Barbara Burns talks to Alyssa Quint and Amanda Miryem-Khaye Seigel, co-editors of Women on the Yiddish Stage, which was published recently by Legenda.

cover of Women on the Yiddish Stage

BB. For readers who are unfamiliar with Yiddish theatre, can you give us a brief insight into the cultural significance and scope of this theatrical tradition?

AQ. Yiddish theatre enjoyed its greatest prestige during the interwar period when it had freedom to thrive simultaneously in the Second Polish Republic, in Communist Russia, and in the United States. It had outposts across the world, including Argentina, Canada, South Africa, and venues throughout Europe. During this period, besides serving the needs of its Yiddish-speaking audiences, it attracted non-Yiddish speakers to its stages for its avant-garde plays, stagecraft, and engagé theatre. It operated on a transnational level, so that Yiddish plays moved effortlessly across the globe, and contributed to the growth of the entertainment industries in its host countries, especially Broadway and Hollywood.

 
Alyssa Quint (left) and Amanda Miryem-Khaye Seigel (right)

BB. In a Jewish social context that traditionally suppressed or even stigmatized female public performance, how did women manage to challenge taboos and become fully integrated into theatres and opera houses?

AQ. The founder of the first professional theatre troupes, Avrom Goldfaden, was active in the Russian Empire, mostly in Odessa, and he insisted on the integration of women. Without women, Goldfaden knew he could not attract modern audiences (which included Jews) and he could not play the city venues that he himself regularly attended to take in opera. He scouted for talent and found women singing in shops. Others heard about him and sought him out. The women themselves seemed to like the idea of performing, even if they had never been to a theatre. There was of course resistance on the part of women’s families, and Goldfaden used his charms to reassure them that he would take care of their daughters.

The stigma against women faded quickly. It was not a challenge as early as the turn of the century, as East European Jews became more secular and embraced forms of secular culture. The essays in this volume demonstrate other challenges women faced as performers, but they had little to do with Jewish religious norms.

BB. You entitle your introductory chapter ‘A Field is Born’, indicating that academic interest in the pivotal role of women in Yiddish theatre has until recently remained unacknowledged. How did you go about addressing this gap in research and recruiting colleagues for your book project?

AQ. I organized a conference at Columbia University to attract scholars to the question, and it became an interesting encounter between scholars who had not researched women participants and archivists and librarians who insisted that there is a wealth of material in the archives about this subject. Addressing this disconnect was the beginning.

From a 1967 production of Brecht's Mother Courage at the Warsaw Yiddish State Theatre. Muter kurazh un ire kinder was, of course, a translation, but it was performed alongside Mirele Efros (1898), by the turn-of-the-century Russian-American playwright Jacob Gordin, a Yiddish original: a double-bill which says much about the transnational life of Yiddish theatre. Left to right, Seweryn Dalecki, Marian Melman, and Ida Kaminska; photo credit: Franciszek Myszkowski.

BB. Your list of contributors includes artists and performers in addition to established academic researchers. How did this mix of perspectives and expertise enrich your book?

AMKhS. We are thrilled to have such a talented group of contributors. While most are academics, some of us are (also) in the field of Yiddish performance; the two are not mutually exclusive! The book uncovers some fascinating history through primary source research and includes amazing biographies, as well as looking critically at how scholars do (and don’t) represent women’s lives and careers. One unanticipated benefit that emerged during the indexing was some intriguing and unexpected connections between artists that were mentioned in different articles. This shows how small the world is, and at the same time, how much there is to discover.

BB. From the many case studies of extraordinary women from cities across the globe which your book contains, could you single out just one or two, to give us a flavour of these women’s remarkable contributions to Yiddish cultural heritage?

AMKhS. There are so many women who contributed to the Yiddish theatre, as performers, creators, and artistic leaders in the field. Sonia Gollance writes about dancer and choreographer Judith Berg, an acclaimed artist of interwar Poland. Ina Pukelyte writes about Sofia Erdi and Rachel Berger, who ran the Yiddish theatre in Kaunas, Lithuania. These are just a few examples of the amazing artists that the book explores.

Gott’s shtrof, God's punishment (or possibly, God's struggle), might not seem an altogether promising title for a musical night out. But the play became a movie in 1913, and here in 1910 are piano and violin parts for the songs. The Eminent Jewish Tragedian Jacob Adler appears on the right; the actor to his left, with her head turned, is Jacob's wife Sarah.

BB. What light did your work shed on the medium of Yiddish as a minority language?

AMKhS. I was surprised to learn that Yiddish theatre is not and has never been an island, despite the fact that Yiddish is a smaller language. While Yiddish can create an intimate connection between actors and audiences that speak the language, many non-Yiddish speakers attend(ed) the Yiddish theatre and vice versa. Many, if not most, Yiddish artists were and are in conversation with the larger artistic world and current issues. Therefore, I hope that the book will be interesting to readers from many different fields and backgrounds.

BB. What is the legacy of Yiddish theatre today? Does it still have a presence in Jewish communities or indeed in broader popular culture, despite the ravages of the Holocaust when so many Yiddish speakers were killed and theatres destroyed?

AMKhS. The legacy of Yiddish theatre is complex; certainly, it has influenced the general theatre movement and attracted scholarship. Artists and cultural creators still draw on the tradition of Yiddish theatre by performing, (re)interpreting, and creating stage work in Yiddish. There are active Yiddish theatres throughout the world, and some even receive government funding, which facilitates stability and international exchange.

The loss of older, native Yiddish speakers is one of the biggest challenges. As you say, the Holocaust decimated the populations of both Yiddish-speaking artists and audiences in Europe, and very few theatre practitioners from that older milieu remain today. At the same time, the geographic scope of our volume demonstrates that Yiddish theatre has always been a transnational phenomenon and has developed in émigré communities around the world. There is significant interest in Yiddish culture today, and translation is an important part of what we do to convey this remarkable heritage to a broader audience.

BB. Your Legenda volume is just part of a larger exploration of the theme of women on the Yiddish stage in which you’re involved. Can you tell us about the other publications that are in preparation?

AMKhS. Our work includes a series of translations from primary sources, such as memoirs and letters, written mainly by and about Yiddish actresses. We are publishing the translations on the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project website. The translations amplify the voices of women and make these texts available to a much broader audience. We have a wonderful group of translators, and all the pieces have been carefully edited. We hope that these works will inspire future learning and scholarship.

Other translation projects include Three Yiddish Plays by Women: Female Jewish Perspectives, 1880-1920 (Bloomsbury), edited by Alyssa Quint. This is an unprecedented collection of three newly translated Yiddish plays written by women in the period from 1880 to 1920. The plays include The Chained Widow (Di agune) by Maria Lerner, translated by Elya Piazza; One of Those (Eyne fun yene) by Paula Prilutski, translated by Allen Lewis Rickman; and Sonya Itselson by Lena Brown, translated by Miro Mniewski.


You are invited to an online book launch for Women on the Yiddish Stage, hosted by Yeshiva University: the registration link is here. The launch is on Monday 5 February 2024 at 1:30 PM in EST (US and Canada), 6.30 PM in GMT (UK). The volume’s contributors include Veronica Belling, Debra Caplan, Sonia Gollance, Vivi Lachs, C. Tova Markenson, Caraid O’Brien, Corina L. Petrescu, Ina Pukelyte, Giulia Randone, Ronald Robboy, Anna Rozenfeld, and Nina Warnke, many of whom will be participating. The event will be moderated by Elissa Bemporad.


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