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Yiddish Theatre

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London's most remarkable and least known theatrical traditions from 1880 until recent times!
By David Mazower.

This virtual exhibition aims to give a brief, but historical look at Yiddish Theatre in London. based on the book, ‘Yiddish Theatre in London’, by David Mazower.
Yiddish Theatre in London was created by and for the Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who settled in the East End of London in the late 19th century. They crowded into the narrow streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, where they soon developed a rich Yiddish cultural life.

Yiddish was the mother-tongue of the vast majority of Eastern European Jewry. It was a richly expressive language, based on medieval German, spiced with Hebrew, Russian and Polish words, and written in Hebrew characters. It was the language spoken in the home and workplace, in contrast to Hebrew which was used for prayer.

Along with the Yiddish tongue came a rich and varied folk culture including badchanim (wedding jesters and rhymesters), folk musicians and Broder singers - itinerant male singers performing comic musical sketches. All of these entertainers would appear in Purim plays, which for centuries were the only form of theatre in Yiddish.
Yiddish theatre drew directly on these traditions, but it only developed after Yiddish had emerged as a literary language in the second half of the nineteenth century. Many of the early Yiddish writers were followers of the Haskala (the movement for Jewish enlightenment) and saw the advantages of communicating in Yiddish, the language of the Jewish masses.
Modern Yiddish theatre was created almost single-handedly by Abraham Goldfaden (1840-1908) in the 1860’s and 1870’s in Eastern Europe. Goldfaden had a background in rabbinical studies and his involvement with theatre began when he played the leading role in a Purim play. He abandoned his studies to write and publish several collections of Yiddish folk songs, and he then joined forces with a group of Broder singers to present what became known as the first professional Yiddish theatre performance - a two act play in Iasi, Rumania.
Traditionally men also played the female roles; however, with the popularity of his plays, Goldfaden found women to play these roles. He wrote new plays for his company, including satirical comedies, romantic operettas and later (1887) serious dramas using historical themes. So started the craze for Yiddish theatre which spread from city to city, and whose popularity led Goldfaden to tour Russia.

Accomplished actors from Goldfaden’s company broke away and formed their own companies. But in 1883 the Russian government banned Yiddish performances, and Yiddish actors and dramatists joined the mass emigration westwards across Europe to Paris, London and New York. This is where the history of Yiddish theatre in London begins.

Please follow a virtuel tour at http://www.jewishmuseum.org.uk/yiddish/expage1.htm  atThe Jewish Museum -London's Museum of Jewish Life,Founded in 1932, the Museum has one of the world's finest collections of Jewish Ceremonial Art. The Jewish Museum in 1995 relocated to an elegant listed building only a short walk from Camden Town Underground station in Camden. The Museum has also amalgamated with the former London Museum of Jewish Life on a two-site basis. The combined Museum represents an important new educational and cultural resource for London.
Contact information :

The Jewish Museum
The Sternberg Centre
80 East End Road
London N3 2SY
Tel: 020 8349 1143  Fax: 020 8343 2162

Source: The Jewish Museum -London

Related Links:

  • BBI Romanian Jewish Heritage Project Unveils Plaque for “Father” of Yiddish Theater
  • Zalman Zylbercweig's Lexicon of Yiddish Theatre
  • Theodore Bikele - Yiddish Songs
  • Resources

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