A Long Tradition of Jewish Theater

When the Seattle Jewish Theater Company was launched in spring 2011, it became part of a long tradition of Jewish theater. Elements of theater in the traditional Jewish world included Purimshpilin performed every Purim for centuries in cities and towns throughout Europe. At many synagogues today members of the congregation perform a Purim Shpiel to mark the holiday.

There was also a tradition of lively performances at Jewish weddings by a badkhn, or wedding jester, who entertained the bride, groom and in-laws with a repertoire of jokes, rhymed verses and songs. But actors performing on a stage were not a part of Jewish life. That changed with the haskala, the enlightenment, in the late 18th century, when Jews found the walls of their communities fading away both literally and metaphorically. Exposure to the Russian and Western European theater provided a window on a world previously out of bounds to most Jews. All of that set the stage, as it were, for the advent of Yiddish Theater.

While the beginnings of most art forms are lost in the mists of history, Yiddish Theater has a very definite beginning, complete with a person, a date and a place: October 5, 1876 at the Green Tree wine garden in Jassy, Rumania.

It began with Avrom Goldfaden, the self-proclaimed “father of Yiddish theater,” who at 36 had failed at everything from newspapers to medical school to the ladies’ hat business. As related in his autobiography, he also tried being a performer. Originally from Russia, he had come to Rumania to start a Yiddish newspaper.

On a warm night in the fall of 1876 he appeared in frock coat, top hat and white gloves at the Green Tree wine bar before an audience of tired working class men out to relax after a hard day’s work. Goldfadden recited a long and ponderous poem about the Jewish soul through the ages. The audience, which had expected lively songs and jokes, sat silently throughout his recitation, dumbfounded by his presentation. Taking their silence for approval, Goldfadden went on and on with his poem until the angry audience, who had paid extra for the “entertainment,” rose from their chairs and drove him away with boos and catcalls.

Deciding that he had learned a lesson about what audiences did and did not want by way of popular entertainment, Goldfaden sat down to write a full-length Yiddish play. He trained a small cast – one man and one boy – and presented his creation on October 5, 1876 again at the Green Tree wine garden. The play was packed with melodrama and songs and the audience loved it. The Yiddish theater had been born.

Goldfaden and his soon expanded troupe toured Eastern Europe, playing everywhere to packed houses and spawning a host of competing Yiddish theater companies in their wake, headed and inspired by impresarios like Maurice Samuels and Jacob P. Adler. Goldfaden always saw Yiddish theater as a vehicle for educating the Jewish masses about the modern world. He often came on a stage before and after a performance of his plays to lecture the audience about art and culture. His early plays often ridiculed superstition and were critical of many aspects of Jewish tradition such as the common practice of marrying off Jewish girls at a very young age. Over the years, however, as Jewish communities became more modern, he shifted his focus to criticism of Jews who had rejected Jewish tradition in favor of aping modern ways.

In time, fashions changed and Goldfaden’s plays came to be seen as old fashioned and out of touch. His success began to fade. In his memoir he describes evenings spent walking the streets of wealthy Jewish neighborhoods, hearing his songs being played on pianos at window after window, and not having enough money in his pocket to afford a meal.

Determined to recoup his status as a force in Yiddish theater, he wrote a historical drama set in ancient Israel, Ben-Ami, and brought it to one of the two leading Yiddish theaters in New York, the company headed by Jacob P. Adler, the impresario and giant of the Yiddish stage who had gotten his own start in the theater playing bit roles in Goldfaden’s company.

Adler bought the rights to Ben Ami but the actors of Adler’s company mocked both Goldfaden and his play and Adler refused to produce it. Goldfaden was desperate and begged Adler to release the rights back to him which Adler eventually did. Taking the play to the rival Yiddish company headed by Boris Thomashefsky, Goldfaden waited for the reaction. Thomshefsky loved it and was happy to produce Ben-Ami which opened on December 25, 1907. Goldfaden was at the premiere, sitting in a box, proudly watching his creation come to life, his place in Yiddish theater restored.

The next five nights he watched Ben-Ami from his box. During the fifth evening he fell ill and that night he died. The funeral procession was joined by 30,000 admirers who were addressed by Thomashefsky in a balcony speech in which he paid tribute to “the father of Yiddish theater” and proclaimed that none of the glory of Yiddish theater would have been possible, “if not for our old father Goldfaden.”