The beginnings of Jewish theater are connected with folk and European traditions. During the Purim holiday, Jews would act out Biblical scenes in costume, known as the purimshpil. According to rabbinical tradition, Orthodox Jews were not allowed to participate in any other form of theater. Rabbis condemned taking part in the theater even as early as Talmudic times, when Judaism was resisting Hellenic culture.
The first modern Jewish plays, modeled on the purimshpil, were first performed in the late eighteenth century among supporters of the Haskalah movement. None of these were performed in formal theaters, however. In the 1830's, Jews in the larger cities, despite rabbinical bans, attended theaters and comprised a significant proportion of theater-goers overall. Jewish comedians would perform in wine cellars and pubs, putting on short satirical skits and singing songs. They were called "singers from Brody" (Polish, spiewacy brodscy) because the most famous of them, B. Broder and W. Ehrenkranc-Zbarazer, were from Brody. Both became actors in the first professional theater group in Iasi, Romania, founded in 1876 by A. Goldfaden.
Soon, more such traveling artistic troupes began appearing. Despite the tsarist ban in effect from 1878-1905 on performances in Yiddish, they continued performing in a "pseudo-German" language at cafes, or outdoor cafes in the summer, in the cities throughout the Kingdom of Poland and Russia. One of the first of such performances was Szmendrik by A. Goldfaden, staged in 1880 in Lublin by the Spiewakowski Troupe of Odessa.
The first permanent Jewish theater was founded in Lwow by J. B. Gimpl in 1888 (in existence until 1922). In 1910, there were already approximately 360 itinerant theater groups, both professional and amateur. Most staged popular vaudevilles and comedies that were not of particularly high quality.
In 1900, A. I. Kamiński, together with his wife, E. R. Kaminska, founded an itinerant theater with an ambitious repertoire. This group helped establish Kaminska as the leading Jewish actress.
Before the First World War, other theater groups were founded, including Kaminski's permanent theater on Dynasy Street in 1913; in 1914, the Hebrew-language theater Ha-bima, founded by N. Cemach, run by J. Wachtangow, which was at first an itinerant group, having its headquarters since 1917 in Moscow; after a European tour that lasted several years, the theater stayed in Palestine in 1926; in 1916, Trupa Wileńska (Wilno Troupe), modeled on the Stanislavsky method.
Jewish theater blossomed during the 1920's and 1930's, especially in Warsaw. Lighter pieces, farces and revues were staged by small theaters such as Azazel and Folks Teater [Yiddish, "People's Theater"], cabarets Ararat and Di Yidishe Bande (Yiddish, "The Jewish Band", 1933-34, 1937), the avant-garde puppet theater Khad Gadyo (Yung Idish), as well as many other theaters and acting groups, including Sambatyon, a Jewish theater of miniatures and grotesques, founded in 1926 in Warsaw by I. Nozyk. There were also two premieres of musical pastiches by Sambatyon, directed by I. Nozyk, with set design by W. Weintraub (1891-1942), an artist associated with the Chaliastre group. Despite his short life, his accomplishments influenced the formation of the Jewish avant-garde, which included the experimental Yung Teater, active during the years 1932-37 and founded by M. Weichert; Varshaver Idisher Kunstteater (1922-24, 1926-27, 1938-39), which also went by the name WIKT; Varshaver Nayer Idisher Teater (Yiddish, "New Jewish Theater in Warsaw", 1929-31) under the direction of J. Turkow; Teatr dla Mlodziezy (Polish "Theater for Young People", 1937-39, founded by K. Segalowicz; artistic director: M. Mazo).
Plays in Yiddish or Polish were also staged in Warsaw by some theaters whose owners were Jewish, such as Elizeum, Eldorado, Centralny, Nowosci and Scala. A Yiddish-language theater press developed, as well as two Jewish drama schools and trade unions for Jewish actors. The beginnings of theater for the Jewish public, though in Polish, were the undertakings of M. Arnstein. He translated and directed plays such as Bog zemsty (Polish, The Vengeful God) by S. Asz, Dybuk by S. An-Ski, and Golem by H. Leiwik, with set design by A. Pronaszki and K. Adwentowicze in the title role. Jewish dramaturgy was occasionally presented to the Polish public as well: in 1925, Dybuk by S. An-Ski was staged in Arnstein's translation at the Szkarlatna Maska theater; at the Elizeum, Mirele Efros by J. Gordin was directed by W. Siemaszkowa in 1929.
Most of the acting groups still traveled, since there were few permanent Jewish theaters in Polish cities. In Krakow, there was the Krakever Yidish Teater (Yiddish, "Krakow Jewish Theater", 1926-36), run by J. Turkow until 1927. In Wilno, there was an amateur avant-garde puppet theater called Majdim, founded by A. Bastomski, which existed from 1933 to 1941. In Lwow, the amateur studio "Maska" was founded in the early 1930's. In Lublin, an amateur group associated with the "Ha-zomir" Society (Hebrew, "Nightingale", 1916-17) staged performances, though it did not have its own theater. In Lodz, the Jewish theater Scala was founded in 1912. In Gdansk during the years 1934-38, a group of Jewish actors founded by H. Glowinski was active, with an outstanding director, S. Wajnsztok, who had been an actor with the Wilno Troupe earlier.
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Text from Alina Cala, Hanna Wegrzynek and Gabriela Zalewska:
"Historia i kultura Zydow polskich. Slownik",
In 1939-41 in the Warsaw ghetto, three Yiddish-language theaters were operating legally: Eldorado, Nowy Azazel and Melody Palace; there were also two Polish-language Jewish theaters, Femina and Nowy Teatr Kameralny. They staged Jewish plays, as well as Polish and foreign ones, and anti-fascist satires, despite Nazi bans. Illegal performances were also organized, most often on the premises of social welfare offices. Artistic life in the ghetto was a manifestation of civil resistance, and provided a means of earning a living to Jewish actors, writers and artists. Most of them perished shortly thereafter.
The first postwar performance was an evening of Jewish songs, performed by D. Blumenfeld, which was organized in Lublin in 1944 for Holocaust survivors. In 1946, two permanent Jewish theaters were founded: in Lodz (whose director was I. Kaminska) and in Dzierzoniow (later in Wroclaw), where three itinerant troupes began operating. Polish Radio broadcast two-hour programs in Yiddish three times a week, featuring Jewish actors.
As Stalinization progressed, between 1947 and 1950, the Jewish cultural life that was being reborn was subject to communist ideology. Most of the theater groups were disbanded. The only one to survive was the E. R. Kaminska State Jewish Theater, based in Warsaw since 1955.
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