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Hiding in Plain Sight

Rokhl’s Golden City: Context and subtext about gender in Yiddish theater

by
Rokhl Kafrissen
October 28, 2022
Wikipedia
Nellie CasmanWikipedia
Wikipedia
Nellie CasmanWikipedia


2022 was the year I began catching the shade of my own mortality out of the corner of my eye. Y’all, I’m feeling old.

And I’m one of the lucky ones! I’m alive (poo poo poo), but my body feels heavy, weighed down with an awareness of the precious years stolen by this pandemic. Without my awareness or consent, I now find myself across the threshold of a new phase of life. And to be completely honest, I hate it. As Nellie Casman first sang a century ago, vu zaynen mayne zibn gute yor? Where are my seven good years? (And I don’t mean tires.)

Looking around the Yiddish world, I’m continually struck by how much has changed since I first took part as an undergraduate. Of course, if you stick around anywhere long enough, everything will change around you, whether you keep up or not. Young people are always arriving and with them come new perspectives, new skills, and new expectations. But the landscape of the Yiddish world has changed far beyond what can be attributed to the arrival of the maddeningly young and fresh-faced. The Yiddish Book Center’s monumental digitization project has transformed our relationship to Yiddish literature, and its full text search capabilities are simply mind blowing. Those developments have gone hand in hand with an explosion of exciting scholarship and new translations in the field.

In the 1940s, Max Weinreich dreamed that Yiddish would find a foothold in the American academy, making up for its lost vitality among the masses. Instead, Yiddish stagnated for decades as a field of study, both in its language pedagogy and literary scholarship. When I started learning Yiddish in the 1990s, we were still using a textbook written in 1949 and largely unchanged in its fifth revised edition, printed in 1992.

Not that the book’s age or oddities made it any less beloved. I still regularly consult my copy of Uriel Weinreich’s College Yiddish, purchased during my sophomore year of college, more than two decades ago. What you have to understand about College Yiddish is that its purpose was not simply to traumatize students with its table of declensions and other austere grammatical doodads. Each lesson in College Yiddish comes with a brief introduction to an aspect of Eastern European Jewish life. If you encountered College Yiddish as a young person in a classroom setting, those lessons were likely seared into your mind, forming a foundation for the rest of your new Yiddish life.

Take Lesson 30, for example: Hirsh Glik’s “Partisan Hymn,” or Zog nit keyn mol. It’s still a tradition to sing it at Holocaust commemoration events, and similar gatherings. Not only did we learn the song in Lesson 30, we sang it together in class. My teacher made sure we understood that how we sang was just as important as the words. This was a song for which you stood, with an attitude of respect and reverence.

Lesson 27 is Der foter fun yidishn teater, the father of Yiddish theater, Avrom Goldfaden. In this two-page text, Goldfaden is described in terms both heroic and pathetic. Here, Goldfaden is the tireless builder of Yiddish theater, whose unforgettable songs quickly traveled the length of the Jewish world, while he himself was poor, humble, even forgotten. Not forgotten, however, by the lovers of College Yiddish.

After graduating in the late 1990s, I moved to New York and worked in the real live Yiddish theater. One of my first jobs was in the office of the Folksbiene. Back then, there were only a handful of good English language books about the Yiddish theater, including Bright Star of Exile, Lulla Rosenfeld’s 1977 book about her grandfather Jacob P. Adler, and Nahma Sandrow’s still indispensable survey of Yiddish theater history, Vagabond Stars (1977), both of which I read eagerly. If I had really needed to know more about Avrom Goldfaden, I suppose I could have ordered my own physical copy of his memoir from the Book Center. But I wasn’t quite that motivated. In my naivete, I assumed I already had the essentials, as gleaned from Lesson 27, despite its slightly drippy, hagiographic tone. The absence of a modern biography of such a massively important figure as Goldfaden never struck me as odd. The Yiddish world in general seemed largely invisible to everyone outside it, including academics.

It’s hard to overstate how the attention of academics, and new scholarly approaches, are radically transforming how we (or at least I) understand modern Yiddish culture, including our beloved father of the Yiddish theater. As theater historian Debra Caplan wrote for In Geveb, “until Alyssa Quint’s The Rise of the Modern Yiddish Stage was published in 2019, there was no full scholarly account of Yiddish theater’s most central, confounding, and enigmatic figure,” Avrom Goldfaden. Further, Caplan says that The Rise of the Modern Yiddish Stage is “a monumental work that tells Goldfaden’s story while also situating it in the context of Yiddish theater’s initial development.”

College Yiddish’s short text about Goldfaden (understandably) tells his story in the simplified mold of the “great man of history.” Such a framing discourages questions about those who helped the “great men” achieve what they did. And it normalizes the absence of women from the epic sweep we expect of history. What Quint does so brilliantly in The Rise of the Modern Yiddish Stage is read Goldfaden’s actors back into the story, using memoir and other texts.

Along with populating Goldfaden’s world with the men and women who brought his shows to life, she does what no other scholar has done: a systematic analysis of Goldfaden’s literary output. Indeed, Quint describes how some of Goldfaden’s most famous contemporaries, as well as those who followed him, downplayed his importance as a playwright, while simultaneously building up the image of a more folkloric artist, one whose primary legacy was his songs, like “Raisins and Almonds.” In doing so, Quint provides an explanation for not only his folksy portrait in College Yiddish, but also the decades of scholarly disinterest in his work. The real Goldfaden, the haughty, Russian-speaking, monocle-wearing artiste, had to wait for an entirely different approach to modern Yiddish culture.

As an impresario, Goldfaden was revolutionary in his use of female actors on the new Yiddish stage, breaking with his own troupe’s previous arrangement in which men played both male and female roles. Goldfaden was now writing female roles to be played by women. Like many dramatic cultural shifts, this one was hardly uncomplicated. Quint writes that “Goldfaden’s cultivation of women actors created a paradoxical situation in which he empowered women but also created female characters that reveal the special contempt he had for a number of his actresses and a hostility he harbored for women generally.”

Goldfaden may have put Jewish women on the stage, but he was hardly invested in their liberation, as can be seen by the reactionary values that run through his shows. In the plays he wrote, good girls waited to be rescued and brought to their family home. The many “powerful women” he wrote were not heroines, but antagonists. These included “overbearing mothers … mercenary businesspeople …. Domineering, shrewish, or even murderous …” He based the character of Brayndele the Cossack, a “man eater,” on one of his actresses! For Brayndele’s plot, he created a gender swap of Bluebeard, in which “the serial murderer is a woman who seduces and kills her husbands.” Quint says that in his memoir, Goldfaden claimed that the actress inspired the role by virtue of her “experience,” both sexually as well as her experience on the stage.

The queer and the conservative ripple in unexpected ways throughout the story of Goldfaden’s theater. She notes that Goldfaden’s memoir “draws attention to his search for female actors.” But the memoir of a playwright who knew Goldfaden at that time describes Goldfaden’s “investment in costuming and training men in ‘female’ manner and behavior,” describing how he taught them to apply makeup and more realistically portray women. “Some of [the actors] developed so well as actors in their female roles that the audience would prefer to see them in female roles rather than in male roles.” The actors who specialized in female roles were called aktyorn vayber or “male ladies” and their performance of femininity was held to “high standards.”

Cross-dressing and queer subtext in Yiddish plays and movies has always been a kind of hiding-in-plain-sight phenomenon. Musician Eve Sicular has been lecturing on the Yiddish celluloid closet for a number of years. I invoked Nellie Casman at the top of this piece both because I wanted to luxuriate in a little self-pity, but also because Casman’s character of dos khazndl (the little cantor) presents a delightful instance of a woman cross-dressing on the Yiddish stage, to great success.

Dos khazndl was a character Casman, the real-life daughter of a cantor, portrayed in the play of the same name, by composer and playwright Arn Nager. Nager comes up frequently in the research of my friend Vivi Lachs, research fellow at Queen Mary University of London. We recently spoke by phone about her research and performance projects. For the last few years, Lachs has been immersed in the culture of the Yiddish-speaking immigrants of London’s East End, and it’s the subject of her last two books. She’s been poring through their newspapers, archives, and, most importantly, tons of Yiddish music hall song sheets.

We don’t necessarily have complete documentation of the artists who appeared at these music halls. Not only does a researcher have to assemble a documentary puzzle, but they also have to work through how exactly to read these performances a century later. And Lachs goes a step further. She is looking for songs to adapt for her own modern-day performance. Yes, our lives and our sensibilities are incredibly different from those long ago East End Jews. But, as Lachs told me, “something about that gap is very engaging.”

Lachs used the example of the song Fraytik af der nakht. The song is written from the point of view of a husband who comes home on Friday night. His wife has set a beautiful table with delicious shabes foods. It is indeed good to be a Jew on shabes. What’s interesting is that Lachs discovered that this particular song was sung on the music hall stage by Madame Reytshl Yozefson. That is, there is an intriguing element of gender play simply by her choice of repertoire. The question is, how to read Madame Reytshl’s choice?

It’s tempting to impose a queer or lesbian reading onto the performance. Says Lachs, “You can’t use our modern terms of lesbian and queer when we analyze such a performance” from so far away. “But what we can say is that the issues are there … It’s not like we’ve invented queerness, but that’s not what they were doing in the English music hall.” Lachs suggests that when Madame Reytshl (and other female performers) chose this song, the gender play tended more toward a wishful wistfulness. Women of this time and place worked themselves to the bone to prepare for shabes, so that their husbands could arrive home after shul and enjoy the evening like a king. Imagine, this performance seems to say, how nice it would be to come home on Friday night and have someone else do all the work! And there’s still room there for a queer reading, too. The women in the audience were given license to imagine what it would like to have a wife to take care of you. What’s fascinating is that other women also chose to sing this song, and some, like Rosa Klug, indeed did so dressed in men’s attire.

Using penny song sheets and song books of the London music hall, Lachs has put together a fascinating, surprising picture of women’s performance on the London Yiddish stage. And through those performances, she draws new insights into (and new questions about) the lives of both performers and audience members. Her research will be published in a groundbreaking new volume of essays about Yiddish actresses, appearing very soon. The volume is called Women on the Yiddish Stage, co-edited by Alyssa Quint and Amanda Miryem-Khaye Seigel.

There are actually two parts to Women on the Yiddish Stage: a set of printed volumes and an ongoing digital publication. The printed volumes will include Women on the Yiddish Stage, “as well as two volumes forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press, one, a collection of Yiddish plays by women, and the second, the English translation of Esther Rokhl Kaminska’s memoirs.” The digital part of the project brings together all new translations of primary sources, available to anyone over at the Digital Yiddish Theater Project. As the editors wrote on the DYTP website, “While women assumed key positions in the Yiddish theatre from its first days, their work and lives are not adequately represented in the treatment of Yiddish theatre history. We intend for this series to amplify women’s voices in order to counter this underrepresentation.”

One of the challenges in writing this history is that many women did publish memoirs of their lives on the stage, but they may have been published serially in the Yiddish newspapers and never collected. For example, Sandra Chiritescu has published her translation of “My Path to the Yiddish Theatre: David Edelstadt’s Revolutionary Recitation” by the delightfully named Bella Bellarina. Bellarina’s account originally appeared in the anarchist newspaper Fraye Arbeter Shtime.

Regarding Yiddish plays by women, until very recently, the conventional wisdom was that there simply were not very many of them. And that was that. It may seem obvious, but simply looking for those plays has resulted in a breathtaking expansion of the canon. But as we’ve seen in relation to Yiddish novels by women, it turns out lots of people were assuming those didn’t exist instead of looking for them. Of course, looking for theoretically existent plays isn’t so easy, either.

I recently spoke to Sonia Gollance, the managing editor of the Plotting Yiddish Drama project at the DYTP, “a searchable, continually expanding database of detailed plot synopses of Yiddish plays.” Gollance told me that when she came on in that role, she and the other DYTP scholars drew up a wish list of 250 plays they wanted to include. She noticed that there were only two plays by women on the list, and they were both by Kadya Molodowsky. As Gollance told me, “I was quite familiar with feminist recovery projects for other genres.” The noted Yiddish literary scholar Kathryn Hellerstein had been Gollance’s Ph.D. adviser, and Hellerstein has done key work on Molodowsky and other female Yiddish poets. “That kind of scholarship,” Gollance told me, the kind that “went on starting in the 1980s and 1990s for poetry in particular just doesn’t exist for plays.”

In the hunt for unknown plays by women, Gollance activated her research network, combing various collections of Yiddish materials as well as seeking input from friends and colleagues. Now, more than 10% of the plays represented in Plotting Yiddish Drama are by women, up from 1% at the outset. And Gollance has developed her own translation project around a previously little-known play by a similarly obscure writer named Tea Arciszewska.

I know I started this with a complaint. Everything is hard these days. Food is outrageously expensive. No one is getting booster shots. The student loan ghouls won’t leave me alone. I’m exhausted. You’re exhausted. But there’s something almost magical in the work being done by these scholars. I’m reminded that sometimes the greatest power we can wield lies in simply asking a question.

ATTEND: On Nov. 17, the brilliant Vivi Lachs will present Secrets of the Yiddish Stage, a “rehearsed reading with musical interludes of gems from London’s East-End Yiddish theatre of the turn of the twentieth century.” More information and tickets here. She will also be performing in New York and Boston in December, details coming soon.

ALSO: The Center for Traditional Music and Dance and Old Broadway Synagogue kick off a new live klezmer music series with Pete Rushefsky (tsimbl) and Jake Shulman-Ment (fidl) at Old Broadway, 15 Old Broadway, between 125th and 126th streets, on Saturday night, Oct. 29. More information here … Committee for Yiddish (Toronto) presents “The Holocaust Poetry of Aaron Zeitlin,” with beloved Yiddish teacher and literary scholar Yitskhok Niborski, Nov. 6. Details and registration here … Also on Nov. 6, my friend Uri Schreter will give a talk called “Oh, the Hora! American Klezmer and Israeli Folk Music in Conversation.” Uri’s research poses the question, “What was the musical relationship between klezmer and Israeli folk music?” Co-sponsored by KlezCalifornia and New Lehrhaus. More information and registration here … Tenement Museum and YIVO will co-present a virtual talk called “Yiddish in Translation: On the Hunt for Novels by Women,” Nov. 10, with Dr. Anita Norich … Drisha Institute will offer a five-week course called “Fartaytsht Un Farbesert? The Practice of Translating Yiddish Poetry.” Starting November 15. More information here … The New York premiere of Ver Vet Blaybn (Who Will Remain?) will be at YIVO on November 16. The documentary is about Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever and features his granddaughter, Hadas Kalderon. More information here… Finally, if you happen to be in Finland, head to the Alexander Theatre for Helsinki Yiddish Cabaret. The cabaret features a “group of musicians from New York, Berlin and Helsinki” performing “Yiddish revue songs by Helsinki-born Jac Weinstein (1883-1976). The songs offer a fascinating glimpse into the history of Helsinki’s Jewish community. The repertoire includes operetta songs, ballads and couplets that portray Jewish life in a humorous way, including good times and bad.” November 7, more information and tickets here

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.

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