Images of Jews in American Theatre

Jewish pride--and shame--on stage.

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Judaism on Stage

The mid-century plays of Paddy Chayefsky, a prominent dramatist, novelist, and Academy Award winning screenwriter, have more explicitly Jewish religious content. In The Tenth Man (1959), Chayefsky offers a modern version of the classic Yiddish dybbuk exorcism drama. In Gideon (1961), Chayefsky retells the biblical tale of a man resisting the will of God, as told in Judges, chapters 6-8.

Arthur Miller's later works, such as Incident at Vichy (1964) and After the Fall (1965), both of which deal with the Holocaust, and The Creation of the World and Other Business (1973), about Adam and Eve, also seem to reflect this Judaizing trend.

Some contemporary Jewish playwrights were among the first to prominently and urgently portray gay issues. Harvey Fierstein in Torch Song Trilogy (1982) touchingly portrays the romantic life of a drag queen, featuring a blistering encounter with his traditional Jewish mother. Larry Kramer in The Normal Heart (1985) presents an early and impassioned cri du coeur about the HIV-AIDS crisis in the early 1980s, through the eyes of a gay Jewish activist. Like Fierstein and Kramer, Tony Kushner in Angels in America (1992) introduces Jewish gay characters and themes in his work.
fiddler on the roof
With a more confident sense of Jewish identity than their predecessors, these three of the best known contemporary Jewish playwrights boldly reject conventional views of the American Jew as needing to "fit in," and instead celebrate their own sexual liberation as Jews, unafraid of displaying who they are. 

1950s to Today

Possibly the most influential theatrical portrait of Jews is The Diary of Anne Frank (1955). It has been performed before more audiences than any other Jewish play, with perhaps the exception of Fiddler on the Roof. But as a depiction of a Jewish family in a life-and-death situation, the adaptation by non-Jewish playwrights Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett projects a generalized portrait of Jews, with many of the diary's most significant Jewish themes deleted.

For example, the play's famous quote "Despite everything I believe that people are really good at heart," was universalized so that it no longer specifically addressed Jewish suffering, as it did in the original diary. The new 1997 Broadway adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank by Wendy Kesselman, however, tries to rectify Goodrich and Hacketts' de-Judaizing of Anne.

In Kesselman’s adaptation, the Franks are now markedly Jewish, wearing the Nazi-enforced yellow stars as they go into hiding. The play also includes an extended Hanukkah scene, as well as a passionate promise from Anne to never turn her back on her people. This recent attempt to directly address Jewish issues reflects the trend of playwrights creating increasingly Jewish characters on American stages.

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Ilana Abramovitch

Dr. Ilana Abramovitch was formerly the manager of curriculum at the Museum of Jewish Heritage--A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. She is a writer, ethnographer, educator and co-editor of Jews of Brooklyn (Brandeis University Press, 2002).

Joel Shatzky

Joel Shatzky retired in 2005 after having taught dramatic literature in the English dept. at SUNY, Cortland. He has edited, with Michael Taub, a two-volume reference work on Contemporary Jewish-American Literature and edited a Holocaust memoir by Norbert Troller: Theresienstadt: Hitler's 'Gift' to the Jews.