Navigate to News section

Curtain Up

Benjamin Harshav explores the Moscow Yiddish Theater

Dan Elkind
July 01, 2008

The Moscow Yiddish Theater was founded as an actors’ studio in Petrograd in 1919 and moved to the new capital of the Soviet Union a year later. There, under the guidance of director Aleksey Granovsky, it emerged as the shining symbol of a secular Yiddish-speaking culture. The Theater quickly gained an international reputation for modern dramas based—like the paintings of Marc Chagall, who designed sets for its productions—in a mythical Jewish realm. Featuring stars like Solomon Mikhoels and Benjamin Zuskin, it staged productions such as At Night in the Old Marketplace and The Travels of Benjamin The Third until 1949, when it finally closed, a year after Mikhoels was murdered in a Stalinist purge.

In his new history, The Moscow Yiddish Theater, Benjamin Harshav, a professor of comparative literature at Yale who has written two books on Chagall, combines archival photographs with firsthand accounts of the Theater’s heyday from the likes of Chagall, Joseph Roth, Osip Mandelstam, and Viktor Shklovsky. Hashav weaves it all together into a meticulous account of the Theater’s rise and fall under Soviet censorship.

You write that the origins of the Moscow Yiddish Theater lie at the “intersection of two revolutions”: avant-garde theater on the one hand, and Jewish modernity on the other. How exactly was Jewish life changing in Russia?

I talk about this in my book Language in the Time of Revolution. There was a total transformation of Jewish life—professions, language, geography—and that transformation went in two directions: external and internal. The Zionists wanted to go back to the past, the Communists into the

future . . . but I wouldn’t necessarily lump assimilation and internal secularization together, because many of the people who supported Granovsky and the Yiddish theater, for example, were returning to Jewish life after disillusionment with the assimilated world.

So nostalgia was the price of freedom.

Yes, but whereas the nostalgia on Broadway was sentimental and kitsch, the Moscow Yiddish Theater was an attempt to make an elevated mythology of the fictional Jewish (or Yiddish—the same word is used in Russian) world.

It’s nearly impossible for us now to imagine mass audiences filling a theater to see a play in a language they don’t understand. Why was the theater so successful?

Well, people who didn’t understand the language came later, after the Second World War, when the Theater had become legendary. The original audiences were either themselves from shtetls or largely familiar with Yiddish. Part of the success came from the fact that the performances had a structure that was easily translated through the mass movements of the actors, their choreography, and other nonverbal aspects of the stage. Chagall had a very big impact as a cocreator of the fictional Jewish world reinvented on stage and as a mentor to the actors—especially Mikhoels—but Chagall was capricious and egocentric and so was Granovsky. They often didn’t see eye to eye.

Right. Granovsky was an assimilated, highbrow disciple of Max Reinhardt—the most innovative theater director in Weimar Germany; while Chagall was a sensual bohemian from one of the bigger shtetls.

Granovsky was totally assimilated: he was born in Moscow into the Russian culture, which means his parents were privileged Jews. After the Jews were expelled from Moscow in the 1890s he grew up in Riga, in a Russian and German culture. Then he studied in Germany where he saw German theater. He didn’t know Yiddish—his actors taught him the language—and the actors themselves were mostly from shtetls. Mikhoels, his right-hand man, was born in Dvinsk and grew up in Riga. And Chagall was from Vitebsk, which was quite a large city; not a shtetl. Yet all three were part of this vast movement to build a Jewish nation with all the attributes of a nation and a culture of its own. Theater was the newest component, after literature and music.

It must have been liberating to create a modern Yiddish theater from scratch, so to speak, without major precedents or an extensive history—especially in a new capital city outside the traditional Pale of Settlement.

Petersburg was a failure for the Theater; there was no audience. Petrograd, as it was called then, had only a small Jewish community consisting mostly of Russified Jews who spoke little, if any, Yiddish. When the Soviet capital moved to Moscow in 1920, the Theater was transferred as well. In Moscow the beneficiaries of the New Economic Policy and other privileged people supported theater art and constituted an audience. It wasn’t that the shtetl was so primitive, but rather that the personalities associated with the Theater wanted to strike out in a new direction, without the psychological “Chekhovism” of the Russian stage on the one hand, and the poor exaggerations of the old itinerant Yiddish theater on the other.

Do you think the Theater’s emphasis on the Yiddish language was inseparable from its sociopolitical orientation, which I take to mean secular and left leaning?

Granovsky said the Theater was a temple—“a temple where the prayer is chanted in the Yiddish language.” These were secular Jews and theater was a substitute for religion.

What is the Theater’s place in Yiddish cultural history? Did it have any influence on poetry or literature?

Actually it was the reverse. The Theater was influenced by the classics of Yiddish poetry and literature, the plays based on Sholem Aleichem, Shmuel Halkin—who translated Shakespeare into Yiddish—and Abraham Goldfaden.

Chagall in particular is very important to you—with your wife you have written two books on him. How does his life at the Theater fit into his artistic biography? What does his work represent?

Chagall was already famous in the West when the Theater was founded. He had spent four years in Paris and was influenced by French writers and painters. But after Cubism there was a crisis in painting where many of the old techniques were exhausted. Picasso turned to African masks; Chagall returned to Russia. With him he brought the fame he had accrued in Europe and only then did the Theater begin to gain an international audience, traveling abroad to Germany, where it was treated to rave reviews. Chagall himself popularized the myth of the Jewish fictional world and, rather than submitting Jewish life to modern techniques, derived modern techniques from his experiences and memories: the deformation of figures, the cubist geometry inherent in Jewish religious artifacts like the tallis and tefillin.

You’ve said that Chagall’s Introduction to the Jewish Theater occupies a similar place in his artistic career as Guernica does in Picasso’s.

Yes. Both were murals commissioned by social forces; Picasso’s by the Spanish exhibition in Paris, and Chagall—much earlier—by the Moscow Yiddish Theater. Chagall’s was a kind of summary of his themes and perspectives: carnivalesque Jewish figures floating above Cubist or Suprematist symbols. Picasso’s represents the tragic vision of European modernism, an Aristotelian moment of unity between space, time and action, when everything comes together. Picasso represents tragedy. Chagall represents anecdotes in the spirit of Jewish comedy.

You mention HaBima, another Moscow theater, which staged performances in Hebrew around the same time. Did it share a parallel fate? That is, was it nationalized and censored until its eventual demise?

No, luckily HaBima went on a tour in 1926 and most of those involved stayed in the West, eventually coming to Palestine, where they formed the new Israeli National Theater. Both theaters were originally part of Russian culture. HaBima was directed by Evgeny Vakhtangov, a major disciple of Stanislavsky’s, who trained his performers in precisely the kind of method acting the avant-garde Yiddish Theater was trying to outgrow. The strength of HaBima was its presentation of The Dybbuk—one of the greatest plays in Yiddish—transposed into the modern Hebrew language. Together, the theaters represented the bilingual revival of Jewish culture.

Is there some parable about the Theater’s fate—its ascent and demise? To me it’s symbolic of the death of culture in a Russia without minorities, without Jews.

The Theater died in the 1920s, when it became nationalized. It could still perform Sholem Aleichem, but was increasingly pressured to address Soviet themes. Remember: the Jews who built the Theater and other secular institutions had already abandoned religion almost overnight. The poet Itzik Fefer—who was also shot on the orders of Stalin—wrote how, in the twenties, he traveled through the Ukraine, from shtetl to shtetl, reading his poetry. Of the youth, he said, “They all read Mayakovsky and Blok, but not Izi, Arn, and me”—referring to the Yiddish poets Izi Kharik, Arn Kushnirov, and last, but not least, himself.