Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 23.2 (2005) 131-133
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The dramatic works of William Shakespeare are considered classics due to their enduring ability to withstand the rigors of time and the evolution of culture. Since their [End Page 131] conception, the characters, plots, and themes of Shakespeare's plays have been adapted and reinvented to mirror the evolving values and aesthetics of a myriad of generations and traditions. An example of a collective that became enthralled with Shakespeare and recreated his work into an expression of their own aesthetic and mores was the Jewish theatre community of pre-World War I America. In his book, Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage, author and researcher Joel Berkowitz provides a detailed and delightful retrospective of the sensation that was created when Shakespeare was combined with the American Yiddish theatre movement, which was a true theatre of the people. By concentrating on the Yiddish adaptations of the plays King Lear, Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, and The Merchant of Venice, Mr. Berkowitz chronicles an artistic community looking for an identity, and how the Yiddish theatre establishment turned for inspiration to the great cultural and humanistic touchstone that the works of William Shakespeare have represented for so many since their creation.
The book begins with an introduction into the origins and formation of the Yiddish theatre in the United States. Mr. Berkowitz succinctly documents the Jewish exodus to America during the nineteenth century, the subsequent cultural impact and aesthetic influence created by these immigrants, particularly in the major cities of the northeast, and the growth and development of Yiddish theatre beginning in the 1870s. It is fascinating to discover how a new venue for artistic and cultural expression was created using the Yiddish language (a High German language written in Hebrew characters) as a common vernacular with the ability to unite the various central and eastern European nationalities represented in the typical audience of the American Yiddish theatre. We learn that the repertoire of the Yiddish theatre—originally founded on forms of popular entertainment such as comedy, melodrama, and operetta—begins to transform in the early 1890s. Like so many artists before them seeking inspiration and legitimization, the dramatic works of Shakespeare are rediscovered and reinvented by the creators of the American Yiddish stage, and William Shakespeare is metamorphosed into Vilyam Shekspir.
Among the many luminaries of the Yiddish stage artfully presented through his research, Mr. Berkowitz introduces us to the great playwright Jacob Gordin, a major figure in the early Yiddish theatre of America. It was Gordin, Joel Berkowitz writes, ". . . more than any other playwright, who gave Shakespeare a Yiddish accent." Gordin catapulted Shakespeare to the forefront of Yiddish theatre by adapting the story of Shakespeare's King Lear with his very successful production of The Jewish King Lear in 1892 and The Jewish Queen Lear, more popularly known by its subtitle Mirele Efros, in 1898. In Gordin's hands, King Lear is transformed into Dovid Moysheles, a wealthy Jewish businessman, contemporary and recognizable to his audience. Like his Shakespeare-created counterpart, Gordin's patriarch travels from authority to penury, but unlike Shakespeare's version, this play ends in eventual reconciliation. Gordin's treatment of Mirele Efros changes the Lear figure from a patriarch to a matriarch. Mirele [End Page 132] is a domineering, levelheaded, and shrewd widow who, like King Lear and David Moysheles, suffers greatly from unscrupulous children. Both of Gordin's adaptations were important because they combined classic literature with contemporary characters and situations; this treatment provided relevant commentary to his audiences on modern Jewish life.
Joel Berkowitz continues his examination of Shakespeare's presence on the Yiddish stages of America with information on influential adaptations of Hamlet, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet. However, the most captivating and poignant chapter in the book may well be the documentation of how Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and the character of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender...