Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies
The European Science Foundation, Strasbourg
Medieval and Modern Languages Faculty, Oxford University

29 June - 2 July 1999



by Joel Berkowitz


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:

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.

Published in The Mendele Review: Yiddish Literature and Language, Vol. 03.019, December 28, 1999