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Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage

Concluding his study of Shakespeare in Yiddish on the American (New York) stage, Joel Berkowitz points out that this lost theatre world "is difficult to recover, but the effort is worth making, for the Yiddish theatre serves as a powerful tool to help us understand the world of eastern European Jewry and its legacy" (p.230). In making this effort, Berkowitz has examined many working scripts, combing through ancient press reviews, and augmenting them with several volumes of memoirs left by leading performe rs in the Yiddish theatre. The result of this careful work is informative, and raises some challenging questions.

From their earliest medieval beginnings in the purimshpil, theatrical performances in Yiddish aimed principally to entertain their audiences; to the intense chagrin of serious-minded Jewish intellectuals, through all the stages of its development, Yiddish theatre never abandoned this service to a popular audience. The earliest nineteenth-century ventures into secular Yiddish drama, undertaken by Abraham Goldfadn, engaged the Jewish masses by appealing to their sense of national pride through the use of national myths and homely music, a formula that fostered in Eastern European Jewry a sense of shared peoplehood built upon a common vernacular. At the theatre, "Moyshe", the Jewish man-in-the-street, talked and shouted, laughed and cried in Yiddish, and his living language and its cultural by-products legitimated themselves one to the other. Following Goldfadn's model in a quest for new material, the developing Yiddish theatre, as Berkowitz demonstrates, "raided the cupboard of European dramas and operettas for plots and music, which they often blended with character types and issues of immediate interest to their audiences" becoming in this process "a cultural free-for-all in which all plays, all characters, all melodies were there for the taking" (pp. 207 -208). Shakespeare's plays were, in these terms, rich veins of ore, and the emerging Yiddish theatre soon mined them.

In examining productions that appeared during the "Golden Age" of Yiddish theatre in the two decades between 1890 and 1910, Berkowitz focuses on those "Yiddish plays that, in one way or another, were advertised or otherwise publicly perceived as deriving from Shakespeare" (p.xi), either as versions that retained Shakespeare's titles, or as works that indicated an obviously Shakespearean source in their subtitles: "Five of Shakespeare's plays took on special significance for Yiddish audiences," Berkowitz tells us (p.27), and to the stage history of each of these he devotes one chapter: "King Lear", "Othello", "Hamlet", "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Merchant of Venice".

Rightly concerned with the living theatre, and the central question of how production affects interpretation, Berkowitz's study scrutinises the scripts of actual productions, not as literary texts, but as working plans for the actor-managers who mounted and starred in them. Berkowitz's principal enthusiasm is for recreating these early performances and evaluating their reception by "Moyshe", whose tastes dictated the fare offered by the Yiddish theatre during all the years of its existence. In Berkowitz's detailed recreation of famous Shakespeare productions in Yiddish, we are given droll insights into the vagaries of such stars as Jacob Adler, David Kessler, Boris Thomashevsky and Keni Liptzin. The vehicles in which these performers achieved their greate st successes were, not surprisingly, Judaized adaptations of Shakespeare's plots and themes. Across all the cultures of the world, "tradaptations" of Shakespeare, as recent scholarship has called them, have always involved a measure of appropriation, adap tation or clash, and the Yiddish theatre was no different: as Berkowitz points out, "the more Jewish a Shakespearean adaptation was, the more enthusiastically the American Yiddish audience would tend to embrace it" (p.68). Each of the five plays discussed in this study consequently produced one purely Yiddish adaptation that outshone the original in the favour of those who watched them.

As a high-minded social reformer, Jacob Gordin emerged as the playwright whose Judaizations of Shakespeare proved most enduring, establishing models that were emulated for years. The first of these, in which Jacob Adler resoundingly established his fame, was _Der yidisher kenig lir_ (1892), followed in quick succession by Gordin's adaptation of _Romeo and Juliet_, entitled _Di litvishe brider Lurye_ (1894), and then by a replay of _King Lear_ in the female gender called _Mirele Efros_ (1898). Unlike most other Yiddish adaptations of Shakespeare, all three of Gordin's derivatives were published (between 1898 and 1907), becoming literary classics as well. In Gordin's two reworkings of _King Lear_, a serious, fully Jewish cultural encounter with Shakespeare takes place, making them the pre-eminent exemplars of the way in which Shakespeare could enrich the Yiddish theatre, but seldom did so. Gordin's skill at "transplanting _King Lear_ rather than simply translating it" through his use of Jewish terminology, imagery and politics, his symbolic use of tropes like food and blindness, all, as Berkowitz notes, contributed handsomely to "guid[ing] the audience to the moral awaiting it at the end of the evening" (pp.44-51). The changes Gordin made to the _King Lear_ theme in writing _Mirele Efros_ took his "tradaptation" a step further: having learnt, as Berkowitz tells us, that "utopian dreams are not so easily realized [...] Gordin makes [_Mirele Efros_] not an allegory of Jewish ideology [as was _Der yidisher ken ig Lir_] but a family drama reflecting the struggles its audience faces daily" (p.59).

Adler's first performance as David Moysheles, the eponymous character of _Der yidisher kenig Lir_, was given in New York in October 1892 (p.39); six years later, Keni Liptzin created the title role in what became the wildly popular _Mirele Efros_. The tri umph of these two performers, Berkowitz notes, was largely due to the content of the plays, the moral lessons of which resonated eloquently with audiences among whom traditional family ties had been weakened by immigration. Berkowitz makes this point tell ingly through one of those illuminating little human details that regularly enliven his study: "years after the play's debut [...] it still held its moral sway over Yiddish audiences. Entering a bank on the Lower East Side on Monday morning, Rumshinsky [a composer from the Yiddish theatre] was told by an employee that because Adler had performed _The Jewish King Lear_ over the weekend, the bank was filled with young people sending money to their parents back in Europe" (p.50). _Mirele Efros_ preached a si milar message, "put[ting] the burden on the children to respect their parents" (p.59). In a short time, these plays became the capstones of the Yiddish theatre's "classical" repertoire, Berkowitz argues, because these Judaized adaptations of King Lear "contributed to [the] process of Americanization, helping the Yiddish theatre grow up and the Yiddish audience come to terms with the shock of beginning life again in a new and very different place" (p.71).

Other Yiddish dramatists were either unwilling or unable to follow Gordin's commitedly Jewish lead in transmitting Shakespeare. Since the Yiddish theatre was above all concerned to gratify its audiences' taste for sensationalism, Berkowitz takes pains to reconstruct the way Shakespeare was adapted by Yiddish actor-managers, who were careful to mount productions rich both visually and aurally, replete with highly dramatic set-pieces and full-bodied declamation. At the heart of the matter here lay no "literary" concern, but an energetic stage performance. Its success depended exclusively on strong plot lines developed by stock characters, through presenting whom the actors could give their audience bustling stage activity and a gamut of simple emotions, and in this it succeeded admirably. The plays Berkowitz puts before us consequently give no hint of sophisticated dramaturgy or sensitive language. Instead they offer in abundance what seem to us now ridiculously melodramatic situations inflated by an overblown rhetoric that Berkowitz presents with affection, as in his summary of the grand finale of _Der blinder muzikant_:

"Yozef [Othello, transmogrified into a blind musician] tears up the music, strangles his wife, then immediately regrets the act. His cries rouse the rest of the household, and when his mother asks, 'Yozef, what have you done?' he responds bitterly, 'You h ave eyes; you can see. Mama, be a mother at least and strangle me.' A policeman arrives to arrest Yozef, who tears himself away to fall upon [his wife] Rosa's corpse as the final curtain falls" (p.127).

A sample of the kind of dialogue that would accompany scenes of this stamp comes to us -- regrettably only in Berkowitz's English translation, so we are given no means of savouring the bombast of the Yiddish original -- in an exchange between the Yiddish equivalents of Juliet and Old Capulet:

Rivke: Daddy dear, order me to walk through fire and I'll obey you, but I can't obey you by loving someone my heart tells me not to love.

Gedalye: Your heart! I'll tear out your dirty heart and stomp on it, I'll tear out your eyes that look at what they shouldn't, you impudent slut! (from _Di litvishe brider Lurye_, see p.155)

Berkowitz adds to his description of this rudimentary dramaturgy the information that Thomashevsky, in particular, fancied himself as a romantic lead and continued to play Romeo until he was well into middle age, and that Bertha Kalish played a feminine Hamlet so fetchingly that it helped her, as a telling slip of his pen expresses it, to "gain the notoriety [sic] that would sweep her along to a successful career on the English-speaking stage" (p.106).

Leading performers continually sought fresh material with which to retain their place in the partiality of their fans, but were not easily tempted to abandon clones of the roles in which they felt most confident. Different adapters produced no fewer than five versions of _Romeo and Juliet_ for the use of Thomashevsky, who appears to have enjoyed a lifelong love-affair with his own legs in silk stockings (p.77), and who ensured that the plot of Shakespeare's play was pared right down to keep the focus exclusively on himself and (to a lesser extent) on Juliet , so that he might march unhindered forward to the stunningly banal curtain line he devised for it:

Eltern hobn shteynerne hertsn. Keyne [keyn] treren kenen zey shmeltsn. Di natur betet unzoynst [bet umzist]. Kinder muzn umgliklekh zayn.

[Parents have hearts of stone. No tears can melt them. Nature pleads in vain. Children are destined to be unhappy.] (p.147)

A theatre driven by the demands of an unsophisticated audience and dominated by the vanity of ham performers is unlikely to produce plays that last. Berkowitz's study makes this clear by emphasising that most Yiddish adaptations of Shakespeare exist only in manuscript/typescript. In their desire to "tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings", Yiddish actors thought nothing of forcibly shifting the focus of every play's action favourably on to themselves. Thomashevsky, u nhappy that unflattering casting had on one occasion called upon him to play a villainous Polish anti-Semite, contrived, with the unfailing aid of "tights and beautiful boots", to deliver at the climactic moment of this unkind piece "an impassioned monolo gue praising the 'poor Jews' " (p.148). "What does an actor not do for applause?" Thomashevsky's wife coyly asks of this coup de theatre in her memoirs, thus briskly setting at naught Hamlet's own contrary opinion that such behaviour is "villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it."

Insights of this kind, in which Berkowitz's study abounds, makes clear that the Yiddish theatre in America had little use for a Jewish Stanislavsky. It was perfectly content with the conventions of the nineteenth-century stage, which lavishly indulged the insatiable hunger for vicarious sentimental experience of the labouring poor who repaid it with passionate loyalty, responding wholeheartedly to whatever took place on the stage (p.14). The business managers of Yiddish theatres used Shakespeare's plays primarily to bring in and retain large audiences, and they found that the closer its adaptations of these plays entered the world of the audience, the happier the paying public was. With its audiences generally oblivious to the cultural prestige attached to the name of Shakespeare, and the actor-managements concerned with box-office takings and their own celebrity, there was little motivation for any masterful new drama to emerge on the Yiddish stages of New York until after World War 1. The Yiddish "Art Theatres" that then emerged between the wars in the great Yiddish-speaking capitals of the world, from New York to Moscow, were by this time catering to another kind of audience, and facing an entirely different kind of challenge, not least that of the survival of the Yiddish language itself, so Berkowitz makes a wise decision to touch only lightly on the work of a later performer like Maurice Schwartz, whose career as an actor-manager only began when he took over the lease on New York's Irving Place Theatre in 1918 (p.195).

As one would expect, the Yiddish intelligentsia never stopped deploring the vulgarity of "Moyshe's" theatre, and never ceased longing for the reform of "Moyshe's" taste. This was a vain hope. Commercial Yiddish theatre in America, as Berkowitz demonstrate s, did little to contribute to the enrichment of the Yiddish language. Even Alexander Harkavy, who through his many dictionaries and bilingual handbooks could claim virtually single-handedly to have taught English to the whole of Yiddish-speaking America, could provide no remedy. In an essay published in 1897, Harkavy argued spiritedly that Yiddish was a language fully capable of expressing the most elevated thoughts, offering his own verse translation of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy to prove his point (pp.75-76), but his earnest plea, "let good writers get to work, and there will be no obstacle to what our language can do!" (p.76) went unheeded in the New York Yiddish theatre.

Although Berkowitz argues that the Yiddish theatre's engagement with Shakespeare steadily developed into an attempt by yet another "minority language to co-opt Shakespeare as an instrument of cultural legitimation" (p.239), his study does little to explain why, in these terms, the Yiddish theatre achieved almost nothing by way of what can, in terms of its lasting merit, legitimately be termed "art". One would have thought that any remotely serious engagement with Shakespeare's texts by a Yiddish adapter would have faced serious questions that went well beyond the trivial and the sensational, particularly in confronting the vast cultural differences predicated on race and religion so explicitly dramatised in plays like _Othello_ and _The Merchant of Venice _. Yet nothing of the kind took place.

The Yiddish theatre's approach to _The Merchant of Venice_, and more specifically to the character of Shylock, was understandably ambivalent. Berkowitz notes that "the major interpreters of Shylock on American Yiddish stages would seek various ways to make the character more palatable, from softening the character to radically cutting or even rewriting the play" (p.172). One way of "softening" the character was to insist that Shylock was a figure from the remote past, and therefore wholly removed from any living reality; another, chosen after the Holocaust by Maurice Schwartz in his production of _Shylock and his Daughter_, was to construct a revisionist script from Ibn Zahav's Hebrew novel, not from Shakespeare's play, in order, as Schwartz curiously arg ued, to point up "the national significance of the play, its moral, the mission it leads, the answer to the three-hundred-year-old libel" (p.205). Bravura performances from big-name actors attempted either to humanise the murderous Jewish moneylender (Adler, Schildkraut and, later, Schwartz) or to play him to the hilt as a full-blown monster (Morris Moscovitch), but the focus of the play remained unremittingly on the figure of Shylock. No single adapter or director of the play moved beyond that conventional (Christian) reading of the play that places virtuous Gentiles at the mercy of wicked Jews. Having wholly internalised the stereotype that centuries of Jew-hatred had imposed upon them, no one in the Yiddish theatre had the vision to read Shakespeare's play less as an attack on Jewish villainy than as an exposure of Christian hypocrisy. This kind of radical deconstruction would truly have marked a Jewish cultural encounter with Shakespeare of enormous significance. Inevitably, perhaps, the narrow focus of the Yiddish theatre, coupled with the slender talent of those who wrote for it, placed this kind of "tradaptation" immeasurably far beyond its capacity.

Insisting that "[t]he overall health of the American Yiddish drama was strongest when it relied on Shakespeare least" (p.130), Berkowitz's depiction of its audience's expectations helps us to understand why the Yiddish theatre in America remained unsophis ticated as long as its audiences remained unassimilated. Many times, English-speaking critics who reviewed the Yiddish theatre's productions praised the innocent enthusiasm with which their audiences received them. One such reviewer, evaluating a producti on of Rakov's _Romeo and Juliet_ extrapolation, _The Oath on the Torah_ (1903), went so far as to equate this reaction with that of Shakespeare's first audiences: "In its naive and unabashed expression of the popular taste, the Yiddish plays of the Bowery are on the precise plane of the plays that delighted the Bankside under Elizabeth" (p.164). Today this judgement seems simplistic when set alongside a sample of the kind of language this Yiddish play offered its audience:

Zayn zol der omed un der ner tomed
Eydes af imer, mir sheydn zikh nimer.
Zayn zol di toyre un di menoyre
Eydes gor tsu undzer shvue.

[May the cantor's desk and the Eternal Light
Be witnesses forever, we'll never part.
Let the Torah and the menorah
Be witnesses to our oath.] (p.163)

Shakespeare's plays certainly make use of doggerel when this is needed for specific dramatic purposes, but this is not the sole, still less the chief, register in which they are cast. As far as one can judge from the fulsome illustrations Berkowitz gives us, not the remotest attempt was made by any of his Yiddish adapters to capture something of Shakespeare's immense variety of dramatic register within the compass of a single play, and in the few instances where a more serious effort was indeed made to de velop the language of a play as part of its theatrical impact, the results proved unpopular, and swiftly vanished from the boards. While recent research into popular culture has yielded crucial insights into the values of ordinary men and women living und er changing socio-political conditions, facile comparisons with the robustness of Elizabethan audience reactions are perhaps best avoided. In its own time, Shakespeare's work was also "popular culture", appealing to a wide and heterogeneous audience primarily through its language, a key dramatic function to which succeeding generations of theatregoers have become increasingly deaf. The very phrases, puns and poetry that so often discourage modern theatregoers who now stand at four centuries' remove from t heir immediacy as living speech were the very breath of life for Shakespeare's plays, which self-evidently spoke to their first audiences in language not addressed exclusively to one stratum of Elizabethan society.

This was manifestly not the case with Shakespeare in Yiddish, which spoke exclusively in the banality and cliches of "Moyshe". One brief instance given in Berkowitz's study makes the point tellingly. Shakespeare puts into the mouth of old Montague, when h e is confronted with his son Romeo's dead body, a metaphor that fuses parental grief with an awareness of social position to foreground the senseless cause of the feud that has destroyed both his child and that of his enemy:

O thou untaught! What manners is in this,
To press before thy father to a grave? (5.3.213-4)

In Rakov's unpublished Yiddish rewrite of _Romeo and Juliet_, the about-to-be bereaved father confronts his returned son (on the verge of shooting himself as soon as he can free one of his hands from supporting the corpse of his newly poisoned Juliet):

Raphael, you've come all this way and went straight to your enemy without visiting your father first? (p.166)

Naturally, Berkowitz recognises the degree to which time has rendered this Yiddish line more than usually ludicrous, but this extreme example seems to typify the triteness of the kind of Yiddish diction the American stage found entirely satisfactory. Thos e who reworked Shakespeare in Yiddish also learned nothing about stagecraft from studying his plays. In Rakov's Yiddish _Romeo and Juliet_, again, the Capulet figure "threatens to strangle" his daughter, but instead "faints as the curtain falls" (p.165). Later, this same Sheyndl-Juliet, deceived by forged divorce papers supposedly sent by her Romeo, "comes out of her swoon long enough to say, 'Father, Mother, congratulate me. I am free' " (p.165). In these dire theatrical straits, we are far indeed from a ny dramaturgical skills Shakespeare's example might have taught.

Much as Berkowitz communicates his evident enjoyment of the performers and plays of Yiddish Shakespeare, his book indirectly poses a wider question. What are the limitations of studying popular culture, especially popular culture rooted in the Yiddish lan guage? For all its detail, Berkowitz's record of how Shakespeare was used on the Yiddish stage cannot avoid becoming repetitive. It takes us from one blusterous actor ordering a further adaptation of Shakespeare's plays for his own aggrandisement to anoth er hack writer seeking to earn a much-needed fifty dollars by turning his hand to this work, which was then either successful or died a sudden death at the box-office, only to seat us back yet again among the boisterous audiences popping their seltzer bottles and weeping into their handkerchiefs. Little more than this seems to happen in the Yiddish Shakespeare theatre. No fruitful poetic Yiddish language is developed, few successful adaptations are published, Yiddish dramatic literature is barely enlarged, those limited Shakespearean themes developed in an exclusively Jewish context soon grow dated, and nothing remains but a few unintentionally comical photographs. Instead of dramatists shaping popular taste -- as was clearly the case in Shakespeare's own day -- we have the self-diminishing circle of "Moyshe" demanding and getting more of what he knows he likes.

Those few plays that seriously developed Shakespearean themes in the context of Jewish life in America, like _The Jewish King Lear_, _Mirele Efros_ and perhaps some Shylock adaptations, made a well-meaning effort to pose important social questions and suggest possible answers to them. For all its success on the popular stage, however, Shakespeare in Yiddish left little permanent mark on Yiddish letters. Obviously, target-language translations of source-language Shakespeare can in no way affect the originals. Their importance lies elsewhere -- in the lessons they can teach the shaper of the target language. If, as Berkowitz notes, the German language and its literature could be enriched as a result of the efforts of Schlegel and Tieck to translate Shakespeare, why didn't the same thing happen to Yiddish? On the basis of the evidence Berkowitz offers, the bald answer would seem to be that there was absolutely no motive for it. What need (not to speak of time) was there for writers to spend agonized months developing a dramatic verse in Yiddish, when a bare-bones plot framework would earn them the same fee, and gain louder applause for the actors? Furthermore, from what texts did the translators and adapters work in the first place? At this distance of time, it is obviously impossible to establish how many of them (Harkavy obviously excepted) worked directly from the English, and how many others worked quickly from existing translations into Russian or, more likely, German. To get to Shakespeare, most of his Yiddish adapters were evidently obliged to work through the medium of another linguistic culture that many of them had but poorly assimilated. Doubtless this recognition can go some way towards explaining why so many of their hasty efforts expressed them selves on the Yiddish stage in daytshmerish, that ubiquitous and unproductive germanised Yiddish to which Berkowitz frequently calls attention.

For all its elegance, in the end Berkowitz's study leaves the reader somewhat dissatisfied, puzzling over unanswered questions about the long-term cultural import of the Yiddish Shakespeare phenomenon. What really is the lasting significance of these vulgar popular melodramas? To assert, as Berkowitz does, that the Yiddish theatre's encounter with Shakespeare ensured its cultural legitimation does not square with the piles of evidence he brings to prove that the overwhelming majority of its spectators didn't give a fig for such high-falutin' objectives, but were exclusively concerned that the theatre they addictively frequented should give them what they regarded as a good show. The fact that plots alone were snatched from Shakespeare, with little regard for dramatic nicety and less concern with linguistic range, shows merely that Shakespeare, like any number of other, lesser dramatists, was pressed into service as a milch-cow for a voracious but unalterable popular taste. On the evidence of "tradaptation " we have been given here, it would seem that the Yiddish theatre into which Shakespeare's plays were introduced was in no way materially enlarged by his arrival, and in no way significantly diminished by his departure. Berkowitz's loving presentation of the material he has unearthed seems merely to confirm that in its heyday the Yiddish theatre was for the most part little other than a series of posturing burlesques "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Speaking personally, I have yet to be convinced that, at least in America, the Yiddish theatre had anything of lasting value to offer.

On the other hand, this highly readable study certainly shows how far the Yiddish theatre in general, and its Shakespearean forays in particular, engaged the passionate concern of all those who took part in it both before and behind the footlights, and offers a compendious insight into the making and maintaining of a limited kind of Yiddish popular culture. Berkowitz's book is set to become a seminal work in this field, both for the information it generously provides, and for the avenues of further enquiry it opens up.

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