Poster advertising a performance at the People's Theater.
Although theater in the modern sense is a relatively new phenomenon in Jewish life – the first Yiddish production took place in 1876 – Jews have a significant tradition of folk performance practices grounded in Jewish holidays and customs (though also influenced by neighboring non-Jewish cultures). The roots of the modern Jewish theater are usually attributed to this folk tradition and to the Haskala literary convention of closet drama not intended for public display. It is also important to note that Jews had a significant cadre of seasoned religious vocal performers, namely cantors and choir boys. Many of the first generation of Jewish entertainers and actors shared this professional background. Accordingly, the Yiddish theater was always heavily musical and folksy. However, not long after it came into being, intellectual forces within the community pressed for a theater of high artistic and literary merit. The Hebrew theater, which began to flourish with the advent of political Zionism, had its roots in literary texts and Russian high art and mostly lacked the show-biz ethos that characterized the Yiddish stage.
Since the late nineteenth century, the Jewish theater has been a major communal institution, not only providing mass entertainment but also reflecting and participating in Jewish discourse around a myriad of issues including politics, women's rights, labor relations, and assimilation. Director and critic Harold Clurman noted in the 1960s that until the 1920s the Yiddish theater functioned as the most important meeting place and forum of the American Jewish community, more so than the lodge or the synagogue. The reference to the synagogue is particularly pertinent, as the great divide between pulpit and stage that characterized much of the history of the western stage did not apply in the Jewish case: in Jewish theater, religious rituals were frequently performed and much beloved even at a time when such practice was considered sacrilegious by the English-language theater. The very name of the first major Hebrew-language theater company, the Habima (i.e. the Bimah), boldly advertises the equation of the theatrical stage with the platform from which prayers are recited in the synagogue.
As Jews became increasingly integrated in non-Jewish culture, a growing number of playwrights began to write on Jewish life in non-Jewish languages. Israel Zangwill, Anglo Jewry’s most notable writer, offered the first major effort in this category with his 1899 play Children of the Ghetto. With this began a rich tradition of so-called "Jewish plays" of which Fiddler on the Roof is a prime example. These plays, which represent a predominantly Jewish milieu must be seen against the historic construct of the "Stage Jew." Within this paradigm essentialized characters such as Barabas, Shylock and Fagin were presented against a Christian surrounding and were instrumental in shaping public opinion regarding its Jewish minority.
Iconic plays, as well as characters within them, such as the Dybbuk, Golem, Fiddler, and Shylock, not only appear in a wide variety of live performances, but also in film and other media. Their remediation on screen, television, and the internet as well as in the form of material culture (musical tsedakah boxes and Hanukkah lamps, for examples) deserve attention as well.
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The Bobover Purimshpil
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Troy, S. The Live Frog as Prop in the Purim Play of the Bobover Hasidim.