Abraham Goldfaden - Yiddish Book Center

New Visual and Aural Technology:
Yiddish Theater, Yiddish Film, and
Eventually Yiddish Radio
Which is the most important
HEVRUTA: 2 Kuni Lemels
• As long as I thought highly of you, you were
honored guests of mine, but now you can take
my new son-in-law who I’ve taken into my home
as proof that I’ve split with you for good. Now I
see clearly that they are the wise ones and that
the only thing that you know is how to drink
brandy. Go in good health! (Pikhesl to the
• How is this the culmination of Goldfaden’s play?
What plot line is being wrapped up here?
• What does this tell us about Goldfaden’s early
Early Modern Yiddish Theater
• “Goldfaden played the (female) lead role in the student production of the
maskilic play Serkele, written three decades earlier but never staged.”
• Why is Goldfaden playing a female role?
• He writes comedic plays, satires..drag is about satire; (1860s)
• It’s a student production, so there were not women in the school.
• It’s not “Jewish” for women to be “out in public” or “performing”.
• Traditional Jewish ban on female performance. (Kol isha—the voice of a
woman) Like in Shakespeare’s time.
• How does the fact that he did maskilic theater show up in Two KuniLemels?
• Enlightenment play. Mix of science and religion, addition of popular
culture, people engaging the outside world. Lack a religious moral
(musar); in its place, there may be a moral about modernity; satire.
Abraham Goldfaden
• Born 1840 in Volyhnia,
Ukraine. Russian
• Went to state rabbinical
school in Zhitomir, the
training ground of
enlightened rabbis, who
would go on to become
the leading lights of
Jewish culture.
• Trained with maskilim
Goldfaden the Writer
• Started writing in Hebrew in
• Went to a modern rabbinic
seminary in Zhitomir (learning
modern, European culture)
• Import modern ideas into
religious communities AND
• Create a modern religious
Jewish community.
• Yiddish in 1866
• Doing both simultaneously.
• Lived in Odessa
• Gave private performances of
Iasi, Romania, 1876
First “Modern” Yiddish Theater
• Why in Romania? RussoTurkish War and it’s on the
other side of the border.
• First Yiddish Theater Actors:
• Ch. Sh. Lukatcher
• Abraham Axelrod,
• Edward Margolis, and
• Israel Grodner
• From the Broderzinger
• Musical theater
Two Kuni-Lemels, 1880
The storyline is based on a popular
German comedy Nathan Schlemiel by
J. Rosenzweig. The play follows the
story of Carolina, a daughter of a
wealthy Hasid, who falls in love with
Max, a maskil medical student. Her
father insists that she marry an
observant Jew, and with the help of a
self-interested matchmaker, finds
Kuni Lemel (Max's cousin), a shortsighted, stuttering, limping boy of
respected Rabbinical lineage. Max
takes advantage of his physical
resemblance and dresses up as Kuni
Lemel to furl the match, and marry
his beloved Carolina. In the end, Max
wins Carolina, which Goldfaden
portrays as a triumph of maskilic
values over religious hegemony
• Carolina—breaks out of the traditional world
• Max—germanic name (not Yiddish). University
student (not yeshiva)
• Kuni-Lemel—”lame ass” ugly little person.
• Students beat up the Hasids.
• Matchmaker and daughter are morons.
• Modernity triumphing over tradition framed in a
love story.
• Is this a classic maskilic play? 1880.
Echoes in Kuni-Lemel
Biblical echoes of Leah and Rachel;
Clothes are not just performance but are identity
Purim shpils: people dress up, act like they’re
other people, men dress up as women.
• Why is Kuni-Lemel so “lame”? Metaphor for
unenlightened, “hindered”. Clown like, buffoon.
• Tevye’s Daughters—modernity vs. tradition as
reflected in romance.
Goldfaden in Warsaw, 1880s
• Semi-ban on Yiddish
performance in Russian
empire enacted in 1883
(pushes Yiddish theater
development to New York in
• New York and Warsaw as
the great capital for Yiddish
• Pretend its German
• Begin staging Jewish plays in
Polish (Sulamita)
• Perets’ significance in
development of Yiddish
• 1905 Revolution: lifts ban
on Yiddish print and culture
Other Goldfaden Plays
• Shulamit
• Bar Kochba
• Kishefmakherin
Hevruta: Ansky
Why, oh why did the soul plunge
From the upmost heights
To the lowest depths?
The seed of redemption
Is contained within the fall.
--opening to The Dybbuk
1. How does this quote help frame the story?
2. What does it echo of?
3. What can we learn about Ansky from this
The Dybbuk
• First draft in Russian, 1913
• Attended the Beilis Trial
• 1915, Hopes that Moscow
Art Theater (Stanislavsky)
would produce the show
• Russian censor approves
the show
• 1917: MKhT accepts the
show, but never produces it.
• 1918: Hebrew translation by
Bialik is published in
Moscow (in Hatekufah)
• 1919: Yiddish Dybbuk is
published in Vilna (perhaps
revised after Bialik’s
translation); Ansky becomes
more Zionist. Published
regularly in Yiddish Moment
• 1920: Yiddish performance
of Vilna Troupe
• 1922: Habimah in Moscow
performs Hebrew version;
moves to Tel Aviv in 1926
Solomon Mikhoels, “In Our Studio,” 1919
• Outside, the revolutionary wave raged, and human eyes and
too-human thoughts, scared and scattered, were blinking in
the chaos of destruction and becoming…At a time when
worlds sank, cracked and changed into new worlds, a miracle
occurred, perhaps still small, but very big and meaningful for
us, Jews—the Yiddish theater was born.
• Theater is moving from popular culture to high culture
• Taking license aesthetically by using new aesthetics, new
• End of WWI, Russian Revolutions
• Modernism
Ansky, The Dybbuk, Ethnography,
New Technologies and Ideologies
Why ethnography?
• Nationalism
• To be more European, one has to be more Jewish.
• Is this about the ‘development’ of Judaism? Show
educated, assimilated urbanized Jews what their ‘roots’
• Staving off the ‘death’ of culture
• Why are urbanized, acculturated Jews interested in folk
Jewish culture?
• Invention of Tradition
• Documentation and Preservation
• HEVRUTA: Should an ethnographer take artifacts out of
their cultural surroundings?
Sound Technologies
• First, circulation of sheet music for people to perform
at home (Tin Pan Alley in US)
• Then, recordings of cantors make them into celebrities
• Ethnographic records capture sounds presumed lost
• Radio allows a group of people in a certain geography
to participate in a listening culture
• WEVD, the ‘national’ radio of Yiddish, but not
successful. No unified sound.
• Radio as the most successful transmitter of Yiddish
culture in the United States from the 1930s to 1970s.
Julius Engel and His Recording Technology
• Phonograph technology
invented in 1877-8, T.A.
• 1900: Wax cylinders used
to record Native
• 1912: Wax Cylinders used
to record native Jews
• Note that Engel barely
spoke Yiddish
S. An-sky (Shloyme Rappaport)
• Born 1863
• Russian and Hebrew
• Organized the peasants as
Russian populist
• Takes the pen name S. Ansky
in the 1890s.
• Lived in Paris, Switzerland,
• Who do we think turned him
on to Yiddish culture?
• Followed by tsarist police
• Worked on the 1912-1914
ethnographic expedition
• Wrote the Dybbuk in Russian,
then translated in Hebrew, and
• Writes Bundist poem “Di
Shvue (the oath)”
• 1917: Serves as a
representative of the Socialist
Revolutionary party (peasant
populists) in the Constituent
• Flees Bolshevik Petrograd for
Polish Vilna in late 1917
• Becomes more Zionist
• Dies in Warsaw in 1920
(reminder of grave)
The Expedition (1912-1914)
Funded by St. Petersburg Jewish
tychoon Baron Naftali Gintsburg
Ansky’s belief in the importance of
Hasidism for understanding Jewish
folk culture
2,000 photographs
1,800 folktales and legends
1,500 folk songs and mysteries (i.e.
biblical Purim plays)
500 cylinders of Jewish folk music
1,000 melodies to songs and
niggunim without words
Countless proverbs and folk beliefs
100 historical documents
500 manuscripts and books
700 sacred objects acquired for the
sum of six thousand rubles
At a cigarette factory,
From left to right: Solomon Iudovin,
Iulii Engel’, S. An-sky.
Torah ark in a
1912 (An-sky, bottom
left, assists the
photographer by
holding the chandelier
with his cane)
20 Year Old Yudovin (and Ansky’s nephew)
and His Camera
• Photography invented
in 1839
• Very popular in Russia
• Russian Jewish
emerging bourgeoisie in
St. Petersburg very
influential in
photography as central
new technology
• Camera used to
document empire’s
• Yudovin joins the team
as photographer
• 2000 photographs
• Many lost
• Natan Altman preserves
• Others in Kiev Archives
Five Stages of Yiddish Film
Production of Yiddish Film: New York,
Warsaw (biggest Yiddish film industry)
• 1910-1917, budding film in tsarist empire. WWI (The Great War).
Not a great time for film in general, Yiddish film in particular. But
people are looking for entertainment. Propaganda photography,
• 1917-1927, silent era: Peak, climax, pinnacle, of Soviet Yiddish film.
Modernism on the rise. Exaggeration, weird camera angles,
light/dark, making the everyday different. Ostranenie (estranging)
“Make a stone stony”. Gothic/Dark. Nighttime filming. MOSCOW
• 1927-1934, New York sound films. First sound film: Jazz Singer (Al
Jolson) Cantor’s son.
• 1935-1939, Pinnacle/Zenith of Polish cinema (Dybbuk),
narrative/realist, love stories (real love stories) Molly Picon.
• 1940-1950, New York, Postwar Yiddish cinema. New York, Poland,
Jewish Luck, 1925
• Based on Sholem Aleichem
• Screenplay by Isaac Babel
• Design by Natan Altman
• Directed by Aleksandr Granovsky
Doesn’t get more heavy hitter than this in the
Jewish/Yiddish cultural world
What “language” is a silent film in?
Yiddish Theater and then Film…
• Always in conversation with other European
theatrical traditions
• Booms in the US, 2nd Avenue before Russian
• Perhaps one of the most popular and
impactful forms of Yiddish culture from about
1880 through 1930.
• Served as both a cultural and social venue for
Jewish community.

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