A program cover for the Modicut puppet theatre (1925–1926). (Courtesy of Edward Portnoy)
From left to right: Yosl Cutler, Bessie Maud, and Zuni Maud on tour of the USSR in 1932. The satirical puppets are (from left to right) Mohandas Gandhi, Ramsey Macdonald, Leon Blum, Vol Strit, and Herbert Hoover. (Courtesy of the collection of Philip Cutler)
This oil painting of a Petrushka show was done by Yosl Cutler. The text reads: “I remember this in our shtetl at the market.” (Courtesy of Edward Portnoy)
King Akhashveyresh from Modicut’s Purim-shpil, Akhashveyresh. The heavy shoes were often used to create walking and tapping sounds for the puppets. (Rendering by Zuni Maud. Photo courtesy of Edward Portnoy)
Yosl Cutler’s rendering of the puppet character Der bal-darshn (The Preacher). Though the play in which this puppet appeared is unknown, it was likely an anti-religious piece. This conjecture is based on the grotesque and overblown features of the sketch as compared to the many similar anti-religious cartoons that were part of Cutler’s oeuvre. (Photo courtesy of Edward Portnoy)
In Zuni Maud’s rendering, the puppet rabbi pulls the dybbuk out from under Leah in Modicut’s version of Der dibek. (Courtesy of Edward Portnoy)
A scene from Modicut’s 1926 version of Der dibek (The Dybbuk). (From YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, RG 1138, Archives of Zuni Maud; courtesy of Edward Portnoy).
Maud and Cutler (in center) among the writers of the Warsaw Literary Union at Tlomackie 13, December 1929. The Writing on the photo is Maud’s. (Photo by Alter Kacyzne. From YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, RG 1138, Archives of Zuni Maud; courtesy of Edward Portnoy)9. Yosl Cutler (left) and Zuni Maud during their tour of the Soviet Union (1931–32). (Photo courtesy of Philip Cutler)
Yosl Cutler (left) and Zuni Maud during their tour of the Soviet Union (1931–32). (Photo courtesy of Philip Cutler)
Among the hand-puppet theatres that cropped up in New York during the 1920s was the Modicut theatre, an offshoot of the flourishing Yiddish theatrical-literary culture. Created in 1925 by artists-writers-satirists Zuni Maud and Yosl Cutler, Modicut enjoyed great success in Yiddish-speaking communities in the United States and Europe. Modicut, satirizing Jewish and general politics and culture of the day, provided an experience unlike anything previously seen in Yiddish theatre.
Puppet theatre was not part of traditional Jewish shtetl life mainly because of the biblical proscription against the creation of graven images (Deuteronomy 4:16–20). However, Jews living in the Pale of Settlement (the areas of Poland and Ukraine to which they were restricted under the Tsarist regime) undoubtedly saw traveling Petryushka puppet theatres on market days. 1 These Slavic puppet theatres often portrayed Jews as villainous characters, thereby tainting an enjoyable medium for Jewish audiences (Shatsky 1930:449). But Jews watched these shows. Yosl Cutler, for example, painted a scene of a traveling theatre in a memoir of his shtetl, Troyanets (1934:161); and Khaver-paver described a puppet theatre in a Ukrainian shtetl marketplace whose audience was comprised of “Jews and peasants.” 2 This was his first theatre experience (Khaver-paver 1963:405). Although there is no documentation to support it, it is possible that amateur puppetry existed in some form within the small towns of the Pale, particularly in connection with Purim, a holiday whose traditions include drinking alcohol, masquerading, and public performance.
The 1920s was an awkward period for Jewish immigrant artists working in Yiddish in New York City. On the one hand, Yiddish literature and theatre began to reach an artistic maturity previously unknown. On...