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Messiahs of 1933

Messiahs of 1933: How American Yiddish Theatre Survived Adversity through Satire

Joel Schechter
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Temple University Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Messiahs of 1933
    Book Description:

    Joel Schechter has rediscovered the funny and often politically-charged plays of the American Yiddish theatre of the 1930s. InMessiahs of 1933he celebrates their satire, their radical imagination, and their commitment to social change. He introduces readers to the once-famous writers and actors-Moishe Nadir, David Pinski, Yosl Cutler, and others-who brought into artistic form their visions of peace, social justice, and satire for all.

    Messiahs of 1933greatly enlarges our understanding of Yiddish theatre and culture in the United States. It examines the innovative stage performances created by the Artef collective, the Modicut puppeteers, and the Yiddish Unit of the Federal Theatre Project. And it introduces to contemporary readers some of the most popular theatre actors of the 30s, including Leo Fuchs, Menasha Skulnik, and Yetta Zwerling. Throughout, it includes relevant photographs and contemporary comic strips, along with the first English-language publication of excerpts from the featured plays.

    eISBN: 978-1-59213-874-6
    Subjects: History, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. 1 Messiahs of 1933: How Playwright Moishe Nadir and Artef Led America Out of the Great Depression to a Future of Full Employment, Justice, and Yiddish Satire for All
    (pp. 1-36)

    One of the most radical cultural events in America could have taken place during the Great Depression, if everyone in the country spoke Yiddish: the public would have been able to welcome a Yiddish-speaking messiah who arrived in New York. With thirteen to fourteen million Americans unemployed, thousands of banks closed permanently, and breadlines everywhere, the nation needed a messiah. Not one, but two saviors arrived in New York and spoke the language of East European Jews in May of 1933. They could be seen in the company of actors at the Yiddish theatre collective Artef (Arbeter Teater Farband, or...

  4. 2 Nadir’s Rivington Street: The Lower East Side Arises
    (pp. 37-56)

    In an essay titled “The Lower East Side: A Place of Forgetting,” anthropologist Jonathan Boyarin argued that “on the Lower East Side, in Brooklyn, in the suburbs, or elsewhere, forgetting—of text, folklore, meaning-invested geography—is a central fact of Jewish life in our times.”² Boyarin’s 1992 essay remains persuasive; not only American Jews, but the American nation as a whole seems to suffer from collective amnesia these days, and forgets much of its past, particularly the history of urban communities now dispersed or gentrified. The situation was quite different sixty years earlier, when Moishe Nadir and his theatre colleagues...

  5. 3 Prayer Boxes as Precious as Diamonds: How Soviet Yiddish Satire Fared in America
    (pp. 57-70)

    When Moishe Olgin reviewed the New York premiere of the Soviet satireDiamondsin 1930, he wrote that Avrom Veviorka’s play was “perhaps needed more in America than in the Soviet Union. There they have the Red Army to fight the remaining speculators.”¹ In America, the struggle against speculators and capitalism would have to be conducted by other means, such as satiric theatre, until a revolutionary Red Army arrived.

    By stagingDiamondsin its original language of Yiddish, Artef’s New York theatre ensemble did not significantly reduce profiteering and speculation in the United States; but the production brought part of...

  6. 4 The Federal Theatre Project in Yiddish: “The Society of the Sorely Perplexed” Takes the Stage
    (pp. 71-104)

    The Soviet government may have been the first national body to subsidize innovative Yiddish theatre, but it was not the only one. During the Great Depression, the Congress of the United States also financed Yiddish stage artists. Between 1935 and 1939, the Federal Theatre Project introduced Yiddish classics and new plays in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Boston.

    The vaudeville revueWe Live and Laugh, which opened in 1936, and produced a new edition in 1937, brought Artef veterans together with other Yiddish artists in New York, under the auspices of the government-sponsored theatre program. One among many adventurous...

  7. 5 The Messiah of 1936: It Can’t Happen Here in Yiddish
    (pp. 105-120)

    Sinclair Lewis created a false messiah named Buzz Windrip in 1934, when he wrote his novel,It Can’t Happen Here. The United States elects its own equivalent of Hitler in the novel. Once Windrip, the messiah with the most quaver in his voice, becomes president of the United States, he turns the country into a fascist state. An underground resistance movement struggles against his tyranny, but the book ends before democracy has been restored fully. The future of the country under Windrip remains uncertain, as it was without him in the White House, when Lewis first created the book during...

  8. 6 Pinski’s Prelude to a Golden Age: The Tailor Becomes a Storekeeper
    (pp. 121-140)

    The Tailor Becomes a Storekeeperachieved a special honor late in 1938; it was the only new Yiddish play in the Federal Theatre Project to have its content criticized during hearings of the House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities. If David Pinski’s play was subversive or too radical for Congressman Martin Dies and the committee he chaired, it stood in excellent company; other Federal Theatre works adversely criticized before that committee included Ernst Toller’s satire on dictatorships,No More Peace; It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis and John Moffitt (see Chapter 5); the Living Newspaper’s innovative productions ofOne-Third...

  9. 7 Menasha Skulnik Becomes a Bridegroom: Popular Yiddish Theatre Reconsidered
    (pp. 141-156)

    Popular Yiddish entertainment known asshund, or literary trash, thrived during the thirties. Leftist criticism of the genre hardly deterred audiences from enjoying the musical comedies featuring Menasha Skulnik, Molly Picon, Aaron Lebedev, and Leo Fuchs. Opposition to such entertainment placed a leftist in the curious position of renouncing theatre events attractive to the masses. In “On Shund-Theatre,” written in 1943, Nathaniel Buchwald objected toshund’sbanal plays with formulaic situations and characters, to the genre’s acceptance of the status quo, and to the happy endings and stage fools offered by these plays at a time when Buchwald felt the...

  10. 8 Prosperity’s Crisis on Stage: The Yiddish Puppetry of Maud and Cutler
    (pp. 157-176)

    When the English stage designer and director Gordon Craig published a manifesto praising marionettes in 1907, he spoke with great reverence for the art of puppetry and its animated objects. Craig would have been distressed by the arrival of the Yiddish puppeteers Yosl Cutler and Zuni Maud two decades later, as their practices contradicted almost everything he advocated. Craig wanted to banish human actors from the theatre, and replace them with puppets; Maud and Cutler gave human forms smaller and more comic features, but still represented them on stage through puppets. Craig wanted to revive the sacred impulses of ancient...

  11. 9 Leo Fuchs, Yiddish Vaudevillian in “Trouble”
    (pp. 177-192)

    Leo Fuchs lived in troubled times. The Yiddish actor immigrated to New York from Eastern Europe during the Depression. Unknown to American audiences, unable to perform in English, his future uncertain, Fuchs told producer Herman Yablokoff, “I’m going back to Poland. In Poland, I’m the greatest, but in America, I don’t stand a chance.”¹ Yablokoff persuaded the gifted comedian to stay around for his 1936 production ofCigarettes (Papirossen), which won acclaim on Second Avenue. Fuchs stood a chance, after all. In the New World, where immigrants once imagined that the streets were paved with gold, the comic actor had...

  12. 10 Yetta Zwerling’s Comic Dybbuk
    (pp. 193-202)

    She began to dance in her mother’s stomach before she was born, Yetta Zwerling once said. The comic actress continued to dance and sing through her years on stage and in films, notablyMotel the Operator, I Want to Be a Boarder, The Jewish Melody,andThe Great Advisor.¹ Unlike some of the other theatre creators introduced in this survey, Yetta Zwerling (1894–1982) cannot be described as a messianic artist. She was first of all a free spirit, although her father once said a dybbuk (a spirit beyond her control) possessed her. Perhaps Zwerling’s independence kept her from joining...

  13. 11 Menachem Mendel’s False Profits: Sholem Aleichem and the Communists
    (pp. 203-220)

    “Is it my fault, I ask you, is it my fault if I’m applauded by Communists and revolutionaries?” Sholem Aleichem never asked himself this question, but plays featuring his characters were welcomed by Yiddish-speaking Communist theatre audiences in New York and Moscow after the Russian revolution. His plays deserved the leftist praise, not only because some of the most innovative actors and directors in Yiddish theatre staged them but also because Sholem Aleichem was, in his own satiric way, a radical critic of injustice and oppression. His stories, and the plays based on them, portrayed survivors of poverty and persecution,...

  14. 12 The Anti-Milkhome Zamlung of 1937: The Yiddish Anti-War Catalogue Reconsidered
    (pp. 221-230)

    Out of print and almost forgotten, the twenty-one-page booklet that lists a collection of anti-war plays still can be read in the New York Public Library by those who read Yiddish.¹ First mimeographed in July 1937, the faded words of theAnti-Milkhome Zamlungtestify to a period in American history when Yiddish plays critical of war had both an attentive audience and promoters within the Federal Theatre Project, which published the booklet. At a time when the United States and other nations built arsenals and prepared for new wars, the messianic longing for a world at peace remained alive in...

  15. 13 Conclusion: Still Waiting for the Messiah
    (pp. 231-238)

    The messianic satire created by politically conscious theatre artists in the thirties has not entirely disappeared. Traces survive in play texts, program notes, reviews, memoirs, and photographs. The social and artistic conditions that led to the creation of the plays still exist too, though the Great Depression has ended. Other immigrant groups and indigenous populations now face variations of the displacement, sweatshops, inequality, and militarism once widely known to Jews newly arrived in America. In our time the most prominent false messiahs no longer wear white beards or ride motorcycles, as did Nadir’s characters; instead they wear expensive suits and...

  16. Appendix
    (pp. 239-244)
  17. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 245-246)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 247-278)
  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 279-286)
  20. Index
    (pp. 287-295)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 296-296)