Jewish Theater

“Scissor and Iron, Our People (Big Prize).” Polish/Yiddi…

All societies—and all religions—codify their laws and traditions. Jews do so in two ways: the minhagim, a kind of list of local Jewish customs (and prohibitions), which is practiced alongside halakhah, the laws derived from the Talmud and binding on all Jews. It is these unique customs make perfect backdrops, plot points, and catalysts for dramas acted out on stage or in film—in the form of Sabbath meals, Passover seders, and Jewish wedding vows, all of which are rich in ritual and detail.

As early as the 1830s, Yiddish plays on biblical themes were performed in Warsaw dancehalls, but modern Yiddish theater didn’t emerge until Avrom Goldfadn, the “father of Yiddish theater,” emerged onto the scene. His first plays were farces, a push back against what he saw as the small-mindedness of looking at the world only through the lens of religion. In The Two Kuni-Lemls, for example, when a girl tries to kiss a limping, stuttering yeshiva student, he begins to pray nervously.

Starting in 1905—the time of the first Russian Revolution—Yiddish culture and theater really began to blossom as tsarist restrictions on it were lifted. As a result, Eastern Europe saw a huge influx of theater companies, especially in Warsaw. Solomon Mikhoels was a famous comedic actor during this theatrical efflorescence. When Moscow State Yiddish Theater director Aleksandr Granovskii defected in 1928, Mikhoels took his place. Besides pushing the theater’s mission as a Jewish theater, he also explored plays such as Shakespeare’s King Lear, which turned out to be the most acclaimed performance of his career.

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Eastern European Jewish Artists

A survey of great works by Jewish artists from Eastern Europe.

SLIDESHOW: Eastern European Jewish Artists

Music’s Broad Appeal

Klezmer musicians, Eastern Europe, ca. late 19th century…

More than any other art from, it is music that conveys the spirit of Jewish life. An aural history of customs, holidays, and everyday activities, it passes from generation to generation, speaking to people of all faiths along the way. It should come as no surprise, then, that Fiddler on the Roof, which is based on the Tevye stories of Sholem Aleichem, is among the longest-running musicals on Broadway. Its spirited music centers around not only Jewish customs and traditions, but also the preservation of traditions of all kinds.

Evidencing Jewish music’s ongoing broad appeal are performers like Matisyahu (Matthew Paul Miller), a Brooklyn-based Hasidic Jew known for setting Jewish themes with roots in Eastern Europe to rock, reggae, and hip-hop beats. Klezmer, a form of folk music that originated in the towns of Eastern Europe, is joyful and often performed at weddings. It has been adopted by a new generation of secular performers like the Klezmatics, and today even well-known classical violinists like Itzhak Perlman can be found in YouTube videos performing klezmer music.

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