- Jews and the Making of Modern German Theatre ed. by Jeanette R. Malkin and Freddie Rokem
Much has been written on post-Enlightenment Jewish contributions to German culture, particularly in the sixty-two-year period immediately preceding the Nazi rise to power, from German unification in 1871 until the end of the Weimar Republic in 1933. Yet, Jews and the Making of Modern German Theatre reshapes contemporary understandings of this relationship by focusing on both the role played by German Jews in co-creating modern German theatre, and the subsequent effect this theatre had on German Jewish self-identity. Jeanette Malkin and Freddie Rokem’s impressive collection, deriving from a conference in Israel and workshop in Germany, is comprised of fourteen essays (including Malkin’s introduction and Rokem’s epilogue) from several disciplines, including history, theatre studies, and literature, which are in direct conversation with one another.
The smart arrangement of contributions progresses from the broad to the narrow, beginning with cultural and intellectual history. Steven Aschheim examines Jewish identity through both the act of performing onstage and notions of the societal performance of assimilation, while Peter Jelavich unpacks the relationship between Jewish theatre-makers and Jewish themes through a discussion of German Bildung and pluralism. In the first of her two contributions, Anat Feinberg offers a discussion of Jewish attitudes toward the theatre that not only includes anecdotes of adult performers looking back on their first plays with starry eyes, but also examines the influences of gender roles (namely, motherhood and fatherhood) on would-be performers during their youth. Delphine Bechtel takes a fascinating look at the impact that Yiddish theatre had on German and Austrian theatres, observing that attempts to attract both German- and Yiddish-language audiences meant success for popular companies (which used language comprehensible to both groups), while “highbrow” Yiddish troupes were not able to survive as easily because they were unintelligible to a German-only audience (82). Bernhard Greiner explores “Jewish theatromania” as observed by Theodor Lessing (99), while Peter Marx offers a historiographical examination of Arnold Zweig’s fascinating Jews on the German Stage that builds on Aschheim’s discussion of identity performance.
Two chapters examine the familiar genres of cabaret and expressionism. Hans-Peter Bayerdörfer looks at the tensions between Jewish identity (and minority status) and the majority German and Austrian cultures within cabaret performance. Malkin’s second contribution offers a captivating discussion of what drew Jewish artists to expressionism, suggesting (per Leopold Jessner) that the “Jewish actor on stage could, through transformation, both display and cover his or her identity” (168). The Jewish actor’s body is central in a number of essays in the volume, and the influence of Sander Gilman’s work is evident in contributions by Malkin, Aschheim, Bayerdörfer, and Bechtel. Questions of the body also inform Shelly Zer-Zion’s biographical chapter on two actors from Eastern Europe who studied in Berlin but ended up on opposite sides of the globe: Alexander Granach, who was born in East Galicia (modern-day Ukraine) and made his way to the United States after Hitler came to power, and the Polish-born Shimon Finkel, who eventually settled in Israel and became a major actor with the Habima theatre. The final three biographies are concerned with two of the most important directors in Berlin: Max Reinhardt, founder of the Schall und Rauch cabaret and director of the Deutsches Theater; and Leopold Jessner, director of the Staatstheater.
The necessary moments of overlap within and among these articles, acknowledged by Malkin in her introduction, are initially unsettling though they ultimately serve to illustrate the complexity of the histories that the contributors are working to convey. For example, Bechtel employs an extended quote by Granach as a primary source to describe the prevalence of lowbrow Yiddish performance in Berlin. Later, in her essay on Granach and Finkel, Zer-Zion uses the same quote to illustrate Granach’s personal dissatisfaction with the popular Yiddish theatre that surrounded him...