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Jewish Social Studies 8.1 (2001) 199-225

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The "Mendel Beilis Epidemic" on the Yiddish Stage

Joel Berkowitz


Anyone wanting to see the major stars of New York's Yiddish stage on Thanksgiving weekend in 1913 had three choices: Mendel Beilis at Jacob Adler's Dewey Theater, Mendel Beilis at Boris Thomashefsky's National Theater, or Mendel Beilis at David Kessler's Second Avenue Theater. Earlier in the month, other versions of the headline-grabbing story ran at three of the smaller Yiddish theaters in New York, and the phenomenon was duplicated on a smaller scale in a number of other North American and European cities.

The events leading to the offstage drama of Mendel Beilis began in Russia two years earlier. On March 25, 1911, the body of a 12-year-old boy was found in a cave near Kiev, his hands tied behind his back and 47 puncture wounds in his body. The combination of the murder's grisly nature and its proximity to Passover led right-wing forces in Russia to dredge up the centuries-old charge of blood libel. It was difficult to lend such a claim even a semblance of credibility in this case, because few Jews lived in the area and a mass of evidence pointed elsewhere, but, after four months, antisemitic agitators and their agents found their scapegoat: the Jewish foreman of a nearby brick-yard. Over the next two and a half years, the proceedings against Mendel Beilis would wind through a Kafkaesque maze culminating in his acquittal on November 10, 1913.

Long before the trial ended, advertisements began to appear announcing dramatizations of the Beilis affair. These productions were first mounted in the smaller theaters of New York City, then moved to larger houses both in New York and af der provints--that is, anywhere [End Page 199] else in the United States or Canada. In London, Joseph Kessler advertised a version of the Beilis story just days after the trial began; as it turned out, that production did not get staged as quickly as planned, but London Yiddish audiences would also eventually get a glimpse of Kessler as Beilis.

These productions elicited a decidedly mixed reaction from Yiddish audiences and critics. On the one hand, they generated enough popularity to sustain six different Beilis plays in New York alone in November 1913, as well as numerous others in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Montreal, London, and elsewhere. On the other hand, that very ubiquity evoked a mostly negative torrent of responses in the Yiddish press, whose writers and readers expressed their displeasure over a wide range of issues raised by such dramatizations. Never before had one event received so much theatrical attention at once on Yiddish stages; the Beilis plays, and the voluminous and heated response to them, paint a picture of the complex network of implications arising from the dramatization of current events in the Yiddish theater.

The Yiddish "History" Play

In a sense, the Mendel Beilis plays fit into a time-honored Yiddish theatrical tradition: the history play, in its various incarnations. Yiddish theater grew out of purimshpiln, sketches performed on the holiday of Purim that retold not only the saga of Esther and Haman but also other situations both biblical and topical: from the sacrifice of Isaac and the sale of Joseph into slavery to disputes among unscrupulous peddlers of ritual objects. Biblical stories remained popular source material for plays once the professional Yiddish theater began in 1876, and, as the Yiddish theater grew, playwrights sought increasingly broader sources of inspiration. When it came to the dramatization of nonbiblical events, playwrights could choose, broadly speaking, from two categories. First came "historical operas," which covered material from antiquity to any period far enough in the past to have been considered "history." The more recent past-- what we call current events--was covered by plays called tsaytbilder, or pictures of the times.

Tsaytbilder capitalized on a wide variety of major contemporary events. Whenever possible, tsaytbilder depicted the contemporary struggles of Jews around the world, and there was no shortage of...


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