Modern Yiddish theater, as conceived by Avrom Goldfadn (1840–1908) in the 1870s, was above all a musical theater, and operetta was doubtless its dominant genre. This musical theater accommodated not only the tastes of the audiences but also the skills of aspiring performers—who, in the early years, joined theatrical troupes on the strength of their singing rather than their acting. As a central element of East European Jewish culture, music suffused everyday life—and Jewish musical culture was highly eclectic: it often appropriated and blended sacred and secular strains, Jewish and non-Jewish elements, and folk and art music. The Yiddish operetta was built on this musical culture and presented it in a new, theatrical form.
As a genre, Yiddish operetta was never clearly defined. While the term always implied a play with a significant amount of songs, dance, and spoken dialogue, theater directors often used the designations operetta, opera, and melodrama interchangeably. The growth of the Yiddish operetta paralleled the peak days of the European operetta, which spread from Paris, Vienna, and, later, Berlin to Eastern Europe, where local operetta developed as well. With their focus on music and song, operettas—whether in Yiddish, Polish, Hungarian, or German—brought Jewish and non-Jewish audiences together under one roof.
Femeia Demonica (Demonic Woman), Romanian playbill for an operetta by Yoysef Lateiner, starring Mordechai Segalescu and Isidor Goldenberg, Bucharest, 1899. (YIVO)
Goldfadn’s early operettas, such as the mainstays Di kishef-makherin (The Witch) and Di beyde kuni-leml (The Two Kuni-Lemls), have contemporary settings. But after the pogroms in Russia in 1881, he and his contemporaries turned increasingly to historical plays with more national Jewish themes, among them Goldfadn’s “musical melodramas” Shulamis and Bar Kokhba. After 1883, when it became difficult to stage Yiddish plays in Russia, many actors, playwrights, and musicians left for New York, which quickly became Yiddish theater’s new creative center.
While troupes in Europe continued to perform the repertoire of the 1870s and 1880s, playwrights like “Professor” Moyshe Hurvits (1844–1910) and Yoysef Lateiner (1853–1935) created a large body of historical operettas that dominated the New York scene until around 1905. Those who wrote music for these plays included the comedian Sigmund Mogulesco (1858–1914) and the composers Arnold Perlmutter (1859–1953), Herman Wohl (1877–1936), and Louis Friedsell (d. 1923). Although they created some popular original songs, much of their work was derivative.
With the rise of a new generation of composers after 1910, among them Joseph Rumshinsky (1881–1956), Sholom Secunda (1894–1974), and Alexander Olshanetsky (1892–1946), the historical operetta was replaced by operettas with modern themes, often influenced by contemporary American styles. Among the writers and managers who collaborated with these composers were Boris Thomashefsky (1866/68–1939), Anshl Shor (1871–1942), Moyshe Shor (1872–1949), and Jacob Kalich (1891–1975).
Starting around 1900, American Yiddish operettas began to be widely performed on European Yiddish stages, a trend that continued until World War II; the frequent tours of American stars helped popularize this repertoire. Among the countless Jewish conductors and composers in Eastern Europe, three names have been associated with raising the standards of the Yiddish operetta: Yitskhok Shlosberg (1877–1930), Khone Wolfsthal (1851–1924), and Peretz Sandler (1881–1926).
In the 1890s, when traveling companies performed operettas with minimal accompaniment, Shlosberg created arrangements for multiple voices and large orchestra, which he and director Avrom Fishzon (1843–1922) performed to great acclaim. Although most of his work consisted of orchestrations, in the 1910s Shlosberg wrote original music to Menakhem Boreysho’s Khanke and Yankev Vaksman’s (1866–1942) Der libling fun froyen (The Darling of Women), Malvinke vil azoy (That’s How Malvinka Wants It), and Di sheyne Berta (Beautiful Bertha).
Program for Avrom Goldfadn's operetta Shulamis, printed on silk, Kovno, Russian Empire (now Kaunas, Lith.), 1906. (YIVO)
Wolfsthal, who came from a Galician family of klezmorim, was already an accomplished composer of waltzes and marches when he joined Gimpel’s Yiddish theater in Lemberg in 1890. His collaboration with the writer Yitskhok Oyerbakh (1862–1919) resulted, among others, in the popular Yehudah Halevi (1895) and Bas Yerusholayim (Daughter of Jerusalem, 1897). He was also noted for his score to Ber Hart’s (188?–194?) adaptation of Dray matones (Three Gifts) by Y. L. Peretz. The prolific Wolfsthal was musical director of the Yiddish theater in Czernowitz on and off between 1905 and 1915.
Sandler, who like his colleagues worked for many different troupes, produced his first hit in Warsaw in 1908 with his score to Lateiner’s Yoysef mit di brider (Joseph and His Brothers). After 1910, when translated versions of European operettas became popular with Yiddish audiences, Sandler staged, among other productions, Franz Lehár’s hits Tsigeyner libe (Gypsy Love) and Eva at the Elizeum Theater in Warsaw. After immigrating to New York in 1917, he became one of the most highly acclaimed theater composers. His music helped to make Moyshe Shor’s Di rumenishe khasene (The Romanian Wedding; 1923) a sensational hit throughout the Yiddish world.
Particularly during the interwar years, several troupes toured exclusively with an operetta repertoire. Among them were Ber Hart’s group, which performed in Galicia, and the Siegler-Pastor operetta company, founded by Maurice Siegler (b. 1879) with his daughter Sevilla Pastor (b. 1906) as star, which toured widely in Romania and Austria. Two other operetta stars, Vera Kaniewska and Paul Breitmann (b. 1890) also traveled extensively with various troupes.
Although Yiddish intellectuals generally derided operetta as shund (trash), several directors and musicians attempted to raise its reputation. Notable among them were Julius Adler (b. 1880), who, while in Łódź in the second decade of the twentieth century, directed several European operettas, including Shoshane di tsnue (The Chaste Susanna; 1910) and Tshardash firshtin (The Czardas Princess; 1915) by the Jewish composers Jean Gilbert (Max Winterfeld) and Emmerich Kálmán respectively.
In the interwar years, several troupes performed what was considered the “better” Yiddish operettas, such as Rumshinsky and Anshl Shor’s Di amerikanerin (The American Girl) and Shir hashirim (Song of Songs) and Sandler’s Dos gliklekhe meydl (The Lucky Girl), along with the international hits of Walter Kollo, Lehár, Kálmán, and Gilbert, among others. The Kadish-Khash company, also known in the 1930s as the Vilner Operetn Trupe (The Vilna Operetta Troupe) and led by Kadish (full name, Kadish Khash; 1893–1941) and his brother Yoysef Khash (d. 1941), enjoyed a particularly high reputation.
Since the fall of Communism, Jewish culture festivals throughout Central and Eastern Europe have celebrated Jewish musical and theatrical traditions. But apparently none of these festivals has produced Yiddish operettas—with one exception. In 2000, a student production of Shulamis was staged in Kiev during the summer seminar on Yiddish and Yiddishkeit in Eastern Europe, held under the auspices of the World Council for Yiddish Culture.
Di eybike mame / The Eternal Mother: Women in Yiddish Theater and Popular Song 1905–1929 (Germany, 2003), CD contains historical recordings of Yiddish operettas; Sholem Perlmutter, Yidishe dramaturgn un teater-kompozitors (New York, 1952); Mark Slobin, Tenement Songs: The Popular Music of the Jewish Immigrants (Urbana, 1982); Zalmen Zylbercweig (Zilbertsvayg), ed., “Sandler, Perets,” in Leksikon fun yidishn teater, vol. 2, pp. 1446–1454 (Warsaw, 1934); Zalmen Zylbercweig, ed., “Volfstal, Khone,” in Leksikon fun yidishn teater, vol. 1, pp. 1654–1656 (New York, 1931).