The professional Yiddish theatre started in 1876 in Eastern Europe; with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, masses of Eastern European Jews began moving westward, and New York—Manhattan’s Bowery and Second Avenue—soon became the world’s center of Yiddish theatre. At first the Yiddish repertoire revolved around comedies, operettas, and melodramas, but by the early 1890s America's Yiddish actors were wild about Shakespeare. In Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage, Joel Berkowitz knowledgeably and intelligently constructs the history of this unique theatrical culture.
The Jewish King Lear of 1892 was a sensation. The year 1893 saw the beginning of a bevy of Yiddish versions of Hamlet; that year also saw the first Yiddish production of Othello. Romeo and Juliet inspired a wide variety of treatments. The Merchant of Venice was the first Shakespeare play published in Yiddish, and Jacob Adler received rave reviews as Shylock on Broadway in both 1903 and 1905. Berkowitz focuses on these five plays in his five chapters. His introduction provides an orientation to the Yiddish theatre district in New York as well as the larger picture of Shakespearean production and the American theatre scene, and his conclusion summarizes the significance of Shakespeare’s plays in Yiddish culture.
“Berkowitz’s close study of Shakespeare adaptations demonstrates the creative adaptiveness of Jewish playwrights, performers, and audiences to America. This book of theatre history and cultural history is as entertaining as the plays it describes.”—Ruth Wisse, Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and professor of comparative literature, Harvard University
“Berkowitz’s revealing study lovingly and meticulously recreates a fascinating moment when Yiddish theatre tried to ‘improve’ itself by appropriating Shakespeare and his considerable reputation—and in the process created a newly enriched kind of Shakespeare, brimming over with pathos, melodrama, unabashed theatricality, and yiddishkeit.”—Harley Erdman, author of Staging the Jew: The Performance of an American Ethnicity, 1860–1920
“This work is a contribution to American immigrant cultural history, an invaluable study of the development of modern secular Jewish culture, and an impressive addition to the growth and uses of theatre in establishing modern theatrical practices in non-Western societies.”—Seth L. Wolitz, Gale Chair of Jewish Studies, University of Texas at Austin
“Berkowitz begins this cogent and entertaining book with a historical introduction that traces the medieval origins of Yiddish drama in Purim plays, wedding jesters, and secular entertainers at inns. He goes on to show the development of a lively Yiddish theater in 1870s Eastern Europe, a theater that followed Jewish immigrants westward. . . . Highly recommended for collections supporting Jewsigh studies, American studies, and Shakespeare.”—Choice
1. "Gordin Is Greater Than Shakespeare": The Jewish King and Queen Lear
2. Classical Influenza, or, Hamlet Learns Yiddish
3. An Othello Potpourri
4. "Parents Have Hearts of Stone": Romeo and Juliet
5. "A True Jewish Jew": A Shylock Quartet