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Messiahs of 1933:
The book opens with discussion of Nadir’s play, Messiah in America, and a speculative discussion of what might have happened if his play, as well as Yiddish language and culture were more widely known by Americans in the 1930s. I suggest that Yiddish stage satire was not as far removed from mainstream American culture as it now appears to be; the language in which it was performed kept it separate from other political and popular theatre, but it made important contributions to American culture.
Nadir’s Rivington Street:
The Lower East Side Arises
Prayer Boxes as Precious as Diamonds:
How Soviet Yiddish Satire Fared in America
Artef, introduced earlier as “Nadir’s theatre,” also staged some Soviet satire in Yiddish; like Nadir’s work, the Soviet play Diamonds portrayed a false messiah, in this case a diamond smuggler who pretends to be a Soviet government official who can bring help to a small Yiddish-speaking town. Artef’s strong interest in this play and others from Moscow suggests that at least culturally, some Soviet Yiddish writers fared better in New York than in Moscow. The Soviet government was less favorable toward such satire than were the “Artefniks” (the artists and their audience in New York).
The Federal Theatre Project in Yiddish:
We Live and Laugh Twice
Another major source of comic and satiric Yiddish theatre in the 1930s was the Federal Theatre Project Yiddish unit, to which Nadir contributed along with other prominent New York theatre artists. The 1936-37 cabaret revue We Live and Laugh embodied some of the most promising features – and some of the faults – of the period’s Yiddish political satire. The work has never before been discussed before at any length, outside of brief newspaper reviews, and in the context of this study, its achievements become clearer and more comprehensible. Here too, a messianic concern with social justice surfaces in some comic sketches responding to Yiddish traditions and politics. Nadir’s own sketch, about a Yiddish-speaking courtroom judge who makes a mockery of justice, and another sketch in which Yiddish-speaking gangsters kidnap a Jew on the street to have a tenth man (the quota needed for a “minion”) at their religious service, suggest Yiddish language and background do not in themselves guarantee justice or lawful conduct.
The Messiah of 1936:
It Can’t Happen Here in Yiddish
Pinski’s Prelude to a Golden Age:
The Tailor Becomes a Storekeeper
Menasha Skulnik Becomes a Bridegroom:
Popular Yiddish Theatre Reconsidered
Prosperity’s Crisis on Stage:
The Yiddish Puppetry of Maud and Cutler
Leo Fuchs, Yiddish Vaudevillian in “Trouble”
A popular comic actor and singer, Leo Fuchs is not remembered as a cultural activist or social satirist. But one of his best song and dance numbers, “Trouble,” directly responds to Depression poverty and unemployment. Fuchs with his satiric song lyrics and wild dance steps brought some political and social criticism onto the stage through popular forms of entertainment – in this case through Yiddish vaudeville.
Yetta Zwerling’s Zetz
Zwerling, often the female partner of Fuchs in his stage and screen comedy, displayed an antic disposition once attributed to her being possessed by a “comic dybbuk” - a spirit of humor which possesses her entirely. But the dybbuk within her is more mischievous than evil, more a comic assertion of her life as an independent woman in a world not always pleased by such self-assertion. Her witty use of a language (Yiddish, that is) once derided as a “jargon good only for women” turns the phrase and Yiddish language itself into an advantage rather than a deficit for women.
Menachem Mendel’s False Profits:
Sholom Aleichem and the Communists
The “Anti-Milhome Zamlung” of 1937:
The Yiddish Anti-War Catalogue Reconsidered
The messianic longing for a world at peace prompted an interest in some Yiddish anti-war plays during the 1930s. As nations built arsenals and prepared for new wars late in the Thirties, the Federal Theatre Project published a catalogue of Yiddish anti-war plays. The catalogue survives as the artifact of a now forgotten movement against militarism within Yiddish culture. This chapter also considers whether the movement might be kept alive through new play productions.
Conclusion: Still Waiting for the Messiah
At the risk of giving away the book’s ending, I have to say that the messiah does not arrive in any of the plays discussed. But a messianic impulse to repair the world and make it whole again survives in texts of the plays considered. The impulse might be renewed and result in new theatre productions if Yiddish plays such as those discussed would be translated into English and be seen by a wider audience.
One conclusion offered after surveying plays of Nadir, Cutler, Pinski
and their peers, is that new interest in the period could arise if
English-language audiences had greater access to the memories and emotions of a
comic, socially engaged culture which was interrupted by war at the end of the
Thirties. Yiddish radicalism’s advance, including its satiric movement, was
interrupted, not willingly abandoned, when many of its supporters fell victim to
Europe’s false messiahs: Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini. (Nadir’s career, with
its Communist affiliations, can be seen as one such casualty.) If new
translations and adaptations of the plays became available, the radicality and
comic imagination of Yiddish culture might now be welcomed by a post-Stalinist,
American generation of English-language theatre goers, for whom the messiah
still has not arrived.
Copyright © 2008 by Joel Schechter
The book can be purchased from Temple University Press. To contact the press online go to: http://www.temple.edu/tempress/contact.html
For a color copy of the book cover go to: http://userwww.sfsu.edu/~jschech/
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