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

Feb. 20 2019

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.

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

 

Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat