by Charles Kruger
Historians of American theatre are well aware of the important contributions of the Yiddish theatre to 20th century American plays and players.
The Yiddish theatre, as it thrived in the metropolises of New York and Chicago in the early part of the 20th century was of the nature of a miracle. Prior to that time, the Jewish community did not have a theatre, other than occasional “Purim Spiels” that had survived unchanged since Medieval times. “Purim Spiels” were Bible stories performed by traveling groups of amateurs for the joyous holiday of Purim. They were not unlike the Christian “Miracle Plays” of the same period.
But as mainstream Europe responded to the Enlightenment, theatre in Elizabethan times grew into something wondrous and bold, with the great public theatres, like Shakespeare’s Globe, in England and Spain, the tradition of Commedia del Arte exploding in Italy, and of course the famous Comedie Francais of Moliere.
But among the Jewish people, the enlightenment came late. While mainstream Europe enjoyed an explosion of public theatrical genius, the rabbis among the Jewish folk continued to discourage plays and playgoing as somehow “unJewish” and the scholarly traditions of Jewish thought remained focus on religious matters, and largely ignored the scientific revolution.
But by the 1800s, young Jews began to take an interest in the wider world, embraced revolutionary and liberationist ideas, and a movement was started (known as the Haskallah or “Jewish Enlightenment”) to educate poor Jewish peasants by producing literature, including plays and songs, in the language of “the people” — Yiddish. Among the more educated and scholarly class of Jews, however, Yiddish was despised. The language of education, to their minds, was Hebrew or perhaps German in more secular contexts. But Yiddish? Yiddish was seen as a depraved and uneducated version of German, a kind of low class, uneducated slang. But the young folks the the Jewish Enlightement, Yiddish was the way to reach the people.
Out of this passion for education and cultural enrichment, a Yiddish theatre gradually developed in the late 1800s, migrating to America in the wave of immigration as the industrial revolution got well underway, and established itself in Chicago and New York, determined to become “an art theatre” movement. Some Jewish actors who spoke English left the Yiddish theatre to establish the Actors Studio, other Jews went to Hollywood and established the studio system: it was the Yiddish theatre that fed the modern innovations of theatrical practice in America. In a few short years, the Yiddish playwrights produced works that could stand comfortably on the world stage, the equal of literature in any language.
Except for a few examples (most notably, perhaps, The Dybbuk), much of this theatre has been lost to production. A few stalwart companies have survived or revived the tradition, including the Jewish Theatre Ensemble, to perform in Yiddish or in translation, and keep these great works alive.
Which brings me to the point of this article. Right now, for the next couple of days, viewers who purchase tickets for a will have the opporutnity to see a streamed revival, in English translation, of one of the great masterpieces of realism and social commentary produced by the Yiddish theatre, Shlom Asch’s “God Of Vengeance.”
Ash’s play is the story of a family in a small Polish stetl who run a brothel in their basement. Although they enjoy financial success as a result, the family is not respected socially, and as the daughter is coming of age, the question of a suitable match becomes a matter of concern. Atlhough a match is found, the situation is further compounded when the girl is caught in flagrante making lesbian love with one of the girls of the house. Complications ensue. It is a play, if ever there was such a thing, well ahead of its time.
It was also an esteemed if controversial success, first in Berlin and ultimately throughout the theatrical world, in various translations from the original Yiddish.
The current production is in English, but features one of the great Yiddish actors of our time, the extraordinary 90-year-old Naomi Newman, co-funder of one of the great surviving Yiddish companies, “The Travelling Yiddish Theatre.”
The plot of the play itself is matched only by the story of its controversial history which has been the subject of a contemporary play, “Indecent” by Paula Vogel, a performance recording of which may also be viewed on cable TV (Broadway HD).
You can view the Yiddish Theatre Ensemble’s production of “God Of Vengeance” featuring Naomi Newman through March 23. For further information, click here.
by Charles Kruger