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Like theatre in many cultures, Jewish theatre has religious roots. The spring holiday of Purim was once the only time in the Jewish calendar that religious authorities permitted shpeil (play) making. The first Purim plays, which began to develop in the 12th century, acted out the story of the Jews’ deliverance told in the Book of Esther, which easily lends itself to dramatic and comedic interpretation.
Early modern communities confirmed this tradition, creating skits and sketches that poked fun at local people and events. A popular folk theatre developed, though it was limited to the Purim season.
Centuries later, in the expansion of the European Enlightenment, a class of intellectuals began writing secular plays in Yiddish. Despite criticism from traditional Jewish authorities, Yiddish theatre soon became an accepted place for communities across Europe to come together and share human stories, both comic and tragic. Some of the important works created at this time were Serkele by Solomon Ettinger and Abraham Baer Gottlober’s Decktuch.
Avram Goldfadn, often known as the father of Yiddish theatre, brought his troupe of actors to the United States in the late 1800s. At the height of Jewish immigration to the United States, Yiddish theatre in New York provided space for a newly-transplanted community to confront struggles between the old and new worlds, deal with conflicts of family values and changing power roles, and laugh and cry in its native and resonant language. Well-known plays included Chantzhe in Amerika, about a Jewish immigrant woman who wants to drive, and Harry Kalmanowitz’s Geburth Control (“birth control”), said to have inspired Margaret Sanger’s political positions on the matter.
Within a generation or two, Jewish playwrights in America also began writing in English and contributing to contemporary American theatre. Elmer Rice, Clifford Odets, and Paddy Chayevsky, among other writers, introduced Jewish characters into plays that were intended for mainstream audiences, relating to universal themes such as immigrant families adapting to the new world, and the struggle to earn a living in America. American-born Jews began to seek out this kind of entertainment, rather than attending Yiddish theatre. By the end of WWII, the golden era of Yiddish theatre was over.
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