Beyond the Racist Text: Jewish Applause for a Yiddish Shylock
Texts have ways of existing that even in their most rarefied form are always enmeshed in circumstance, time, place and society -- in short, they are in the world, and hence worldly. Whether a text is preserved or put aside for a period, whether it is on a library shelf or not, whether it is considered dangerous or not: these matters have to do with a text's being in the world, which is a more complicated matter than the private process of reading.
A few years ago I was indulging in a favorite pastime, browsing the selection in a local bookshop. In a large stack of remaindered editions I came across Lulla Rosenfeld Bright Star of Exile: Jacob Adler and the Yiddish Theatre. 2 Leafing through its pages, I was quite astonished to learn that in 1901 in New York City Jacob Adler, one of the greatest Yiddish actors of his time, appeared as Shylock in an enormously successful all-Yiddish production of the Merchant of Venice.
A restricted sense of possibility is often the result of social amnesia and an ignorance of history. I knew little of the history of Yiddish theater and thus it was initially startling and difficult to imagine a Yiddish theater troupe playing The Merchant of Venice on the Lower East Side to an exclusively Jewish audience and receiving unanimous acclaim. I suspect this reaction was not entirely idiosyncratic. Like numerous North American Jews, my knowledge of and response to The Merchant of Venice was formed under conditions not of my own choosing and has left me with a