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Yiddish Theatre

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God, Man, and Devil: Yiddish Plays in Translation. Translated and Edited by Nahma Sandrow
By Mr. Daniel Walden & Hannah Berliner Fischthal

Daniel Walden, Professor Emeritus of American Studies, English, and Comparative Literature, is the author or editor of more than thirty books and seventy-five articles. A past president of MELUS, he is the editor of Studies in American Jewish Literature. He is currently assembling Conversations with Chaim Potok for the University Press of Mississippi, and completing essays on Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick.

Hannah Berliner Fischthal is an Associate Professor of English (adjunct) at Hofstra University, where she teaches Jewish American, Ethnic, and Yiddish literature. She is currently Co-Book Review Editor of Studies in American Jewish Literature, edited by Dan Walden. She is completing a book on Sholem Asch.

God, Man, and Devil: Yiddish Plays in Translation. Translated and Edited by Nahma Sandrow. Syracuse University Press, 1999. 320 pages. $24.95 paper.

Prof. Nahma Sandrow is the author of Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater and has written two published and recorded musicals, Vagabond Stars and Kuni-Leml. Another book of hers is God, Man, and Devil: Yiddish Plays in Translation. She has contributed to The New York Times, to Modern Drama, and to such references as Cambridge Guide to World Theatre, American Popular Entertainment, and Encyclopedia of New York City. She has lectured under the auspices of the American Society for Theatre Research, Modern Language Association, Smithsonian Institution, Lincoln Center Directors Lab, Brown University, Harvard University,etc  Prof Sandrow is a member of  Editorial Board of All About Jewish Theatre . Email Address: nahmas@verizon.net  


At the start of the nineteenth century, the Yiddish language was still primarily a vernacular for common conversation. Hebrew was the honored language, the language of prayer and scholarship, and from the end of the century the vehicle of the Zionist movement. In the middle of the century, industrialization and the growth of an urban middle class, along with a new liberal Czar, Alexander II, the legalization of secular printing in Yiddish, and a relative relaxation of censorship for Jews and non-Jews, led to a changed environment that surrounded a deeper change in thinking. Concurrently, the Jewish Enlightenment (the Haskalah), with its emphasis on French and German language and culture, individual human will, and nationalism, allied itself with the development of Yiddish as a secular modern language. Yiddish became a medium for literature. In the two books under review, both the Yiddish language and its culture and several representative Yiddish plays are explored.

Yiddish Language & Culture: Then and Now, edited by Leonard Jay Greenspoon, is a fascinating collection of 15 essays dealing with various areas of yidishkeyt: literature, art, politics, theater, Hasidism, religion, food, and even Yiddish as a medium for Christian proselytizing. The articles included are among those delivered at the 1996 Klutznick Symposium at Creighton University, and are therefore rather loosely connected. As a whole, however, they attest to the broad range of current Yiddish cultural studies.

Yiddish "Now" is the main focus of the volume; the richness of Yiddish "Then" is more implied than examined. Yiddish, according to the Encyclopedia Judaica, was spoken by about 11 million Jews before the Holocaust. Hundreds of Yiddish newspapers and journals were published throughout the world. There were numerous publishing houses, theaters, films, educational organizations, research institutes (such as YIVO), and the like. Listed as one of the seven major languages of the world by the Encyclopedia Britannica (1954), and the only Jewish language to have spread over all five continents and to have produced a solid literature, Yiddish was indeed a major cultural force. Equally significant was the specialness of the language to Ashkenazic Jews. Although, over the years, Jews have vehemently argued its legitimacy and viability (even while 90% of East European Jews spoke it), they have never regarded mame-loshn without emotion.

The field of Yiddish studies today has changed. Yiddish has survived the incineration of most of its speakers, and it has survived and overcome early Israeli hostility. Furthermore, Hasidim still speak and publish in Yiddish, which Miriam Isaacs stresses. There seems to be an increasing and avid interest toward things Yiddish in both academia and popular culture, including a number of on-line sites. Mendele alone, which stems from Yale and publishes multiple times a day, has over 1,922 subscribers, a large number of whom actively participate in debates concerning Yiddish. Yet, as David G. Roskies is careful to point out in "Yiddish in the Twentieth Century: A Literature of Anger and Homecoming," Yiddish is not what it used to be. He is somewhat critical of the "chorus of cheerleaders" who are currently celebrating a revival. "Rumors of a renaissance do not resurrection make," he notes soberingly. At the same time, however, Roskies happily admits to current rigorous scholarship that rather miraculously captures the essence of Yiddish culture, and has established a fruitful dialogue with it.

Roskies, one of the two keynote speakers at the conference, presents a comprehensive overview of Yiddish literature beginning with Nahman of Bratslav, continuing with scores of other important writers and critics, and concluding with contemporary criticism. Displaying his usual depth and insight, he convincingly proves that it is rage which "defines the Yiddish literary canon," rage against all manner of betrayal, against poverty, against God, against the unfathomable horrors of the Holocaust. Concomitantly, however, Yiddish writers and scholars also lovingly express a will to reconcile and return to the past, asserting "a passionate desire to rebuild the culture out of its shards." Many former Yiddish rebels, Roskies claims, have negotiated their anger, and are now able to feel, as Jacob Glatstein had prophesied, "the joy of homecoming."

This joy of homecoming marks the other articles in this engaging text. The second, extremely informative keynote address, "Language, Art and Identity: Yiddish in Art from Chagall to Shalom of Safed," was given by Ori Z. Soltes. Soltes speaks of the multiple crossroads where Yiddish and art meet. For example, Chagall, in The Birthday, celebrated the time Bella, his future wife, arrived with a bit of a picnic. He painted himself soaring above her, with his head twisting back "in a most extraordinary rubberized gesture as he kisses her." This, Soltes explains, refers to the artist's rendition of his emotional state, for his sweetheart had fardreyt ima kop [twisted his head; an idiom for making him fall madly in love with her]. Soltes interprets many other works by central Jewish artists via an application of Yiddish.

Rick Kuhn, in his scholarly "Organizing Yiddish Speaking Workers in Pre-World War I Galicia: The Jewish Social Democratic Party," deals with politics in Galicia, including subjects such as women, political campaigns, and cultural activities. In another highly original essay, "On the Jewish Street: Yiddish Culture and the Urban Landscape in Interwar Vilna," Cecile E. Kuznitz illustrates that the urban landscape of this important city was invested with meaning. Geography, topography, and the culture of Vilna added to its mystique. Miriam Isaacs deals with "Yiddish `Then and Now': Creativity in Contemporary Hasidic Yiddish," pointing out that "Hasidim have succeeded in maintaining Yiddish on a sizable scale." Marilyn Halter witnesses the mass "marketing of Yiddishkeit" in her amusing and informative "Longings and Belongings: Yiddish Identity and Consumer Culture." She reports on "Mashuga Nuts, Shortbread So Good It'll Make You Crazy," a "Goys to Mensch" cassette (a take-off on the rap group Boys II Men"), assorted other unlikely tshatsjkes, and the use of Yiddish on the corporate level, such as by AT & T.

Three articles deal with different aspects of Yiddish theater. Vassili Schedrin tackles the history of Yiddish Theater in the USSR in "Equation of GOSET." Edna Nahshom writes about New York City's left-wing Arftef Theater in "Radical Politics, Radical Art." And Oliver Pollack and Leo Greenbaum chronicle "The Yiddish Theater in Omaha, 1919-1969," highlighting the success of a theater far removed from metropolitan Jewish life. Literary studies are included as well. Kathryn Hellerstein deals with Leah and Rachel in "The Metamorphosis of the Matriarchs in Modern Yiddish Poetry." Theodore Weinberger agrees with Irving Howe that Yiddish secular culture has no future in "Yiddish Literature as Secular Jewish Scripture: The World of Irving Howe." S. Lillian Kremer considers the stereotypes of the lamed vovnik and the shlemiel in "Reflections of Yiddish Archetypes in Jewish American Literature: Fiction by Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud."

The concluding three essays in this wonderful volume are further explorations into the rich variety of Yiddish studies. Richard A. Freund, in "A Theology of Yiddish Prayer: Yiddish as a Creative Lashon HaQodesh," recounts how Jewish liturgy in Yiddish strengthens one's inner life. Leonard J. Greenspoon undertakes a study of the various translations of the New Testament into Yiddish in "Bringing Home the Gospel: Yiddish Bibles, Bible Societies, and the Jews," in which he documents the perceived power of Yiddish to convey the message of Christianity to Jewish communities. Halina Rothstein and Robert A. Rothstein analyze "Food in Yiddish and Slavic Folk Culture," marking the similarities and differences between the cultures. Food and dietary restrictions, of course, have always been an integral part of Judaism.

Yiddish Language & Culture: Then and Now is an important, interdisciplinary text that demonstrates the wide scope and diversity of current academic Yiddish studies. My only complaint is with the non-standard use of transliteration. A few of the authors transliterated carelessly, even incorrectly, into a sort of pidgin German. This is both annoying and confusing. Any scholar of Yiddish ought to be able to tackle the simple guidelines provided by YIVO. The editor, perhaps, ought to have insisted on transliteration as accurate and rigorous as the content of the articles. Apart from this, however, the book is an extraordinary contribution to the field.

In this new socio-cultural situation, Yiddish intellectuals, familiar with theatre in other languages and in other places, began to write domestic comedies in a heavily Germanic Yiddish named Daytshmersh, the most well-known of which was Mendele Moykher Sforim's "Di takse" (The Meat Tax, 1869). Out of this innovative, secular combination of jester, preacher, and cafe entertainer, Broder singers appeared. Eliakum Zunser, the best known, was famous as a wedding jester and as a literary person whose lyrics were published. Aaron Goldfadn (1840-1908), the father of Yiddish theatre, heir to both the Yiddish Tradition and the Jewish enlightenment, presented around 1870 a rudimentary play in Jassy, Romania, the first of many that he wrote, produced, and directed. Demonstrating the evils of such old ways as superstitions and forced marriages, the glories of Jewish history, and the dreams of the new Zionist movement, his characters Kuni-Leml and Shmendrik and his songs "Raisins and Almonds" and "For Your Birthday" took on the status of folk art.

Within months, new plays by new writers appeared mixing Daytshmersh with Yiddish; some were original and some were adaptations of previous work by Yiddish writers and by those from the world repertory like Moliere, Ibsen, and Shakespeare. In less than one century, by the 1950's, Yiddish drama and musical theatre had encapsulated much of the evolution and development of Western drama.

Jacob Gordin's "God, Man, and Devil" (Got, mentsh, un tayvl, 1900), the first of five plays (plus two scenes) in God, Man, and Devil: Yiddish Plays in Translation, translated and edited by Nahma Sandrow, is a melodrama in which Hershele falls victim to the sport of God and Satan; but it is really his own weakness that destroys him, as foreshadowed in the hint of "hubris" with which he salts over his piety. In a last ambiguity, by the final curtain the devil concludes that virtue has triumphed, but Hershele is punished all the same.

Gordin, like most Yiddish dramatists, taught moral lessons. In "God, Man and Devil" he used the Faust story; in "Sappho" he alluded to the Greek god Apollo; in his "Jewish King Lear" and "Mirele Efros: or, the Jewish Queen Lear," Shakespeare's King Lear was the model. Peretz Hirshbein (1880-1948), influenced by Gordon and I.L. Peretz but also by Emile Zola, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Maxim Gorki, is remembered more as a symbolist than as a naturalist writer. Peretz's most memorable play is "The Golden Chain" (1908) (Di Goldene Keyt). "Green Fields," included in this book written in America, concerns the romantic triumph of young love in an ambience of decent behavior, health and fresh air--above all, harmony with nature.

H. Leivick (1888-1962), born Leivick Halpern, early on became an active socialist by the time of the Russian Revolution of 1905. Escaping Siberia with the help of people who had admired his poems, he arrived in New York in 1913 where he worked as a paperhanger. "The Golem" was written in 1920, perhaps his most famous "dramatic poem" as he preferred to call his plays. "Shop" (1926), a realistic play, concerns three love stories that occur after a strike in which the characters carry metaphorical or allegorical functions. David Pinski (1872-1959), whose "The Treasure" (1906) derived from a life of privilege as a modern intellectual, explores the psyches of mature, intelligent people. In "The Treasure," Tilye, whose family is searching for gold, is determined to find a husband. She ends up having been a millionaire for only a day, but still with enough money in the bank to hook a bridegroom anyway.

The last play, "Bronx Express: A Dream in Three Acts with a Prologue and Epilogue" (1919-1926), was written by Osip Dymov (1878-1959), a Jew from an assimilated background who wrote his early plays in Russian. His biggest success was "Yoshke the Musician" (Yoshke muzikant, 1914), but it is "The Bronx Express," in which the protagonist asks whether what he has gained in America is worth what he has lost (a theme familiar to all immigrants and to students of Abraham's Cahan's works), that resonates with us today.

By 1912, according to Sandrow in her masterful Vagabond Stars: A Worm History of Yiddish Theatre (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), the Lower East Side had already passed its peak population. More and more Jews, as they moved up the economic ladder and were acculturated, were speaking English rather than Yiddish, but Yiddish and Yiddish theatre persist. As I.B. Singer put it someplace, Yiddish has been dying for a thousand years--but it's still alive. "Yiddish was once the language of vociferous masses," as Joshua Fishman put it. "Today, the masses are merely passive guardians of the language, whereas professors, poets and pietists are now its major strength." In this context, Nahma Sandrow's new book, God, Man, and Devil, with its translations and its magnificent Introduction is an invaluable part of that ages-long experience.


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Source: COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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