Academic journal article Shofar

Yiddish Theatre Actresses and American Jewish Identity

Academic journal article Shofar

Yiddish Theatre Actresses and American Jewish Identity

Article excerpt

This article traces out Jewish representations of actresses from the heyday of American Yiddish theatre to explore the role of the Yiddish actress in the gendered negotiation of American Jewish identities in the early twentieth century. I argue that Yiddish actresses functioned as role models and symbols of the ideal balance between modern America and "traditional" Jewishness for the American Jewish immigrant community. The negative stereotypes of Yiddish actresses that did emerge reveal the immigrant community's anxieties about not achieving this balance either by being unable to acculturate, or by losing one's connection to Jewishness.

Background

The period from about the last quarter of the nineteenth century until the late 1930s marked a time when Yiddish cultural production worldwide was experiencing tremendous growth, and during that time a remarkable and influential body of Yiddish literature and theatre was created. In the last decades of the nineteenth century up to the First World War, around two million Eastern European Jews fled increasing persecution and poverty and migrated to North America, with many, at least initially, settling in Manhattan's Lower East Side Jewish ghetto. Although these immigrants were politically and religiously diverse, the shared experience of immigration and common factors including the Yiddish language and Jewish background fostered a sense of community and allowed a rich American Yiddish cultural tradition to develop in the early twentieth century. In North America, particularly but not only in New York City, the fledgling Yiddish theatre blossomed with everything from Yiddish vaudeville to Yiddish literary-art theatre. The Yiddish theatre was greatly beloved and played a central role in the lives of the Yiddish-speaking immigrant community. Not only did the theatre provide an inexpensive means of escape from the hardships of life in the ghetto and sweatshop, it also filled an important social role, bringing the community together and providing a place for people to see and be seen-something that had a particular valence for young men and women interested in romance.1 The Yiddish theatre was a space for making sense of the immigrant experience, depicting familiar familial conflicts and the tension between Old World tradition and life in America with its new freedoms and pressures, as well as scenes of Old World Jewish ways of life which the immigrants had leftbehind and still mourned; the theatre provided a nostalgic, cathartic, and communal experience to help the community cope with feelings of homesickness, guilt and loss.2 The theatre carved out Jewish space, through recalling the Jewish calendar (e.g., by presenting biblical plays on Jewish holidays),3 through the use of cantorial and klezmer music, and through presenting scenes of Jewish history and ritual on the stage.4 For some secular Jews who were Yiddishists and theatre enthusiasts, the theatre even filled the role of traditional religion.5 Finally, at the same time as it reinforced Jewish identity, the Yiddish theatre was also a powerful and eagerly utilized tool to teach and promote Americanization and modernization, through adaptations from the modern Western literary canon and through plays illustrating specifically American settings, music, and customs.

As academics looking back, we can view the American Yiddish theatre of the early twentieth century as a crucial site of identity construction and contestation for the immigrant Eastern European Jewish community. The theatre was a key site of cultural debate, "one of the major battlegrounds" between various political factions within the Jewish community-Yiddishists, socialists, the religiously Orthodox, and other cultural ideologues-all of whom fought bitterly with each other in the various Jewish newspapers over what form the Yiddish theatre, as a tool of education and propaganda, should take.6 This was a time when there were tremendous anxieties and uncertainties as Eastern European Jewish immigrants were negotiating new Jewish American identities for themselves. …

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