- The Moscow State Yiddish Theater: Jewish Culture on the Soviet Stage
The Moscow State Yiddish Theater was the most brilliant and visible expression of Yiddish culture under the Soviets. Solomon Mikhoels, its most famous actor and long-time director, attained international renown for his portrayal of a Yiddish-speaking King [End Page 176] Lear and his wartime travels as the head of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. In 1948, Mikhoels’s tragic murder—staged as an accident—ushered in a period of repression of intellectuals and Jews that culminated in the execution of all the leading Yiddish writers and threats against the life and liberty of all Jewish citizens. Stalin’s death in March 1953 put an end to his plans for the Jews. But nobody dared to resurrect the Yiddish theater, which remained in Russian cultural memory as yet another example of promise and disillusion.
In his book The Moscow State Yiddish Theater, historian Jeffrey Veidlinger chronicles the working life of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater, in its intricate and ultimately tragic interaction with the Soviet State. The early years (the theater wasorganized over the period 1917–18) were by and large harmonious. Founding director Alexander Granovsky was a modernist with no Yiddish and little knowledge of the shtetl. His idea—to adapt Meyerhold’s “biomechanic” staging to Yiddish drama—worked in the sense that revolutionary politics were for this short period closely allied with modernist experiments in art. The Soviet state, personified by its very supportive Minister of Enlightenment Lunacharsky, saw the theater as a means of spreading Bolshevism among the Jews and achieving a good press among Jews abroad. Actors, already including Mikhoels, had no apparent problems either with the biomechanics or with the assault on Judaism that was a prominent feature of early plays.
Even in the early twenties, the tie between theater and state was a little uncertain. Most poignant for me was the account of the theater’s trip to Europe in 1924, when the young and radical actors entered the unapologetically Jewish world they were working so hard to eradicate. What were their reactions? “The seder night!” wrote one, “A world of nourishment and memories from childhood years!” As for the theater’s major players, given the chance, actors Mikhoels and Zuskin met with the ideologically suspect Chaim Weizmann and Sholem Asch. Granovsky defected.
On the theater’s return to Moscow, Mikhoels took over as director. Soviet cultural policy reversed course, replacing modernist experimentation with what would shortly become the official and only method of “socialist realism.” Mikhoels’s theater responded by staging plays about socialist construction, some indistinguishable, except for language, from what was being shown on the Russian stage, and some with more identifiable Jewish subtexts. The other thing Mikhoels did was turn to world masterpieces, most notably to King Lear. The staging of King Lear interests Veidlinger perhaps less than that of original plays, but for Mikhoels and his theater it was hugely important. One of their initial goals—shared neither by the State nor by the Jewish Section of the Communist Party—was to make Yiddish an international language of art, equal to any other. In this, with Lear, they succeeded.
In the late thirties, Soviet art turned national. Told by Stalinist henchman Lazar Kaganovich to emphasize Jewish heroism, the theater wasted no time. Stakes were after all high: the nightly arrests of the Terror were just subsiding. At the same time, as [End Page 177] Veidlinger notes, staging dramas about Jewish warriors fighting for the Biblical homeland brought into play specifically Jewish and even Zionist subtexts.
The theater, like all prominent Soviet institutions, spent the war years in exile. Mikhoels immersed himself in the work of the ill-starred Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, travelling to the United States and making a brief, unscheduled stop in Palestine where he was not allowed off the plane. By all accounts, he was aware of his impending doom. He was given a huge funeral (not the only one of Stalin’s victims to be so memorialized...