On the Horizon: Where Yiddish Theater Lives On
A gala night is not an occasion for presenting King Lear, nor is it a time to look for sustained performance. A celebration is at best a gathering of interested people who have come together to mark a significant date with nostalgia and affection. The Yiddish Theater Diamond Jubilee on June 10 was held for just this purpose, and an hour before the doors opened an audience largely of first-generation immigrant Jews collected under the marquee which still advertised Rum-shinsky’s Girl of My Dream. They came to buy Israel Bonds, to meet friends, and to recall the Yiddish Theater. Yiddish audiences are, by now, used less to going to the theater to see a play or a performance than to attending a benefit, hearing a little Yiddish spoken, and having a good laugh or a good cry.
What they saw inside was no great event in theater history. None of the “greats” of Yiddish dramatic literature—David Pinski, Perez Hirschbein, S. Anski, Sholem Asch—was represented, but Avrum Goldfaden who founded the Yiddish theater in Rumania in 1876 was, and so was Jacob Gordin who was responsible for its effective beginning in this country in the early 1890′s. The sketches, songs, and plays of Goldfaden and Gordin, crude and commercial as they were, nevertheless were the real beginning of the Yiddish theater as an institution and in a sense represented its present too; and this audience was the same “average” audience which has always supported it. Goldfaden and Gordin wrote nothing that can be called literature, but they left authentic Jewish characters whose names are part of the Yiddish language. When Jacob Kalich, as the master of ceremonies, announced Shloimke Sharlatan, by Jacob Gordin, or Shmendrik by Avrum Goldfaden, there was applause of recognition. Most of this audience had seen these pieces years ago, or in any case had absorbed these names and characters into their culture at least to, the extent that Americans have absorbed “Charlie Chaplin” or “Throttlebottom.” And if there were any present of my own generation (I didn’t see any) who were seeing these selections for the first time, they had certainly at some time in the family heard of “Shloimke” and “Shmendrik.”
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