And beautiful was Hannah like Venus
--I. L. Peretz, "Venus and Shulamis" 1889
At the turn of the twentieth century, some forty years after the establishment of the first professional Yiddish theater troupe, Jewish playwrights and directors began to introduce the plots, characters, and dramatic motifs of ancient Greek tragedy onto the modern Yiddish stage. Even as these writers sought to make fifth-century Greek drama resonate for their Yiddish-speaking audiences, they consistently engaged in what Glenda Abramson has termed "the Judaization of Greek mythology." (1) Yiddish playwrights reconfigured the ancient tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides to reflect a particular set of Jewish literary norms and values. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Yiddish translations and adaptations of those Greek dramas that prominently feature a maternal protagonist.
This article traces the gradual development of a Greek presence in the modern Yiddish theater through a case study of the various permutations of two ancient Greek tragedies that best exemplify this model of maternal centrality--Medea and Oedipus the King. Their Yiddish equivalents in Jacob Gordin's epic Medea (1897) and The Wild Princess (1898), Z. Libin's domestic tragedy Henele, or, The Jewish Medea (1903) and Mendl Elkin's The Sorrows of Oedipus (1935) may be set in different locales, feature an assortment of Greek and Jewish characters, and demonstrate varying degrees of fidelity to their ancient Greek source texts. (2) Yet despite these surface variations, these adaptations are characterized by deep similarities in approach. In an effort to combat the traditional Jewish aversion toward Greek culture, Yiddish playwrights transposed their ancient Greek source texts onto a thoroughly modern Jewish landscape, complete with biblically derived morals, a deep distrust of polytheistic "superstition" and the veneration of the hallowed Jewish mother.
In the following pages, I aim to demonstrate how Yiddish writers employed three primary mitigating strategies in their translations and adaptations of Greek tragedies. Each adaptor struggled to temper the implicit challenge to Jewish tradition posed by inclusion of Greek material by adding a variety of elements designed to resonate with a Jewish audience. First, Yiddish writers replaced the polytheistic pantheon of ancient Greece with a neutral or pseudo-monotheistic theology. Second, writers emphasized biblical and national parallels in order to render these plays more familiar to a Jewish audience. Finally, many twentieth-century Yiddish versions of Greek dramas substantially revised morally ambiguous maternal characters to align with the more familiar archetype of the overly devoted Yidishe mame of the Jewish stage.
Writers and translators in both Hebrew and Yiddish were initially wary of Greek material because of its dual sacred-secular prohibition by Rabbinic tradition and influential Enlightenment thinkers alike; however, both theatrical traditions simultaneously embraced Greek tragedy at the turn of the century. Yet classic social histories such as Hutchins Hapgood's Spirit of the Ghetto, as well as the standard Yiddish theater histories by B. Gorin, Nokhum Oyslender, and Jacob Mestel, scarcely mention translations of Greek drama into Yiddish. A few articles have considered the presence of Greek material in Hebrew, most notably, Glenda Abramson's "Hellenism Revisited: The Uses of Greek Myth in Modern Hebrew Literature" (Prooftexts, 1990) and Dwora Gilula's "The First Greek Drama on the Hebrew Stage: Tyrone Guthrie's Oedipus Rex and the Habima" (Theatre Research International, 1988). However, there has been no study to date investigating the presence of Greek drama in the modern Yiddish theater, which was far more popular and widespread than its Hebrew counterparts in the early twentieth century. In exploring the encounter between ancient Greek drama and modern Yiddish theater in the twentieth century, this paper suggests an approach to Yiddish theater history that accounts for the modern Jewish response to classical Greek drama as encountered on the Yiddish stage. …