If you think that’s a curious and moderately uncomfortable title, I should explain from the hello that this next series of posts comes from a book called 3 Great Jewish Plays (on Applause Books, I note with ticklish approval). Rather than merely authorial ethnicity, I guess the binding here is a sustained engagement with Jewish history and mythos – plus the emergence of Yiddish (as opposed to Hebrew) culture. This does not mean there are not lots of rabbis. There are lots of rabbis.
i. why language matters
In a pleasing meta-scriptural echo, the book, edited by Joseph C. Landis, comes with a foreword and multiple introductions. First, to pan through the former: “When…the Jewish middle class of central Europe found a possibility of easier access to the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, it began a parallel movement of Jewish enlightenment, the Haskala, to modernise Jewish life under the banner of Hebrew, the respected language of religion. Yiddish, as the language of the backward masses of Jews living in the semi-feudal Slavic world and as the vehicle of the pietistic Hassidic movement that stood diametrically opposed to the Haskala became the object of its scorn.” Later, Yiddish would emerge as the vernacular of Jewish socialists, while Hebrew was championed by Zionists, to whom “Yiddish became the representative of the despised Diaspora and of the Diaspora mentality.”
And so: “amidst the break-up of empires and the crumbling of the small-town, isolated, religiously-centred Jewish world” scattered Jewish writers were to “effect a transition of Jewish life from its provincial base into a modern, worldwide cultural nationality” – at least, in the first four decades of the twentieth century. “The destruction of the heartland of Yiddish in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust of the Hitler years, however, effectively ended that vision” (please note this is from 1966/72/86, and Landis goes on to suspect a resurgence – an “ethnic revival” – even then, especially in the American novel).
His summation is fairly magnificent: “It may only be an accident of history that this return by the third generation to its ethnic roots coincides with a moment in American history when so many have begun to question so much. The prosperity of the middle class has not kept its children from doubting its values. […] The massive estrangement of people from themselves, from one another, and from their world, that has been one of the commonplace facts of our time, has triggered a restless search for meaning and identity…this Yiddish revival, in its own way a counterpart to the contemporary quest for lost innocence and the search for a simpler and more genuine world, may also reveal unsuspected moral alternatives for a troubled time.”
ii. why beliefs matter
Landis dates the rise of modern Yiddish literature to 1864 (“less arbitrary than most such designations, for it was the year in which the first major work of its first major artist appeared”) and locates it with the Askenazic Jewry. His next task is to unpick the idea of a neat ‘Judeo-Christian’ paradigm, teasing out the parallax of visions: “To the moral vision of the mentshlekhkayt, the central Christian concept of original sin or innate human depravity is wholly foreign. Counterposed to this view stands the Talmudic sense of man’s original innocence, which sees him unburdened by any sins but his own. […] Though deeply aware of the horrendous power of evil, Jewish tradition is nonetheless convinced of man’s ultimate superiority over evil…man’s inclination to good is capable of conquering without external intervention. By contrast, for the Christian, the central drama involves a struggle against a native taint, a battle with an accomplished, innate, and inevitable evil, a conflict whose ultimate resolution depends on salvation from without.”
“The Ashkenazic Jew’s aversion to violence was not based on any sentimental exaltation of weakness or of the power of ‘the power of powerlessness’ but on a principled repudiation of force as bestialising and on a faith in the ultimate victory of reason and morality. […] If Adam’s disobedience and fall haunts the Christian imagination, it is Cain’s defiant question ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ that exemplifies the depth of dereliction to the Ashkenazic Jew…with this question he repudiates the sole path to atonement…” (this last paraphrased for web). Landis identifies this with Jewish culture’s emphasis on family and social responsibility. He likewise contrasts the Christian focus on faith with that of good deeds and study for the Jew (“It required everyone to be a mentsh – even God; and it did not hesitate to rebuke him when it thought He was remiss”).
With this in mind, a tragic Jewish hero might be brought down by external forces – or their own incorrect conduct – but not toxic, rooted, inescapable flaws (“And the catastrophe that overwhelms them need never be irreparable “).
iii. when we make the stage
“Though a badkhan (wedding bard) chanted rhymes at Jewish weddings, though Purim was a regular day for amateur ‘play’ performances, the direct stimulus for a [Jewish] theatre came from other sources. And it came relatively late [I’m sure readers of this post sympathise] – Yiddish plays written before the last quarter of the nineteenth century were written with no hope of performance on a professional stage.” That potential would gradually coalesce from variety performances containing song and impersonations.
“In Jassy, Romania, in 1876, Abraham Goldfadden, along with two Brody singers, as these entertainers were called, conceived the idea of adding to the songs an element of plot or continuity, with dialogue improvised in the manner of the commedia dell’arte.” Jacob Gordin, an American, would build on the subsequent wave of musicals to rework European classics into new Jewish plays – and these twin musical and realistic traditions would next be joined by work out of Ukraine’s relatively cosmopolitan seaport Odessa, with the short-lived Hirshbein Troupe touring work from Sholem Asch, David Pinski, and Sholem Aleichem. They would be succeeded by the Vilna Troupe, who premiered Anski‘s The Dybbuk (subject of the next post) in 1920.
After World War I, Yiddish companies sprang up in Poland, and Russia “with the help – almost the insistence – of the Soviet government, which persuaded Alexander Granovski to assume the direction of a company…for which Marc Chagall was commissioned to do the murals. […] As late as 1950, the State Yiddish Theatre in Moscow was one of the best in the country…” (and there were fifteen others). Alongside, the Habima, a famous Hebrew company succeeded in attracting Stanislavski as advisor and director. In America, Maurice Shwartz founded his own Yiddish Art Theatre, and the Artef company besides.
But, again, and to underline the historical schism in this story: “The virtual elimination of Yiddish cultural life in Poland since the war and in Russia since 1952, when almost every Yiddish writer of stature was executed, has not only left the Jewish community of the United States the largest in the world; it has also served to underscore the fact that on the cultural continent within our own borders, a large body of non-English writing was created and continues to be created.”
Phew. First Subjectiviste post to exceed 1000W (this will not happen often). Thanks to Joseph C. Landis for his unwitting – but vital – contribution – the book is recommended – and a sleepy salute to those of you who made it all the way down here. Next: those three great plays from the tradition…