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Messiahs of 1933:

How American Yiddish Theatre Survived Adversity through Satire

By Joel Schechter

Moishe Nadir’s Messiah in America at Artef

The book opens with discussion of Nadir’s play, Messiah in America, and a speculative discussion of what might have happened if his play, as well as Yiddish language and culture were more widely known by Americans in the 1930s.  I suggest that Yiddish stage satire was not as far removed from mainstream American culture as it now appears to be; the language in which it was performed kept it separate from other political and popular theatre, but it made important contributions to American culture.

Moishe Nadir’s play, Messiah in America, displays messianic impulses toward social change, and displays satire of traditional religious practices, tendencies the author shared with other Yiddish theatre artists in the 1930s.   The critique of false messiahs within his play provides a starting point for discussion of his work and others which caution against unquestioning acceptance of charismatic leaders and the miracles they promise in time of crisis.  The theatre ensemble Artef (a Yiddish acronym for an alliance of theatrical workers) staged Nadir’s play in 1933; and Artef’s other endeavors share with Nadir a commitment to social change, often expressed through satire of excessive wealth and abusive authority.

photo: Artef Theatre, 106 W. 41st Street, New York City

Nadir’s Rivington Street:

The Lower East Side Arises

The discussion of Nadir’s Yiddish stage satire continues with an essay on Rivington Street, the epic poem which Artef toured as a stage play in New York from 1932- 34.  In the work, Nadir portrays an aged street peddler, a survivor of Depression era poverty who recalls earlier, more promising times known to many East European immigrants. 

Like others from Europe, he expected more than unemployment and hunger when he arrived in New York.  Through this play, filled with humorous fragments of song and local history, Nadir practices what might be called a “politics of memory.”   His peddler recalls to the audience the better times and hope for change they once knew, and the paradise of local pleasures they might regain again through collective action.  No messiah arrives in this play; but Nadir’s poem ends with imagery of the Lower East Side public marching to seek social change.

photo: playwright Moshe Nadir

Prayer Boxes as Precious as Diamonds:

How Soviet Yiddish Satire Fared in America

Artef, introduced earlier as “Nadir’s theatre,”  also staged some Soviet satire in Yiddish; like Nadir’s work,  the Soviet play Diamonds  portrayed a false messiah, in this case a diamond smuggler who pretends to be a Soviet government official who can bring help to a small Yiddish-speaking town.   Artef’s strong interest in this play and others from Moscow suggests that at least culturally, some  Soviet Yiddish writers fared better in New York than in Moscow.  The Soviet government was less favorable toward such satire than were the “Artefniks”  (the artists and their audience in New York).


The Federal Theatre Project in Yiddish:

We Live and Laugh Twice

Another major source of comic and satiric Yiddish theatre in the 1930s was the Federal Theatre Project Yiddish unit, to which Nadir contributed along with other prominent New York theatre artists.  The 1936-37 cabaret revue We Live and Laugh embodied some of the most promising features – and some of the faults – of the period’s Yiddish political satire. The work has never before been discussed before at any length, outside of brief newspaper reviews, and in the context of this study, its achievements become clearer and more comprehensible.  Here too, a messianic concern with social justice surfaces in some comic sketches responding to Yiddish traditions and politics.  Nadir’s own sketch, about a Yiddish-speaking courtroom judge who makes a mockery of justice, and another sketch in which Yiddish-speaking gangsters kidnap a Jew on the street to have a tenth man (the quota needed for a “minion”) at their religious service, suggest Yiddish language and background do not in themselves guarantee justice or lawful conduct.


The Messiah of 1936:

It Can’t Happen Here in Yiddish

The Yiddish stage version of the Sinclair Lewis novel, It Can’t Happen Here, opened under Federal Theatre Project sponsorship in 1936.   In his dystopian novel of the same title, Lewis imagined the emergence of a fascist government in the United States, at a time when the threat of fascism was increasing in America and abroad.   The Yiddish stage version included a scene in an American concentration camp which was not shown in the English language, Broadway version; that Jewish artists would have portrayed a concentration camp on stage in 1936 remains startling in retrospect, since they anticipated horrors of fascism and anti-Semitism not fully known until after World War II.  Some Yiddish-speaking immigrants who saw the production fainted on opening night, because the play reminded them of persecution they had left behind in Europe.  In this production, too, a leader (the President of the United States) turns out to be a false messiah – a fascist rather than a democratic populist. 


photo: Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951)

Pinski’s Prelude to a Golden Age:

The Tailor Becomes a Storekeeper

photo: From a production of Pinski's
"The Tailor Becomes a Storekeeper"

In 1938, the Federal Theatre Project staged the American premiere of an inventive satire written by one of Yiddish theatre’s most accomplished authors. David Pinski welcomed the production, which provided him with more resources than commercial Yiddish theatres would. In the play, a Yiddish American tailor opens his own business, and then finds himself broke and out on the street, like many other Depression era Americans; his illusions about prosperity through private ownership end, and a new union formed by Jewish tailors welcomes him into its shop in the last scene.  The play was controversial - the only new Yiddish play denounced when the “un-American” activities of the Federal Theatre Project were investigated by Congress. (Accusers found the play’s favorable depiction of a union to be subversive.)  Pinski’s play also represents a continuation of the genre of messianic satire Nadir developed. The tailors’ union appears to offer at least a few men salvation; but its promises of a golden age for labor are not wholly fulfilled when the play ends.

Menasha Skulnik Becomes a Bridegroom:

Popular Yiddish Theatre Reconsidered

Another comic play which portrays Depression era union activity, Getzel Becomes a Bridegroom featured the popular Yiddish actor Menasha Skulnik.  As the title character, Skulnik humorously led a union of kosher chicken-cutters to victory in a strike against their boss.  Skulnik’s character is more a schlemiel (or fool) than a messiah; but the two types are not entirely separate, as they both demand acts of faith and tolerance from the community. Here the schlemiel’s own faith is placed in a union rather than a deity.   

photo: Menasha Skulnik, date unknown

Prosperity’s Crisis on Stage:

The Yiddish Puppetry of Maud and Cutler

Zuni Maud

Yosl Cutler

The Yiddish puppeteers Zuni Maud and Yosl Cutler created political satires with puppets, including a parody of the famous Yiddish play, The Dybbuk.  At one point in their parody of a Jewish exorcism ritual,  a rabbi resembling FDR appears and promises to keep alive a woman named Prosperity by invoking the NRA.   The puppeteers suggest that traditional Jewish religious practices have a counterpart in the New Deal’s efforts to heal the ailing American economy; and they are not pleased with either realm’s solutions.   From their perspective, Federal relief programs benefited factory owners more than they advanced unions.  Some characters in the play refuse to cooperate with FDR and other “wonder rabbis” whose reverence for excessive power and wealth they do not share.

Leo Fuchs, Yiddish Vaudevillian in “Trouble”

A popular comic actor and singer, Leo Fuchs is not remembered as a cultural activist or social satirist.  But one of his best song and dance numbers, “Trouble,” directly responds to Depression  poverty and unemployment.  Fuchs with his satiric song lyrics and wild dance steps brought some political and social criticism onto the stage through popular forms of entertainment – in this case through Yiddish vaudeville.


Yetta Zwerling’s Zetz

Zwerling, often the female partner of Fuchs in his stage and screen comedy, displayed an antic disposition once attributed to her being possessed by a “comic dybbuk”  - a spirit of humor which possesses her entirely.  But the dybbuk within her is more mischievous than evil, more a comic assertion of her life as an independent woman in a world not always pleased by such self-assertion.  Her witty use of a language (Yiddish, that is) once derided as a “jargon good only for women” turns the phrase and Yiddish language itself into an advantage rather than a deficit for women.


Menachem Mendel’s False Profits:

Sholom Aleichem and the Communists

Sholom Aleichem,  Yiddish literature’s most celebrated comic author, did not live to see his plays and stories staged to acclaim in the 1930s.  But his interest in the struggles of poor Jews who survive economic crises and persecution resonated in the Thirties with the Yiddish theatre artists who revived his work onstage. 

Aleichem can be regarded as a collaborator, or initiator of satiric plays which were as effective as any written by Nadir.  In fact, his satires were adapted for the stage by Nadir’s circle.  Some of Aleichem’s references to messianism took on new and different meanings in the 1930s productions, as a class-conscious and messianic Marxism influenced interpretations of his work staged by Artef and the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre.

photo: playwright Sholom Aleichem

The “Anti-Milhome Zamlung” of 1937:

The Yiddish Anti-War Catalogue Reconsidered

The messianic longing for a world at peace prompted an interest in some Yiddish anti-war plays during the 1930s.  As nations built arsenals and prepared for new wars late in the Thirties, the Federal Theatre Project published a catalogue of Yiddish anti-war plays. The catalogue survives as the artifact of a now forgotten movement against militarism within Yiddish culture.  This chapter also considers whether the movement might be kept alive through new play productions.


Conclusion: Still Waiting for the Messiah

At the risk of giving away the book’s ending, I have to say that the messiah does not arrive in any of the plays discussed.  But a messianic impulse to repair the world and make it whole again survives in texts of the plays considered.  The impulse might be renewed and result in new theatre productions if Yiddish plays such as those discussed would be translated into English and be seen by a wider audience.  

One conclusion offered after surveying plays of Nadir, Cutler, Pinski and their peers, is that new interest in the period could arise if English-language audiences had greater access to the memories and emotions of a comic, socially engaged culture which was interrupted by war at the end of the Thirties. Yiddish radicalism’s advance, including its satiric movement, was interrupted, not willingly abandoned, when many of its supporters fell victim to Europe’s false messiahs:  Hitler, Stalin,  Mussolini.   (Nadir’s career, with its Communist affiliations, can be seen as one such casualty.) If new translations and adaptations of the plays became available, the radicality and comic imagination of Yiddish culture might now be welcomed by a post-Stalinist, American generation of English-language theatre goers, for whom the messiah still has not arrived.

Summary prepared by Joel Schechter

Copyright © 2008 by Joel Schechter
Photographs courtesy of the New York Public Library

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