Becoming Austrians: Jews and Culture between the World Wars

By Lisa Silverman | Go to book overview

4 4SEARCHING FOR REDEMPTION
THE SALZBURG FESTIVAL MEETS
YIDDISH THEATER

One late October evening in 1922, an expectant audience at Vienna’s Roland Theater eagerly awaited a performance of S. An-sky’s Der Dybbuk by the Vilna Troupe. The internationally-renowned troupe of Yiddish actors had been invited to perform by the Freie Jüdische Volksbühne (Free Jewish People’s Theater), one of the successful Yiddish theater organizations that flourished in Vienna, as the popularity of Yiddish theater grew after the end of World War I. Although a number of non-Yiddish speaking cultural luminaries sometimes attended the performances of the Vilna Troupe, including writers Arnold Zweig, Arthur Schnitzler, and Richard Beer-Hofmann, the audience member whose presence caused the greatest stir that evening was the distinguished theater director Max Reinhardt. In her memoirs, Vilna Troupe actor Luba Kadison wrote, “In Vienna, the great director Max Reinhardt came backstage, kissed each actor and exclaimed, ‘This is not playacting! It is a religious rite!’”1

Reinhardt’s ecstatic reaction echoed the enthusiasm for “authentic” Jewish culture, which rose among German-speaking Jews in the twentieth century as one response to anxieties about the perceived decline of modern civilization and the Jewish condition. This enthusiasm had its roots in the nineteenth century but gained currency after World War I. A renewed interest in Eastern European Jewish culture, sparked in particular by German-Jewish soldiers who served on the front during World War I, contributed to the general enthusiasm for what they, and others, characterized as a “pure” Jewish culture, untainted by the modern world. Works like Das ostjüdische Antlitz by Arnold Zweig and Hermann Struck, published in Berlin in 1920, typified this glorification of Eastern Jewish culture. However, as this chapter will show, the symbolic elevation of East European Jews and their way of life as representative of a “pure” culture untainted by modern

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