shtetl.

Mikhail Chekhov in the role of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, USSR, 1936. From Habimah by R. Ben-Ari (Chicago: L.M. Shtayn, 1937). (YIVO)

As the cultural atmosphere became more open, the Russian stage embraced works by Jewish dramatists writing in Yiddish and Russian. Sholem Asch’s play Meshiekhs tsaytn (Messianic Times) was staged in 1906 in Saint Petersburg as Na puti v Sion (On the Road to Zion) at the famously liberal theater of Vera Komissarzhevskaia. Also popular was Asch’s controversial play, Got fun nekome (God of Vengeance), whose protagonist is a brothel owner, staged as Bog mesti in 1907 in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Jacob Gordin’s American Yiddish melodramas, which arrived in the Russian Empire beginning in 1905, proved popular in Russian as well. The plays Mirele Efros; Got, mentsh un tayvl (God, Man, and Devil), staged as Satana; and Kraytser sonate (Kreutzer Sonata), staged as Za okeanom (Overseas) were first produced in Moscow between 1909 and 1911. Gordin’s plays were staged for two decades on Russian stages as far-flung as Irkutsk, suggesting their popularity among audiences that were not only Jewish. The comedy Konsul Granat by David Aizman (1869–1922) is about a wealthy Jew, obsessed with becoming a consul of whatever country will have him, who ends up returning to his own people; the play is suffused with the idea of Zionism. Staged in Moscow in 1918, it achieved notable popular success. V gorode (In the City) by Semen Iushkevich (1868–1927) introduced the Russian audience to Jewish small-town poverty, which brings out the finest qualities in some characters and deprives others of their humanity. Although neither the realistic Moscow staging of the play nor Meyerhold’s symbolic treatment in Saint Petersburg (1906) achieved success, Iushkevich became a well-known dramatist whose work made the rounds of provincial theaters. Osip Dymov focused on Jewish Diaspora life; Slushai, Izrail’ (Hear O Israel; 1907) and Vechnyi strannik (The Eternal Wanderer; 1913) take up the themes of Jewish–Christian relations and rebellion against a God who permits pogroms.

In the mid-1920s, when the New Economic Policy (Novaia Ekonomicheskaia Politika; NEP) permitted small businessmen, many of them Jewish, to revive the economy, the caricatured figure of the Jewish entrepreneur appeared in the flood of antibourgeois and anti-NEP plays. These include Boris Romashov’s Vozdushnyi pirog (Air Pie; 1925), Mikhail Bulgakov’s Zoikina kvartira (Zoya’s Apartment; 1926), and others. With the end of the NEP, Jewish characters began to be portrayed in the same manner as other Soviet citizens, with only minimal ethnic traits to distinguish them. The major exception involved plays about antisemitism, a phenomenon associated either with the prerevolutionary world or with enemies of the Soviet Union. In the play Tak bylo (How It Was) by Aleksandra Brushtein and Boris Zon (1929), pogroms were depicted as part of the “cursed past.” Antisemitism in the Soviet milieu was present in Aleksandr Afinogenov’s play Chudak (The Odd Fellow; 1929), in which factory workers persecute a Jewish girl and drive her to suicide.

In the 1930s, Jews were often depicted as victims of Nazi persecution. The most significant of these plays was Friedrich Wolf’s Professor Mamlock, translated from German, in which a Jewish professor, a believer in German culture, is unable to bear his loss of faith in democracy and humanism. The play was staged in many theaters in Moscow, Leningrad, and the provinces.

Plays with Jewish references disappeared at the end of the 1930s. The anticosmopolitan campaign of the late 1940s was too brief to result in antisemitic theater. From the 1950s through the 1970s, the covert antisemitism of Soviet policy was expressed in the absence of Jewish themes. Jewish figures returned to Russian theater only in connection with the growing efforts of Soviet Jews to leave the country. Among the hackneyed ideological works that appeared, Ulitsa Sholom-Aleikhema 40 (Sholem Aleichem Street 40) by Arkadii Stavitskii (1980) was distinguished by a more complex dramatic view of the situation. While the play’s attitude toward those characters who want to emigrate reflects official policy, the Jewish family itself is portrayed with great sympathy. The Russian actress Rimma Bykova played the Jewish mother (1985) with such drama, humor, and tenderness that her performance became legendary in Moscow theatrical life.

During perestroika, Mark Rozovskii produced a number of plays at the Nikitskii Gate Theater in Moscow, including Aleksandr Kuprin’s Gambrinus (1988), based on a story first published in 1907; Arthur Miller’s Tsena (The Price; 1989); and Vasilii Grossman’s Vse techet—zhizn’ i sud’ba (Everything Flows—Life and Fate; 1990), based on the dissident author’s two novels. The climax of the play is a Jewish woman’s monologue in a Nazi ghetto, played with tragic force by Vera Ulik. The hero of Venedikt Erofeev’s Val’purgieva noch’, ili Shagi komandora (Walpurgis Night, or Steps of the Commander; 1984) is a Jewish dissident dying in a Soviet psychiatric hospital; his Jewishness becomes a metaphor for his dissenting views. The play Kot domashnii srednei pushistosti (House Cat of Average Fluffiness; 1989) by Viktor Voinovich (1932– ) and Grigorii Gorin (Ofshtein; 1940–2000) satirized the antisemitism displayed by Soviet writers and bureaucrats.

Gorin, a talented writer of philosophical tragicomedies, was also the author of Pominal’naia molitva (Memorial Prayer; 1989), based on Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories. Tevye was already known to Russian audiences in various versions of Tev’e molochnik (Tevye the Dairyman), among them a play staged in Riga in 1958, and a television film in 1985 starring Mikhail Ul’ianov. While these interpretations were drawn from the 1938 performance of Solomon Mikhoels at the Moscow State Yiddish Theater, the new wave of Tevyes stemmed from Gorin’s play, which made its way onto provincial stages in the 1990s. At the same time, the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof also began to be staged throughout Russia. In 2004 in Moscow, Vladimir Nazarov directed Pominal’naia molitva ili Skripach na kryshe (Memorial Prayer or Fiddler on the Roof), which combined elements from both plays into a new production.

In general, the end of censorship after the fall of communism did not lead to many significant plays with Jewish themes. A number of self-identified Jews who might have written such works took advantage of the possibility of emigration and left Russia.

Jews on the Russian Stage

For a long time, it was illegal for Jews to appear on the Russian stage; performance was permitted only to baptized Jews or those with higher education who had the right to live outside the Pale of Settlement. The situation began to change toward the end of the nineteenth century, as Jews, particularly those involved in musical theater, found ways of getting around these restrictions. Indeed, by the turn of the century, the Jewish presence in theater appeared so considerable that some speakers at the Congress of the Russian Theatrical Society in 1901 protested against “Jewish dominance,” a view that was not, however, upheld by the majority of delegates.

Mikhail Chekhov as Khlestakov in the Moscow Art Theater’s production of N. V. Gogol’s Revizor (The Inspector General), produced by Konstantin Stanislavskii, Moscow Academci Art Theater, 1921. (89528 FCD. 309831/17. © Federal State Institution of Culture “A.A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatrical Museum,” Moscow)

Among actors of Jewish origin, the most famous early in the twentieth century was Leonid Leonidov (Vol’fenzon; 1873–1941) of the Moscow Art Theater, known for his performance of tragic roles. Popular outside of Moscow were the brothers Robert (1860–1934) and Rafail Adel’geim (1861–1938), who toured Russia playing Shakespeare, Schiller, and Gutzkow.

The director Aleksandr Sanin (Shenberg; 1869–1956) began his career in the Moscow Art Theater before moving to the Aleksandriiskii Theater in Saint Petersburg; after emigrating he directed opera at La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. During the 1920s and 1930s, the director Boris Vershilov (Vesterman; 1893–1957) worked in the Moscow Art Theater and studios connected with it; he also directed for the Jewish theaters Habimah, Freikunst, and the Ukrainian State Yiddish Theater. Il’ia Sats (1875–1912), composer of the music for many stage productions, served as director of the Music Department of the Moscow Art Theater (MKhAT).

The blossoming of experimental theater in the second half of the 1910s and beginning of the 1920s also involved Jews, most notably Aleksandr Tairov, who created the Moscow Chamber Theater in 1914 and served as executive director until its closing in 1949. In 1921 Grigorii Kozintsev, together with Leonid Trauberg and Sergei Iutkevich (1904–1995), founded the Factory of the Eccentric Actor (FEKS) Studio Theater. Evsei Liubimov Lanskoi (Gelibter; 1883–1943) directed the Moscow City Soviet of Professional Unions (MGSPS) Theater from 1922 to 1940.

Among the Jewish representatives of the Moscow school of acting was virtuoso Tsetsiliia Mansurova (Vollershtein; 1897–1976), the favorite pupil of Evgenii Vakhtangov, who held a leading position at the Vakhtangov Theater for the entirety of her career. Lev Sverdlin (1901–1969) was one of the most talented students of Meyerhold, whose ideas he continued to implement. Faina Ranevskaia (Fel’dman; 1896–1984) played character roles with such eccentricity and drama that they turned into cultural symbols. But a special place belonged to Mikhail Chekhov (mother: Gol’den; 1881–1955), considered an “ideal actor” by both Stanislavskii and Meyerhold.

“The Moscow State Chamber Theater on Tour around the USSR.” Cover of Zhizn’ iskusstva (Art Life), no. 11, year unknown, featuring portraits of members of the Kamernyi Theater, including its director, Aleksandr Tairov (top row, center). (YIVO)

The brightest star of Russian musical theater was Grigorii Iaron (1893–1963), a founder, and for many years director, of the Moscow Theater of Operetta. Mikhail Vodianoi (1924–1987) was a huge presence in Odessa, known particularly for his role as Tevye. Among those who achieved success in cabaret theater were Iakov Iuzhnyi (1883–1938) and David Gutman (1884–1946). Leonid Utesov (Vaisbein; 1895–1982), like Isaac Babel, was a product of Odessa Jewish culture, with its individualist atmosphere, love of drama, lyric-ironic approach to the world, and characteristic humor. Utesov brought to the Moscow stage a new hedonism and an indominatable temperament. His performances in operetta and cabaret during the 1920s made him an idol of the fast-living, risk-taking public brought to life during the capitalist interlude of NEP. During the same period, he gave readings of Jewish literature, particularly the stories of Babel and the poetry of Iosif Utkin, and sang Yiddish songs translated into Russian. Utesov later became a variety show and film star. Arkadii Raikin (1911–1987) brought to cabaret theater a combination of satire, lyricism, and sharp intellect. A master of transformation who relied on an entire studio of mostly Jewish comedy writers, he created thousands of characters who constitute an encyclopedia of Soviet life.

Distinguished opera singers of Jewish origin included Andrei Labinskii (1871–1941), Aleksandr Davydov (Levinson; 1872–1944), Iza Kremer (1890–1956), Rozaliia Gorskaia (Fainberg; 1891–1984), Mark Reizen (1895–1993), and Mariia Gol’dina (1899–1970). Others of Jewish origin in the field of opera were composer Reingol’d Glier (1875–1956), director Leonid Baratov (1895–1964), and conductors Mikhail Shteiman (1869–1949), Lev Shteinberg (1870–1945), Serge Koussevitsky (1874–1951), Emil’ Kuper (1877–1960), Samuil Samosud (1884–1964), Arii Pazovskii (1887–1953), Iurii Faier (1890–1971), and Boris Khaikin (1904–1978).

Repertory playwrights of Jewish origin include Isaac Babel (1894–1940), Samuil Aleshin (Kotliar; 1913– ), Ignatii Dvoretskii (1919–1987), Aleksandr Gel’man (1933– ), Leonid Zorin (1934– ), Mikhail Shatrov (Marshak; 1932– ), Aleksandr Galin (1947– ), and Viktor Slavkin (1935– ). Evgenii Shvarts (1896–1958) was the author of fairy-tale plays, in which the fantastic coexisted with elements of real life. His Ten’ (The Shadow), Golyi Korol’ (The Naked King), and Drakon (The Dragon) were understood as philosophical tales. The plays of Aleksandr Volodin (Lifshits; 1919–2001), written during the 1960s, became the foundation of Russian neorealism.

Many persons of Jewish origin also had productive careers in the fields of theater criticism and history, including Aleksandr (Avraam) Kugel’ (1864–1928), Nikolai Efros (1867–1923), Iosif Iuzovskii (1902–1964), Efim Kholodov (1915–1981), Konstantin (Lev) Rudnitskii (1920–1988), Tat’iana Bachelis (1918–1999), Anatolii Al’tshuller (1922–1996), David Zolotnitskii (1918– ), Aleksandr Svobodin (Liberté; 1922–1999), Maiia Turovskaia (1924– ), Anatolii Iufit (1925–1978), Inna Solov’eva (Bazilevich; 1927– ), Boris Zingerman (1928–2000), Oleg Fel’dman (1937– ), Anatolii Smelianskii (1942– ), Elena Gornfunkel’ (1945– ), and Valerii Semenovskii (1952– ). The theater scholar Mikhail Shvydkoi (1948– ) was Russian minister of culture from 2000 to 2004, when he became director of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography.

Suggested Reading

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).



Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson; revised by Alice Nakhimovsky and Michael C. Steinlauf