A genre of Yiddish performance, kleynkunst (“little art”; also known as minyatur teater [miniature theater]) developed in the early twentieth century, primarily under the influence of Russian and Polish literary cabaret. The genre was also indebted to older forms of Yiddish performance, that of purim-shpilers and badkhonim, as well as to the nineteenth-century semiprofessional performers known as the Broder Singers. Rooted in traditional Jewish societies, such performers nevertheless subjected the Jewish community and its leadership to merciless parody while exposing a range of injustices. Integrating song and dance with sketches and routines of various kinds, kleynkunst satirized both Jewish society and the political and social order of the non-Jewish world, especially its impact on Jews.
Kleynkunst aspired to contemporary relevance even as it reflected everyday Jewish life and traditions. The names of kleynkunst companies, for example, were often linked to Jewish folkore: Azazel, mentioned in the Bible, is associated with the demonic, as is Ararat, the biblical location of Noah’s ark (though the name was also an acronym for Artistisher Revolutsyonerer Revi-Teater [Artistic Revolutionary Revue-Theater]); Sambatyon is the name of a river of stones beyond which the 10 lost tribes were said to live.
One of the first companies that could be termed kleynkunst began to perform during World War I. It consisted of a group of professional variety performers assembled by Solomon Kustin (1878–1949), who had performed Yiddish vaudeville in America, and his wife, Sonia Kompanyeyets. The troupe, including Peysekh Burshteyn (Burstein; 1900–1986) and Hersh Yedvab (Jedwab; 1870–1931), performed one-act plays, monologues, and off-color songs, but also included political numbers.
The first Yiddish literary or “artistic” kleynkunst performances were satirical musical reviews, which the poet and dramatist Yankev Shternberg staged in his own theater in Bucharest in 1917–1918. The first kleynkunst company in Poland, where the genre flourished, was Azazel, organized in Warsaw in 1925 by a group that included Totshe Artsishevski (Tea Arciszewska) and Dovid Herman (director of Der dibek), who had been disciples of Y. L. Peretz; as well as the painter Henryk Berlewi, the composer Henekh Kon, and other young artists and writers. Azazel included amateurs, Herman’s students, and professionals, among them, Władysław Godik (1892–1952), who served as master of ceremonies; Khayim Sandler (1886–194?); and Yosef Strugatsh (Strugacz; 1893–?). Władysław Weintraub (1891–194?) and Józef Śliwniak (1899–194?) designed the sets.
Azazel made use of texts by Peretz and Sholem Aleichem as well as contemporary material written by Moyshe Broderzon, Itsik Manger, Alter Kacyzne, Y. M. Nayman, Der Tunkeler (Yoysef Tunkel), Yankev Oberzhanek (1891–1943), and Moyshe Nudelman (1905–?). The cabaret quickly became very popular, especially among artists and intellectuals, Jewish and occasionally Polish as well. Particularly celebrated was a number called the “Azazel-Shimmy,” by Broderzon and Kon, and Godik’s bagel-seller skit. The latter was related to efforts by Warsaw police to rid the streets of unlicensed bagel vendors. By 1927, however, financial difficulties forced the company to go on tour and to disband soon after.
“Ararat. Artistic Director: Moyshe Broderzon. Short skits by the famous Kleynkunst [cabaret] theater!” Polish/Yiddish poster, artwork by Kultura, printed by M. Kon, Łódź, ca. 1930s. (YIVO)
In Łódź, the avant-garde poet Moyshe Broderzon organized Ararat in 1927, modeled upon Azazel. Broderzon, who wrote much of the material himself, was a master of wordplay who created striking puns and rhymes. Much of the material reflected local issues and was performed in the Łódź dialect of Yiddish and not in the southeastern vernacular common to the Yiddish stage. Broderzon relied principally on young amateur performers whose talent he was quick to recognize. These included Shimen Dzigan and Yisroel Shumacher, the future comedy team; the comedian Shmulik Goldshteyn (1908–?); the actress Menukhe Bernholts (later known as Mina Bern, who was still performing Yiddish theater in New York 70 years later); and Iza Harari, who would gain renown as the dancer and choreographer Judith Berg. Dzigan and Moyshe Pulaver (1902–?) were Ararat’s stage directors, Henryk Jablon and Henekh Kon its musical directors, Yitskhok Broyner (1889–1944) and Roman Rozental (1897–194?) its stage designers. Ararat also developed a following of loyal fans who “clung to Broderzon like Hasidim to their rebbe” (Nudelman, 1968, p. 155); some even copied his idiosyncratic style of dress. Gradually, personal rivalries and financial difficulties caused splits in Ararat, but it continued to perform with changing personnel throughout Poland in the 1930s and in 1935 toured Western Europe.
Sambatyon was established in Vilna in 1926 but moved to Warsaw several months later. It was made up exclusively of professional performers—Yitskhok Feld, Khane Grosberg (1900–?), Khane Levin (1894–194?), Khayim Sandler, and others—under the direction of the actor and director Yitskhok Nożyk (1889–?), who also wrote much of the material; other writers included Der Tunkeler, Der Lustiker Pesimist (Yosef Shimen Goldshteyn), Moyshe Nudelman, S. Kornteyer (189?–194?), and Bontshe (Avrom Rozenfeld; 1884–1941/42). Nożyk aimed to offer a popular audience an alternative to American Yiddish and European operetta fare, staging well-known Yiddish songs and writing comical and melodramatic sketches. But Sambatyon also performed more literary and “experimental” material; for several months, the poet Yisroel Shtern was its literary director. Under various names and with varying personnel, the company performed in Warsaw and toured Poland until the end of 1929, when it disbanded.
Di Yidishe Bande (The Jewish Gang) began in Kalisz in 1932, then moved to Łódź and Warsaw and toured Poland until World War II. Its name was an allusion to a popular Polish cabaret known as Banda (The Gang). Consisting exclusively of professional performers, Di Yidishe Bande aspired primarily to entertainment. Its directors were the actors Dovid Lederman and Zishe Kats (1892–194?); other performers included Khane Grosberg and Ayzik Rotman.
In the last years before World War II, Dzigan and Shumacher established a kleynkunst troupe at the Teatr Nowości in Warsaw. During the interwar years, there were also other cabarets in Poland with a more local following. These included Gilarina in Białystok, Moloditsa in Bielsk, Simkhevesosn in Grodno, and Davke in Vilna. In addition, two puppet theaters staged sophisticated satirical productions in the kleynkunst manner. These were Khad-gadye, which came to Łódź from Warsaw, created by Moyshe Broderzon, Henekh Kon, and Yitskhok Broyner in the early 1920s, and Maydim, the creation of Aron Bastomski (1907–1944) and a collective of writers, musicians, and artists in Vilna from 1933 to 1942.
Meir Melman, “Teatr żydowski w Warszawie w latach międzywojennych,” in Warszawa II Rzeczypospolitej, ed. Emilia Borecka, Marian Drozdowski, and Halina Janowska, pp. 381–400 (Warsaw, 1968); M. Nudelman, “Kleynkunst- un marionetn-teaters tsvishn beyde velt-milkhomes,” in Yidisher teater in Eyrope tsvishn beyde velt-milkhomes, vol. 1, Poyln, ed. Itsik Manger, Jonas Turkow, and Moyshe Perenson, pp. 148–168 (New York, 1968); Moyshe Pulaver, Ararat un lodzher tipn (Tel Aviv, 1972); Nahma Sandrow, Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater (New York, 1986), pp. 323–329; Chone Shmeruk, “Mojżesz Broderson a teatr w języku jidysz w Łodzi (Przyczynki do monografii),” in Łódzkie sceny żydowskie: Studia i materiały, ed. Małgorzata Leyko, pp. 61–74 (Łódź, 2000); Zalmen Zylbercweig (Zilbertsvayg), “Khad-gadye,” in Leksikon fun yidishn teater, vol. 1, col. 800 (New York, 1931); Zalmen Zylbercweig (Zilbertsvayg), “Sambatyon,” in Leksikon fun yidishn teater, vol. 2, cols. 1500–1503 (Warsaw, 1934).
Translated from Polish by Michael C. Steinlauf