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Women Take Center Stage

Rokhl’s Golden City: Changing the face of Yiddish theater—and the sound of Yiddish music

Rokhl Kafrissen
March 27, 2019
Inset photo: Joseph Byron/Library of Congress
Bertha Kalich as Miriam Friedlander in 'The Kreutzer Sonata,' 1906 Inset photo: Joseph Byron/Library of Congress
Inset photo: Joseph Byron/Library of Congress
Bertha Kalich as Miriam Friedlander in 'The Kreutzer Sonata,' 1906 Inset photo: Joseph Byron/Library of Congress

If you hold by the Great Man theory of history, modern Yiddish theater begins with Avrom Goldfaden, the poet, playwright, and theater entrepreneur who took Yiddish dramatics out of the intimate, domestic field of the Purim-shpil and made it (as Yiddish students are taught in the Goldfaden chapter of College Yiddish) a commercially viable enterprise in the late 19th century. If you long for a feminist historical perspective, however, you can say that modern Yiddish theater begins with the inclusion of women on the Yiddish stage.

Maybe we can have it both ways.

Alyssa Quint, the Vilna Collections Scholar-in-Residence at YIVO, has just published a landmark study called The Rise of the Modern Yiddish Theater. For her, the emergence of modern Yiddish theater is a dynamic interplay between the prolific Goldfaden and the talent he unlocked by bringing Jewish women onto the stage.

Given how large Goldfaden looms in the creation of modern Yiddish culture, it’s shocking that until now there has been no dedicated study of his life and work. On the other hand, the lacunae in contemporary Yiddish studies could turn your hair white, so maybe let’s not dwell on that. Not only is Quint bringing out this volume focusing on Goldfaden, next year she and Judaica librarian Amanda Miryem-Khaye Seigel will bring out another important project that will fill a number of scholarly gaps: a two-volume collection of essays called Women on the Yiddish Stage.

The Rise of the Modern Yiddish Theater focuses on the early years of Goldfaden’s career, 1876-1883. Just in those few years, Goldfaden was astoundingly productive, and some of the work he created then is still performed today, including the operettas Bar Kochba and Shulamis. Even if you’ve never seen a Goldfaden operetta, you’ve heard “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen” (Raisins With Almonds), which comes from Shulamis and went on to become perhaps the emblematic Yiddish lullaby. If you’re a Yiddishist, you no doubt know Goldfaden’s “Tsu Dayn Geburtstog” (To Your Birthday), which has the distinction of being the only birthday song that isn’t painful to sing.

There was a sort of proto-Yiddish theater before Goldfaden. Goldfaden himself was profoundly influenced by local badkhns (wedding jesters) as well as the Broder Singers, an itinerant group of performers who sang, danced, and performed crude dramatic skits. But as Quint told me about Goldfaden’s theater innovations, “the participation of women sets it apart most clearly from the many forms of performance … that came before it, all of which were men only.” Bringing women onto the stage transformed the character of Yiddish theater and created something wholly new. “Although they were, on the whole, not consistently treated as well as their male counterparts, women were vital to the modern Yiddish theatrical project and so accumulated unprecedented prestige and power in the cultural realm.”

Not only did women transform the Yiddish theater, relevant to the scholarly project, these pioneering women left a substantial paper trail. We even have newspaper reviews that discuss female performers on the Yiddish stage, going all the way back to the 1870s.

Interestingly, though women quickly became indispensable on the Yiddish stage, female musicians had the opposite experience in the pit orchestra, which, like most of the professional musical world, was hostile to female artists.

As folklorist Emily Sokolov describes, the place of Jewish women within traditional Jewish music making has always been fraught. Where Jewish women found opportunities to perform was often either in female ensembles playing for women or female musicians playing in their family kapelye or band. In Eastern Europe, and to a certain extent, in the United States, playing Jewish party music (what we refer to as klezmer today) was a profession passed down within families. Elaine Hoffman Watts (1932 -2017) was born into a klezmer dynasty in Philadelphia. She went on to become the first female percussionist at the Curtis Institute of Music and eventually a matriarch within the klezmer revival community. Before finding the revival, however, she was often rejected by Jewish bands who didn’t want a female drummer, even one with yikhes.

Elaine’s daughter, Susan, went into the family business as a trumpeter and vocalist. Both Elaine and Susan struggled as women in a heavily male-dominated industry. For school, Susan chose the St. Louis Conservatory of Music because it offered the opportunity to study with the first woman trumpet player in a major symphony orchestra. As Susan said: “I longed to work with women.” But after conservatory she found herself again in a male musician’s world. That is, until she and her mother found the klezmer revival scene. At places like Klezkamp, she said, “There were women on the bandstand and women playing in student ensembles. There were women to play music with and talk about music with and women to teach. I wasn’t the only one.”

Until very, very recently, to be a female professional musician was as much about isolation as creativity. This 2018 analysis of the top symphony orchestras says that just 1 of 103 trumpet players in 22 orchestras is a woman. 2018 doesn’t feel so far from pre-modern Europe, where female musicians “were often branded as lascivious, described as prostitutes, and prevented from joining musicians’ guilds.”

Given the still painful history of women’s exclusion from professional music spaces, Susan’s new project, Soul Songs: Inspiring Women of Klezmer, feels even more urgent. For last fall’s Soul Songs premiere she gathered 12 of the top female klezmer musicians in North America for a gala concert honoring her mother, Elaine. Inspired by the interdisciplinary atmosphere of Klezkamp, Soul Songs was more than a concert, it was a spectacle, with costumes, sets, and nonmusical performers on stage. There’s a four-minute clip of the concert up now on the Soul Songs website and it’s so flippin’ good that I’m furious with myself for not going to Philadelphia for the premiere. Unfortunately, the entire concert cannot be put online for contractual reasons. But I am encouraging any of you out there with a concert budget, please bring the brilliant women of Soul Songs to your town (or mine) as soon as you can.

Susan and her mother, Elaine, are part of the story of the women of the klezmer revival, a story which is still waiting to be written. (Well, it’s a story I’ve been working on, but is going to take a while.) The four-minute clip on the Soul Songs website drove something home for me. We know, we know, what all male ensembles sound like. It’s what we hear 99 percent of the time. It’s what sounds like normal. But we have almost no idea what an all-female sonic landscape might be like. We have no idea what it might be like if women felt at home in musical spaces, instead of facing gendered obstacles at every level. Over the last few years, Jewish music spaces like Yiddish New York and Klezkanada have been holding special discussion sessions on harassment and gender parity in the klezmer world. I’ve had the honor of co-leading a few of these and as much as I thought I was unshockable, I was shocked. I was shocked by what I heard from female musicians, women I call friends, about the harassment that had followed them their entire careers.


When Avrom Goldfaden brought women onto the stage he unleashed one of the most potent Jewish cultural phenomena of the 19th and 20th century, and we’re only now starting to understand what that meant. The writing of women’s history isn’t just an additive exercise of plugging ignored women into preexisting narratives. It’s also a reframing of our collective experience and understanding how women changed our institutions, and how their absence impoverished them. It can bring attention to how the suppression of women, especially in highly sex-segregated societies, can have unintended consequences for the ones doing the suppressing. Those unintended consequences are a thread running through a fascinating new book by Naomi Seidman called Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition.

In the early 20th century, frum Jews in Poland were facing a new and pressing problem: the mass defection of young Jewish women. Whether they were leaving for secular life, conversion, or (as many feared) prostitution, so many young Jewish women were leaving, or refusing matches, that the rabbis characterized it as an epidemic. “The Gerer Rebbe reportedly lamented that he had two thousand young male followers who had little hope of finding a good match.”

What had happened? For one thing, a late 19th-century Austro-Hungarian law had mandated that families send their children to public school. In order to protect their sons from the polluting influence of public school, Jewish families found a loophole. They filled all those public school seats with their daughters. Daughters weren’t obligated to study the Talmud so letting them learn Polish language and literature cost nothing. The problem was that that loophole created a generation of relatively sophisticated, Polonized Jewish girls who had no interest in settling down with a sheltered yeshiva graduate.

The obvious solution to this demographic crisis would have been to create a system of Jewish education for girls that would keep them close to home, intellectually, culturally, and spiritually. Because of the fractious nature of Jewish life in Poland at that time, however, that was nearly impossible. So, the community decided instead to just tighten restrictions on young women, for example, forbidding them to attend the theater or speak Polish on Shabbes. That worked about as well as you would imagine.

Into this quagmire came Sarah Schenirer, the pious daughter of a rabbinic family; an intellectually hungry young woman whose father gave her an unusually good grounding in classic Jewish texts, via Yiddish translations. She dreamed of creating the kind of religious school where she would have felt at home as a student. And, amazingly, she did. The devastation of WWI had weakened rabbinic opposition to systematic religious education for girls. The lack of eligible Jewish brides created a scarcity market for women. Scarcity creates power. Schenirer had a solution to the defection crisis and a will to implement it, as well as scarcity conditions that empowered her. She created a charismatic, almost cult-like movement that then hooked in to the muscular infrastructure of the Orthodox Agudath Yisroel political party. The rest is history, or, at least, it’s the story told by Seidman in Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement.

Seidman is one of the most interesting scholars working in Jewish studies today. If I had to name one text that changed the way I thought about Yiddish literary studies, and consequently my life, it would be her devastating 1996 analysis of the French and Yiddish versions of Elie Wiesel’s Night, “Elie Wiesel and the Scandal of Jewish Rage.”

Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement is a personal book for Seidman, as well as perhaps something of an intellectual inevitability. She attended a Bais Yaakov school in Boro Park and both her parents were involved in the Bais Yaakov movement in Eastern Europe before the war. Her mother taught in two different Bais Yaakov schools as well as founding one in her hometown of Torda, Romania, when she was a teenager. (This was standard operating procedure; teenage Bais Yaakov graduates were immediately sent out to underserved towns as potential Bais Yaakov “franchisees.”) Her father, Hillel Seidman, was an Aguda activist in Poland (among other things) and was intimately involved with the development of Bais Yaakov, including preparing legal briefs as the Polish government changed its law relating to schools. But what’s most notable is that when Sarah Schenirer died in 1935, the movement called for an official biography. It was Hillel Seidman who published that biography the following year.

One of the fascinating aspects of the story Naomi Seidman tells is not just how the Bais Yaakov movement created radically new possibilities for Jewish girls, but also how Bais Yaakov created opportunities for men, many of whom were drawn to the movement’s mission of serious Jewish learning for women and wanted to help. This story also complicates the conception of the Aguda as grimly reactionary. At least in the interwar period, the Aguda contained multitudes (sort of). You could be socialist and Orthodox, for example, as a member of the Poalei Agudat Yisrael.

One of my favorite images from the book is from one of the Bnos (the youth movement for Bais Yaakov graduates and other Orthodox girls) members recalling a trip to the mountains in the back of a wagon. “‘The bumpety-bump of the rickety wheels on the rocky dirt road was music to our ears.’ The main lesson learned in Bnos … was that frum girls can have fun within the realm of Torah, and that we did not need the irreligious youth groups,” Seidman writes. The Bais Yaakov movement saved young Jewish women by liberating them from their homes and making them educational pioneers. Schenirer loved travel and hiking, and was a natural entrepreneur. She found a way to harness those things in the service of the traditional Jewish family. The paradoxes of the Bais Yaakov movement are what made it so electrifying and are exactly the things that make it so relevant today.

MORE: In addition to the book, Naomi Seidman and her collaborators are building a beautiful website related to the project and she tells me a movie will be coming in the future, too.

Alyssa Quint will be talking about The Rise of the Modern Yiddish Theater at YIVO on Wednesday, March 27. More information here.

LISTINGS: Eli Rosen brings his new one man show The Drunk Cantor to the New Yiddish Rep. Expect monologues from Maurice Schwartz and Sholem Aleichem. (In Yiddish with supertitles) Sunday, March 30, 3 p.m., tickets here … Yiddish language tour of the new Lost and Found exhibit at Yeshiva University Museum. In 1943 a Jewish family in the Kovno Ghetto smuggled out their precious photo album for safekeeping with a non-Jewish family. It was miraculously recovered in 2013. Hear their story, April 8 at 6:30 p.m. … I don’t usually repeat listings, but if you’re in New York City you really need to see the Grammy-nominated Yiddish Glory, now conveniently near the 6 train. April 9, 6:30 p.m., at Hunter College … Thursday April 11 is the annual YAFAC (Yiddish Artists and Friends) Seder at Sutton Place Synagogue (readings in Yiddish, English speaker friendly). More info here. … How do you get to Carnegie Hall? In this case, Yiddish Yiddish Yiddish. Carnegie Hall is hosting two Yiddish music events as part of its Migrations: The Making of America festival. The first is The Musical Legacy of Eastern European Jews, a conversation with and about Jewish music in America led by musicologist Mark Slobin and archivist Chana Pollack on April 10. Then, April 15 is an all-star concert called From Shtetl to Stage. … Friday, April 19 is the annual Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial Program, in memory of the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and of all victims of the Holocaust. This year’s program will feature a keynote address by Avram Patt, representative in the Vermont State House, at 1 p.m., at The Stone in Riverside Park (between 83rd and 84th Streets) … The annual Congress for Jewish Culture Third Seder will take place once again at the historic Montauk Club, Tuesday, April 23. Readers may recall that I attended last year and ended up seated next to the most famous pianist in the world, Evgeny Kissin. The Third Seder is a really beautiful, unique evening of poetry, song, and surprisingly good food. Get your tickets now. …Who Will Write Our History is one of the most important Holocaust movies in decades. WWWOH will be screening around the country as part of Yom Hashoah. Check here for showings starting at the end of April. … I’ve bored you enough about the magic sauce that is Klezkanada (Aug. 19-25). Bear with me. Part of what sets Klezkanada apart has been its commitment to youth scholarships. Applications for 2019 scholarships are due May 1. Don’t delay. … Trip to Yiddishland is a weeklong August retreat that combines lakeside leisure with Yiddish and klezmer classes taught by world class artists. They also have a wonderful kids program that now includes kids’ music classes. Register before May 15 and you get a discount on registration. … Brighton, England, is one of those magical seaside cities you can’t help but fall in love with. I’ll take any excuse to visit Brighton, and the new Klezmer South minifestival, organized by the also magical Polina and Merlin Shepherd, is reason alone to visit. Klezmer South features workshops and performances, weekend of June 7, more info here.


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