Messiahs of 1933: How
American Yiddish Theatre
Survived Adversity Through Satire
By Joel Schechter
Temple University Press, 304 pages, $39.95.
In Moishe Nadir’s 1928 Yiddish play, “Messiah in America,” theater producer Menachem Yosef and his assistant, Jack “the Bluffer,” concoct a scheme to present the messiah onstage, dressing up a bearded Jewish immigrant to play the part. Their success in attracting audiences prompts a rival producer to introduce a second messiah — this time, a young English-speaking variant who arrives on a motorcycle. After the competing producers hold a competition to determine which one is the true messiah, they conclude that the competition should take place in the boxing ring. When the match ends with the death of the younger messiah, the producers flee, with their profits, to Florida.
In his book “Messiahs of 1933,” Joel Schechter, professor of theater arts at San Francisco State University, uses Nadir’s play as a launching pad for his exploration of leftist Yiddish theater in Depression-era America. America’s Golden Age of Yiddish theater is usually associated with the sentimental melodramas that once played on New York’s Second Avenue stages. Eastern European Jewish immigrants flocked to these theaters and fawned over their stars, while critics condemned them as crass entertainment. These popular theaters, though, competed with lesser-known troupes that sought to use the stage to promote social justice and leftist politics. These theaters shunned the star system and its cult of celebrity in favor of ensemble work and complex literary scripts. The most ambitious leftist theatrical experiments emerged out of the Artef (Arbeter Teater Farband, or Worker’s Theatrical Alliance) and the Federal Theatre Project, both of which searched for new secular messiahs to pave the way for the realization of an equitable society.
The Artef used its stage to unmask the false messiahs of capitalist exploitation. This theme was explored not only in its 1933 production of “Messiah in America” but also in its 1930 staging of Avrom Veviorka’s “Diamonds,” a satire about Soviet speculators who hide contraband diamonds in tefillin. Later the theme is examined in the Artef’s 1936 production of Sholom Aleichem’s “200,000,” about a tailor who is swindled out of his lottery winnings.
Although the theater made its home on Broadway in 1934, where it remained until its 1940 demise, it continued to bring its message to the masses through its mobile repertoire, which it performed on makeshift stages in worker neighborhoods. These stages allowed for the presentation of more intimate productions, like Nadir’s “Rivington Street,” in which the theater bewailed the poverty, unemployment and hopelessness of the Jewish working class.
The Federal Theatre Project, by which the federal government funded theater as part of an effort to employ out-of-work artists during the Depression, provided a major impetus to Yiddish theater in America. The Yiddish Unit of the Project, together with the project’s Translations Department, ensured that Yiddish-speaking audiences would be able to share in the best that world theater had to offer. The 1936 Yiddish-language adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s novel “It Can’t Happen Here” at New York’s Biltmore Theatre, for instance, imagined a fascist government coming to power in the United States as its citizens flee to safety in Canada. Yiddish playwright David Pinski’s “The Tailor Becomes a Storekeeper,” which was also performed as part of the Federal Theatre Project, aroused the interest of the House Un-American Activities Committee for its pro-union message.
Schechter finds the messianic impulse, as well, in his chapters on actor Menasha Skulnik and the Modicut marionette theater, where puppets satirized working-class life. By the end of the book, though, it is unclear how all the diverse elements that draw Schechter’s attention connect to each other. His chapters on vaudevillian Leo Fuchs and actor Yetta Zwerling, for instance, seem dislocated, as do the appendices, which resemble the outtakes that accompany some DVDs. Schechter’s occasional forays into the speculative also confuse the narrative; at times, it is difficult to discern whether he is describing events as they occurred or as they might have happened.
Nevertheless, Schechter’s passion for these long-forgotten works of Yiddish radicalism is contagious. Readers will be inspired to find out more about the rich tradition of Yiddish leftist theater, a heritage that reached heights of avant-garde experimentation in Moscow, Warsaw, New York and Buenos Aires. Schechter does not believe that his story should be limited to the realm of history; he repeatedly urges a revival of Yiddish radicalism, both onstage and off. Although he readily admits that a restoration of Yiddish leftist theater is unlikely, Schechter insists that the plays he discusses remain relevant today. Their plea “not to let ‘the crooks come in without a protest’ in the United States,” he cautions, “still needs to be heard.”
Jeffrey Veidlinger holds the Alvin H. Rosenfeld chair in Jewish studies at Indiana University, where he is associate professor of history and associate director of the Borns Jewish Studies Program. His book, “Jewish Public Culture in the Late Russian Empire,” is forthcoming from Indiana University Press.