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Jewish Language Theater
An exhibit by Eleanor Harris and the Jewish Language Project team


Panel on contemporary theater in Jewish languages, featuring scholars and practitioners, with clips in Juhuri, Ladino, and Yiddish.

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Modern Practice

Yiddishist Jeffrey Shandler defines post-vernacularity as “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” (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, connecting people to the culture of speakers from previous generations. Sarit Cofman-Simhon notes the “active stance” of theater, in comparison to other, somewhat passive preservation strategies, like documentation (Cofman-Simhon 84).

In Israel

In Israel, where the revival of Hebrew meant the discouragement of other Jewish languages, immigrants crave cultural events in their mother tongues, and the descendants of immigrants long to feel connected to their heritage. In order to fulfill this desire, modern Israeli Jewish theater appears in many languages, including Maghrebi Judeo-Arabic, Bukharian, Juhuri, and Amharic. Theater becomes a way for communities to "record and maintain their languages" more collaboratively and actively, rather than doing so alone.

One example is a play directed by Ronit Ivgy in 2004 with the Moroccan Israeli Theater of Tami in Maghrebi, Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters. The play “catered to the nostalgia of the spectators who grew up in Morocco,” as well as informed a sort of “imagined nostalgia” amongst Israeli-born Jews of Moroccan descent (Cofman-Simhon 86-87). Hay Davidov grew up in a Bukharan neighborhood in Tel Aviv, called Tel Kabir. He left to pursue theater in mainstream Israeli society, but after speaking with this grandmother and witnessing joy from his community at the hands of theater in Bukharian, he established a Bukharan theater (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 Juhuri theater 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 theater in Israel, by the name of Tizita, which means “memories” or “nostalgia” (Cofman-Simhon 97). Farada explained the mission of the theater 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 theater in Israel, via

Although Yiddish is not an endangered language, Yiddish theater in Israel sometimes uses language to creatively change the meaning of a well-known play. Changing the ending and translating the two protagonists’ lines into Yiddish, Yehoshua Sobol of Israel’s Yiddishpiel infused new meaning into Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in his 2015 production, which he turns 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).

Read an English summary of Cofman-Simhon's work, including her metaphors of zombie, genie, and dybbuk in the use of diaspora languages on the Israeli stage.

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In Turkey

While most Jews remaining in Turkey use Turkish as their primary language, post-vernacular engagement with Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, is strong. One such theatrical effort began in the 1970s: Jojo Eskenazi's Moiz Plays. This troupe continues to perform in Turkey and receives support from community leadership, especially 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 engaging way. The mix of Judeo-Spanish and Turkish in the plays allows Jews and Gentiles alike to follow stories that "tackle issues related to transnational and communal identification issues regarding Jewish people around the world” (326).

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), highlighting the community-building function of such plays.

The plays are long-running, but they are changing with the times. Karen Gerson Sarhon, a professional Judeo-Spanish preserver, played Moiz’s wife, Kleret, when the plays first started (Sarhon). When she was young, 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 creating theater together (Sarhon). Now, Sarhon laments that there’s less togetherness and opportunity to create theater together because it’s hard to coordinate and fewer people can understand Judeo-Spanish. Sarhon’s Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center in Istanbul holds a yearly Ladino Day, where the Center celebrates the Ladino language with art, food, music, and theater. During the pandemic, they got creative with their theater: they utilized Zoom one year; another year, they filmed a Ladino play in a studio.


    It’s difficult to find people who will be able to act in Ladino… but, we’re doing fine.” 

-Karen Gerson Sarhon

Karen Gerson Sarhon reading El Amaneser, the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center’s newspaper, which is written wholly in Ladino. Photo via

Productions from the Rambam Juhuri Theater Troupe

Juhuri productions from STMEGI TV

Theater in Jewish Neo-Aramaic by Jews from Kurdistan

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To cite: Harris, Eleanor. n.d. Jewish Language Theater. Jewish Language Website, Sarah Bunin Benor (ed.). Los Angeles: Jewish Language Project. Attribution: Creative Commons Share-Alike 4.0 International.

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