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Habima Theater, Tel Aviv

    United States
    Jews in the Musical
    The Jew as Entertainer
    Premodern Performance in Yiddish
    Haskalah Drama
    Broder Singers
    The Goldfaden Era
    Westward Exodus
    The Gordin Era
    New York to World War II
    Latin America
    The Art Theater Movement in Eastern Europe
    Interwar Poland
    Soviet Yiddish Theater
    Other Centers
    The Late 20th Century


Neither biblical nor Talmudic literature contains anything that can be described as “theater” or “drama” in the modern sense of these terms. The Song of Moses (Ex. 15), with its choric refrain in the Song of Miriam, has often been cited as containing the rudiments of drama, which began as a combination of song and dance. The same has been suggested for the Song of Songs, and various attempts have been made with limited success to arrange this book for performance. It would be rash to suggest that writers of the Bible were quite untouched by the Athenian drama which had developed on the fringes of the Israelite world in the fifth century B.C.E. The Book of Job (dating probably from the fifth or fourth century B.C.E.) conforms in a general way to dramatic principles. It is written largely in dialogue, it shows expression of character, and it contains dramatic incidents. If there were biblical writing tendencies toward formal dramatic composition, they reached their furthest development in Job. However, presentations of the Book of Job on the stage have fallen short of proving that it was written for performance.


Dramatic intentions are not manifest in post-biblical writing, except in the work of Ezekiel of Alexandria, who lived in the first century B.C.E. and wrote tragedies on biblical themes. He wrote in Greek, and the known fragments of his work owe their survival to non-Jewish scholars. On the whole, post-biblical literature is without any works intended for performance in a theater. However, the rabbis were fully aware of and generally disapproved of the theaters, amphitheaters, and circuses that existed in their Hellenistic-Roman world. They discouraged attendance at the theater except in certain circumstances. The Midrash indicates contemporary opinion when, in reference to the Bible story of Joseph in Egypt, it quotes two rabbis relating how, on the day of the Nile festival, a day of theatrical performances which all flocked to see, Joseph “went into the house to cast up his master’s accounts” (Gen. R. 87:7).

The rabbis of the Talmud taught that one should not go to theaters or circuses because sacrifices were offered in honor of the idols. Where no such sacrifices were offered, it was still prohibited to be present since persons watching the clowns and buffoons performing would transgress the prohibition against sitting in “the seat of the scornful” (Ps. 1:1). Nevertheless, Rabbi Nathan thought Jews should be allowed to attend circuses and shows to watch gladiatorial contests since the members of the audience usually had the right of saving the life of the victim (Av. Zar. 18b).

Other evidence suggests that though the pious kept aloof from the theater, many others did not. It is considered that one of the purposes of Ezekiel of Alexandria in writing his biblical tragedies was to divert Jews from attendance at pagan theaters. This indicates that Jews were regularly to be found among the theater-going public.

Women were forbidden to go to shows of any kind. There is a touching passage in the Midrash (Ruth R. 2:22) in which Naomi tells Ruth that if she insists on conversion to Judaism, she will have to deny herself certain pleasures. “My daughter,” she says, “it is not the custom of the daughters of Israel to frequent theaters and circuses.”

The theaters that arose in Palestine during the Hellenistic period were largely swept away by the Maccabean War (167 B.C.E.), but a revival of forms of entertainment took place in the next century under Herod, and the larger cities, including Jerusalem had theaters, amphitheaters, and hippodromes. These were gentile institutions. There was no attempt at creating a Jewish playhouse.

By the second century of the Christian Era, the performance of tragedy had practically vanished from the Palestinian theater and had been replaced by buffoonery, ribaldry, and coarse comedy, which sometimes ridiculed Jews and their customs (Lam. R. 3:13). The hostility of the rabbis was such that they declared it sinful for a Jewish workman to take part even in the building of a stadium or amphitheater (Av. Zar. 16a).

In Rome during the time of Nero (first century C.E.), there were Jews on the Roman stage as well as in the auditorium. A Jewish actor Aliturus (or Alityros), is known to have been among the emperor’s favorites. Josephus mentions him without any apparent surprise at finding a Jewish actor in high favor in court.

The sarcophagus of an actress, Faustina, in the Roman catacombs of the first or second century C.E. displays Jewish symbols and the word “shalom” in Hebrew. Another player, Menophilus (first century), lampooned by the Roman epigrammatic poet Martial, appears to have been a Jewish comedian. In the third century, the rabbinical scholar Simeon b. Lakish (also known as Resh Lakish) earned his living as a strong man in a circus at Sepphoris, as related in the Talmud (BM 84a; Git. 47a, et al.). All this suggests that Jews were not uncommon in the theatrical profession. As Jews became increasingly unpopular, however, during the Jewish War, they, like the early Christians, tended to conceal their origin.

Jewish theatrical activity at this early period thus remains largely conjectural. The Bible, nevertheless, played a very positive role both as a source of dramatic inspiration and as an influence on content in all forms of theatrical representation. The Bible has had a primary and enduring role in the history of Western theater. In the first place, it provided the starting point of modern theater in the medieval mystery plays, and secondly, it continued to provide subjects and ideas to which playwrights, poets, composers, and choreographers have turned again and again. (See *Bible, in Arts.)

In the history of the Jewish theater, the mystery play has great relevance. The two came into contact in Italy in the early Renaissance period when the ducal heads of the city-states often sponsored the entertainments held at ducal weddings or other festive occasions. In their ghettos the cultural life of the Jewish communities tended to follow the gentile pattern. The Purim play was a counterpart to the kind of show the gentiles enjoyed at their carnivals. In time it was turned into an elaborate theatrical presentation played by Jewish theatrical companies who acquired considerable fame. (See also below: The Jew as Entertainer.)

In Italy, in the 16th century, Mantua became famous for its court pageantry and was the center of the new Italian drama. The Jewish community, about 2,000 people, often provided and most likely paid for dramatic spectacles for ducal entertainments. On Fridays, the performances began early since they had to end before Sabbath. The Jewish company of the Mantua ghetto acquired a high reputation as did companies in other Italian cities where there were Jewish communities. The Venetian diarist, Marin Sanudo, records on Saturday, March 4, 1531, the day after Purim, that “there was performed among the Jews in the’Geto’ a very fine comedy; but no Christian could be present by order of the Council of Ten. It ended at ten o’clock at night.”

This was almost certainly an annual event, which gentiles must have attended in earlier years, thus arousing the disapproval of the Council. In 1489, as a special request, the story of Judith and Holofernes from the Apocrypha was staged in Pesaro by the Jewish community at its own expense as the main show in the elaborate wedding celebrations of Giovanni Sforza, lord of Pesaro, to the sister of the marquess of Mantua.

In 1525, two obviously famous Jewish actors, Solomon and Jacob, were sent for from Ferrara to act in a comedy at a great banquet given by Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga in Mantua. By 1525, participation of Jews in state performances was regarded as a normal thing. In 1549, the Jews presented a comedy at the wedding of Duke Francesco in Mantua. In 1563, they performed Ariosto’s I Suppositi, and in 1568, Le Due Fulvie by Massimo Faroni of Mantua. In 1583, they presented a comedy Gli Ingiusti Sdegni by Abbé Bernado Pino, with dances by the Jewish ballet master, Jacchino Massarano. Under Duke Vincenzo of Mantua (from 1590), the Jews were required to perform almost annually. As many as 80 members took part in one performance. The success of the Mantuan community’s theater company was due in large part to one man, Leone Portaleone Sommi, an impresario well known all over Europe, who stands at the threshold of modern times and modern theater.

[Lewis Sowden]


The Jew’s participation in 17th- and 18th-century theatrical productions was, at best insignificant. As a stage character, however, the Jew, portrayed by non-Jewish actors, became a popular figure in the European theater. He was generally a villain, although occasionally, in plays by authors opposed to Jew-baiting, a super noble being. Jewish actors, until 1900, were isolated figures, facing prejudice and often abuse. It was not until the second half of the 19th century that Jews gained prominence as actors and directors in Europe and in the United States and made their mark as they had in other professions.


The bleak period is typified by the theater in England, where the Shakespearean age had made drama the most important art form in the country. Jews, who had been expelled in 1290, were little known in England until their return in the mid-17th century, but they were known on the stage. Early representations of Jews as villains gave way to stage characters who, because they were Jews, were either usurers or fools, and almost always ridiculous.

The first English secular play which included a Jewish character was The Three Ladies of London by R.W. (possibly Robert Wilson), published in 1584, in which a Jew, portrayed as decent and honorable, was nevertheless defrauded. Shortly afterward, Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1591) and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1596), in both of which a Jew was the villain, set a pattern which was to endure. There are on record 80 plays published in England from 1584 to 1820, in which at least one character was recognizable as being Jewish; most of them were written after 1700. After 1800 plays with Jewish characters appeared at the rate of almost one year. (See English Literature.)

Shakespeare’s Shylock was first played comically, until, in 1741, the Irish actor Charles Macklin caused a sensation by defying tradition and playing him as a tragic character and according to the original text.

When the English theaters, closed by the Puritans in 1642, were reopened after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, King Charles II extended his protection to Jews, and playwrights were therefore discouraged from lampooning them. More important than mere protection was the fact that King Charles continued Cromwell’s benevolent policy of allowing Jews to resettle in England. This meant in fact that Jews could now live and work openly in the country. It was some time, though, before Jews made their way in the theater. Samuel Pepys’ Diary for August 12, 1667, refers to a “Mrs. Manuel, the Jew’s wife, formerly a player,” and praises her as “a mighty discreet, sober-carriaged woman”; but it is probable that Mrs. Manuel was not herself Jewish.

The first Jewess to win a name on the English stage was Hannah Norsa, daughter of an Italian Jew from Mantua who kept a tavern in Drury Lane. She played the part of Polly Peachum in The Beggars Opera in 1732 with great success. Another popular actor on the London stage was Leoni (Myer Lyon), a singer who made his debut at Drury Lane on Dec. 13, 1760, in a play called The Enchanter. When Leoni played the lead in The Duenna by Richard Sheridan, it could not be performed on Friday night as Leoni sang in the Duke’s Place Synagogue. When it opened in 1775 at Covent Gardens at Leoni’s insistence, the name of the principal male singing part was changed from Cousin Moses to Don Carlos.

Both Leoni and another actor who played the part of the rich and absurd Isaac Mendoza in The Duenna are reported to have used the exaggerated foreign accent that had become standard for Jewish characters from at least 1715 when the character Mordecai used it in Charles Knipe’s A City Ramble. Among the leading actors who played accented Jewish roles was Ralph Wewitzer, who played in Garrick’s and Edmund Kean’s companies and who may have been of Jewish birth. The broken accent was considered hilarious by 18th- and 19th-century audiences. From the end of the 18th century on, however, there were several plays of importance that presented Jews in a favorable light, among them those by C.Z. Barnett (1802–1890), a Jew who was a playwright and an actor.

A small number of Jewish performers who became known as Astley’s Jews also played at Astley’s circuses at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century. Chief of the troupe was Jacob De *Castro, a comedian, who wrote an autobiography, Memoirs (1824).

One book changed the atmosphere for Jews in the arts and profoundly influenced their portrayal. In Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens drew Fagin as an unrelieved picture of evil, which set the tone in drama for most of the rest of the 19th century. The first adaptation of Oliver Twist reached the stage in 1838, the very year of the novel’s publication. Fagin was followed by an almost unrelieved procession of Jewish stage distortions and even helped to popularize a lisp for stage Jews that lasted until 1914.

Nevertheless, the Jews were beginning to protest. They comprised a considerable portion of theater audiences at the time, and during one performance in 1839, their resentment overflowed into a disturbance that drowned the play completely. A riot stopped Dibdin’s Family Quarrels at its 1802 opening when the audience took offense at a Jewish reference. Jews often expressed their disapproval of a play by staying away. A revival of The Jew of Malta in 1818 led to a Jewish boycott of London theaters for the rest of the season.

In contrast to their portrayal on the stage, Jews were winning distinction as actors, singers, and even writers. Maria Bland, an actress, won fame at Drury Lane toward the end of the 18th century. Mary Anne Goward Keeley (1806–1899), her husband, Robert Keeley (1793–1869), and Henry Sloman (Solomon; 1793–1873) played in London theaters. John Braham sang at Covent Garden and in 1835, built St. James’ Theatre. Edward Stirling (1811–1894) and Morris Barnett were actors and playwrights. Adelaide Neilson (1846–1880) appeared twice on tour in the U.S.

The Jewish stereotype on the London stage was finally broken in 1914 by three plays that treated Jews in some depth: Israel Zangwill’s The Melting Pot, Harold F. Rubinstein’s Consequences, and Herman Scheffauer’s The New Shylock. In 1922 came Galsworthy’s Loyalties, which treated the Jew and the prejudices surrounding him with dignity and objectivity. Leon M. Lion the actor-producer, played in a revival of the play in 1928.

With the rise of the Nazis on the Continent, the Jew became a tragic figure and could no longer be treated on the English stage in a spirit of caricature or ridicule. Jewish actors came to the fore without having to aver or deny their Jewishness, among them Alfred Marks, Alfie Bass (d. 1987), David Kossoff, Yvonne Mitchell, and Leonard Sachs. Among directors, the most important was Sir Herbert Beerbohm-Tree (1853–1917).


In most 19th-century French plays, Jews were either caricatured or romanticized, the men portrayed as ugly, old, and dirty, and the women as noble, beautiful, and heroic, but there were three important exceptions. Le Juif by Marc-Antoine-Madelaine Desaugiers (1772–1827), produced in 1823, included the benevolent character Isaac Samuel. The playwright Adolphe Philippe d’Ennery (1811–1899), who had been a public notary and was said to be a Jew named Jacob, criticized the convention that a Jew must be grotesque and repulsive. Catulle Mendes (1841–1909), whose father was a Jew, painted a sympathetic Jewish character in Les Mères Ennemies (1880). But there was no Jewish character in French drama as memorable as the English Shylock or the German Nathan the Wise.

Foremost among France’s Jewish actors was Sarah Bernhardt, who, though Roman Catholic by upbringing, was proud of her Jewish heritage; and Eliza (Rachel) Felix who died young, having become famous as an interpreter of French classic roles.

There were, of course, many more Jewish actors on the French stage: René Alexandre (1885–1945) who was noted for Corneille and Victor Hugo roles; Harry Baur who began at the Grand Guignol and went over to films; George Berr (1867–1942), an actor, director, and author of fame whose beautiful voice contributed to his success; Marthe Brandes (1862–1930) whose original name was Josephine Brunschwig, and whose grace was famous; Daniel Gelin (1921–2002), a Comédie Française stage actor and director of films; Robert Hirsch (1921–), actor; Romanian-born Edouard Alexander de Max (1862–1930) who became well known in roles of young tragic figures like Schiller’s Don Carlos; Simone Simon (1914–2005), equally at home on stage and screen; Gustave Hippolite Worms (1836–1910); the athletic Eugène Silvain (1851–1930), noted for his Roman profile; and Suzanne Reichenberg (1853–1924) who for 30 years specialized in young roles. Jules Claretie (1840–1912), dramatist and journalist, was from 1885 to 1912 the administrator of the Comédie Française. Gustave Cohen (1879–1958) was the great French historian of the theater.

In a special category belong Jean Gaspard Deburau (1796–1846) and his not-quite-so-famous son Jean Charles (1829–1873). Jean Gaspard, whose father Philippe Germain (1761–1826) had a theater of marionettes, was born in Bohemia in 1811 and came to Paris where he became a mime at the Théatre des Funambules ("Theater of the Tightrope-Walkers"), which once had been a circus. He created Pierrot, a new type which, because of its originality and the excellence of the performer, became a sensation overnight. He himself wrote the plays in which Pierrot was the tragic hero, and his art of pantomime was considered unique. His son continued in his father’s career with success, but did not equal his reputation.


In no other country in modern times did the theater play as important a role as in Germany (see German Literature). And in no other country did the Jew figure so prominently in dramatic literature, in acting or directing. His beginning was early and on a hostile note. In 1573, 97 boys, five to 17 years old, performed a play called Ein Schoen Christlich new Spil von Kinderzucht in Ensisheim (Upper Alsace). The play, written by Johann Rassern, the parson of Ensisheim, tells the story of two boys, one of whom, spoiled by his mother and corrupted by a Jew, Ulmann, ends his life on the gallows. An unknown artist illustrated the manuscript with 63 woodcuts that depict the action of the play: Ulmann and the boy at a dice game; Ulmann dragged to the gallows; and Ulmann being removed from there by the devil (F.R. Lachman, Die "Studentes" des Cristophorus Stymmelius und ihre Buehne, 1926).

In 1616, Das Endinger Judenspiel, dealing with the trial and burning of Jews for murder after the disappearance of a Christian family, was performed in Endingen (Baden). Following that, Andreas Gryphius (1616–1664) presented his Horribilicribrifax (1663; after Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus) featuring the boasting Jew Issachar; and, decade after decade from 1634, the Bavarian Oberammergau Passion Play has been staged, latterly in the face of energetic Jewish protests. The 17th and 18th centuries produced a considerable number of villainous or at least reprehensible Jewish figures in dramatic literature.

Nevertheless, Germany, at a relatively early time, provided exceptions to the general attitude. Die Juden (1749), written by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, boldly attacked Christian prejudice. Much more important, however, was Lessing’s Nathan der Weise (1779), in which Jewish, Christian, and Muslim characters present the idea that virtue is not bound to religion and that all religions are equally important. The play was banned from the stage for a number of years. A considerable number of writers for the stage followed Lessing’s example and created sympathetic Jewish figures in their plays. The caricatured Jew remained popular in the 19th and 20th centuries. An example is quoted by S.M. Dubnow (Die neueste Geschichte des juedischen Volkes 17891914, vol. 2, p. 12): in 1815–16, a very bad comedy, Die Judenschule or Unser Verkehr had enormous success. A popular actor, Wurm, aping the Jewish jargon, and mocking Jewish peculiarities, was applauded nightly. When the play was scheduled to be produced in Berlin, Israel Jacobsohn obtained a prohibition against the performance from Chancellor Hardenberg. The public became furious and held nightly demonstrations until the prohibition was revoked.

It was only toward the end of the 18th century, the time of the Emancipation, that Jewish actors appeared on the German stage. Their number, however, increased rapidly, a fact noted by the German actor and historian of the theater, Eduard Devrient, in his Geschichte der deutschen Schauspielkunst (5 vols., 1848–74). It seems that Jacob Herzfeld (1769–1826), who was admired by Goethe and Schiller and corresponded with both, was the first serious Jewish actor on the German stage. He was followed by members of three generations of his family. Eduard Jerrmann (1798–1859) had equal success on the French and on the German stage, Heinrich Marr (1797–1871) was the first Mephisto, and Anton Ascher (1820–1884) was the first Jewish comedian. Moritz Rott (1797–1867), Ludwig Dessoir, and especially the Polish-born Bogumil Dawison, followed by Siegwart Friedmann (1842–1916), Maximilian Ludwig (1847–1906), and the Budapest-born Max Pohl (1855–1935) were outstanding actors in Germany. Adolf von Sonnenthal, born in Budapest, was the uncontested star of the Vienna Hofburg-theater.

Great stage managers soon began to appear in the German theater. Berlin was without doubt one of the two capitals of world theater, the other being Moscow. Hebrew actors from Palestine who met in Berlin gave the first performance of Henie Rochet’s play Belshazzar and created the Teatron Erez Yisre’eli. While in other European countries, all theaters of importance were concentrated in the capital, in Germany, leading theaters existed in more than a dozen cities, many under Jewish managers who often doubled as outstanding stage directors.

An important development in stagecraft was brought about by the Jewish director of the theatrical company of Duke George II of Saxony Meiningen (1826–1914), Ludwig Chronegk, who, when the Meininger toured the country, staged more than 250 plays, introducing new precision, discipline, and natural behavior and creating a closely knit ensemble. In the company were Ludwig Barnay, who later had a theater of his own in Berlin, and Hungarian-born Leopold Teller (1844–1908).

Another Jewish director took the next step in the development of the German stage, Otto Brahm (Abrahamsohn), who became a pioneer of the naturalistic theater. Emanuel Reicher (1849–1924) and Else Lehmann (1866–1940), among others, acted under his direction. Together with two other Jews, the publisher Samuel Fischer and the critic Alfred Kerr, Brahm prepared the way to fame of such non-Jewish authors as Frank Wedekind and Gerhart Hauptmann.

The name of Max Reinhardt, who moved away from Brahm’s naturalism and allowed free play to fantasy, became closely associated with a great number of Jews acting under his direction: Victor Arnold (1873–1914), Ernst Deutsch, Max Pallenberg, and Rudolph Schildkraut were among them. At the same time, there were actors like Elizabeth Bergner, Maria Fein (1896–1965), Alexander Granach (1890–1945), Paul Graetz (1890–1966), Ludwig Hartau (1872–1922), Peter Lorre, Fritzi Massary, Grete Mosheim (1905–1986), Luise Rainer (1912–), Gisela Werbezirk (1875–1956), and many others. The last director who changed the outlook of the theater in Germany before Hitler’s rise to power was Leopold Jessner, a pioneer of expressionism on the stage. It was under his direction that actors like Fritz Kortner reached the zenith of their careers.

During the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th centuries, many names of Jewish theater directors in Berlin and elsewhere became widely known. Carl Friedrich Cerf (1771–1845) created the first private theater in Berlin; Victor Barnowsky, Oscar Blumenthal (1852–1917), and Gustav Lindemann (1872–1960) in Duesseldorf are among them. Alfred Kerr was the most notable representative of a generation of Jewish theater critics who had enormous influence on the development of the theater in Germany and made the reviewing of plays a quasi-independent art form. Romanian-born Ernst Stern (1876–1954) was, during the last pre-Hitler decades, Berlin’s and Reinhardt’s most honored scenic artist and stage designer.

Jewish audiences played an important, sometimes decisive role, as developments after Hitler’s take-over illustrate. On April 10, 1933, the Berlin correspondent of the Daily Telegraph reported: The theaters are beginning to suffer from the impoverishment of the Jews, who have always been lavish patrons. A new production at the Deutsches Theater, enthusiastically praised by the entire press, has been taken off after a few performances before a nearly empty auditorium.

When Hitler came to power, there were about 2,400 Jewish actors and theater directors in Germany. On April 1, 1933, an organized anti-Jewish boycott began, and Jewish actors were ousted. These actors and the public reacted by forming the Juedischer Kulturbund (Jewish Cultural League).

From 1933 on, Jews who fully understood the situation and were able to do so left Germany; but the Jewish Cultural League from 1933 to 1938 (in a limited way until 1941) supported three theater ensembles, an opera, two symphonic orchestras, one cabaret, a theater for Jewish schools, some choirs, numerous chamber music groups, and lectures and art exhibits. About 2,500 artists (actors, singers, instrumentalists, poetry readers, directors, dancers, graphic and plastic artists) and lecturers belonged to this organization set-up, and nearly 70,000 people in about 100 cities formed the public, the largest voluntary union of Jews in Germany (H. Freeden, Juedisches Theater in Nazideutschland, 1964, p. 1). The first performance, on October 1, 1933, was Lessing’s Nathan der Weise. When the Allied Powers reopened the Deutsches Theater in Berlin in 1945, the first performance was again Nathan der Weise. The director was Vienna-born Fritz Wisten, one of the few surviving members of the Juedischer Kulturbund. Very few Jewish actors and directors returned to Germany after the war; the most important of those who did were Fritz Kortner and Ernst Deutsch.


Jewish theaters in the Italian ghettos continued their performances until well into the 18th century. Later on, a few Jewish playwrights appeared on the scene. Among the actors, Gustavo Modena (1803–1861) was an interesting personality, a revolutionary who had to flee Italy and was only able to return after an amnesty had been granted. He was especially brilliant in recitation. Giovanni Emanuel (1848–1902) toured in Berlin, Vienna, and Russia but had his greatest triumphs in Shakespeare and Schiller parts in South America.

Claudio Leigheb (1848–1903), who specialized in comedy roles, was an actor’s son. Giuseppe Sichel (1849–1934) helped to make French comedy popular in Italy. Enrico Reinach (1851–1929) mostly played the part of the young lover. Virginia Reiter (1868–1937) achieved fame largely thanks to her Jewish features, which could give dramatic expression to any kind of emotion and to her beautiful voice. Anche Oreste Calabresi (1857–1915) was equally at home in drama and in comedy. Ugo Piperno (1871–1922) acted on the stage and in a number of films. The great Italian historian of the theater, Alessandro d’Ancona (1835–1914), was a Jew.


In Holland, writer and dramatist Herman Heijermans (also Heyermans) dedicated his prose works and his plays to the problems of the proletariat and the lower middle class, especially Jews. In one of his plays, Ghetto (1898), the role of Sachel was played by the Jewish actor Louis de Vries (1871–1940), who was also a director and theatrical organizer. He was outstanding in such roles as Shylock, Hamlet, Fuhrmann Henschel, and Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion. Holland’s most outstanding actors, however, belonged to the Bouwmeester family, which provided actors from the second half of the 18th century to the first half of the 20th. The first acting members of this family were Frederik Adrianus Rosenveldt (1769–1847), a comedian, and his son Frederik Johannes Rosenveldt (1798–1867), who married Louise Francina Maria Bouwmeester. Their children took their mother’s name. Louis Frederik Johannes Bouwmeester (1842–1925) came to be considered Holland’s greatest actor. Other acting members of this family include Theodora Antonia Louis Bouwmeester (1850–1939), who acquired fame as Schiller’s Maria Stuart, as Madame Sans-Gêne, and in other roles; Frederik Christianus Bouwmeester (1885–?), and Lily Bouwmeester (1901–1993), a stage and film actress.


In czarist times, Jewish actors on the Russian stage in Moscow and St. Petersburg were usually members of foreign touring companies. There were Jewish actors in the provincial troupes, mostly under Russian names. Some of them had come from the Yiddish theaters when they were closed by czarist edict in 1883, and most of them took Russian names (if not baptism). The lifting of the ban for a few years before the Russian Revolution changed the situation little, though the rising film industry did provide further scope. By 1914, Ossip Runitsch, who had started on the stage, had become a star of the Russian cinema. A well-known Jewish player in czarist companies was Alla Nazimova, who left for the U.S. in 1905.

The revolution brought other Jewish personalities into the open. Zinaida Raikh, the wife of V. Meyerhold, the Russian director, achieved a triumph in Meyerhold’s production of The Lady of the Camellias in the 1930s. She was murdered in her Moscow flat in 1940 after Meyerhold’s arrest and execution by Stalin’s agents. After the Stalinist period, the outstanding Jewish actor on the Russian stage was the comedian Arkadi Raykin.

[Lewis Sowden and Frederick R. Lachman]

United States

The theater in the United States, especially on New York’s Broadway, was during the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century strongly influenced by Europe and especially by England, but gained independence fast and developed largely under the stimulus of Jewish directors and players. An early if atypical figure was the actress Adah Isaacs Menken, who created a sensation in the title role of Byron’s Mazeppa in 1861. Before the end of the century, the playwright David Belasco and the Frohman brothers producers were important names in the New York theater world, the first of the great line of personalities that was subsequently to arise on Broadway.

Jewish influence in a city with a growing Jewish population was among the sources from which the New York theater was enriched. During the 1890s, Yiddish theater was developing rapidly on Second Avenue and growing into a training ground for actors, among them personalities such as Paul Muni, who were inevitably to turn their eyes toward Broadway. Another source of trained actors was the music hall or variety theater. It abounded in Jewish comedians and sent much talent to the "legitimate" stage. Derogatory references to Jews were largely absent from the music halls because of the pressure from Jewish performers.

The early and middle years of the 20th century saw the rise of Jews to unequaled prominence on Broadway, where they distinguished themselves as actors, playwrights, songwriters, and composers. Early outstanding figures were the playwrights Clifford Odets, Elmer Rice, S.N. Behrman; the showman Billy Rose; and the producers Sam and Jed Harris. Others were Arthur Leroy Kaser, who wrote monologues, Elmer C. Levinger, who wrote 19 short plays about Jewish history before World War II; and Samson Raphaelson, who in 1925 wrote The Jazz Singer about a Jewish boy who had to choose between being a cantor and a musical comedy actor. Al Jolson made the lead role famous. Later in the century, playwrights who were Jewish made a major impact on the drama.

Of the hundreds of Jews who achieved fame as actors and actresses in the half-century from 1920, practically none remained basically a stage actor. Writers, producers, directors, and actors divided their time between stage, film, and television, whereby the importance of film and television continuously increased. In addition, on the stage, the musical absorbed a high percentage of the Jewish theatrical people, and a number of them, such as the Marx brothers or the Ritz brothers, stayed on the thin borderline between acting and entertaining. There are a few, among the many, who remained equally at home in all the media, Zero Mostel, Danny Kaye, and Sid Caesar among them.

Among the producers were Max Liebman, discoverer of Danny Kaye and Sid Caesar; and Alexander H. Cohen, who became known as Broadway’s “Millionaire Boy Angel” and produced more than 30 stage shows in New York and London. During the 1960s, Mike Nichols became one of the outstanding stage and film directors. Jules Irving and Herbert Blau, who had founded in the early 1950s the Actors’ Workshop, an avant-garde group in San Francisco, became 1965 co-directors of the Lincoln Center Repertory Theater in New York. Blau resigned from that post in 1967. Florenz Ziegfeld and the Shubert brothers, Mike Todd, Lee Strasberg, and many others were important and successful producers, directors, and teachers of generations of actors. Boris Aronson, who began his career in the Yiddish theater when he came to New York in the early 1920s, became America’s best-known stage designer. Jean Rosenthal was the leading lighting designer of the theater in the 1950s and 1960s.

[Mark Perlgut]

Jews continued to play a prominent role in the New York theater, particularly on Broadway, largely through the ownership of theaters. The Shubert organization, run by Gerald Schoenfeld and Bernard Jacobs, controlling the largest houses, which offered the prospect of higher profits, was a significant force in the economics of the theatrical offerings. Despite the absence of Joseph Papp, who had died, his Public Theater continued to present provocative Shakespeare comedies, dramas, and other works. Arthur Miller died in 2005, but his major works, including Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, and A View from the Bridge, were produced throughout the United States. Younger Jewish playwrights like Tony Kushner, Jon Robin Baitz, Richard Greenberg, and Wendy Wasserman emerged as serious dramatists.

[Stewart Kampel (2nd ed.)]

Jews in the Musical

The musical comedy, later called musical play or simply musical, has its sources in the European operetta and in vaudeville. The musical comedy moved from England to the United States, where in the 20th century, the genre expanded and underwent its greatest development. Already in the earliest forms of musical theater, the revue or vaudeville, Jews had played an important role: Florenz Ziegfeld with his Ziegfeld Follies, which, between 1907 and 1931, introduced many singer-actors and composers like Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern. Elaborate revues were presented by the Shubert brothers, theatrical entrepreneurs who, by 1956, owned 17 theaters on Broadway and about half of the nation’s legitimate theaters. In the field of operetta, Rudolf Friml and Sigmund Romberg, both immigrants from Europe, dominated: Friml, born in Prague, with The Firefly (1912) and Rose Marie (1924), Romberg, Viennaborn, with The Student Prince (1924) and The Desert Song (1926). Jerome Kern, whose works include the Princess Theater Shows (1915–18), was one of the earliest composers of musical comedy. So was Irving Berlin with Yip, Yip, Yaphank (1918). He and producer Sam H. Harris built the Music Box Theater in 1920, and here they put on their sophisticated and lavish Music Box Revues (1921–24).

The 1920s saw composers such as Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, and Arthur Schwartz (d. 1984), with Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II, E.Y. Harburg, Howard Dietz, Ira Gershwin, George S. Kaufman, and Morrie Ryskind as lyricists and librettists. The team of Rodgers and Hart became one of the most fruitful in American musical history, producing 27 musicals. Dietz wrote the music for the Grand Street Follies (1925). George Gershwin, one of the most celebrated composers of the era, wrote, in addition to several large works for orchestra, the music of more than 20 Broadway musicals. His brother, Ira, wrote the lyrics for many of George’s shows.

Early important examples of the musical play were Dearest Enemy (1925) and A Connecticut Yankee (1927), both by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart; still more important was Showboat (1927) by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, based on a book by Edna Ferber, and destined to become a classic of the American musical theater.

Musical plays of the 1930s mirrored the reality of American life, the slump and the Depression; Of Thee I Sing (1931), a satire on American politics by Morrie Ryskind (d. 1985), George S. Kaufman, and George and Ira Gershwin, was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Kurt Weill was the composer for Johnny Johnson (1936), an anti-war comedy, and for The Eternal Road (1937), a pageant of Jewish history produced by Max Reinhardt. George Gershwin reached a new high with Porgy and Bess (1935). Pins and Needles (1937), an amateur revue presented by the heavily Jewish International Ladies Garment Workers, became a Broadway hit. Harold Rome wrote most of the music and lyrics.

In the 1940s, the American musical play came fully into its own. Pal Joey (1940), a Rodgers and Hart work, was an adult musical, one of the first to deal with the seamy side of life. Lady in the Dark (1941), dealing with the hitherto theatrically unexplored world of psychoanalysis, had a libretto by Moss Hart, score by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and was produced by Sam Harris.

In 1943, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote Oklahoma, which fully demonstrated the use of music in telling a story and delineating character. It was followed by other productions equally triumphant in the new form: Carousel (1945) and South Pacific (1949 Pulitzer Prize winner), both by Rodgers and Hammerstein; Annie Get Your Gun (1946; music by Irving Berlin); and Brigadoon (1947), with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner.

Jewish writers and composers continued to make brilliant use of the musical play in the same years. E.Y. Harburg wrote the lyrics for Finian’s Rainbow (1947). Frank Loesser wrote the music and lyrics for Guys and Dolls (1950). The Pajama Game (1954) and Damn Yankees (1955) were hits by the songwriting team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. The Threepenny Opera (1954), with a score by Kurt Weill and libretto modernized by Marc Blitzstein, had a fabulously successful off-Broadway revival. It ran for over six years. Frederick Loewe composed for Alan J. Lerner’s My Fair Lady (based on Shaw’s Pygmalion) in 1956. Leonard Bernstein, who had had earlier successes such as Wonderful Town (1953), introduced new trends in West Side Story (1957). The Sound of Music (1959), another Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration, brought a story of the Nazi invasion of Austria to the musical stage.

In 1961, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, with words and lyrics by Frank Loesser, was the fourth musical play to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The 1964 hit Fiddler on the Roof emphasized once more the Jewish contribution to the new form in a play based on Yiddish stories by Shalom Aleichem, with a score by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock and choreography by Jerome Robbins. Zero Mostel created the role of Tevya, and the play had one of the longest runs of the 1960s.

Milk and Honey (1961), with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, was a musical with an Israel setting starring Molly Picon. Herman also contributed the smash hit Hello Dolly! (1964), Mame (1965), and Dear World (1968). No Strings (1962), about an interracial love affair, had music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers. Among performers, Barbra Streisand skyrocketed to fame as the Broadway singing sensation of the 1960s through her roles in I Can Get It For You Wholesale (1962) and Funny Girl (1964). Subsequently, Julie Taymor made a significant impact on the Broadway musical with her daringly original staging of The Lion King, a musical that had a long life. And the grandson of Richard Rodgers, Adam Guettel, began a promising career as a Broadway composer with A Light in the Piazza.

In other countries, too, Jewish talent was attracted by the scope offered in the musical. In England, one of the most successful stage shows of the 1960s was Oliver! with lyrics and music by Lionel Bart and the book based on Dickens’ Oliver Twist. The same composer’s Blitz followed it in 1962. In South Africa, the African musical King Kong was produced and directed by Leon Gluckman in 1959 with a story by Harry Bloom. It reached London in 1961.

In Israel, too, the musical play proved a success in the commercial theater. One of the first such hits was the Chamber Theater’s production of King Solomon and the Cobbler (1966), based on a play by Sami Gronemann. Giora Godik, after winning the public with American musicals, presented the all-Israel musical play Casablan in 1967. Since that time, musicals have been a staple of Israeli theater.

[Harvey A. Cooper]

The Jew as Entertainer

From the early Middle Ages on, entertainers were mimes, storytellers, clowns, singers, dancers, acrobats, jugglers, and tamers of wild animals. Beginning in the 13th century, or even earlier, Jews in Italian cities were compelled to participate in the carnival-time buffooneries as mounts for soldiers or for the general populace. The Corso degli ebrei (“race of the Hebrews”) became a regular carnival feature. Jews played their role as clowns or buffoons for the diversion of powerful men in the Christian world, and from the 16th century on, in the Muslim world (e.g., for the sultan in Constantinople). The role, in most cases, was not a chosen one. Vagrant mimes, musicians, players, and jugglers began to appear in Europe as early as the 11th century. They were called minstrels in England and France, Spielleute in Germany. Jews grouped together and began to entertain predominantly Jewish audiences. Their performances became particularly associated with Purim festivities. The professional jokers were called leẓim (“mockers”) or, later on, marsheliks (“buffoons”). During the 14th and 15th centuries, some of these leẓim gradually developed into actors; their performance evolved into the Yiddish word drama, which originally was based on biblical themes.

For a long time, however, the entertainment performed between the acts of a play was more popular than the play itself. During these interludes, the performers were in their element, clowning as rabbis, medical men, pharmacists, midwives, or even as devils, at times severely mocking Jewish peculiarities. The leẓim-marsheliks continued, together with the Purim plays, until far into the 19th century. Their name gradually changed to badḥanim (“fools”). They appeared in the Jewish settlements in Galicia, later on in the Jewish villages of Russia, the Bukovina, and Romania. A new type of itinerant entertainers assumed the name of the place they had come from and were called Broder Singers. In comic disguises, they sang, danced, and occasionally performed short one-act plays.

In modern times, entertainment has developed into a world of its own, and an extremely high percentage of its population is Jewish. London’s music halls produced artists such as Lottie Collins (1866–1910). In Berlin, Hermann Haller (1872–1943) became famous as a creator of revues and shows. Florenz Ziegfeld in New York with his spectacular Ziegfeld Follies gave the first big chance to artists such as Fanny Brice and Eddie Cantor.

In addition to Jewish professional entertainers in the 20th century in Europe and the U.S. who often were actors as well as entertainers (Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Victor Borge, Danny Kaye, the Canadian comedian team Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster), there were artists who specialized in forms of entertainment which had very little or nothing to do with acting: the magician Samuel Bellachini; the clown Grock; the athletes Josef and Siegmund Breitbart; Harry Houdini, escape artist; Harry Reso, the step-dancer; Sophie Tucker, the last “red hot Mamma,” and an immense number of others for whom, more and more, television became an ideal forum.

[Frederick R. Lachman]


Theatrical performances in Yiddish have taken place for at least half a millennium and, in modern times, have spanned six continents. Yiddish drama and theater absorbed virtually every major trend that emerged in Western drama, and Yiddish playwrights and performers have been deeply influenced by, and have exerted their own influence on, the drama and theater of broad swaths of Europe, the Americas, and to a lesser extent, Australia and South Africa. For millions of Yiddish speakers, theater has long been a lively form of entertainment, but it has always been something more than that as well. Particularly at its height, from the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th, the Yiddish theater provided millions of Jewish theatergoers with a powerful tool to help them understand the ever-changing world in which they lived.

Premodern Performance in Yiddish

For many centuries, Judaism placed significant barriers in the way of the development of a full-fledged, professional Jewish theatrical tradition, and as a result, the process was slowed significantly. Similar to early Christian commentators like Augustine and Tertullian, the rabbis of the Talmudic period and the early Middle Ages harbored a deep suspicion of theater, influenced in no small measure by the excesses of Roman entertainment. In the Christian world, such objections were overcome by pedagogical necessity, as theater came to fill a void left by the illiteracy of the masses in ways that few sermons could. The fact that anti-Semitic attitudes figured prominently in medieval Christian drama did little to endear the theatrical art to Jewish authorities, however.

The form of the earliest extant purimshpil resembles the German Fastnachtspiel in many ways, including not only the aforementioned profanity and eroticism but the central role of a narrator (here known as the loyfer, shrayber, or payats). The traditional purimshpil was performed entirely by men and boys – often yeshivah students. Since most performances took place in the homes of wealthy families, the plays needed to be short so that companies could make their rounds. Masks and primitive costumes were the norm, and extant early texts do not tend to indicate changes of costume or scenery. Beginning in the 16th century, purimshpiln gradually became more elaborate, and in some places, they expanded beyond the one-day festival itself, with performances being offered for up to two weeks on either side of the holiday. By the early 18th century, purimshpiln reflected many trends in contemporary European theater in literary style, subject matter, and scene design. Most of the extant Purim plays from the period indeed resemble Baroque Staatsaktionen far more than they do the folk plays that preceded them: their plots are complex and politically charged, their language ornate (Latinate and French-influenced); one of the plays is identified as an opera; another is provided with a description of the instrumentation of the orchestra that accompanied the performance. Nevertheless, the plays maintained a connection with Purim and were performed during the appropriate season. Though the development of the modern Yiddish theater altered the function of the purimshpil among Yiddish speakers, it did not altogether supplant this performance form, which continues to be staged to this day, particularly in many Hasidic communities.

Haskalah Drama

The carnivalesque atmosphere that prevailed on Purim was critical for loosening restrictions that made it impossible for theatrical performance to take root in the Jewish community during the rest of the year. Though women could still not perform in public on Purim, that holiday at least suspended the traditional prohibition (from Deut. 22:5) against men wearing women’s clothing, and it was common for yeshivah students – whose traditional learning equipped them well to make learned, extempore ad libs – to perform the roles in Purim plays. As long as the Jewish community as a whole adhered to rabbinic law, however, Jewish theatrical performances would have to remain confined to one season only.

The sea change that transformed the place of theater in the Jewish world came about in the late 18th century when the Haskalah movement was born in Germany. In essays, pamphlets, fiction, poetry, and drama, the maskilim exhorted their fellow Jews to become less insular, to integrate more fully into European society (at least to the extent that the law and their non-Jewish neighbors allowed), and to reap the fruits of secular thought in politics, philosophy, science, and the arts. While the movement initially met with fierce resistance from religious Jews, it ultimately paved the way to new forms of religious expression and a new orientation toward the non-Jewish world.

Although no professional Jewish theater existed when the Haskalah began, a number of maskilim voiced their polemics in dramatic form – possibly with the intention of performances in literary salons or Jewish schools. This phenomenon began with two of the leading figures of the Berlin Haskalah, Isaac Euchel and Aaron Halle-Wolfssohn. Both Euchel’s Reb Henokh, oder Vos Tut Men Damit” (“Reb Henokh, or What Can Be Done with It”“ ca. 1792) and Wolfssohn’s Leichtsinn und Frömmelei (“Frivolity and False Piety,” ca. 1796) helped set the tone for decades of Haskalah dramas. Both of these satires make rich use of a wide palette of social types and attitudes and varying levels of language. Almost all subsequent Haskalah plays were comedies; among the most accomplished and influential were the anonymous satire Di Genarte Velt (“The Duped World,” ca. 1810); Solomon Ettinger’s comic melodrama Serkele (1838), featuring a gallery of comic types ranging across the social spectrum; Avrom Ber Gottlober’s grotesque and wickedly anti-Hasidic Der Dektukh, oder Tsvey Khupes in Eyn Nakht (“The Bridal Veil, or Two Weddings in One Night,” 1839); several comedies and melodramas by Israel Axenfeld written in the 1830s and 1840s, including Der Ershter Yidisher Rekrut in Rusland (“The First Jewish Recruit in Russia,” ca. 1840), which in fact expresses considerable ambivalence about the goals and methods of the Haskalah; and S.Y. Abramovitsh’s scathing social satire, Di Takse (“The Tax,” 1869).

Broder Singers

The 1850s also saw the rise of a type of performer known as the Broder Singer. Taking their name from the Galician city of Brody (or Brod) – the hometown of the reputed “father” of the form, Berl Broder (Berl Margulis) – Broder Singers would come to play a direct role in the formation of the modern professional Yiddish theater. Like the purimshpil, the performances of the Broder Singers became more elaborate over time. Initially, songs telling a story – often based on familiar character types and situations from everyday Jewish life – were accompanied by facial expressions and gestures. From there, it was a short step to embedding the songs into theatrical situations with a couple of performers, quick changes of costume to suit the characters described in the lyrics, and simple makeup. As the Broder Singers’ fame grew, so did their geographical reach. They spread throughout Galicia and Romania and from there into Russia. The repertoire and performance styles of the most renowned of these figures, including Berl Broder and Velvl Zbarzher, inspired the first generation of professional Yiddish playwrights.

The Goldfaden Era

Though Yiddish companies managed to perform in places like Warsaw (in the 1830s and 1860s) during seasons completely unconnected with Purim, such efforts met with stiff resistance from Jewish community leaders and left no direct legacy. Abraham Goldfaden, on the other hand, would earn the title of “Father of the Yiddish Theater” by forming the first relatively stable professional Yiddish troupe and proceeding to write its plays, compose its music, and direct the actors. Goldfaden’s background prepared him in many ways for the task. He claimed to have begun composing songs as a young boy and was a published poet and dramatist by the time he completed his rabbinical studies in the 1860s. His first full-length play, Di Mume Sosye (“Aunt Sosya,” 1869), bore the clear influence of Ettinger’s Serkele – not entirely surprising since Goldfaden had played the title role in a production staged at his seminary in Zhitomir in 1862. One of Goldfaden’s early teachers was none other than the noted satirical writer and dramatist Abraham Baer Gottlober.

After trying his hand at various careers, Goldfaden assembled his first company in Jassy, Romania, in 1876. His star performer, Israel Grodner, was a seasoned Broder Singer. Over the next several years, the playwright would turn out a stream of vaudevilles, burlesques, and full-length comedies. His early plays were often crude, but among them are several of his masterpieces: Shmendrik (1877), Di Kishefmakherin (“The Sorceress,” 1879), and Der Fanatik, oder di Tsvey Kuni-Leml (“The Fanatic, or the Two Kuni-Lemls,” 1880). In these musical comedies, Goldfaden sharply critiqued, in the spirit of the Haskalah, religious hypocrisy, fanaticism, and insularity. He did so with lively music, witty lyrics, deftly drawn characterizations, and the increasingly assured hand of a skilled farceur. Within the first year of his company’s existence, Goldfaden hired his first actress, and two rival troupes were formed, one led by Joseph Lateiner and the other by self-styled “Professor” Moyshe Hurwitz. These two men would become Goldfaden’s lifelong rivals.

Though critics would always favor Goldfaden, Hurwitz and Lateiner would become as popular as they were prolific, each with an enormous number of musicals and melodramas to his credit. Lateiner’s plays include Aleksander, Kroyn-Prints fun Yerusholayim (“Alexander, Crown Prince of Jerusalem,” 1892), Blimele, di Perle fun Varshe (“Blimele, the Pearl of Warsaw,” 1894), Dovids Fidele (“David’s Violin,” 1897), Dos Yidishe Harts (“The Jewish Heart,” 1908); Hurwitz’s plays include Tisza Eszlar (1887), Ben Hador (1901). In addition to this trio, other playwrights who contributed to the foundation of the professional repertoire were Nahum-Meyer Shaykevitsh Shomer), a prolific writer of melodramas and light comedies, and Yoysef-Yude Lerner, who adapted a number of works on Jewish themes from other languages; these included Karl Gutzkow’s Uriel Acosta, Jacques F. Halévy and Eugène Scribe’s opera La Juive (as Zhidovka), and Salomon Hermann von Mosenthal’s Deborah. Other writers active during this period were Sigmund Feinman, Israel Barski, Rudolph Marks, and Reuben Weissman.

Westward Exodus

The pogroms that followed the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 helped spark a Jewish exodus from Russia. Over the next few decades, several million Jews left their homes in Eastern Europe in search of more favorable social and economic surroundings. The Yiddish theater moved with the masses. To be sure, this shift was given a firm push by the czarist authorities, who banned Yiddish theater in 1883. Though the ban would turn out to be capricious and inconsistently enforced, it made a difficult business all the more precarious, and many performers and playwrights headed for places where they could pursue their work more freely. Companies were created or expanded in Eastern European cities outside the Russian empire, like Warsaw and Lemberg, while new centers of Yiddish theater arose further west.

By far, the most important homes of Yiddish theater in Western Europe were Britain and France. In London, performances were staged at such venues as the Whitechapel, Grand Palais, and Pavilion theaters. During the westward exodus from Eastern Europe, London became both a haven in its own right and a way station for refugees ultimately planning to settle in the U.S. Stars such as Jacob Adler, David Kessler, M.D. and Fanny Waxman, and Sigmund and Dina Feinman made London their home for a time, enriching the quality of performance in the East End theaters – and in Feinman’s case, also penning a number of dramas. London was also well positioned to serve as both a destination for visiting companies – both the Vilna Troupe and New York’s Yiddish Art Theatre made numerous visits in the 1920s and 1930s – and as a launching pad for performers and companies heading to northern British cities such as Manchester, Leeds, and Glasgow.

The most prolific London-based Yiddish playwright was Joseph Markovitsh, while the single most successful work written for the London Yiddish stage was journalist S.Y. Harendorf’s Der Kenig fun Lampeduze (“The King of Lampedusa,” 1943), which ran for months at the Pavilion Theatre before that venue was permanently put out of business by the German bombs that carpeted London during the Blitz. Paris was more of a stopover than a destination in itself for many East European Jews. By the time Goldfaden first visited Paris in 1889 and assembled a company there, the French capital had already hosted Yiddish performances for several years. But the city never developed a distinctive tradition of professional Yiddish theater, although it did provide fertile ground for a number of amateur or semi-professional drama groups tied to specific political movements – for example, the anarchist Frayhayt group, the Labor Zionist Fraye Yidishe Bine, and the Bundist Fraye Yidishe Arbeter Bine. Members of such groups were workers and artisans. While little French Yiddish drama was homegrown, Paris was the longtime home of Chaim Sloves, author of notable dramas like Homens Mapole (“Haman’s Downfall,” 1949), Borekh fun Amsterdam (“Baruch of Amsterdam,” 1956), and Nekome Nemer (“Avengers,” 1947).

The Gordin Era

The nature of the early professional Yiddish repertoire, as well as the uneven production values by which such plays were staged, sparked ongoing tensions among critics, playwrights, and audiences. Reviewers constantly lamented the “low” taste of the Yiddish audience (pejoratively nicknamed “Moyshe”) and the dominance of shund (popular theater; literally, “trash”). In common parlance, “Moyshe” was frequently described as “licking his fingers” in delight at such offerings. Yiddish playwrights, for their part, often shrugged off the critics’ complaints, suggesting that such niceties as aesthetic ambitions had to take a back seat to practical concerns like putting food on the table.

Not all playwrights, however, were so disdainful of social and aesthetic criteria for drama, and when Jacob Gordin emerged on the scene with his first drama in 1891, many critics – along with more serious-minded actors and playwrights – felt that a new era was dawning. Gordin, a new Russian immigrant to New York with a background in utopian politics and intellectual activity, also deplored the existing repertoire but was pleasantly surprised by the sophistication of performers like Jacob P. Adler, whom he met not long after arriving in New York. Gordin was persuaded to write a play for Adler, and the result was Sibirya (“Siberia,” 1891), a work with its share of melodramatic touches but far more naturalistic than anything that had previously been seen on the Yiddish stage.

Gordin would be hailed in many circles as the great reformer of Yiddish drama; successes such as Der Yidisher Kenig Lir (“The Jewish King Lear,” 1892), Mirele Efros (1898), Got, Mentsh un Tayvl (“God, Man, and Devil,” 1900), and Khasye di Yesoyme (“Khasye the Orphan Girl,” 1903) would become fixtures on Yiddish stages for decades, and their main roles became proving grounds for leading men and women as well as character actors. The effectiveness of Gordin’s best plays derives in large measure from the fact that he wrote for outstanding actors like Jacob Adler, Sarah Adler, Keni Liptzin, Dovid Kessler, and Bertha Kalish. Like the European playwrights he emulated, such as Henrik Ibsen, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Maxim Gorky, Gordin often sparked controversy for his treatment of delicate social issues. Both his social engagement and his dramaturgical technique drew a following not only among audiences and critics but also among fellow playwrights.

By the time of Gordin’s death in 1909, the most obvious heirs to his mantle were Leon Kobrin (Yankl Boyle, 1913), Riverside Drive (1928), Tsurik tsu Zayn Folk (“Back to His People,” 1914), and Di Nekst-Dorike (“The Woman Next Door,” 1916) and Zalmen Libin (Yisroel-Zalmen Hurvits) (Hanele oder di Yidishe Medea (“Hannele or the Jewish Medea,” 1903), Tsebrokhene Hertser (“Broken Hearts,” 1903), though neither would achieve Gordin’s level of influence.

Other popular contemporaries of Gordin included Nokhem Rakov (Der Batlen (“The Idler,” 1903), Di Grine Moyd (“The Green Girl,” 1904), Khantshe in Amerike (“Khantshe in America,” 1913); Isidore Zolotarevsky (Der Yeshive Bokher - “The Yeshivah Student,” 1899), Di Yidishe Ana Karenina (“The Jewish Anna Karenina,” 1901–2), Di Vayse Shklavin (“The White Slave,” 1909)) Avrom-Mikhl Sharkanski (Kol Nidre - “All Vows,” 1896); the brothers Anshl and Moyshe Shor (A Mentsh Zol Nen Zayn (“Be a Decent Person,” 1909); and Moyshe Richter (Moyshe Khayat (“Moyshe the Tailor,” 1903) and Sholem Bayis (“Domestic Tranquility,” 1904). Such works became popular on Yiddish stages worldwide.

For all of Gordin’s achievements, he did not manage to drive shund from the Yiddish stage, one of his explicitly stated goals. The Yiddish critics tended to attribute this fact to Moyshe’s low taste, but they failed to appreciate that shund – or, to use a less value-laden term, musicals, and melodramas – could succeed for positive reasons as well. Though the acting on Yiddish stages was often uneven and overblown, many Yiddish performers possessed extraordinary talent. Audiences worshiped specialists in musical theater like Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, Sigmund and Dina Feinman, Clara Young, and Regina Prager; comedians like Berl Bernstein and Zelig Mogulesco; and character actors like Boaz Young and Bina Abramovitsh. And because of the importance of music in the Yiddish repertoire, its composers contributed as much to its success as its performers. Among the most important composers of music for the Yiddish theater were Arnold Perlmutter and Herman Wohl (who had many of their greatest successes as a team), Dovid Meyerovitsh, Louis Friedsel, Joseph Rumshinsky, Abe Ellstein, Sholem Secunda, and Peretz Sandler.

New York to World War II

As long as westward migrations continued, New York would continue to assert itself as one of the world capitals of Yiddish theater. Almost all of the most important actors and performers in the American Yiddish theater were foreign-born, many having started their careers in cultural centers like Warsaw and Odessa. Among the playwrights in this category were David Pinski and Peretz Hirschbein. Both men were talented journalists and prose writers, and both generated a distinguished body of dramatic work as well. Pinski could write biting satires, like Der Oytser (“The Treasure,” 1911), but often wrote in a darker vein, in dramas like Der Eybiker Yid (“The Eternal Jew,” 1929), Di Familye Tsvi (“The Family Tsvi,” 1905), and Ayzik Sheftl (“Isaac Sheftl,” 1904–5). He also wrote popular dramas revolving around tempestuous human passions in works like Yankl der Shmid (“Yankl the Blacksmith,” 1909) and Gabri un di Froyen (“Gabri and the Women,” 1905).

Hirschbein experimented with various dramatic modes and registers, but is best known for his idylls of village life, relying more on deftly developed characters and convincing dialogue than on plot. These include A Farvorfn Vinkl (“A Forsaken Nook,” 1918), Di Puste Kretshme (“The Idle Inn,” 1919), and Grine Felder (“Green Fields,” 1918). Other accomplished members of this new wave of dramatists working primarily in New York were Osip Dimov (Shma Yisroel (“Hear, O Israel,” 1907), Bronx Express (1919), Yoshke Muzikant (“Yoshke the Musician”; the first of numerous versions premiered in 1914 as Der Gedungener Khosn (“The Hired Bridegroom”)); H. Leivick (Shmates (“Rags,” 1921), Shop (1926), Der Goylem (“The Golem,” 1925); Fishl Bimko (Ganovim - “Thieves,” 1919), Dembes - “Oaks,” 1922)); Harry Sackler (Yizkor - “Remembrance,” 1922), Mayor Noyekh (“Major Noah,” 1928), Rakhav fun Yerikho (“Rahab of Jericho,” 1928), and Avrom Shomer (Aykele Mazil (“Ikey the Devil,” 1911), Style (1913), Der Griner Milyoner (“The Green Millionaire,” 1915).

These playwrights often wrote for companies that joined the assemblage of notable Yiddish troupes. Foremost among these in New York was Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theater, which subsisted on a diet of Western and Yiddish classics, new Yiddish dramas, and – most lucratively – adaptations of Yiddish novels, like Shalom Aleichem’s Tevye der Milkhiker (“Tevye the Dairyman,” 1919) and I.J. Singer’s Yoshke Kalb (1932), dramatized by Schwartz himself. Schwartz’s company was, in theory, an ensemble, but in practice, it belonged very much to the 19th-century star system. For true ensemble acting, New York Yiddish audiences went to Artef (from the Yiddish acronym for Workers’ Theater Collective), which opened its doors in 1928 with a production of Soviet Yiddish playwright Beynush Shteiman’s Baym Toyer (“At the Gate,” 1928). The company established itself as the avant-garde answer to commercial offerings with innovative productions of such works as Israel Axenfeld’s Der Ershter Yidisher Rekrut in Rusland (aka Rekrutn - “Recruits,” 1934) and Sholem Aleichem’s Dos Groyse Gevins (“The Jackpot,” 1936; often going by the alternate title 200,000). Artef never managed to launch any major new playwriting talent, however.

Latin America

Many performers based in the United States regularly made their way to Latin America. While companies were also formed in such places as Mexico City, Uruguay, Chile, and Brazil, Buenos Aires was by far the largest and most significant Latin American hub for Yiddish performers and eventually emerged as a major center for Yiddish theater. Productions of plays from the European repertoire began there by 1901, and soon popular performers from North America and Europe, including Boris Thomashesfky, Maurice Schwartz, Celia Adler, Rudolph Zaslavsky, Zygmunt Turkow, Ida Kaminska, and Joseph Buloff, added Buenos Aires and other cities and town in Argentina and neighboring countries to their list of touring destinations.

The Yiddish theater in Buenos Aires had a long-standing connection to the seedier side of Latin American life, for pimps and prostitutes in this major center of the “white slave” trade invested heavily in the theater and had some control over its contents. In his memoirs, Peretz Hirschbein recalls how the many prostitutes in the audience for the Buenos Aires production (ca. 1910) of his drama Miryam were moved to tears by the plight of his heroine, an innocent shtetl girl who falls into a life of prostitution. Leyb Malekh’s Ibergus (“Remodeling,” 1926) hit even closer to home, for that drama specifically addresses the connections and conflicts among different strata of Argentinean society: the respectable folk, prostitutes, gangsters, and actors. The play caused an uproar when it premiered in Buenos Aires in 1926.

That city rose to greater prominence as a center of Yiddish theatrical activity in the 1930s, particularly with the founding of organizations like IFT (Idisher Folks Teater, “Jewish People’s Theatre”) in 1932, in the tradition of left-wing, artistically ambitious troupes like its notable contemporaries, Yung Teater in Warsaw and Artef in New York. IFT continued to offer its audiences plays addressing social issues until demographic changes forced it to switch to Spanish performances in the mid-1950s. Though the Argentinean Yiddish theater enjoyed years of prosperity following World War II, when many talented refugees made their way there, the seeds of its decline had already been sown. Young Argentinean Jews, like their counterparts in North America and Western Europe, were being raised in a native language other than Yiddish, and one theater after another either closed its doors forever or abandoned Yiddish in favor of the local language.

The Art Theater Movement in Eastern Europe

In New York, Gordin was often praised for breathing fresh life into Yiddish drama. This was particularly true in the 1890s; later, prominent critics like Abraham Cahan, who had championed Gordin early on, reversed course and harshly attacked his dramaturgy. European critics like I.L. Peretz and Noyekh Prilutski, however, never warmed to Gordin in the way that many American critics had. Peretz regarded Gordin as little better than a shund playwright and felt that a different type of dramaturgy was needed to help Yiddish drama take a seat of honor at the table of Western dramatic literature. Peretz sought to remedy this situation partly by articulating ambitious critical criteria, partly by writing plays himself, and partly by championing new talent. As a playwright, Peretz was influenced most notably by naturalism in his short plays and symbolism in his full-length, poetic dramas. The latter include Baynakht afn Altn Mark (“A Night in the Old Marketplace,” 1907) and Di Goldene Keyt (“The Golden Chain,” 1907); among his best-known one-acts are Shvester (“Sisters,” 1905) and Es Brent (“It’s Burning,” 1901). But Peretz, like other classic Yiddish writers such as Sholem Aleichem, would never achieve the success as a dramatist that he did in prose (at least not during their lifetimes, though many of Sholem Aleichem’s plays enjoyed successful revivals in later years). While flashes of brilliance frequently make their presence felt in Peretz’s plays, they often lack an effective dramatic structure to give the action a focus and propel it forward.

Whatever Gordin’s shortcomings, he showed a far surer hand as a dramatist, and actors loved to play his characters. One sign thereof is the fact that even in Eastern Europe, with different sorts of commercial pressures and audiences quite different from those in the U.S., Gordin’s plays featured prominently in the performed repertoire, while Peretz’s tended to be invisible. This was true of the first ensemble companies to try to elevate the level of artistry in Yiddish drama and theater, starting with the troupe led by Esther-Rokhl Kaminska in the early 1900s. Gordin’s plays were the bread and butter of the Kaminska Troupe (later known as Di Fareynikte – “the united ones”). When Kaminska left Europe to tour in the U.S. in 1909, she left a void that could not be filled, but both as a performer and as the matriarch of a theatrical dynasty, she continued to help shape Yiddish theater as well as film for many decades.

As a mentor of young talent, Peretz left an indelible mark on the development of Yiddish drama. Sholem Asch, for example – arguably Peretz’s most successful protégé – penned a number of plays, most notably Got fun Nekome (“God of Vengeance,” 1907), though he would become far better known as a novelist. Another student of Peretz’s, as well as of Polish playwright Stanislaw Przybyszewski, was Mark Arnshteyn, who would write and direct productions in both Polish and Yiddish, including his most successful work, Der Vilner Balebesl (“The Little Householder of Vilna,” 1908).

In 1907, Arnshteyn and Avrom-Yitskhok Kaminski, in an effort to infuse “literary” plays into the Yiddish repertoire, founded the Literarishe Trupe (“literary troupe”), with which they toured with plays by Gordin, Arnshteyn, David Pinski, and Sholem Aleichem. A similar effort was undertaken a couple of years later by yet another of Peretz’s protégés, Peretz Hirschbein. Having earned the blessing of figures like Peretz and Bialik at the outset of his career, Hirschbein founded a company in Odessa in 1908 that became known as the Hirschbein Troupe. His company, which performed works by its founder, as well as by Asch, Pinski, Gordin, and Sholem Aleichem, stayed in business for only two years but achieved an impact out of proportion to its short life through its earnest striving for higher artistic standards in Yiddish drama and theater. During this same period, other notable companies in Russia and Poland included those led by Aba Kompanayets, Misha Fishzon, Dovid-Moyshe Sabsay, and Yankev-Ber Gimpel.

Interwar Poland

Hirschbein’s troupe served as a forerunner for the Vilna Troupe, founded in 1916 with the express purpose of carrying on Hirschbein’s reforms. The Vilna Troupe brought to light what was to become the most famous play in the Yiddish repertory, S. Anski’s Der Dibek (The Dybbuk, premiered in New York on September 1, 1921), directed by Dovid Herman, who had encouraged Hirschbein to write in Yiddish. The play caused a sensation at its Warsaw premiere, just weeks after the author’s death. It has been translated into and performed in many languages and inspired several adaptations as well.

The company’s further successes included Osip Dimov’s Yoshke Muzikant (“Yoshke the Musician,” or “The Singer of His Sorrow”), Asch’s Kiddush ha-Shem (“Sanctification of the Name,” 1928), Peretz’s Baynakht afn Altn Mark (“A Night in the Old Marketplace”), and The Merchant of Venice. Although the Vilna Troupe suffered the loss of many talented performers who left for other opportunities, it continued to be vital until the Holocaust, when its remaining members were trapped in the Vilna Ghetto and liquidated along with their neighbors. Before that, however, interwar Poland became as rich a breeding ground for significant new ventures in Yiddish theatrical performance as any that had ever existed.

The 1920s brought the creation of such companies as VYKT (Varshever Yidisher Kunst Teater “Warsaw Yiddish Art Theatre”), founded in 1924 and led by Zygmunt Turkow and his wife Ida Kaminska; VNYT (Varshever Nayer Yidisher Teater “Warsaw New Yiddish Theatre”), founded by Zygmunt’s brother, Jonas Turkow, in 1929; and Yung Teater (“Young Theater”), established by Mikhl Weichert in 1932. VYKT used modern techniques for to stage both new and classic plays from the European repertoire and Yiddish classics by Ettinger and Mendele. Turkow and Kaminska put their stamp on roles from within and beyond the Yiddish repertoire – he in such parts as Molière’s Harpagon to Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye, she in Yiddish standards like Mirele Efros (continuing in her mother’s footsteps) and roles from the world repertoire, like Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage. More political and experimental was Mikhl Weichert’s YungTeater, whose first production, Boston, used innovative environmental theater techniques to tell the story of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial. Yung Teater commented further on American travesties of justice with Leyb Malekh’s effective agitprop drama Mississippi, based on the Scottsboro affair.

Weichert’s politics often made him run afoul of the censors, a situation he commented on obliquely in the production of his own play, Trupe Tanentsap (1933), a play-within-a-play that used a production of Goldfaden’s Two Kuni-Lemls to comment on contemporary censorship. Other notable productions included Jacob Preger’s Simkhe Plakhte (1935), and Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck (1936), in a Yiddish translation by Itsik Manger. Those with less experimental tastes had many other options in cities like Warsaw, including the Theater for Youth – founded in 1926 under the direction of Thea Artishevski and the producer David Herman – which became the most popular of the music theaters. Adding to the vitality of the Polish Yiddish theater scene between the two World Wars was kleynkunst, “a sort of cabaret revue, witty, gay, and irreverent, rapidly winging from music to dance to monologue to sketch” (Sandrow, 323). Kleynkunst theaters included Azazel in Warsaw, and Ararat in Lodz, led by writer/performer Moyshe Broderzon, who discovered such talents as the comedians Shimen Dzigan and Yisroel Shumakher, who would enjoy a long career together – the most successful double act of its kind in the Yiddish language – in sketches filled with political and social commentary.

Poland had become arguably the world’s richest soil for Yiddish theater by the 1930s, so the annihilation of Polish Jewry by the Nazis destroyed a particularly vibrant theatrical culture. Yet during the war, performers made valiant efforts to carry on their activities in the face of the gravest danger. Warsaw ghetto leader Emmanuel Ringelblum’s diaries chronicle all measure of cultural undertakings, from journalism to the visual arts to musical and theatrical performance.

Jonas Turkow gave a list of 138 performers who perished in the Warsaw ghetto, including Mazo, director of the Vilna Troupe, and his wife Miriam Orleska. As the Nazi ghettoes were liquidated and the survivors were sent to concentration camps, they continued to perform, when possible, even in the camps. After the war, surviving actors resumed activity, first in DP camps and then to the many places to which the performers dispersed.

Soviet Yiddish Theater

After the Russian Revolution, state-sponsored Yiddish theaters were founded in a number of major cities of the Soviet Union. Some were established quickly, as in Vilna and Odessa. Others were created later, after the political situation stabilized. A total of 14 state Yiddish theaters were ultimately established; the most noteworthy included the Minsk State Theater (Bilgoset), directed by M. Rafalski, and the Yiddish State Theater in Kharkov, directed first by Ephraim Loyter, and later by M. Norvid. Other companies were established in such cities as TarnopolLviv, Zhitomir, Dnepropetrovsk, Bialystok, Grodno, Vilna, Kovno, Riga, and Czernowitz.

In addition, many of these companies traveled widely so that Yiddish theater reached communities throughout much of the Soviet Union. The most celebrated Soviet Yiddish theater company was the Moscow State Yiddish Theater (best known by the Russian acronym for “state Jewish Theater,” GOSET). Starting as a small studio in St. Petersburg just after the revolution and moving to Moscow a couple of years later, GOSET revolutionized Yiddish theater with avant-garde productions of Yiddish classics, new Yiddish plays, and works from the European repertoire. The company’s founder and its leader for much of the 1920s was Alexander Granovsky, who put his mark on Yiddish standards like Goldfaden’s Di Kishefmakherin, Sholem Aleichem’s Dos Groyse Gevins, and Peretz’s Baynakht afn Altn Mark. Marc Chagall was also briefly involved with the company as its designer but made an impact all out of proportion to the time he spent with GOSET. The company also had the input of significant musical talent in Joseph Achron and Leyb Pulver.

After Granovsky defected to the West in 1928, actor Solomon Mikhoels took the reins and guided the company ably, focusing for a while on new works like Moyshe Kulbak’s Boytre (1936) and Dovid Bergelson’s Der Toyber (“The Deaf Man,” 1930) and Prints Ruveyni (1945). When the Soviet authorities used Kulbak’s underworld drama as an excuse to crack down on the troupe – Kulbak was arrested and disappeared into the gulag – GOSET responded with politically correct versions of Goldfaden’s Shulamis (1938–9) and Bar Kokhba (1939). This strategy may have bought the troupe some time, but it did not avert disaster forever. Mikhoels was murdered in a staged accident in 1948, and Benjamin Zuskin was killed in a purge of Jewish intellectuals in 1952.

Other Centers

As Yiddish speakers spread across the globe in search of the most hospitable environments, they established theatrical activity on six continents. For every major metropolis with multiple theaters and cabarets, there were numerous smaller cities and towns with less sizable and diverse offerings, but which helped provide a lifeline for performers and companies who needed audiences beyond their local ones to make a decent living and which brought Yiddish theater to avid theatergoers living off the beaten path. The American “provinces,” for example, included cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore, and countless cities and towns between and beyond.

Among the places where Yiddish theater was performed, several important secondary hubs are worth noting: South Africa, where Sarah Sylvia reigned as the leading star and where visitors like Maurice Schwartz, Molly Picon, and Meir Tselniker sojourned; Australia, dominated for decades by the artistic leadership of Polish immigrants Yankev Weislitz and Rochl Holzer, and playing host to numerous guest artists, from Shimon Dzigan to Dina Halpern to Ida Kaminska and Zygmunt Turkow; and Montreal, which had long served as a “provincial” theater on the North American circuit. The leading figure of the Montreal Yiddish theater in the second half of the 20th century was Ukrainian-born Dora Wasserman, who established the Yiddish Drama Group in the 1950s; later renamed the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, control of the company passed to her daughter Bryna after Dora Wasserman’s death in 2003.

Israel became home to countless native Yiddish speakers but proved problematic for Yiddish theater. The language wars that raged in Mandate Palestine and later in the State of Israel made public theater performances in Yiddish difficult to stage; so despite an abundance of talent, Yiddish theater was often suppressed. Nevertheless, it played a role in Israeli life. Yiddish performances in Palestine began as early as the 1890s, and in spite of both widespread scorn for Yiddish and special taxes imposed on “foreign-language” theaters, Yiddish theater was performed regularly in the early decades of the state. Immigrants from Eastern Europe like Shimon Dzigan, Mary Soriano, Max Perlman, Eni Litan, and Gita Galina were popular with Israeli audiences, who also welcomed visitors like Avrom Morevsky, Ida Kaminska, Joseph Buloff, and Maurice Schwartz. As of the early 21st century, little regular activity remains, but Shmuel Atzmon’s Yiddishpil company, based in Tel Aviv, continues to carry the flame.

The Late 20th Century

In spite of social and economic pressures that drove millions of Jews westward, Yiddish theater continued to thrive in Poland, Romania, and the Soviet Union up to the outbreak of World War II. After the war, though, the soil that had been so fertile for such performances was largely scorched earth. Yet until a new wave of antisemitism broke out in Poland in the 1950s, many Polish Jews attempted to rebuild their lives in their native land, and two companies arose in Poland in 1946. The Nidershlezis Yiddish Theater, directed by S. Zack, produced Hirschbein’s Grine Felder and Sloves’s Homens Mapole. The Lodz Theater, directed by Moyshe Lipman, presented Dzigan, Schumacher, and Ida Kaminska. In 1950, these two companies joined forces as the Jewish State Theater, working with a government subsidy under Kaminska’s direction. It achieved success with the Manger-Fenster adaptation A Goldfaden Kholem (“A Goldfaden Dream,” 1950) and Gordin’s Mirele Efros, with Kaminska in the title role.

While Hitler and Stalin decimated Yiddish culture, it did not always fare well in countries where its speakers were free to perpetuate it – for they were also free not to. Everywhere that Ashkenazim went in search of greater economic opportunity and religious freedom, they faced ongoing dilemmas about how to strike a desirable balance between maintaining a connection to their religious roots and adapting to new surroundings. More often than not, they pursued the latter at the expense of the former, and Yiddish was often neglected as part of the bargain. What allowed the Yiddish theater to continue developing in places like New York was a steady supply of new immigrants. When the U.S. Congress enacted strict immigration quotas in the early 1920s, that supply largely dried up, and the American Yiddish theater began a slow but steady decline (which might have happened anyway, given the rise of new competition like film, radio, and television). Yet many of the stars of this period continued performing for a long time. Artef was an important force throughout the 1930s, as was the Yiddish Art Theatre in the 1930s and 1940s.

By the 1930s, more performers who had started their careers in the Yiddish theater were crossing over successfully to Broadway and Hollywood than had actors in earlier generations. English-language audiences embraced such actors as Paul Muni (born Muni Weisenfreund) and Joseph Buloff, and numerous Yiddish actors enjoyed success in character roles. With the graying and shrinking of the Yiddish-speaking audience, Yiddish theater in the late 20th century increasingly became more a labor of love than a business.

The one American company continuing to offer Yiddish performances on anything like a regular basis as of the early 21st century is the Folksbine. Elsewhere, Jewish theaters make occasional forays into producing Yiddish drama in English, just as some of the Yiddish classics have made their way into the repertoire in Hebrew, Polish, German, and other languages.


For hundreds of years, the purimshpil provided a Jewish counterpart to the dramas of the medieval Church, and as different as the contents and purposes of such performances were, Yiddish theater absorbed influences from its Christian neighbors from the very beginning while putting a distinctly Jewish mark on the proceedings. That combination continued to lend the Yiddish theater its special character well into the modern era. The purimshpil and other performance forms originating in pre-modern times set other precedents as well: the centrality of music to much of Yiddish theatrical performance, the roots of Yiddish theater in Jewish texts and traditions, and challenges that Yiddish performances often presented to communal authorities. Jewish law kept the Yiddish theater from growing into a professional, year-round phenomenon for several centuries, by which point other European cultures had long-standing secular theatrical traditions.

The Yiddish theater had a great deal of catching up to do, and it took to this process with relish. Pioneers like Goldfaden poured their knowledge of both Jewish materials and non-Jewish texts, music, and theatrical techniques into their work. Yiddish actors learned their craft partly from watching their counterparts perform in Russian, Romanian, Polish, German, and other languages and partly from simply rolling up their sleeves and going to work. The most talented figures of the first generation of modern Yiddish theater could hold their own with contemporaries coming out of cultures with much more extensive theatrical traditions.

The development of Yiddish theater and drama turned out to be remarkably compressed. Joining other European theatrical cultures only late in the 19th century, Yiddish theater took little time to diversify its repertoire, from the early musicals and melodramas that dominated the marquees to the many theatrical styles that would arise in the 20th century: naturalism, symbolism, expressionism, constructivism, etc. The combined forces of annihilation and persecution in Europe, and acculturation and assimilation of Yiddish speakers worldwide, conspired to cut short the remarkably rapid maturation of Yiddish theater and drama. It seems impossible to imagine a world in which Yiddish theater will ever play as vital a role in Jewish life as it did at its height, yet performers, scholars, and audiences continue to explore its legacy in many ways. Several of the best-known Yiddish dramas (for example, An-Sky’s Der Dibek and Asch’s Got fun Nekome, in many different translations as well as in adaptations by playwrights like Paddy Chayefsky, Donald Margulies, and Tony Kushner) have a long history of performances – some of them quite distinguished – in multiple languages.

There is reason to believe that as translators make additional works available for non-Yiddish-speaking readers and audiences, other Yiddish plays will take their proper place in the world repertoire. The Yiddish theater has also attracted the attention of a number of distinguished historians and literary critics, including Yitskhok Schiper, Max Erik, Shmuel Niger, Jacob Shatzky, Noyekh Prilutski, and Zalmen Zylbercweig.

The late 20th century witnessed a dramatic increase in scholarly books and articles on Yiddish theater and drama, a trend that shows no sign of abating in the early 21st century. The confluence of scholars, translators, playwrights, and audiences willing to give the Yiddish theater a fresh look suggests that long after the Yiddish theater’s most vital period has passed, our understanding of the phenomenon it represented continues to grow.

See also Arts, Culture & Literature in Israel

[Joel Berkowitz (2nd ed.)]


p>GENERAL: Enciclopedia dello Spettacolo (1954–62); J. Gregor, Weltgeschichte des Theaters (1933); G. Freedley and J.A. Reeves, A History of the Theater (19552); C. Roth, Jewish Contribution to Civilization (1938); idem, Jews in the Renaissance (1959); V.I. Zoller, in: Mitteilungen zur juedischen Volkskunde, 29 (1926); S. Salomon, Jews of Britain (1938); E.D. Coleman, Jews in English Drama (1943); R. Craig, English-Religious Drama of the Middle Ages (1955); E. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage, 2 vols. (1903); H. Carrington, Die Figur des Juden in der dramatischen Litteratur des XVIII. Jahrhunderts (1897); M.J. Landa, The Jew in Drama (19692); H. Freeden, Juedisches Theater in Nazi-Deutschland (1964); G. Weales, American Drama Since World War II (1962); F. Ewen, Complete Book of the American Musical Theater (19592); idem, The Story of the American Musical Theater (19682). YIDDISH THEATER: D.S. Lifson, The Yiddish Theatre in America (1965); B. Gorin, Di Geshikhte fun Yidishen Teater, 2 vols. (1918, 19232); Z. Zylbercweig, Leksikon fun Yidishn Teater, 6 vols. (1931–70); Y. Schiper, Geshikhte fun Yidisher Teater-Kunst un Drame, 3 vols. (1923–28); J. Shatzky (ed.), Arkhiv far der Geshikhte fun Yidishn Teater un Drame (1930); M. Litvakov, Finf Yor Melukhesher Yidisher Kamer-Teater (1924); ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Altshuler, Ha-Te'atron ha-Yehudi bi-Vrit ha-Mo'aẓot (1996); A. Belkin, Ha-Purim Shpil: Iyyunim ba-Te'atron ha-Yehudi ha-Amami (2002); Y. Berkovitsh, Hundert Yor Yidish Teater in Rumenye (1976); J. Berkowitz, Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage (2001); J. Berkowitz (ed.), Yiddish Theatre: New Approaches (2003); B. Gorin, Di Geshikhte fun Yidishn Teater (1923); N. Bukhvald, Teater (1943); E. Bützer, Die Anfänge der jiddischen purim shpiln in ihrem literarischen und kulturgeschichtlichen Kontext (2003); B. Dalinger, ' Verloschene Sterne'. Geschichte des jüdischen Theaters in Wien (1998); Y. Dobrushin, Di Dramaturgye fun di Klasiker (1948); J. Hoberman, Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds (1991); A. Krasney, Ha-Badkhan (1998); A. Kuligowska-Korzeniewska and M. Leyko (eds.), Teatr żydowski w Polsce (1998); J-M. Larrue, Le Théâtre yiddish à Montréal (1996); Y. Lyubomirski, Melukhisher Yidisher Teater in Ukrayne (1931); J. Mestel, 70 Yor Teater-Repertuar (1954); idem, Undzer Teater (1943); A. Mukdoiny, Yitskhok Leybush Perets un dos Yidishe Teater (1949); E. Nahshon, Yiddish Proletarian Theatre: The Art and Politics of the Artef, 19251940 (1998); B. Orshanski, Teater-Shlakhtn (1931); S. Perlmutter, Yidishe Dramaturgn un Teater-Kompozitors (1952); B. Picon-Vallin, Le Théâtre juif soviétique pendant les années vingt (1973); N. Sandrow, Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater (1977, 19992); Kh. Shmeruk, Meḥazot Mikrayim be-Yidish (16971750) (1979); Y. Tsinberg, Di Geshikhte fun Literatur bay Yidn, 8 vols. (1943); J. Veidlinger, The Moscow State Yiddish Theater (2000); M. Viner, Tsu der Geshikhte fun der Yidisher Literatur in 19tn Yorhundert, 2 vols. (1945); I. Manger, J. Turkow, and M. Perenson (eds.), Yidisher Teater Tsvishn Beyde Velt-Milkhomes, 2 vols. (1968); A. Zable, Wanderers and Dreamers: Tales of the David Herman Theatre (1998).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

Photo:  צילום:ד"ר אבישי טייכר, CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.