Professor explores Yiddish theatre
July 1, 2008 -- As bread lines snaked around corners and unemployment ballooned across the country during the Great Depression, Yiddish theatre was in the midst of its heyday in America. On stages through the 1930s, actors and directors provided spot-on satire and social commentary to an audience that desperately needed affordable entertainment.
Those plays are the subject of Joel Schechter's new book, "Messiahs of 1933: How American Yiddish Theatre Survived Adversity Through Satire," (Temple University Press) which explores an important, and often overlooked, age of theatre in America.
At its height in the 1930s, Yiddish theatre thrived in New York City, entertaining audiences while providing sharp and sometimes hilarious social commentary. In his book, Schechter aims to shed light on these plays, which are largely unknown to theatre-goers today.
"The fascination is that almost nobody who studies English language theatre knows about these plays," said Schechter, a professor of theatre arts at SF State. "They're like brand new plays to most English language audiences,"
The book's title refers to Moishe Nadir's 1928 Yiddish Play, "Messiah in America," and explores themes in Yiddish theatre such as the need for social change, the shunning of celebrity culture by Yiddish satirists, and of the use of puppets to satirize some American styles of life.
Schechter began learning Yiddish eight years ago to be able to read the plays in their native language. While many older Yiddish speakers are still familiar with the plays, Schechter aims to introduce Yiddish theatre to younger generations.
Schechter's students have performed Yiddish plays in English at SF State and community centers in San Francisco. While spectators from the older generations enjoyed the performances, the power was lost on younger audience members.
"The older audiences were appreciative; a fair number of them were Yiddish and knew the references more often than the younger generation did," Schechter said. "That's a challenge to me."
Schechter says there is much to learn from the experiences of Yiddish theatre in the 1930s. The history of Eastern European Jewish people surviving and overcoming injustices allowed them to continue in the tough economic times of the 1930s. Actors and directors were resourceful in creating the productions and relying on their own culture in tough times -- something Schechter notes could also be true in present times.
"They adapted to the American economic and social situation by drawing on their own language and culture," Schechter said. "This might be instructive to new immigrant groups and people dealing with ethnic diversity today."
"I think we can learn about the strength and resources that people can find in their own traditions and the theatre and the culture that will help them move forward."
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