- Reexamining Yiddish Radicalism
Twenty years ago, who would have predicted that, as the millennium approaches, we would find ourselves flush in the middle of a minirevival of Yiddish culture? This contemporary “neo-Yiddish” moment, while most conspicuous in the growing popularity of klezmer music and Yiddish-language classes, has also manifested itself in rediscoveries of the Yiddish theatrical canon, from Tony Kushner’s recent adaptation of S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk to David Margulies’ upcoming adaptation of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, as well as in the creation of new works like Robert Brustein and Hankus Netsky’s archly “folk” musical Shlemiel the First. For those of us who love the Yiddish theater, its historical importance does not have to be reinvented; it has always been evident among those familiar with Jewish studies that the theater was as central and vibrant a part of the Yiddish cultural experience between the 1880s and 1930s as the theater has arguably ever been for any community anywhere.
The very term Yiddish theater is vastly misleading if it implies an institution that was monolithic and unified. Yiddish-speaking audiences went in large numbers to see an extraordinary complexity and variety of shows. The popular shund (trash) theater of tearjerker melodramas and musicals dominated theaters before the turn of the century and continued to thrive even as Yiddish dramaturgy became more diverse and complex. Jacob Gordin’s Ibsenesque forays into realism brought the European “problem play” to New York at a time when most commercial theaters would not dare touch the genre. Varieties of Yiddish “art theater,” most notably represented by the work of Jacob Ben-Ami and Maurice Schwartz, gained a foothold, particularly after World War I. There was Yiddish Shakespeare, there was Yiddish vaudeville. These often competing forms had their vociferous partisans; the inflamed passions and contentiousness of the debate between loyalists of one artist against another testified to both the variety and the vibrancy of the scene.
Theater historians by and large have been slow to do justice to the scope of Yiddish theater, partly because of the difficulty of working with source materials and partly because of the current trend away from empirical history toward more self-consciously interpretative and theoretical writing, much of which has focused on challenging our understanding of well-known moments of past (or contemporary) theater rather than redressing gaps in the historical record per se. The result has been the neglect of genres whose histories have yet to be fully constructed (at least in English). In Yiddish theater [End Page 135] studies, David Lifson’s Yiddish Theatre in America (1965) and Nahma Sandrow’s Vagabond Stars (1977) remain the two basic book-length studies in English. Recent scholarship, however, has started to complement the generalized panorama laid out by these two books, including Joel Berkowitz’s 1996 article on Yiddish performances of Shylock (in Theatre Survey) and Nina Warnke’s 1996 essay about licentiousness in Yiddish music hall (in Theatre Journal). Edna Nahshon now provides a comprehensive and richly detailed full-length study of one of the Yiddish theater’s most celebrated companies, covered only briefly in both Lifson and Sandrow. This important book is not only welcome but long overdue.
As those familiar with Yiddish theater will know, the Artef (an acronym for the Arbeter Teater Farband, or Workers’ Theatrical Alliance) was a communist theater collective created in the mid-1920s that, in the following decade, became one of New York City’s foremost noncommercial leftist theaters, famous for its stylized ensemble work under the direction of Benno Schneider. Nahshon details the many ups and downs of the collective’s fifteen-year history with scrupulous specificity, starting with the roots of the organization in a Brooklyn theater club in 1924 and finishing with the company’s sudden demise in 1940, after the Nazi-Stalin pact discredited international communism, especially within the Jewish community. Nahshon effectively makes the case that, despite the brevity of its existence (amounting to only eleven seasons of productions totaling twenty-three different shows), the Artef made contributions to Yiddish...