How a War and a Love Affair Changed the History of Yiddish Theater

In 1917, a group of Jewish actors left Vilna (now Vilnius) for Warsaw, where they began performing Yiddish plays, calling themselves the “Vilna Troupe.” The group later splintered, creating a de-facto franchise that became both popular and influential on the Yiddish stage in Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere during the 1920s, and introducing highbrow sensibilities without alienating audiences. Reviewing a recent book on the subject by Debra Caplan, Mayhill Fowler writes:

In the early 20th century, . . . the Jewish intellectual elite began to clamor for the creation of Yiddish high culture, and, in particular, Yiddish-language theater that would offer a high-quality product far from the melodramatic shund [low-brow, “trashy” fare] so popular with audiences. Despite the failure of famous Yiddish writers like I.L. Peretz to write engaging plays, theater companies like those of Avrom Kaminski and Peretz Hirschbein remained committed to figuring out how to bridge quality and entertainment. . . .

A “chance wartime encounter between refugees and starving locals” in Vilna, [as Caplan puts it], brought together amateur teenagers to play at acting. They had read about the celebrated Moscow Art Theater in magazines and wanted to work on Yiddish theater [while imitating its new, hyper-realistic style], and they founded the Farayn fun Yidishe Dramatishe Artistn (Union of Jewish Dramatists). In 1915 Vilna fell under German occupation, and the Germans, unlike the Russians, allowed the youngsters to perform in Yiddish. Thus war created the conditions for this breakthrough in Yiddish theater. The group became the “Vilna Troupe” later, only after they had left Vilna for Warsaw in 1917 and then dispersed across the globe.

Its first dispersion was the result of a romantic scandal as the troupe split into two when the lovers Alexander Asro and Sonia Alomis split with [the director] Mordechai Mazo. This rupture did not end the Vilna Troupe, though; it only improved its reputation, because a “Vilna Troupe” could now be in multiple places at once. . . . These troupes performed a European repertory including Leo Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness and [the turn-of-the-century Russian playwright] Evgenii Chirikov’s The Jews, as well as Yiddish plays by Sholem Asch, Peretz Hirschbein, and Jacob Gordin. . . .

The Vilna Troupe brought the American playwright Eugene O’Neill to Polish theater with Mazo’s 1928 production of Desire Under the Elms. The troupe’s director, Avrom Taytlboym, had been in New York with Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theater, and there discovered the American playwright, then a star and staple on Broadway. Within a year, Polish-language theaters in Warsaw were producing their own productions of O’Neill. Thus, [argues Caplan], the Vilna Troupe “served as a major conduit” for bringing new texts and authors from West to East.

Read more at In geveb

More about: Arts & Culture, I.L. Peretz, Jewish history, Vilna, Yiddish theater

Israel Just Sent Iran a Clear Message

Early Friday morning, Israel attacked military installations near the Iranian cities of Isfahan and nearby Natanz, the latter being one of the hubs of the country’s nuclear program. Jerusalem is not taking credit for the attack, and none of the details are too certain, but it seems that the attack involved multiple drones, likely launched from within Iran, as well as one or more missiles fired from Syrian or Iraqi airspace. Strikes on Syrian radar systems shortly beforehand probably helped make the attack possible, and there were reportedly strikes on Iraq as well.

Iran itself is downplaying the attack, but the S-300 air-defense batteries in Isfahan appear to have been destroyed or damaged. This is a sophisticated Russian-made system positioned to protect the Natanz nuclear installation. In other words, Israel has demonstrated that Iran’s best technology can’t protect the country’s skies from the IDF. As Yossi Kuperwasser puts it, the attack, combined with the response to the assault on April 13,

clarified to the Iranians that whereas we [Israelis] are not as vulnerable as they thought, they are more vulnerable than they thought. They have difficulty hitting us, but we have no difficulty hitting them.

Nobody knows exactly how the operation was carried out. . . . It is good that a question mark hovers over . . . what exactly Israel did. Let’s keep them wondering. It is good for deniability and good for keeping the enemy uncertain.

The fact that we chose targets that were in the vicinity of a major nuclear facility but were linked to the Iranian missile and air forces was a good message. It communicated that we can reach other targets as well but, as we don’t want escalation, we chose targets nearby that were involved in the attack against Israel. I think it sends the message that if we want to, we can send a stronger message. Israel is not seeking escalation at the moment.

Read more at Jewish Chronicle

More about: Iran, Israeli Security