- Landmark Yiddish Plays: A Critical Anthology
Avrom Goldfaden, a writer frequently cited as "the father" of Yiddish theatre, now has to share the credit with Molière. The translators of Landmark Yiddish [End Page 321] Plays describe one play in their anthology as "a Jewish adaptation of Molière's Tartuffe" (13): Aaron Wolfssohn's Silliness and Sanctimony, written in 1796, which portrays a few eighteenth-century German Jews, rather than seventeenth-century Frenchmen, as religious hypocrites and zealots. Wolfssohn's version of Molière's satire constitutes one of several pleasant surprises in this superb anthology of drama translated, edited, and with an introduction by Joel Berkowitz and Jeremy Dauber. The book adds five lively translations to the regrettably small existing body of Yiddish drama available in English. Hundreds of Yiddish plays remain untranslated, and some translations once available are now out of print. At a time when Jewish Studies and theatre programs have begun to offer courses on Yiddish theatre, this new anthology offers a welcome selection of texts that are significant in the history of theatre, and deserve consideration for stage production as alternatives to better known plays that share their themes and social concerns: why not stage a Yiddish "Tartuffe"—Wolfssohn's play—instead of Moliere's? Untranslated plays written in Yiddish, the language of East European Jews, thrived onstage in urban centers of the United States and Europe a century ago, but their audience declined markedly after World War II. Prospective theatregoers who spoke Yiddish vanished due to the cultural assimilation of Jews in America and the Holocaust abroad.
Serkele, the second play in the collection, is a Yiddish melodrama first published in 1861 that provides an early, strangely comic antecedent to doubts expressed about the existence of a divinity after the Holocaust. The editors describe the title character of this play as "another pious hypocrite" (32). After Serkele defrauds her niece of an inheritance, which is rightfully restored in the last act, the servant Chava observes: "It's high time that God gets around to showing some of his mercy" (156). Serkele's themes, characters, and structure undoubtedly influenced Goldfaden. In 1863, he performed the title role of the Jewish wife when he was a student in a rabbinical seminary and had not yet written a play of his own. Goldfaden's later stage innovations in Romania turned what had been reader's theatre into professional art. He built an ensemble of Yiddish-speaking actors and wrote popular musicals, comedies, and history plays at a time when most Jews would not perform stage roles at all except on the holiday of Purim. As this new anthology demonstrates, Gold-faden continued the tasks Serkele had undertaken: through entertaining drama, he promoted the Jewish Enlightenment movement (known as Haskala) and often ridiculed its opponents, particularly traditional orthodox Jews known as Hasids.
Goldfaden critiques Hasidism through his stage portrait of a half-blind, lame, stuttering orthodox Jewish bachelor who behaves like a child in response to an arranged marriage in The Two Kuni-Lemls. Despite the unflattering portrait, the young man named Kuni-Leml has enough sense to know that he has been mocked; at one point in the comedy, newly translated for this anthology, Kuni-Leml asks: "What are you laughing about, w-wise guy? It's a joke that I have a speech d-defect?" (222). Today ridicule of physical defects is not so amusing, as the editors admit, but Goldfaden's play once was enormously popular. In the farcical plot structure of The Two Kuni-Lemls, an unorthodox and learned young man impersonates Kuni-Leml (hence the play's title) to win the woman he loves. This Yiddish comedy of switched identities recalls Molière again, as well as Shakespeare and ancient Roman farce.
Like the Yiddish language, which incorporated words and jargon from different cultures in which Jews lived, Yiddish theatre absorbed plots and practices from other theatre traditions. In a number of the plays selected, the...