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American Jewish History 88.2 (2000) 305-307

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Yiddish Proletarian Theatre: The Art and Politics of the Artef, 1925-1940. By Edna Nahshon. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998. xv + 260 pp.

The history of theater in America in the first half of the twentieth century is inextricably connected with politics, particularly the politics of the left, and Yiddish theater is hardly an exception to the rule. Arguably, the most important example of the potent mixture of politics and theater in the Yiddish world was the Artef. Artef is a Yiddish acronym for Arbeter Teater Farband (Workers' Theater Union), and the company by that name that entertained, hectored, puzzled, and occasionally infuriated its audience over the course of a decade was a grand experiment in the application of left-wing principles to Yiddish theater. Edna Nahshon, in her new history of the Artef, asserts that "there can be no doubt that Artef's political orientation and affiliation were essential to its style, and played a major role in influencing its selection of repertoire, its organization as a permanent collective of actors, its emphasis on ensemble acting, and its intimate relationship with its politically homogenous audience" (p. xiii). Her assertion is certainly borne out by the evidence she marshals in this book.

Carefully and precisely, Nahshon reveals the story of the Artef to be, in an important sense, the story of the American Jewish Communist movement. She outlines the increasing radicalization after the Russian [End Page 305] Revolution of a section of the New York Jewish socialist community and the birth and slow rise of a Jewish communist movement in the 1920s; the growth of clubs associated with the Young Workers' League, the youth affiliate of the Communist party in the mid- to late-1920s; and the birth of a Yiddish workers' art theater in one of those clubs. Taking its cue from both the ideological belief among Communist intelligentsia that cultural institutions be workers' institutions, and the aesthetic need of its members to maintain the Yiddish art theater tradition in America, the Artef opened its doors in 1928.

Year by year, season by season, production by production, she takes us through the sometimes turbulent, always interesting, history of the group--from its opening to its becoming the "theatrical apparatus of the communist camp" (p. 62), after the Party's support for Arab factions in the wake of the 1929 Palestine riots created a virtually unbridgeable chasm between the communists and the other parties of the Jewish left. Even after the boycott ended, the Artef maintained its position of prominence within the Communist community, and attained a significant popular following in the mid-1930s, even moving to a Broadway house on 48th Street. Ultimately, financial difficulties, caused by both the decrease in ticket-buying audiences for Yiddish productions in general and the massive disillusionment with the Communist party after the Nazi-Soviet pact in particular, created financial hardships that shut the theater down for good.

All this history is much less clear than it seems, of course, littered as it is with partisan infighting and constant shifting and realignment of individuals and groups according to ever-developing (and slightly nebulous) political and ideological principles. A steady hand is needed to steer the reader through all of this, and Nahshon provides that sure guidance.

She also provides important details about the aesthetic dimensions of the Artef, particularly the collectivist and expressionist elements highly characteristic of the company's most distinctive work. Nahshon explores the tensions which developed in the company as it became more successful, tensions between the collective principles of the Communist party and the populist and star-based traditions of the Yiddish theater. She also deftly analyzes the ideological considerations that lay behind the choice of virtually all of the company's repertoire, most notably its groundbreaking adaptations of Sholem Aleichem's Ristokratn (Aristocrats) and Israel Aksenfeld's Rekrutn (Recruits).

Nahshon has clearly identified the most important source for information about the Artef, the contemporary Yiddish press. Theater was taken extremely seriously by Yiddish journalists; the Artef'...


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