Yiddish Theatre in Europe

The short-lived yet influential movement.

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In the late Middle Ages, Yiddish theatre only existed in the form of folk plays. These plays were usually based on the story of Esther and were performed by strolling amateur groups, predominantly on Purim. The only other regular performances were carried out by badhanim, or professional wedding jesters. Jewish tradition considered theatre to be frivolous at best. Jewish law specifically prohibited women from singing in public and men from dressing as women. These circumstances of Jewish life made it impossible for theatre to develop as an institution. 

It was not until the Enlightenment reached Eastern Europe in the late 1800s that the Yiddish public discovered a profound and powerful attraction to theatre in its own language. As religious prohibitions and communal authority loosened, more Yiddish speakers learned about other cultures and saw theatre in foreign languages. External pressures eased; particularly when Czar Alexander II legalized Yiddish secular press, publishing, and performance in Russia.

Modern Yiddish literature developed as intellectuals began to write novels and, eventually, plays for reading. Yiddish performers, called Broder singers--probably because the earliest of these singers started their careers in the Ukrainian city of Brod--performed their own songs and dramatic poems as café entertainment. An explosion of creativity overtook the Eastern European Jewish community.

bar kochba yiddish theatreGoldfadn's Legacy

In 1876, Avram Goldfadn wrote the first professionally performed secular Yiddish plays. After Goldfadn's debut at the Green Tree Café in Iasi, Romania, he wrote many operettas, including The Fanatic (or, The Two Kuni-Lemls); Shmendrik; Koldunye (or, The Witch); Shulamis (or, The Daughter of Jerusalem); and Bar Kochba (or, The Last Days of Jerusalem). He also wrote their scores, creating such tunes as "Raisins and Almonds," which entered popular culture.

By 1880, other playwrights, especially Moyshe Hurwitz and Joseph Lateiner, competed with him to write hit plays. A cadre of actors developed, many of them trained as cantors and choirboys, and they soon were joined by the first Yiddish actresses.

By the time Goldfadn died in 1909, there were many Yiddish theatres in Eastern Europe and the Pale of Settlement. Cities as far west as London also had theatre companies, many of which toured. Sholom Aleichem's novel Vagabond Stars evokes the peripatetic lives of typical Yiddish actors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Producers put up shows for a season and companies were organized around stars or family units. The shows played in fine city theatres as well as in beer gardens or barns. Audiences were often so poor that it was difficult to sell tickets.

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Nahma Sandrow

Nahma Sandrow is the author of Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater and God, Man, and Devil: Yiddish Plays in Translation, as well as Kuni-Leml, the award-winning off-Broadway musical based on Yiddish theatre material. She writes and lectures on Yiddish and American theatre as well as a range of other subjects.