A sad day has arrived when, in order to attract an audience to an engrossing exhibit about the Yiddish theater, one must claim that the exhibit is about Marc Chagall. That’s exactly what’s happened at New York’s Jewish Museum, where a provocative exhibit, “Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater,” opened last week.

Despite its title and a showstopping roomful of Chagall’s theater murals (which were on view in this space a mere seven years ago), this exhibit is really about the history of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater, a troupe sponsored by the Soviet government from 1921 to 1949. With sets and costumes designed by Chagall and other equally talented Jewish visual artists, and performances led by the brilliant actor Solomon Mikhoels, the theater’s productions were among the most innovative in the Jewish world. Visitors to this exhibit are treated to costume drawings, set designs, photos, and film clips from dozens of productions, and will emerge with an immensely enriched understanding of a lost creative era. What they will not learn is precisely why that era was “lost,” and therein lies the problem—less with the museum’s approach than with the artists themselves.

Benjamin Zuskin and Solomon Mikhoels as Badkhonim in 'At Night in the Old Marketplace: A Tragic Carnival' by Robert Falk
Benjamin Zuskin and Solomon Mikhoels as Badkhonim in At Night in the Old Marketplace: A Tragic Carnival, by Robert Falk, 1925

The otherwise excellent exhibit ends abruptly in a darkened room, where we are told that these artists—including Mikhoels and Benjamin Zuskin (a famous character actor)—joined the Jewish Antifascist Committee in the 1940s to raise money for Soviet efforts against the Nazis—and that after World War II, their actions “caught the attention of Stalin.” Mikhoels died first, in a murder staged to look like a traffic accident, and received a grand state funeral. Nearly everyone else, except Chagall, was executed by 1952. But the antifascist committee didn’t “catch Stalin’s attention.” Stalin created the committee, using the Jews to his advantage and then disposing of them when it suited him. Visitors to the exhibit can be forgiven for thinking the regime abruptly enacted what the wall text calls “the brutal end of an extraordinarily creative era.” But the brutality was present from the beginning. What was extraordinary wasn’t the creativity (Jewish theater thrived elsewhere too), but the restrictions placed upon it.

It is appealing to imagine these artists as “dissidents” who openly conformed to the regime while secretly denouncing it. This exhibit suggests as much, but unfortunately it isn’t true. These artists were almost all loyal Communists who took the regime’s promise of support for Jewish “ethnicity” at face value, trading cultural integrity for the legitimacy and money the regime provided. The tragedy here is that these Jewish artists chose—some unconsciously, most with full complicity—to throw their talents behind a regime that would not, to use today’s catchphrase, “sit down with them without preconditions.” Every play was required to denounce religion as “backward,” ambition as “capitalist,” family closeness as “bourgeois,” Zionism as “treasonous,” and Jewish tradition as “nationalistic” and “corrupt.” This required nothing less than an evisceration of Judaism and its replacement with Communist values. As one critic at the time said of a film produced by the theater, based on a Sholem Aleichem story, “Sholem Aleichem is unrecognizable.”

Sholem Aleichem and other classic Yiddish writers, whose works the theater adapted for the stage, were themselves fiercely critical of Jewish life. But implicit in their work was an acceptance of Judaism as a civilization with the highest potential. These Soviet Jewish artists instead accepted their regime’s premise that Judaism was a nauseating failure, and mined it for material to underscore its demise. The theater’s production of I.L. Peretz’s “At Night in the Old Marketplace,” a surreal dream in which a town’s dead revive after nightfall, became in these artists’ hands a zombie story, where Judaism itself was the disgusting corpse threatening to devour the living. (The costume designer, Robert Falk, even made costumes based on visits to morgues.) Most of these plays, in one way or another, are zombie stories, and the attraction to morbid dybbuk-and-golem motifs is no accident—the plays were an autopsy of Jewish life. Ultimately, despite its immense creativity, this work suggests that the artists lacked conviction in their own culture’s unconditional right to exist.

Tailor Shop Workers and Rich Men (Costume designs for '200,000: A Musical Comedy'), by Isaak Rabichev
Tailor Shop Workers and Rich Men (Costume designs for 200,000: A Musical Comedy), by Isaak Rabichev, 1923

By ending with a drawn dark curtain behind a photo of Mikhoels’s state funeral, the exhibit downplays the two real winners of the Soviet cultural game. One was Habima, a Russian Hebrew theater given generous attention early in the exhibit, which decamped for Palestine in 1926. Focused on tragedy, the visitor easily forgets that Habima is the success story here: refusing to compromise on language or culture, it persists today as Israel’s national theater. The second unspoken winner was, of course, Chagall.

The exhibit claims that Chagall’s departure for Western Europe in the 1920s came when he “saw the writing on the wall” concerning Soviet repression. In fact he was drawn by the wider market for his work in the West, where his shtetl surrealism was blessed with the appeal of the exotic. Despite enjoying Western artistic freedom, Chagall expressed little concern for his colleagues’ compromises, and his work ultimately became a nostalgic retreat from contemporary Jewish realities. Despite his genius, the comforting harmlessness of his paintings is what makes Chagall, rather than Soviet Yiddish theater, the box-office draw. The exhibit’s final film ends with the words “Theater is an ephemeral art.” It is particularly ephemeral when its artists are forced to deride their own origins—and even more so when they still end up dead.

The Jewish Museum has taken on a tremendous task in introducing the complexities of Yiddish theater to Americans, and this achievement is more than enough to deserve high attendance and great praise. Yet the exhibit’s hesitation in presenting disturbing truths comes at a price for American Jews, a community forever confronting questions about the authenticity and legitimacy of Jewish art, culture, and power. Yiddish culture is often evoked in America with nostalgia for a supposed authenticity and innocence lost. But it would have been even more evocative for American Jews to notice the lack of authenticity and innocence in the lost culture they so revere—along with the losses incurred by creating art on any terms other than one’s own.

Dara Horn is the author of the award-winning novels In the Image and The World to Come. Her newest novel, All Other Nights, will be published by Norton in April 2009.