Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies INTERNATIONAL ACADEMIC WORKSHOP
The European Science Foundation, Strasbourg
Medieval and Modern Languages Faculty, Oxford University
ON YIDDISH DRAMA, THEATRE, AND PERFORMING ARTS
Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies
INTERNATIONAL ACADEMIC WORKSHOP
A landmark event in Jewish Studies took place at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies from 28 June to 2 July 1999: the first conference devoted to the study of the international Yiddish theatre, made possible by a substantial grant from the European Science Foundation. Over those four days, thirty-one participants in the International Workshop on Yiddish Theatre, Drama, and the Performing Arts delivered papers from a broad range of perspectives, including theatre history, cultural studies, musicology, dramatic analysis, folklore, legal history, and eyewitness accounts.
The workshop participants, from eight different countries and three continents, included many internationally acclaimed figures in the study and performance of Yiddish theatre. The keynote address was delivered by Professor Nahma Sandrow (New York), author of the seminal study _Vagabond Stars_, translator of the recent anthology _God, Man, and Devil_, and award-winning adaptor of Yiddish theatre material. Celebrated performers Raphael Goldwasser (Strasbourg), Lea Shlanger (Israel), Shifra Lerer (New York), and Bernard Mendelovitch (London) entertained the audience with songs, monologues, and scenes from the Yiddish theatre. The papers concluded with a special address by Mr Joseph Schein (Paris), world-renowned theatre scholar and author of _Around the Moscow Yiddish Theatre_. Mr Schein, speaking from memory without referring to notes, held the audience spellbound with his firsthand reflections on the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre's legendary productions of _The Travels of Benjamin III_, _King Lear_, and _Tevye the Dairyman_.
The participants, including many seasoned veterans, seemed to agree that the papers delivered at the Workshop were of a consistently high quality. Virtually all of the presenters--and the performers as well--attended every session, and given the unprecedented nature of the event and its specific focus, every panel generated considerable discussion that tended to spill over into the breaks between sessions and long after each day's events ended.
Scientific content of the event
Regardless of the content of individual presentations, one theme consistently asserted itself: the questioning, and at times a critical re-evaluation, of much of our received knowledge of the Yiddish theatre and its repertoire. Examples abound, of which we cite just a few of the highlights:
2) Several of the presenters documented the richness of Yiddish theatre outside of the best- known centers of such activity. Dr Brigitte Dalinger, author of a recent book on Yiddish theatre in Vienna, presented an overview of her findings. Miroslawa Bulat chronicled performances in Cracow between the two World Wars. Professor Avram Greenbaum gave an account of the important but generally ignored State Yiddish Theatre of Belarus (BelGOSET).
And perhaps most surprising, two participants reported on the influence of Yiddish theatre on modern-day Italian theatre: through a creative use of audio and video materials, Laura Mincer gave the participants a taste of Italian actor/director Moni Ovadia's use of Yiddish themes, while Dr Paola Bertolone described highlights of her own translation into Italian of Avrom Goldfaden's beloved Yiddish operetta Di kishefmakherin, performed in Italy as La maga.
3) Participants also came away from the conference with a deeper understanding of the Yiddish repertoire after hearing papers probing the form, content, and meaning of Yiddish drama. Professor Nahma Sandrow set the tone for this in her Keynote Address, in which she firmly placed the roots of modern Yiddish drama in the romantic movement, citing such figures as Goethe, Schiller, Coleridge, and Hugo as models for the concerns of many Yiddish dramatists. Dr Helen Beer offered the revelation that playwright and poet Itsik Manger had translated Georg Büchner's tragedy Woyzeck into Yiddish. Like Dr Beer, Dr Yitskhok Niborski addressed the audience in his native Yiddish, and also analysed the work of a poet/playwright: Polish Yiddish writer Aaron Tsaytlin. Vassili Schedrin gave a condensed overview of the work of Osip Dymov--like Mr Schedrin, a talented Russian-born emigrant to the United States.
The papers also gave a taste of how Yiddish playwrights and performers often went beyond the boundaries of traditional drama. Professor Itsik Gottesman brought a folklorist's approach to the subject, movingly describing the monologue performances of a 'folk reciter.' Professor Edna Nahshon explored the often blurred boundaries between law and theatre in a discussion of Yiddish mock trials. And David Mazower taught the participants about a little-known form, the melodeklamatsiye, as exemplified in the work of London Yiddish playwright/composer Joseph Markovitch.
4) The influences upon the Yiddish repertoire--and on the means of staging that body of work--have been manifold and diverse, as illustrated in many of the papers. Dr Jeremy Dauber examined how the quotation of classical Jewish texts--particularly Torah and Talmud--was used for polemical ends in the satires of the Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah. Such techniques demonstrate the linguistic fluidity of many Yiddish writers, an issue also addressed in Dror Abend-David's exegesis of German, Yiddish, and daytshmerish [heavily Germanised Yiddish] elements in Yiddish translations of The Merchant of Venice. Yiddish language has in turn influenced writers working in other tongues, as discussed in Ben Furnish's paper on Yiddish reverberations in American Jewish drama.
5) A paper given by Professor John Klier offered exciting and original research into the well-known 1883 ban on Yiddish theatre in the Russian empire. Professor Klier provided persuasive evidence that the ban, which he argues arose more from practical reasons than from ideology, was haphazardly enforced, and thus that there were numerous 'forbidden' Yiddish performances in Russia between 1883 and 1905. Dr Barbara Henry further demonstrated the widespread performances of Yiddish plays in the Russian language between 1905 and 1917. Taking the participants into the Soviet period, Dr Jeffrey Veidlinger posed the provocative thesis that the Soviet Yiddish theatre employed a network of encrypted Jewish content, making actors such as Shloyme Mikhoels a sort of 'modern-day Marrano.' Joseph Schein, the world's leading authority on the Moscow Yiddish theatre, provided an eyewitness account of his work with such figures as Mikhoels, Binyomin Zuskin, and Marc Chagall.
6) The session devoted to Yiddish theatre music proved as stimulating as it was controversial. Ron Robboy played an example of renowned composer Alexander Olshanetsky's use of Wagner's 'Tristan Chord,' raising perplexing questions about musical intertextuality and the intersection of Jewish and anti-Semitic cultural expression. Professor Seth Wolitz stayed closer to home, exploring Avrom Goldfaden's melding of music, subject matter, and dramatic context in the opera Shulamis and thereby making a claim for Goldfaden's being a great artist rather than merely a successful entertainer.
7) Yiddish theatre criticism was shown to contain more nuance than is generally known even by scholars in the field. Nina Warnke, exploring the aesthetic politics of critics in New York around the turn of the century, argued that their widely shared view of the Yiddish theatre audience as a bunch of wayward children blinded them to many of the achievements of the Yiddish theatre. Chronologically, Dr Joel Berkowitz picked up where Ms Warnke left off: in 1913, the time of the Mendel Beilis blood libel trial in Kiev. Dr Berkowitz documented responses to dramatic representations to the trial in Europe and North America, a phenomenon that raised many fundamental questions about the implications of staging current events and the content of the Yiddish repertoire.
Assessment of the results
The presentations surveyed in section (1) offered a great deal of new information about the study of Yiddish theatre that will undoubtedly have lasting implications for scholars in the field. Collectively, the sessions demonstrated that the Yiddish theatrical repertoire is broader and more diverse than generally believed, more widespread geographically, and more intertwined with politics, social forces, and aesthetic sensibilities of any given time and place.
Of course, the ideas laid out in this Workshop represent only the beginning: what we believe will pave the way to a new generation of Yiddish theatre scholarship. In his Opening Address to the Workshop participants, Dr Berkowitz outlined several areas requiring further attention by scholars, teachers, and performers of Yiddish theatre. Many of those attending eagerly took up his call for a formal discussion of such issues in a round-table discussion that constituted the last session of the symposium. That discussion led to the creation of a new research network, the Yiddish Theatre Forum. The Forum, which will expand to include other theatre scholars worldwide, intends to carry on an ongoing internet discussion of research issues concerning the Yiddish theatre, hold a biennial conference, and enhance the visibility and quality of Yiddish theatre studies in academic organisations such as the Modern Language Association, the Association for Jewish Studies, and the European Association for Jewish Studies. A volume of conference proceedings is being planned.