Director and actor Dovid Herman (standing, near carriage) with actresses from his Yiddish theater troupe, Warsaw, 1903. (YIVO)

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An Overview

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Traditional Judaism, as frequently noted, is less concerned with doctrine than with practice. This practice is defined by Jewish law, known as halakhah. Originating in the Talmud, adapted by religious authorities from generation to generation for 1,500 years, halakhah (along with the associated system of minhag or custom) made it possible for Jews to maintain clear distinctions between Jewish and non-Jewish ways of doing nearly everything in life. Halakhah, in other words, is a kind of script for the observance of traditional Jewish life, and this life was richly performative. This was obviously true of the complex liturgy of the synagogue, but it also applied to the Jewish life cycle and the Jewish home, where Sabbath meals and Passover Seders were only the more obvious examples of densely detailed, carefully enacted ritual performances. All such ritual, whether part of the life cycle, the annual cycle, or daily life, was also linked to music, above all to the chanted melody or nign. The taking of wedding vows, the benediction over food, the burial of the dead, the study of Torah, and countless other activities were all performed to characteristic nigunim; even everyday communication—conversation, intonation, gesture—was punctuated with nigunim and cannot be imagined without them.

Sarah Adler (front row, fourth from right) and her Yiddish theater troupe at a railway station, Bucharest, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

The centrality of performance in traditional Jewish life inspired the development of a class of specialized performers. They included the khazn (Heb., ḥazan) or cantor, who sang prayers on Sabbath and holidays; meshorerim, singers who accompanied the khazn in larger synagogues; the magid or traveling preacher, whose livelihood depended on the charisma of his Sabbath sermons; klezmorim, the instrumental musicians who performed at weddings and other celebrations; and the badkhn or marshelik, a professional jester and master of ceremonies at such celebrations. But the very specialization of such performers, their existence as a group apart, led to tension with normative Jewish society. Often itinerant, the Jewish performers tended to be less responsible than others to local religious and communal authorities. They were also not averse to practicing their craft outside the synagogue. Khazonim entertained in private homes and taverns, and frequently wove non-Jewish material, such as folk songs and opera arias, into their singing; klezmorim performed with non-Jewish musicians and such mixed bands often played at both Jewish and Christian celebrations. Indeed, Jewish performers were one of the major channels in premodern times for cultural contact between Jews and their coterritorial neighbors; as such they were inevitably viewed as suspect by Jewish authorities. Jewish performers were also reproached for valuing their own craft at the expense of sacred ritual, using their craft to encourage unseemly levity or passion, and, in common with their counterparts in other cultures, they were accused of living dissolute lives. All such denunciations, however, rarely resulted in communal prohibitions.

“Scissor and Iron, Our People (Big Prize).” Polish/Yiddish poster for a performance of Sholem Aleichem’s play Dos groyse gevins (The Big Prize; also known as Sher un ayzn [Scissor and Iron] and Unzer folk amkha [Our People]) by Rudolf Zaslavsky’s ensemble at the People’s Theater, Vilna. Artwork by H. Cyna. Printed by Ch. Łaskowa, Vilna. (YIVO)

The case of theater was different. Here rabbinical objections were enforced. The formula “theaters and circuses” (teatrot ve-kirkasot) in such proscriptions attests to their antiquity. For the Greeks and Romans, theater was connected to religious worship. Be it the cult of Bacchus or the emperor, the association inclined the rabbis to regard theater as idolatry (‘avodah zarah). Medieval European theater was also largely religious in character and, moreover, often specifically anti-Jewish. Indeed, passion plays, staged in urban marketplaces at Easter time, sometimes inspired Christian attacks on the Jewish quarter. Theater in itself was also doubtless threatening to the rabbis. In a society whose existence depended on maintaining a carefully tended border between “us” and “them,” acting—sanctioning another identity, albeit temporarily—could only be perceived as socially and morally subversive.

But theater did find a place in premodern Jewish societies. This was primarily a result of its association with the carnival-like holiday of Purim. Practices typical of holidays of reversal developed around Purim, above all the custom of staging purim-shpils, or Purim plays. In Eastern Europe by the nineteenth century, the purim-shpils had become the property of the lower classes. They were often staged annually by the same group of players, with parts and even costumes passed down from father to son. The purim-shpilers wandered from one wealthy home to another, often entering with the formulaic invocation, “Haynt iz Purim, / Morgn iz oys. / Git mir a groshn / Un varft mikh aroys” (Today is Purim, / Tomorrow it’s gone. / Give me a penny / And throw me out.). The plays were ribald and strongly parodistic, mocking both local personages and the biblical heroes themselves. 

Traditional purim-shpils continued to be performed throughout Eastern Europe until World War II. But beginning in the nineteenth century, the Jewish experience of theater began to develop in other contexts as well. During the first half of the century in East European cities and towns, a new Jewish commercial elite emerged, oriented toward West European trade and ideas. These circles were a natural audience for the program of the Jewish Enlightenment or Haskalah, as well as for a new type of entertainment literature. Parallel with this new bourgeoisie, a lower-class audience also developed, consumers of popular chapbooks (mayse bikhlekh) distributed by peddlers, and patrons of songs written and performed by itinerant singers. By mid-century, both audiences had begun to attend performances of various kinds, both in Yiddish and in non-Jewish languages. Jews began to make up a substantial portion of the audience for Polish theater and, somewhat later, for Russian, Romanian, and Hungarian theater. Jewish performers and Jewish characters became increasingly common on the stage as well. The production and the consumption of theatrical and musical performance proved one of the earliest channels for Jewish involvement in coterritorial cultures.

Bar Kokhba, by the celebrated author Goldfadn.” Romanian poster. Printed by Libraria Smolinsky. Advertisement for a benefit performance of a Goldfadn operetta by Group Tikvas Kanada (Hope of Canada) from Paşcani (now in Romania) to raise funds for “two hundred starving people on their way to the Land of Israel,” 1900. (YIVO)

The history of Jews and theater in Eastern Europe entered its most eventful phase as modernity fully dawned in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. On the one hand, Avrom Goldfadn developed a wildly popular professional Yiddish repertoire of musical comedies and melodramas which was quickly imitated throughout the Yiddish-speaking world. On the other hand, increasing Jewish involvement in East European theater as a whole along with growing public interest in Jews and the “Jewish question” led to the emergence of plays in non-Jewish languages focused on Jewish themes.

Yiddish popular theater became a cornerstone of East European Jewish culture until the Holocaust. Its success was rooted in its use of Yiddish in its most traditional function, as a spoken language. Alongside the professional theaters, amateur Yiddish companies flourished; a kind of theater fever swept the new generation of Yiddish-speaking youth. Amateur Hebrew groups also emerged; Habimah, the first professional Hebrew theater company, developed out of one such group. After World War I, Yiddish theater, particularly in Poland, Romania, and the Soviet Union, also began to cater to more sophisticated audiences with excellent dramatic and “artistic” companies as well as literary cabaret (kleynkunst). By the 1930s, even as Yiddish literature seemed to lose some of its audience, Yiddish theater maintained a broad appeal. This was the case even as Jewish involvement in non-Jewish theater also continued to grow.

During World War II, theater managed to flourish in Nazi ghettos and camps, and constituted a powerful form of Jewish spiritual resistance. Yiddish theater in Eastern Europe was only destroyed with the murder of its audiences and creators. In Poland and Romania, nevertheless, a Yiddish theater managed to survive into the twenty-first century. And in postcommunist Eastern Europe, Jewish images and themes haunt contemporary stages.

Suggested Reading

Bernard Gorin, Di geshikhte fun yidishn teater, 2 vols. (New York, 1929); Nahma Sandrow, Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater (New York, 1977); Ignacy Schiper, Geshikhte fun yidisher teater-kunst un drame fun di eltste tsaytn biz 1750, 3 vols. (Warsaw, 1923–1928); Jacob Shatzky, ed., Arkhiv far der geshikhte fun yidishn teater un drame, vol. 1 (Vilna and New York, 1930); Chone Shmeruk, ed., Maḥazot mikra’iyim be-yidish, 1697–1750 (Jerusalem, 1979).