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Guide to Resources in Yiddish Theatre

Yiddish theater constituted the primary form of entertainment for the three million Eastern European Jews who settled in America between the late 1800s and mid-1920s. Its roots can be traced to Romania, where in 1876 songwriter and poet Abraham Goldfaden launched the first troupe of professional Yiddish performers. Performing plays and operettas about biblical and historical events, these actors were products of the Jewish Enlightenment, or “Haskalah,” begun in Western Europe in the 18th century. The Haskalah slowly advanced into Eastern Europe, and by the mid-1800s began influencing Jews to become less bound to religious tradition while embracing European secular life. Except for performances in celebration of the Jewish holiday of Purim, theater had been banned prior to the Haskalah for several reasons. Rabbis considered theater to be evocative of worshipping graven images; also, because of modesty requirements, even if acting were allowed, women would not have been permitted to perform in the presence of men.

 

During the 1800s, performances of traveling bands, theater groups and jesters were becoming common in Eastern Europe, but political and social events were making life intolerable. Jews began a mass exodus from the region, targeting America as their final destination. With the majority of Jewish immigrants disembarking at Ellis Island, New York quickly became the center of Jewish culture. Actors, singers, composers and dancers from Yiddish theater were among the Jews arriving, and these performers often sought jobs in the developing vaudeville scene. At the same time there was a need for Yiddish culture, the culture of the immigrants, to find an entertainment outlet. Yiddish theatre and song became that outlet.

 

Yiddish musical comedies and dramas often reflected the lives of their audiences. Production themes highlighted stories about the “old country”; Biblical stories; plays based on Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen and Strindberg; and commentaries about life in America. The music in these plays became so popular that between 1894 and 1942, approximately 50,000 records were pressed, and radio stations revolving around Yiddish culture and music thrived.

 

Interest in Yiddish theater declined around the 1940s. U.S. quotas restricted immigration in 1924, and only 100,000 more European Jews, primarily those escaping from Hitler, were able to enter the country up until the end of World War II. As assimilation into American culture became more pronounced, the children and grandchildren of immigrants were more interested in American entertainment than in Yiddish culture.

 

The 1970s saw a revival of Yiddish culture, and thus, interest in Yiddish theater. Young Jewish-Americans started exploring their roots and musicians began playing klezmer, the Yiddish music of Eastern European Jews prior to emigration. The opening of the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, during the 1980s, a result of the rescue of thousands of Yiddish books that had been forgotten in basements and attics of the descendents of this rich culture, has played an important role in enhancing awareness of what could have been a forgotten culture. Yiddish film festivals offer contemporary audiences the opportunity to view some of Yiddish theatre’s prominent stars of the 1920s, and two well-known theater groups still exist, the Folksbine in New York and the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre in Montreal. The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, founded in New York, houses over 23 million archival materials related to Yiddish culture and offers extensive education and cultural programming.

 

This pathfinder introduces researchers, students and the general public to the world of Yiddish theater through an eclectic mix of written, sound and visual materials.

 

Books 

Despite the age of many of these books, each contributes a unique look into the culture and people of the Yiddish theater. Included among them are memoirs, plays, history, and songs. All but one are available at Indiana University.

 

Landis, J. C. (Ed.). (1984). Memoirs of the Yiddish stage. Flushing, N.Y.: Queens College Press.

 

Several memoirs grace the pages of this collection of writings by major figures associated with the Yiddish theater world. Actors David Kessler, Pesakhke Burstein and Sholem Secunda; Celia Adler, daughter of well-known stage actor Jacob Adler; lyricist, actor and composer Herman Yablokoff; and writer Marvin L. Seiger contribute personal experiences and interpretations in this entertaining volume. [PN3035. M35 1984]

 

Lifson, D. S. (Ed.). (1975). Epic and folk plays of the Yiddish theatre. Rutherford, N. J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

 

Each of the five plays contained in this volume are preceded by an introductory essay about the playwrights and their work. Reading the scripts and essays gives insight into the range of topics tackled by the genre as well as the flavor of the language, despite the fact that the plays are in English translation. This is a worthwhile item to peruse. [PJ5191. E5 L72]

 

Lifson, D. S. (1965). The Yiddish theatre in America. New York: T. Yoseloff.

 

This broad overview contains detailed chapters with titles such as Writers & Plays; Actors; Audience; Drama & Literary Clubs; and Yiddish Art Theatre. Lifson explores each topic extensively and includes photographs of playwrights, composers, actors and performances. The bibliography is more than 20 pages and contains helpful sources on all subjects. [PN3035.L72]

 

Mlotek, E.G. and Mlotek, J. (Comp.) (1988). Pearls of Yiddish song; favorite folk, art and theatre songs. New York: Education Department of the Workmen’s Circle.

 

Compiled by ethnomusiclogists Chana and Joseph Mlotek, this anthology provides the words and music to 115 Yiddish songs, many of which became popular due to their exposure through Yiddish theater. Words are in Yiddish, Yiddish transliteration and English translation. Introductory material provides historical reference and musical context. [Not held by Indiana University]

 

Nafshon, E. (1998). Yiddish proletarian theatre: the art and politics of the Artef, 1925-1940. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

 

The word “Artef” refers to “Arbeter Teater Farband,” which in Yiddish means Workers' Theater Union. This particular theater group was a product of the Jewish left and performed plays that reflected that ideology. This book discusses the interplay of the history, plays, critical analyses and politics of the time, offering a view unlike many other books published on Yiddish theater. A bibliography and index are included. [PN3035.N28 1998]

 

Rosenfeld, L. A. & Adler, J. P. (1988). The Yiddish theatre. New York: Shapolsky.

 

Taking an anecdotal approach, this volume offers a plethora of information about the composers, lyricists and actors involved in producing Yiddish theater. Rosenfeld includes photos, synopses of plays and quotations from many of the major participants. This book reads like a novel, and contains both a bibliography and index. [PN3035.R6 1998]

 

Sandrow, N. (1977). Vagabond stars: A world history of Yiddish theater. New York: Harper & Row.

 

Sandrow traces Yiddish theater from its early origins through its progression to American shores and its slow demise in the 1940s. She highlights social, cultural and religious issues, and offers insights into major contributors, especially Abraham Goldfaden, to the genre. Play excerpts, photos and pictures of posters included within the work make this an impressive and comprehensive study. Also included are an index and bibliography. [PN.3035.S25]

 

Journal Articles 

These journal articles offer fascinating perspectives on the Yiddish stage. Discussions of the political, religious and cultural aspects of the genre give insight into the multi-faceted nature of this medium.

 

Berkowitz, J. (2001). The “Mendel Beilis Epidemic” on the Yiddish stage. Jewish Social Studies, 8(1), pp. 199-225.

 

In 1913, six different plays about Mendel Beilis, an accused murderer in Kiev who was cleared of the charges, were being staged in the New York Yiddish theater circuit. This article discusses the often-historical nature of Yiddish theater, the reasons for there being so many plays about the same subject, and critical evaluations and social observations on these and other plays.

 

Gay, R. (1995). Floors; The Bronx—Then. American Scholar, 64(3), pp. 403-407.

 

Gay writes a delightful and bittersweet remembrance about the her mother, who exemplified the typical audience of Yiddish theater around the time of World War I. An immigrant from Galicia, her mother found enjoyment and solace in the melodramas about immigrant lives in both the Old Country and the New World. Reading this article provides awareness of those for whom Yiddish theater brought both tears and laughter.

 

Sapoznik, H. (1988). From Eastern Europe to East Broadway: Yiddish music in old world and new. New York Folklore, 14(3-4), pp. 117-130.

 

Well-known musicologist, composer and performer Sapoznik surveys the entire history of Yiddish music from its earliest forms during the Middle Ages into the 1980s. He captures the essence of the music at the same time he deftly intersperses religious, cultural and political analysis about the rise, fall and subsequent rise again of this fundamental element of Eastern European and American Jewish culture.

 

Steinlauf, M. C. (1995). Fear of Purim: Y. L. Peretz and the Canonization of Yiddish Theater. Jewish Social Studies, 1(3), pp. 44-65.

 

Tensions between the Jewish intelligentsia and proponents of popular Yiddish theater in Poland in the early 1900s are the subject of Steinlauf’s article. Most striking is Polish-Yiddish writer Y.L. Peretz’s involvement as a champion of the theater. Considered a cohort of the intellectual circles in Warsaw, Peretz nevertheless offended his associates, who decried the masses’ adoration of what they considered an uncultivated medium.

 

Warnke, N. (2005). Going east: The impact of American Yiddish plays and players on the Yiddish stage in Czarist Russia, 1890-1914. American Jewish History, 92(1), pp. 1-29.

 

Warnke writes of the phenomenon of Yiddish actors moving back and forth between the United States and Russia prior to World War I. Noting that New York was the primary supplier of Yiddish plays in Russia, Warnke provides an enriching exploration of the dynamics of the relationships among theater troupes in both countries as Yiddish theater grew in popularity.

 

Warnke, N. (1996). Immigrant popular culture as contested sphere: Yiddish music halls, the Yiddish press, and the processes of Americanization, 1900-1910. Theatre Journal, 48(3), pp. 321-335.

 

In the early 1900s, there were varying opinions about the role of Yiddish theater. Some critics questioned its morality and others claimed that that the entertainment did not contain enough highbrow content. One result of these disputes was that they provided ample fodder for Yiddish press institutions in their competition for readership. This article provides insight into the forces shaping Yiddish theater, the press, and Jewish culture in New York at the turn of the century.

 

Internet Resources 

The Internet resources noted here offer the researcher an intriguing mix of elements helpful to understanding Yiddish theater’s intricate constitution. Several institutions’ web pages describe their admirable archival collections of recordings, sheet music or manuscripts. Other sites contain a mix of online galleries, descriptive information, and links to additional sources. These sites provide an absorbing mix of visual and printed material.

 

The Lawrence Marwick Collection of Copyrighted Yiddish Plays at the Library of Congress: An Annotated Bibliography

 

This site consists of two articles; an extensive bibliography of Yiddish plays, many of them in manuscript form, organized alphabetically by writer; an index to the titles; and an index to names other than the authors (producers, actors, directors, etc.). The articles give extensive background on the collection and the history of Yiddish theater in America. The collection consists of almost 1300 plays; 321 of the entries provide specific production information, such as where and when the plays were performed.

 

Brown University Yiddish Sheet Music Exhibit

 

No resource list on Yiddish theatre would be complete without mention of the exquisite art gracing the covers of the sheet music. Brown University’s gallery of more than 40 of these covers displays both the artistry and the inherent emotionalism of Yiddish theatre, from outright humor to more serious aspects of the emotional spectrum. The pictures, photos, words and colors all speak volumes about Yiddish theatre and the human experience.

 

The Jewish Museum: London’s Museum of Jewish Life Online Exhibition of Yiddish Theatre

 

This interesting site reminds one that Yiddish theatre, although a Jewish-American institution, was not confined to only one side of the Atlantic. Each page of this six-page exhibition contains a one or more photos with accompanying literature detailing the parallel history of Yiddish theatre in London. Although not an extensive rendering, the exhibition introduces the rich culture of the genre as it migrated northwest from its roots in Romania.

 

NPR.org

 

National Public Radio has aired a number of pieces on Yiddish culture. Typing “Yiddish theater” in the search box brings up a number of programs, all of which can be listened to online. Broadcasts includes titles such as “Project Recalls Yiddish Theater Legends” and “NPR Celebrates the Golden Age of Yiddish Radio.” It is also worth clicking on different links just to get a feel for Yiddish culture overall.

 

The Robert and Molly Freedman Jewish Music Archive at the University of Pennsylvania:

http://www.library.upenn.edu/portal/Freedman/Freedman.html

http://digital.library.upenn.edu/freedman/

 

This 3,000-item collection of Yiddish theatre music, folk and art songs, comedy, and klezmer music consists of songbooks, reference materials and recordings. Visitors to this site can hear sound recordings and look up materials by author, title, song or keyword. While the site is primarily a listing of what is held in the archives, browsing the lists offers interesting information on genres, composers, songs and first lines of songs. The first web link brings the searcher to general information about the collection, including sound clips; the second reaches the catalog directly.

 

Di eybike mame; The Eternal Mother: Women in Yiddish Theater and Popular Song 1905-1929

 

Rubin and Ottens describe the above-named recording as an anthology of women’s contributions to Yiddish song. In addition to explaining the history of the genre, Rubin and Ottens provide a short biography, in English and in German, of each artist and brief synopses of their songs. With its focus on some of the most popular women of the theater in Eastern Europe, London and New York, this article offers an appealing insight into the lives of these 23 divas of the Yiddish stage.

 

National Yiddish Book Center

 

The National Yiddish Book Center is a great resource to learn about all things related to Yiddish. Its focus is cultural and educational, and the Center provides online bibliographies, articles and newsletters; programs; books and other items for sale; and links to other sources of information.

 

YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

 

Founded in 1925 in Poland and permanently established in New York in 1940, YIVO is dedicated to the preservation of Eastern European Yiddish culture. The Institute holds the largest collection of Yiddish materials in the world. Once reaching this site, typing “sound collection” in the search box links to excerpts of Yiddish theatre music, as well as to links to other Internet sources providing sound and recording information. Browsing the site offers an intriguing array of resources and web links that will engage the researcher for hours on end.

last updated: 10/8/2012