How Yiddish satire, drama, comedy brought pleasure to the Diaspora
Landmark Yiddish Plays: A Critical Anthology
For the scores of thousands of Jewish immigrants in New Yorks Lower East Side before and after the turn of the last century, the Yiddish theater was a haven, a temporary respite from the hard daily life in the new land that offered a few hours of nostalgic return to the old country (Russia, for the most part) minus the persecution and pogroms. They reveled in productions ranging from banal and sentimental melodramas, the occasional free adaptation from foreign literature (one now iconic billboard touted a presentation of Shakespeare Made Better and More Beautiful), to such world-class plays as S. Anskys The Dybbuk that remained in the repertoire and made their mark on the Yiddish and world stage.
Yiddish theater, however, didnt just spring fully formed on the Lower East Side. Theatrical productions in Yiddish go back to the Middle Ages and stem from the lively local once-a-year Purimshpiels or Purim plays, when merrymakers would present comic versions of the Book of Esther to celebrate the deliverance of the Persian Jews from wicked Hamans murderous designs. Other biblical stories were offered with male performers playing all the roles usually in the house of the local rich man. From these modest amateur performances, Yiddish theater gradually grew.
In 1966, Joseph Landis brought us The Great Jewish Plays, the first fine anthology in English of five Yiddish plays that had enthralled critics and theatergoers alike. Whereas Landis book concentrated only on the 20th century, Landmark Yiddish Plays superbly edited and translated by Joel Berkowitz and Jeremy Dauber and also containing five plays never before been translated into English takes a more historical approach, going from the late 18th century through the 19th and into the early 20th century.
The first play, Silliness and Sanctimony (1795) by the German-born Aaron Halle Wolfssohn, is a satire on religious zeal and hypocrisy and depicts a rich family on the cusp of modernity and assimilation. Although the father is traditional, the daughter, Yetkhen, has Christian suitors and reads pulp fiction. She is taught by Reb Yoysefkhe, a Hebrew tutor who is outwardly observant but morally corrupt. The father, impressed with his piety, of course prefers him as a son-in-law. Yetkhen rejects Yoysefkhe and flees to the local bordello. When her uncle and father come to take her home, they meet there the tutor, a steady customer.
Marrying off a daughter (well see this theme repeated) is also a focus of Serkele (1861), by Shloyme Ettinger, the production of which marks the beginnings of professional Yiddish theater. The play seems to circle around itself like a carousel until the mean-spirited heroine, Serkele, discovers her jewel box is missing. While stolen by Gavriel (also a liar and a hypocrite), who wants to marry Serkeles daughter, he accuses the honest Redlekh, a poor student. At the end, as the result of an incredible deus ex machina, the plays problems are happily resolved with the couples, as in Restoration comedies, marching off hand in hand.
The Two Kuni-Lemls (1880) is a farce by Abraham Goldfaden, the father of Yiddish theater (who got his start as a Purimshpieler in his yeshiva). A staple on Yiddish stages for generations, the play revolves around a well-to-do couple seeking to marry off (yes, again) their daughter, who calls herself Carolina. The traditional father wants to arrange a marriage via a matchmaker; the more modern wife is willing to let her daughter choose for herself. Although Carolina likes Max, a student, the matchmaker seeks to palm off on the father a one-eyed, limping, stuttering dodo named Kuni-Leml a name that has entered the Yiddish lexicon as a byword for a pathetic dunce.
The fun begins when Max dresses up as Kuni-Leml to deceive Carolinas father and continues when the real Kuni-Leml arrives at the house (prompting shades almost, but not quite of the famous mirror scene with Groucho and Harpo in the Marx Brothers Duck Soup). At the end, after much hilarity, everyone gets their destined mate. No wonder this merry comedy has played all over the world to appreciative audiences and had a renewed life in the mid-1960s in Israel in a Hebrew adaptation. (But if this play were staged today, I would edit down the many annoying Hold your horses! tag-lines that the matchmaker blurts out in his every speech.)
Peretz Hirschbein is the only playwright represented in both the Landis collection and this one. Landis selected Hirschbeins pastoral comedy Green Fields (also a wonderful Yiddish film), while Berkowitz and Dauber chose Miriam (1906). With its naturalistic dialogue, real-life setting, and believable (if somewhat predictable) characters, the play convincingly deals with passion and lust. Marriage is a theme here too, but the heroine is an orphan who has found shelter with a poor shoemaker and his family. Seeking liberation, she is lured by the wealthy young Zilberman, made pregnant, and abandoned by him. She then descends into prostitution.
The last play, The Duke (1926), by Alter Kacyzne, retells the 18th-century Vilna legend of Duke Potocki, the Righteous Convert, who accepted Judaism and was later burned at the stake. This play begins with a simple tavern keeper and his wife wondering who will marry their daughter, Nekhamele. Soon the local dukes son recently returned from Paris, where he studied Judaism with a rabbi, and able to quote from the holy texts comes into the tavern with a friend. He has previously embraced and kissed Nekhamele and now, in the presence of her parents, invites her to sit on his lap. She does so willingly and kisses him again. Later, she flees her home and, surprisingly after her parents ask the cruel, self-indulgent old duke to help find her ends up as his mistress in the castle. While the young duke reforms his ways and formally becomes a Jew and a rabbinic student, only to die at the stake at the end, Nekhamele sinks further into shame.
With these five plays via satire, comedy, drama Landmark Yiddish Plays traces the development of a rich and diverse theatrical tradition that brought joy to hundreds of thousands of theatergoers in Europe, North and South America, and wherever Yiddish speakers established their diasporic communities.
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