Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Aaron Wolfsohn-Halle

W. was born in 1754 (according to Zeitlinís "Kirias Sefer"ó1756) in Halle, Freisen Municipality in Germany. His father was a doctor and his mother, apparently, was affiliated with the followers of the Enlightenment. Therefore, it is possible to assume that from his parentís home, the young W. was thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the early, newly founded "Enlightenment," or "Haskalah," in Germany. He arrived in Berlin approximately in 1785.  W. was closely associated with the Haskalah supporter Joel Brill (Lev)[1] and other

devotees of the Enlightenment who formed around "Sefer HaMeíasef" (a book urging the adaptation of Hebrew to secular writings) that quickly became---according to Haim Graetzís writings, "The Audacious Upheaval by the Followers of the Moses Mendelsohnian Intellectual Era."  Since 1788 the movement involved itself more and more in literary adaptations of the Hebrew language. Though it started out in Hebrew it later included a German translation of parts of the Biblical Books of Prophets and Writings and other original and translated works. His intensive literary efforts combined with the battle he led for the Haskalah drove him to become one of the first supporters of the German followers of the Enlightenment. He was one of the most extreme opponents of Orthodox Judaism.

Later W. wrote many works despite his leading role in the battle for the ideals of the German Haskalah with its unbridled ideals against Yiddish. He wrote a work in fact, a comedy in Yiddish, "Leichtsinn und Froemmelie Auszweigen" (Foolishness and Piety Swept Out) (Breslau, 1796). This comedy comprises eight pages and is the second part of "Lustful Plays to Stage for the Purim-Feast." In its first section W. included  "The Brave Vashti" written by Friedrich Goethe, which he transcribed in the Yiddish alphabet (in this way he made it clear that "The Brave Vashti" was a printed Yiddish comedy).

The second edition of the W. comedy was issued separately (Amsterdam 1798, Printed by Yochanan Levi, Doctor and his son Benjamin). This very same comedy was often (as noted by Steinshneider and Ben-Yaakov) bound together with Yitzhak Eichelís comedy "Rabbi Hanoch the Depressed and Sanctimonious." This was certainly because (according to B. Gorin) the hero in both plays is Rabbi Hanoch.

According to B. Gorin, W. wrote his play with the full intention that it should be performed. No Yiddish theatre (in the modern meaning of the words) existed at that time. However, the author intended that the comedy should be staged in the same way that as in those days, the Purim plays were presented. He also meant for it to be performed for Purim when Jews occupy themselves with such things. He intended for "Leichtsinn und Froemmelie..." to serve as a transition from the Purim shpils to modern Yiddish drama. His intention was two- sided. More correctly, three-sidedóFirst: to drive out the Purim plays and present modern drama, which should represent the Jewish people in full, living color, --Second to battle against fanaticism, and Third: To battle against modern youth who have moved off in the wrong direction." The author announces this himself in his preface, which was written in German in Yiddish letters.

"W.ís play had, according to Zalman Reisen, with its sharp Haskalah inclination was meant to be a prototype of all future Haskalah dramas, whose purpose was to fight against fanaticism. However, at the same time, the author also was not afraid to show that the young generation was trodding on false paths. This was especially true of the Jewish women, who had recently acquired the superior outlook of an alien culture and who threw away their traditional modesty. Whatís more the outlook of his work is  very deep, but this was only his attempt, through Yiddish literature, to protect people living in those days to enter the modern age. In addition, it was written at a time when European literature also inherited a tendency towards sentimental behavior with its overly exaggerated idealism. This was one-sided and colored by the thick-dark hues of the 'other side'."

Though the title of the comedy, its preface and dialogue, are spoken in German by leaders of the young generation, all  others speak in the characteristic and local Yiddish of the northern area in Germany at the end of the 18th century. The comedy is also the one and only Yiddish play in which the language is in the local Yiddish dialect of a specific region.

W.'s comedy was never performed during his lifetime. It wasnít till the end of the seventh decade of the nineteenth century that Professor Horowitz made use of the concept found in  this comedy in his farce "Shabbtai Zvi," which he presented with his troupe in Eastern Europe.

1917 -- Gabel in his theatre presented B. Gorinís rendition of this comedy under the name, "The Zealot." The presentation had no acclaim (in Reisenís "Lexicon" it is incorrectly stated that it was performed by an amateur group in 1918 in New York.)

Several years later Dr. M. Weinreich presented the play in Vilna with the students of the Yiddish teacherís seminary. Zalman Reisen, in his book, "From Mendelsohn to Mendele" (Volume 1, pages 25-68), printed W.'s comedy in its entirety.

Dr. J. Shatzky demonstrates  (in "Archive," page 148) that in the catalogue of the Rosenthal Library in Amsterdam, which was established in 1875 by M. Roest (on page 90),  that there exists a play called on page ninety, "David The Slayer of Goliath" (Breslau 1802, 19 pages).

Sender reminds us that in his catalogue (page 197) in the British Museum (London 1867) another edition of the play: "David, the Slayer of Goliath" a musical performance with song in two versions, Furth (1815?).

In Levensteinís bibliography printed in Furth,  this same edition certainly described: "David, the Slayer of Goliath. A play with songs in two acts that was to be staged at the Purim Feast" (page 16), with autographic improvements supervised by Yitzhak Dovid Tzirendorfer."

Steinshneider reminds us of the same edition with the notations, was printed in German using Yiddish letters.

Shatzky talks about the play, "This play has no great literary worth, and its only interest is merely bibliographic. It is understood that the author of "Leicthsinn und Froemellie" is himself the main interest. Certainly this was an opportunistic play--written for the students of the Wilhelmshule in Breslau."

W. died on 20 March 1835 in Furth.

  • Zalmen Reisen -- "Lexicon of Yiddish Literature," Vol. I, pp. 904-910.

  • B. Gorin -- "History of Yiddish Theatre," Vol. 1, pp. 70-82.

  • B. Borochov -- "Di ershte yidishe komedye," "Di varhayt," 30 January 1917.

  • K. Marmor -- Barimte mentshn, "Frayhayt," N.Y., 4 May 1924.

  • N. Auslander -- Di eltere yidishe komedye," "Di varhayt," 30 January 1917.

  • Max Erik -- Di ershte yidishe komedye, "Filologishe shritn," Vol. 3, Vilna, 1929, pp. 555-584.

  • Dr. M. Weinreich -- "Bilder fun der yidisher literatur-geshikhte," Vilna, 1928.

  • Zalman Reisen -- "Fun mendelson biz mendele," Vilna.

  • Dr. Jacob Shatzky -- Vegn aaron halle wolfzohns piese, "Archiv," Vilna, 1930, pp. 147-150.

[1]  Joel Loewe (Brill), major activists in the Haskalah movement, who cooperated in establishing the society of maskilim and in editing Hameíasef.






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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 1, page 652.

Translation courtesy of Paul Azaroff.

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