- ‘Strange Rendering:’ Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Yiddish and the Staging of Race at the Turn of the Twentieth Century1
While the scholarly literature on Black-Jewish relations continues to expand, its archive has remained remarkably unchanged. Although recent explorations of representations of African Americans in American Yiddish literature and American Hebrew literature have newly revealed the ways in which immigrants in the early twentieth century engaged critically and creatively with race in the United States across languages, much work remains to be done.2 Curiously, while many scholars mention in passing the translations of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin into Yiddish, very few have elaborated further on the consumption of this iconographic national text among Yiddish readers.3 There is even further silence on the subject of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the Yiddish stage, first in Yiddish literary and theatrical criticism at the time and consequently in contemporary Yiddish studies scholarship, reflecting historical biases against performances deemed middlebrow or lowbrow and the subsequent gaps in modern scholarly accounts.4
As theater historian John Frick notes, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not just a popular piece of abolitionist fiction; rather, it became a “cultural, commercial, ideological, and theatrical phenomenon,” arguably super-intending [End Page 35] representations of racial difference and racial justice for a full century to come.5 For this reason, seemingly narrow considerations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin can, in fact, open up broader histories of racialization, racial representations and interracial interactions in American culture. Yiddish performances of Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the turn of the twentieth century received increased attention from drama critics in English, because they coincided with a large-scale theatrical revival of the original 1853 melodrama in Anglophone American theaters, even as bowdlerized Uncle Tom’s Cabin shows were ubiquitous. Even African American newspapers took note of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Yiddish, with the Freeman noting in 1902: “‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ in Yiddish again last Saturday at the People’s Theatre. Big hit.”6 And again, a few weeks later: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin was produced in Yiddish again Saturday 19, at the People’s Theatre. Sherman H. Dudley was in charge of the colored contingent.”7
In this essay, I begin the work of situating the Yiddish versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the context first of the publication history of Stowe’s novel and the many plays that were adapted from it, and then in the context of the broader history of racial performances on the popular stage at the turn of the twentieth century. Taken together, the Yiddish translations and adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (particularly the discourse in English around Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Yiddish), and black performances of Jewish voices and bodies further illuminate Jewish engagements with American national mythmaking, the positioning of Jews and blacks, and the relationship of language to bodies, in the turn-of-the-century racial imagination.
Literary Translations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin
While Yiddish literary scholars often cite Yiddish translations of the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin as evidence of Jews’ “special interest” in the fate of African Americans, the truth is that these translations were belated in comparison to the translation history of Stowe’s novel. In its first year of book publication, translations appeared in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Danish, Swedish, Flemish, Polish, and Magyar. These [End Page 36] translations weren’t meant only for an overseas readership; in the 1850s, both Stowe and her publishers understood that the novel would have to be translated for the roughly 15 percent of American readers who were foreign-born.8 Stowe herself commissioned the first German translation in 1852, understanding that for the novel to wield its full political power, even within the nation, she would have to rely on translation. By 1860, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been translated into twenty languages and was the most widely circulated work of American literature.9 In fact, American literary scholar Colleen Boggs argues that Stowe’s efforts to control the rapidly proliferating translations and adaptations of her novel helped to form the basis for international copyright law.10