Jewish Language Theater
an exhibit by Eleanor Harris
What is Jewish Theater?
Jewish Theater is theater by Jews and usually for Jews, often in Jewish languages. It may deal with content concerning Jewish traditions, values, stories, and humor.
The earliest known instance of Jews creating theater was in the second century B.C.E. in Alexandria, Egypt. Ezekielos, a Jew, “composed a drama in the Greek style and language, of which some fragments have been preserved, on the subject of the Exodus” (Roth 243).
Between 279 and 320 C.E., Greek comedies ridiculed Jewish practices for entertainment. They would bring characters into the theater bearing indications of mourning. Then actors would ask and answer questions about why the characters are in mourning. The answer always had to do with the Jews. The camel is mourning because of the Jewish agricultural Sabbatical year - he was only allowed to eat thistles that year. Momus, identified to us as “the buffoon,” is mourning due to the shortages of oil - which the Jews depleted (Graetz 542).
Later on, in Renaissance Rome, “plays mocking Jewish life and customs which were known as giudate (=Jeweries) were an essential part of traditional popular drama acted on ox-carts around the streets during the carnival season” (Roth 245). Additionally, “The Fisherman’s Guild was accustomed to present, as its dramatic chef d’oeuvre at this season, burlesques of Jewish ceremonial, such as the mock-funeral of a Rabbi” (Roth 245). This is particularly interesting considering that in the same era, Jews played a huge role in the theatre scene just a little ways away in Mantua.
During the Renaissance, the Italian city of Mantua had a thriving theater scene, in which the Jewish community played a significant role. This is one of the few instances in this exhibit where we see Jews creating theater for non-Jews - usually for Italian officials. According to Cecil Roth’s book, Jews in the Renaissance, “by 1525, the participation of the Jews in the state performances of Mantua was regarded as a normal thing” (248). Even earlier and a bit further south, the Jewish community staged and funded a theatrical telling of the story of Judith and Holophernes at a significant 15th-century wedding (Roth 246).
A prominent Jewish figure in the Mantuan theatre scene was Leone de’ Sommi. It is said that if William Shakespeare ever made it to Mantua, he probably would have engaged with de’ Sommi, although their theatrical styles were very different (Roth 266). Shakespeare’s productions used decidedly simple sets, while Mantuan theater at the time was intended to impress its ducal court audiences. We learn this from one of Leone de’ Sommi’s significant works, called the “Dialogues of the Theater” or “dialoghi in materia di rappresentazioni sceniche” (Roth 262). This writing featured detailed stagecraft procedures and information from the time and place, and was, according to Cecil Roth, “perhaps the most memorable contribution by a professing Jew to general literature in the age of the Renaissance, after Judah Abrabanel’s ‘Dialogues of Love’” (262).
Previously preserved in the National Library in Turin were some of de’ Sommi’s Hebrew manuscripts, and sixteen of his Italian manuscripts. The sixteen included “four volumes of original poetry, eleven of plays (including six comedies, three pastoral fables and several intermezzi), and two–the most memorable part of the collection–of prose” (Roth 261). The Comedy of the Wedlock (Zakhuth Bedichuta deKiddushin), written in Hebrew, is widely attributed to Leone de’ Sommi, and it was performed on Purim during his life and after his death (Roth 267). According to Roth, the Italian Jewish community was well-versed in Hebrew.
Purim - a holiday that recounts the bravery of Mordechai and Esther, ancient Persian Jews who stood up to a plot to kill all the Jews of the kingdom. The Jews of Shushan survive, and as a result, we get silly each year. Today, many communities tell the story in theatrical, over-the-top performances called Purimspiels.
In the fifteenth century, the Purimspiel had its start in eastern Europe as a traveling act: the troupe of well-known Jewish community members - not professional actors - went from home to home, telling the Purim story with song and silliness. At the time, Purim was celebrated in the home with family meals, such that when the troupe arrived, very little rearranging was necessary - everyone was already sat around a table, ready to receive the story. In between homes, the players would make music and happy commotion in the streets. These transitional moments in the open-air streets were often characterized by spectacle, while inside homes, it was a more intimate, language-based art (Belkin 18-19).
As introductions to the plays, many times a member of the troupe would come into the home before the rest and, in character, would introduce what would come next. In an eighteenth-century Prague Purimspiel, for example, “a player in the role of a Persian courtier… came into the house and asked the guests to move the chairs and benches away from the door because his majesty the king needed the place to present some interesting history” (Belkin 19).
The audiences, sitting at their dinner tables, were involved in the storytelling: at the players’ indication, they “became” King Ahasuerus’ banquet guests and Shushan Jews celebrating Purim for the first time. The spectators “did not act or do anything special to reinforce the narrative. They were simply part of the performance because they were included in the performance space” (Belkin 22).
Just like in the fifteenth century, our modern purimspiels feature Jewish community members from all careers.We know the people playing the roles. Seeing them in this goofy context is in and of itself an element of silliness that has been maintained throughout the centuries.
Ahuva Belkin points out that the players and audiences “identified with the plot and the message of the Purimspiel and regarded it as analogous to their situation as Jews in the Diaspora” (21). The present reality and storytelling lines were blurred, mirroring one another. “In the Purimspiel, the performance usually ended with players and audience singing together popular, festive or liturgical songs” (Belkin 23). By this point, audience and troupe are no longer strangers, especially since they all probably know each other outside of this event. As such, it becomes a moment of community, and this ending “could be seen as a reintegration of the players with the community and the final transformation of the theatrical space” (Belkin 24).
The dichotomies of the Purimspiel’s theatrical concepts were blurred. The separation between performers and spectators: blurred. The separation between real community members as actors and characters: blurred. The separation between the ancient persecution of Jews in Shushan and the persecution faced at the time of the Purimspiels: blurred. The ambiguity in difference between performers and spectators, community members and characters acts as a metaphor for the deep identification the mid-millenium diasporic Jews felt with the original story.
Sephardic members of the social elite during the Golden Age in Spain would have “theatrical troupes and opera singers hold performances in their homes” and often “invited a large audience from the community” (Kaplan 664).
As early as the late seventeenth century, there was “organized theatrical activity” in Amsterdam among Sephardic Jews; these plays were produced in Spanish (Kaplan 664). Plays by Sephardim in this time and place, including those of Daniel Levi de Barrios, were written in Spanish. They usually did not have an overt relation to the Jewish condition, and it’s unclear whether any of them were produced (Kaplan 664).
Since Jews’ arrival in the Ottoman Empire after the 1492 Spanish Inquisition, they have had an impact on Turkish theatre. The development of Orta Oyunu, or theater-in-the-round, was heavily influenced by Jews in the early republican era (Hepkaner 325-6).
Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries
The Dybbuk and Eastern European Jewry
The Dybbuk is a play written by S. Ansky; in 1920, it premiered in Yiddish in the area that would soon be the Soviet Union (Biale 849). “The Dybbuk wedded Jewish folklore with Jewish modernism,” reflecting the intracommunal discourse surrounding the preservation of tradition and adoption of new secular ideas (Biale 849). It had an impact on multiple communities, serving different purposes for each.
Hebrew usage and teaching was repressed by the Bolsheviks because it had become an indicator of the Zionist party. The Habima theatre had a crucial role in keeping Hebrew culture alive in the years following the Bolshevik Revolution. It was open until 1926 and produced Bialik’s Hebrew translation of The Dybbuk, which became a hit, even among non-Jews (Biale 851).
Prior to the Holocaust, a subculture formed amongst Jews in Poland. One influence that contributed to this formation was a Polish Jewish theatre. It “emerged in 1925 under the directorship of Mark Arnshteyn (1879-1943), producing, among other works, a Polish translation of Ansky’s Dybbuk steeped more in Polish romanticism than in Jewish folklore” (Biale 854).
Yiddish Theatre and the United States
Six years after its 1876 conception in Iasi, Romania, the Yiddish theatre came to the United States, quickly adopting New York as its world capital (Nahshon para. 2). In 1883, Jewish life was restricted by Russian and Eastern European governments. Many Ashkenazi Jews, including Yiddish theatre-makers, migrated to England. There were restrictions on Jewish cultural activities there, as well, and eventually, Yiddish theatre flourished in New York (Nahshon para. 6-7).
After moving to New York, the Yiddish theatre became a massive part of American Jewish culture. In 1968, Harold Clurman argued that between 1888 and the 1920s, the theatre, “even more than the synagogue or the lodge, became the meeting place and the forum of the Jewish community in America” (Nahshon para. 1). Data taken in the 1937-38 season shows that the average Yiddish-speaking adult in New York City saw more than three Yiddish performances per year, even as Yiddish theatre was on the decline (Nahshon para. 3).
Yiddish theatre had works covering a wide range of dramatic and comedic genres, and was inspired largely by European, especially Russian, theatrical innovations (Nahshon para. 2). Karl Lamprecht, a famous German historian, “compared his impressions of the New York Yiddish theater and the emotional intensity of its audience with his experience at the Cologne Cathedral” (Baron 411).
Abraham Goldfaden was a major figure in early Yiddish theatre in the old country. He produced musicals like The Witch (1879), The Two Kuni Lemls (1880), and Shulamith (1880). These have been performed many times since in Yiddish, Hebrew, and English (Nahshon para. 5). According to Edna Nahshon, he was “known as the Father of the Yiddish Theater,” and “was a man of many talents who produced, wrote, composed, directed, and designed the sets of his own productions” (Nahshon para. 5). Goldfaden also “stimulated the growth of the American-Jewish theater by his own visits to the United States, especially after 1903 when he returned to New York after an absence of sixteen years” (Baron 410).
Jacob Gordin (1853-1909) translated around seventy plays into Yiddish and wrote original plays. These include Mirele Efros; Der yidisher Kenig Lear; Gott, Mensh un Taifel; and Elisha ben Avuya (Baron 411). Some more historical Jewish and Yiddish theater figures are David Kesller, Morris Moscowitch, Bertha Kalish, Boris Tomashefsky, Sigmund Mogulescu, Jacob P. Adler and family, Perez Hirschbein, David Pinski, and Jacob Gordin (Baron 410-11).
Jewish theater was much more interactive than English-language theater in early 20th-century America. A reviewer attended a Gentile play in English and wrote “It is not like our Jewish theater. First of all I found it so quiet there… There are no cries of ‘Sha!’ ‘Shut up!’ or ‘Order!’ and no babies cried–as if it were no theater at all!” (Whitfield 1124).
In the first half of the 20th century, many Jews noticed differences between big-city Jewish American culture and non-Jewish culture in those same cities. Jewish culture, described as “heimish” by Stephen J. Whitfield in an essay, was less “urbane” than the surrounding culture. As such, American Jewish theatre lightheartedly made fun of the Jewish tendencies to be different from the wider community. One American Jewish comedian, Julian Rose, carried out a vaudeville act entitled “Lipinsky at the Wedding,” which “poked fun at the standards of the well-heeled” (Whitfield 1124).
Defined by Jeffrey Shandler, post-vernacularity is “a cultural practice where languages that are no longer in use as the vernacular gain in symbolic value what they have lost in their communicative functions, by generating vanished soundscapes, and performing vocal dimensions of familiarity and estrangement” (Cofman-Simhon 81). Languages that are no longer used to communicate can be used in post-vernacular cultural activities to breathe new meaning into them. The fact that the languages are used at all in these instances is in and of itself the meaning.
Theatre in post-vernacular languages is a fascinating and important tool in maintaining cultural identity. Sarit Cofman-Simhon says that “while ‘preservation’ might imply a passive form of documentation, theatre adopts an active stance” (Cofman-Simhon 84). She says that “theatre is one of the only public arenas in the country where Jewish languages are used naturally, as a primary form of communication between characters on stage and between stage and audience (Shem-Tov 2021)” (Cofman-Simhon 84).
In Israel, where the revival of Hebrew meant the discouragement of other Jewish languages, immigrants crave cultural events in their mother tongues. Not only that, but the descendants of immigrants long to feel connected to their heritage. According to Yigal Nizri, there is “a need to go back to something that was lost in the effort of Hebraisation [...], a kind of gap asking to be filled with these links” (Cofman-Simhon 87). Israeli Jewish theatre appears in many languages, including Maghrebi, Bukharian, Juhuri, and Amharic. According to the Endangered Language Alliance, “Individuals and communities seeking to record and maintain their languages, in whatever form, have often had to do so alone” (Cofman-Simhon 83). However, with theatre, the art is more communal and collaborative.
Directed by Ronit Ivgy in 2004 with the Moroccan Israeli Theatre of Tami in Maghrebi, Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters “catered to the nostalgia of the spectators who grew up in Morocco” and informed a sort of “imagined nostalgia” amongst Israeli-born Jews of Moroccan descent (Cofman-Simhon 86-87).
The Moroccan Jewish community in Israel connected with the Maghrebi theatre on profound levels. Sarit Cofman-Simhon says that "for whom Jewish Maghrebi is not a postvernacular, the happy reunion with their language in a public space constitutes an affirmative action. However, for the Israeli-born spectators of Moroccan descent, this very same language triggers imagined nostalgia which is intimately intertwined with the history of migration in Israel” (Cofman-Simhon 87). After seeing theatre by Ronit Ivgy’s company Tami in the Maghrebi language, native speakers in Israel have never-ending praise for it. One said, “...the show is wonderful, brings back words, memories, proverbs and sayings. I am very moved, it is a return to my roots” (Cofman-Simhon 96).
Israelis of Moroccan descent are not the only example of an intense connection to theatre once it is presented in their native or ancestral language. Hay Davidov grew up in a Bukharan neighborhood in Tel Aviv, called Tel Kabir. He left to pursue theatre in mainstream Israeli society, but after speaking with this grandmother and witnessing joy from his community at the hands of theatre in Bukharan, he established a Bukharan theatre (Cofman-Simhon 94-96).
Rambam Mountain Jewish Theater began by a different name in the 1930s in Derbent, Dagestan. It moved to Hadera, Israel in the 21st century (Russian Jewish Congress), and brought much Juhuri theatre to international communities of Mountain Jews.
Amharic is a language spoken in Ethiopia, where Jews have lived for more than 1500 years. In 2016, Fruit Farada established an Amharic Ethiopian theatre in Israel, by the name of Tizita, which means “memories” or “nostalgia” (Cofman-Simhon 97). Farada explained the mission of the theatre as giving "proud and nourishing expression to community members and gives us a basis for preserving the beautiful language and culture we grew up with… answers the need of youngest in the community to identify with Amharic, and is aimed, then, not only at adults…[but] to children it is saying: ‘be proud of your heritage’’’ (Cofman-Simhon 98).
Actors in the Amharic theatre in Israel, via ashdodonline.co.il
Although Yiddish is not an endangered language, there is an interesting instance of Yiddish theatre in Israel that used language to creatively change the meaning of a well-known play. Changing the ending and putting the two protagonists’ lines in Yiddish, Yehoshua Sobol of Israel’s Yiddishpiel infused new meaning into Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in his 2015 production, in which he turns it into a narrative about “Jewish refugees in 1943 who are waiting for help to escape the Nazis but eventually decide to flee by themselves” (Cofman-Simhon 91).
Sarit Cofman-Simhon explains it well: “Sobol’s play reverberates soundscapes of interwar Jewish European anguish as unwanted outsiders, by postvernacular means: he makes use of a language which has almost been erased from the European continent in tragic circumstances” (Cofman-Simhon 92). She says that “the soundscapes of different Jewish tongues onstage thus bring silenced voices to the fore and aurally connect the past to the present” (Cofman-Simhon 109).
Sephardic Jews brought 15th century Spanish with them across the continent, and the language continued to develop independently from the Spanish we know today. Ladino is an endangered language. At the start of the 1970s, a large number of Turkish Jews moved to Israel. “This erosion of Judeo-Spanish speakers resulted in attempts to preserve the Judeo-Spanish language through music and theatre in Turkey, beginning in the late 1970s” (Hepkaner 327).
One of these theatrical efforts to preserve Judeo-Spanish that began in the 1970s has continued to do the work: “Moiz plays,” created by Jojo Eskenazi. These plays “stand out for their consistent performance schedule and the support they receive from Turkey’s Jewish community leaders and members, particularly for their political messages and community-building function” (Hepkaner 323).
These plays are about a middle-class Jewish businessman in Turkey, named Moiz. Moiz and his wife Kleret speak Judeo-Spanish together and with their elders; they speak Turkish with their children, in-laws, and neighbors. They help preserve the language and create a space for people to hear it. The youngest generation of speakers is now the grandparent generation, so it’s important for young people to be exposed to the language in an interesting way. The mix of Judeo-Spanish and Turkish in the plays allows lots of people to follow the story. According to İlker Hepkaner, “Moiz plays are staged in Turkey, Israel, and Europe, in Judeo-Spanish and Turkish to majority Jewish audiences.… they also tackle issues related to transnational and communal identification issues regarding Jewish people around the world” (326).
Hepkaner continues that “the Moiz plays can be considered ‘family comedies’ with slapstick undertones and occasionally a vaudevillian structure. Their satirical tone and political undertones strike a strong parallel with the Sephardic theatre and Ladino drama traditions of the late Ottoman Empire” (Hepkaner 329). At one point, there was a Moiz musical, put together by İzzet Bana. He used songs from Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and Evita, which he weaved into a comedic story about Moiz and Kleret visiting their son in the United States. It was a huge success and contributed to the commitment to continue with Moiz plays (Sarhon).
Şalom, a Turkish-Jewish newspaper that publishes one page in Judeo-Spanish per issue, reported that when a Moiz play came to Izmir, Turkey, it brought together the small Jewish community there. “In this context, the staging of a Judeo-Spanish/Turkish play by a Jewish neighborhood club from Istanbul became a rare occasion to bring the city’s Jewish community together” (Hepkaner 330-1). The community-building function of such plays can be seen in this example. Additionally, “performances in 2013 and 2015 were organized with the intention of fundraising for scholarships for the students at the Jewish private school in Ulus, Istanbul” (Hepkaner 330).
The plays are long-running, but they are changing. Karen Gerson Sarhon, a professional Judeo-Spanish preserver, played Moiz’s wife, Kleret, when the plays first started (Sarhon). When she was a kid, Jews mostly lived close together, near the synagogue and youth club. Every night, Jewish young people would go to the youth club and spend time together. They would create theatre there (Sarhon). Now, Istanbul is much larger and the people are more spread out; it’s hard to get anywhere quickly due to traffic. There’s less togetherness and opportunity to create theatre together because it’s hard to coordinate now (Sarhon). Also, there is more Turkish in the plays now, since fewer people can understand Judeo-Spanish. Karen says, “It’s difficult to find people who will be able to act in Ladino… But, we’re doing fine.”
Karen Gerson Sarhon’s Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center in Istanbul holds a yearly Ladino Day. On Ladino day, the Center celebrates the Ladino language with art, food, music, and theatre. During the pandemic, they got creative with their theatre: they utilized Zoom one year; another year, they filmed a Ladino play in a studio. In 2023, Ladino Day was postponed because of the tragic earthquakes in the area (Sarhon).
Outside of Judeo-Spanish theatre, some well-known Jews in Turkey’s cultural world are Dario Moreno, a singer and actor who performed in multiple languages in the 1950s and 1960s; Beki L. Bahar, poet and playwright whose works and plays have been recognized by awards from multiple state institutions… Nedim Saban, an actor and producer, who gained mainstream success in 1990s TV and currently runs Tiyatrokare, a successful theatre company in Istanbul….Rozet Hubeş, who also participated in the production of a number of Moiz plays, has been recognized for her excellence in stage acting with multiple awards, including the Afife Jale Theater Awards–Turkey’s most prestigious award in the field of theatre–in 2005” (Hepkaner 329-30).
Karen Gerson Sarhon reading El Amaneser, the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center’s newspaper, which is written wholly in Ladino. Photo via eSefarad.com
Modern People and Places
Bonofiyel is the actress who plays Kleret in continuing Moiz plays (Cofman-Simhon). She is passionate about Judeo-Spanish preservation (Austrian Academy of Sciences). Interview on Moiz Plays via the Austrian Academy of Sciences.
Barokas is an actress in Turkey who has been involved in Judeo-Spanish theatre since 1983 (Austrian Academy of Sciences). In recent years, she has performed pieces in Judeo-Spanish for the aging population of people who still speak the language fluently. Interview on Moiz Plays via the Austrian Academy of Sciences.
Karen Gerson Sarhon
Dedicated to the preservation of Judeo-Spanish, Sarhon works in Turkey and around the world to teach, raise awareness about, and celebrate the endangered language. Sarhon played Kleret in the Moiz plays when they first began and continues to support the Judeo-Spanish theatre in Istanbul. She also founded the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center, which holds a yearly Ladino Day.
Originally from Buenos Aires, Jacobo Kaufmann is a stage manager, writer, translator, teacher, and researcher in Israel. He wrote the book Cuatro Obras de Teatro Judío (Four Works of Jewish Theatre).
Rambam Mountain Jewish Theater
Rambam Mountain Jewish Theater began, by a different name, in the 1930s in Derbent, Dagestan, and moved to Hadera, Israel in the 21st century (Russian Jewish Congress). It has brought much Juhuri theatre to communities of Mountain Jews. It has recently ceased production.
Zuhun Dədəi (Mother Tongue) Juhuri Group
A Whatsapp group for Juhuri teachers and adult learners to engage with the language together. Audio Play: Written and Directed by Lyuba Yusufova
Eva Shalver-Abramova is a Juhuri actor, playwright, and theatre director. She was involved with Rambam Jewish Mountain Theater for many years, and was the director of the theater from 2018.
Ricardo Halac is a Jewish Argentinian dramatist (eSefarad). More about his work here.