- The Moscow State Yiddish Theater: Jewish Culture on the Soviet Stage
The Moscow State Jewish Theater (GOSET) played a significant role in the lives of Moscow theater lovers for both Jews and non-Jews alike. As a result of this institution, actors and directors of the theater became national celebrities. Solomon Mikhoels, the director and leading actor of GOSET, was considered by contemporaries to be an informal leader of Soviet Jewry in the 1940s. Yet, until now, the history of Moscow's State Jewish Theater has not been thoroughly researched, and many gaps remain in our knowledge of its repertoire, staff, financial records, and the public reception of its performances. Consequently, Jeffrey Veidlinger's new book is a welcome study of Moscow's State Jewish Theater in all its complexity.
Veidlinger suggests that the history of Moscow's Jewish theater can serve as "a window into Soviet Jewish life" (p. 15). While one can argue what kind of a window the history of the GOSET opens (the story of Soviet Jewish elite or Jewish masses, Jewish actors or viewers, or those Jews who never heard of the theater), it is true that the theater was very important in both Soviet Jewish history and in the formation of Soviet Jewish identity.
Veidlinger's book also presents insights into the development of Jewish culture in the Soviet Union. He correctly argues that the history of Jews in the Soviet Union was neither a "story of persecution" nor a "story of voluntary assimilation" but rather something in the middle, something expressed in a "compromise of subtle shading." Veidlinger then suggests that during the entire era of the Jewish theater (which was theoretically designed to bring Soviet ideas to the Jewish masses), Jewish writers and artists were able to promote their own culture within the conditions of Soviet nationality policies (p. 3). Veidlinger shows that almost every performance of the theater had a Jewish subcontext, although it was sometimes not clearly visible. He argues, for example, that the first director of the GOSET, Alexander Granovsky, was trying to promote Zionist ideas [End Page e116] when he staged the play 137 Children's Houses by Avrom Vevyorke. He argues that the number 137 refers to the famous psalm about Jewish longing for Jerusalem (p. 76). The problem with this hypothesis is that it is difficult to prove or disprove. Even if Granovsky understood this metaphor himself, it is not certain that the actors, to say nothing about whether the viewers of the performances did. Veidlinger does not provide us with the insights of the artists themselves regarding this matter. Therefore, although this idea is quite interesting, it is not entirely convincing. The analysis of the audiences' reception of these hidden ideas also needs elaboration. Although Veidlinger says that the "majority of Jewish men had some education in Jewish matters" and that the audience was more sensible to these sorts of subtexts because of the nature of the totalitarian regime (pp. 147–48), it is likely that only a very small minority of theatergoers were able to understand these hidden meanings.
Veidlinger is also interested in how the audiences received the Soviet elements and messages in addition to Jewish ones. He emphasizes that the "positive" Soviet characters such as Jewish factory workers portrayed on stage at the GOSET were not always convincing and audiences had trouble relating to unrealistic, essentially propagandistic images. Therefore the "negative" characters of the "old shtetl life" were much more believable. This is one of many interesting insights of the book.
While Veidlinger does talk about the audience, he is more interested in the reviews by critics. This is understandable given the nature of the evidence preserved for the reception of the plays performed. However, these critical evaluations published in the Soviet press are themselves difficult to access. Critics were censored and observed and often were not able to express their true opinions; and even when they were, it was still the opinion of...