Yiddish Theatre Forum [YTF]
Joel Berkowitz, Editor <yankl@albany.edu>
Contents of Volume 5.004

1) Editor's note: theatre conferences past and present (Joel Berkowitz)
2) Greetings to the Participants of "Yiddish Theatre Revisited" (Leonard Prager)
3) "SHMENDRIK in Italian" by Zalmen Zylbercweig [Yiddish text; Romanized text; English translation by Leonard Prager]

4) Conference Program: "Yiddish Theatre Revisited" (Barbara Henry and Joel Berkowitz)

Date: 24 April 2006
From: Joel Berkowitz
Subject: Editor's note

In the summer of 1999, some three dozen scholars and performers gathered
in Oxford, England, for a few very packed days of scholarly papers on
Yiddish theatre, drama, and performance, and two evenings of performances
by veterans of the Yiddish stage in the Americas, Europe, and Israel.
Those meetings in Oxford inspired the creation of the Yiddish Theatre
Forum, and led directly to the collection of wonderful essays that I had
the opportunity to edit, Yiddish Theatre: New Approaches (Littman Library,

Participants at the time also enthusiastically endorsed the organization
of a comparable scholarly conference in the not-too-distant future.  For a
wide variety of reasons, "not-too-distant" ended up meaning a
biblical-sounding seven years rather than just two or three.  Meanwhile,
the study of Yiddish theatre and drama has evolved in other ways.  Several
of the participants at the Oxford conference have since gone on to earn
their doctorates in such fields as Yiddish literature, performance
studies, and English.  They and other scholars have produced a number of
important monographs on various aspects of Yiddish theatre and drama,
along with translations and scholarly editions of plays, and several dozen
scholarly articles.  Yiddish theatre has been well represented in recent
years at many conferences in Jewish studies, theatre, and other areas of
the humanities.  And from time to time, I hear from new voices in the
field, who are pursuing Master's degrees or doctorates, making films and
radio programs, translating, compiling bibliographies and other research
tools, and participating in other ventures that help shed light on this
important area of cultural history and bring it to readers, viewers, and

The upcoming conference in Seattle will once again provide an opportunity
for scholars to share their findings on a number of different aspects of
Yiddish theatre and drama, including the development of Yiddish theatre in
particular locales; specific dramas, or themes running through various
dramas; theatre music; and oral histories of theatregoers and performers
in Eastern Europe.  And fittingly, one paper will examine the prodigious
work of theatre historian Zalmen Zylbercweig, to whom Leonard Prager also
pays tribute in his contribution to the current issue, by way of an
anecdote he has kindly offered as a welcome to the conference
participants.  Call it a forshpayz, an appetizer, to the cultural banquest
that will be served in Seattle.  Please note that admission to all
conference events is free and open to the public.  We hope that readers in
the Pacific Northwest, and anyone else who might want to drop in on that
beautiful part of the world, will attend.
Date: 25 April 2006
From: Leonard Prager
Subject: Greetings to the Participants of the "Yiddish Theatre Revisited"

"SHMENDRIK in Italian"

In "Shmendrik in Italian," the Yiddish theatre historian Zalmen
Zylbercweig* retells a story he heard from the London Yiddish playwright
Aaron Nager, one which captures the hit-and-miss, improvisatory quality of
the Yiddish stage in the early years of the last century.  Actors who
tried to earn a livelihood from the Yiddish stage, like strolling players
in Shakespeare's day, were not quite respectable before the Gordin era
when Yiddish theatre became a people's school and theatre-going a status
symbol of sorts.  In Britain, outside of London at the time this story
transpired, there was no proper Yiddish theatre. Hardly anywhere was there
an educated Yiddish-theatre public, and of course subsidies, foundations
and the like were unknown.  The story Zylbercweig retells here - with his
own refurbishments doubtless - is, however, more than a rollicking
anecdote of the "frontier" days of Yiddish theatre. It is that, but it is
also a fable that celebrates the extra-territoriality and universality of
theatre itself. Above the medley of Yiddish, English, Lithuanian and
"Italian" syllables, Avrom Goldfaden [1840-1908] (now dead almost a
century), sounds his catching melodies and the indigenous version of the
Yiddish theatre's gullible and primitive "Moyshe", the British Shmendrik,
shows through his delight that he was wiser than his hubris-laden - but
forgiveable in their rascality -- entertainers.

* Zalmen Zylbercweig improvised a Yiddish theatre research institute in
his garage, making shoeboxes do the work of computer hard disks,
laboriously eking out by typewritten and handwritten notes what takes
split seconds and a mere click to record today. Thanks to what he and a
few other pioneers of the past century (e.g. Yitskhok Shiper, Khone
Shmeruk) have left us, we can continue to build a field of studies on the
most solid bases.

3) Date: 25 April 2006

From: Zalmen Zylbercweig / Leonard Prager

Subject: Text of "Shmendrik in italyenish [Yiddish version]



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[Romanized Yiddish version]
"Shmendrik in italyenish"

Es iz shoyn a fertl yorhundert, vi di geshikhte hot pasirt-dertseylt
mir der pyeses-shrayber Arn Nager-a yidishe trupe aktyorn hot zikh
demolt gefunen in england, vu mir hobn geshpilt yidish teater.
Rikhtiker volt geven tsu zogn, az mir hobn mer geshpilt mitn, vi in a
teater, vorum in london iz geshtanen a groyse yidish trupe, un mir hobn
gemuzt arumvandern iber di kleyne shtetlekh. Haynt vu nemt men dort

In di kleyne shtetlekh fun england voynen englender, irlender,
shotlender-mit eyn vort, ale minim fun yene mentshn, oyf velkhe men
zogt take, az zey shtamen fun di aseres hashvotim, ober keyn yidish
farshteyen zey fort nisht.

Un ot azoy vanderndik fun shtot tsu shtot un fun shtetl tsu shtetl,
zaynen mir farkrokhn in a kleyn shtetl, vos lebt fun arumike

Hobn mir getrakht un getrakht un bashlosn, az men muz do makhn a
forshtelung, vayl oyb nisht, darf men nemen un avekshtarbn mit vayb un
kinder in mitn gas.

Ober vi kon men fort shpiln yidish far ayrishe?  Blaybt, az mir shpiln
nisht keyn yidish, nor italyenish.  Vos iz di mayle fun italyenish?
Di irlender farshteyen dokh keyn italyenish oykh nisht, un
mir vider konen dokh oykh nisht keyn italyenish, iz der teyrits, az
italyenish teater iz bakant als a gezang un tants-teater.  Nu, fun
gezang un tants darf men dokh nisht farshteyen di shprakh.  Mir vider
veln take shpiln yidish, nor makhn es azoy, az es zol klingen
italyenish.  Un azoy vi di ayrishe goyim farshteyen nisht ka yidish un
nisht ka italyenish, vet es heysn, az mir shpiln take italyenish.

Un ot azoy hobn mir aroysgelozt a poster, az mir shpiln di velt-barimte
gala-operete Shmendrikus, vos iz nebekh, geven nisht epes
andersh vi undzer Avroml Goldfadns Shmendrikus.  Mir hobn
kemat di gantse proze aroysgeshnitn, un oyf trit un shrit arayngeshtelt
lider.  Es iz geven nisht eyn goldfadnishe operete, nor gants Goldfadn.

Vu eyner hot nor gekent a lid fun Goldfadns an operete, hot men es
arayngeshtelt, tsi es hot yo gepast, oder es iz arayn vi a yovn in suke.
Di heldn fun de operete hot men italyenizirt.  Di koshere yidene breyne
hot geheysn senyorita breyne.  Shmendrik aleyn hot geheysn Senyor

Dos teater iz geven oysfarkoyft, vayl mir hobn geshpilt shabes in ovnt,
ven di greste teyl irishe koyln-arbeter zaynen fray fun der arbet.  Dos
gelekhter in teater un di aplodismentn zaynen geven gor gvaldik.  Der
iker hot men gelakht fun Senyor Shmendrikus, un mir hobn gelakht fun di
Shmendriks, vos zitsn in teater.

Ersht nokhn tsveytn akt, mir gibn a kuk, hinter der bine dreyt zikh arum
a yidl.  Yo, vi zogt men in der alter yidisher operete:  "Zovar ikh
lebe, ayn yude."  Dos iz zikh farkrokhn in dem irishn shtetl a litvak,
nebekh, a pedler, un far umetikeyt iz er avek in "italyenishn" teater.
Ober zeendik di tipn oyf der bine, un derherndik fun tsayt tsu tsayt a
yidish vort, hot zikh im oysgevizn, az er kholemt, un er iz deriber
gekumen hinter di kulisn redn mit di aktyorn un zen tsi zey zaynen nisht
amol keyn yidn.

Meyle, es hot nisht lang gedoyert, un es iz tsvishn undz forgekumen di
tsene vi tsvishn yoysefn mit zayne brider ven zey lozn zikh derkenen...

Ober eyn zakh hobn mir opgeret mit dem pedler, az pasakh shin-sha.
Er ken undz nisht, un mir blaybn vayter italyener.

Un azoy zaynen mir vayter ongegangen mitn shpiln.

Ersht, az mir endikn dos shpiln, kumt tsu undz der polisman, velkher
shteyt hinter di kulisn, un zogt undz, az er hot far undz a gute psure:
es hot zikh opgezukht undzerer a landslayt, an italyener, vos vil mit
undz redn.

Ot di psure hot undz nisht azoy gefreyt.  Mir hobn gemeynt, az mir
zaynen shoyn durkhgegangen undzer italyenishe "probe," ober itst vet men
undz "khapn ba der hant," vorum der italyener vet dokh redn italyenish,
un keyner fun undz ken ka vort italyenish nisht aroysredn.  Oyser dem,
ver veyst vos far a skandal der italyener vet undz makhn far dem
"italyenish," vos mir hobn geredt oyf der bine.

Ober farfaln, der italyener shteyt shoyn hinter undzere pleytses, un men
muz im ufnemen.

Als forshteyer fun der trupe, hot der polisman tsugefirt dem italyener
tsu mir.  Ikh kuk im on, a man in di fertsiker.  Shlekht!  Un do falt
mir ayn a gedank:  a geboyrener bin ikh a litvak un hob in mayn kindheyt
geredt litvish, nisht a litvishn yidish, nor litvish, di shprakh fun di
emese goyishe litvakes, un ikh gib dos a for aroys tsu dem italyener oyf
mayn litvish.

Der italyener iz geblibn in a shtarker farlegnheyt, vi ikh volt im
opgegosn mit heys vaser.

Er hot a shmeykhl geton, un farlegn {read:  farshemt} gezogt oyf english:
-- Farshteyt, senyor, ikh bin shoyn do 40 yor in ot der gegnt.  Ikh bin
ahergekumen als kind.  Ikh hob gevoynt in italia in a kleyner provints
un geredt an ortikn dialekt.  Ir veyst dokh, italyenish hot zeyer fil
dialektn.  Zayt demolt iz mir nisht oysgekumen tsu redn italyenish.  Ir,
vi es zet oys, redt a groysshtotishn italyenish, a ponim vi men redt in
venetsye, un ikh farshtey nisht ka vort, vos ir redt, punkt vi ikh hob
gornisht farshtanen fum dem, vos ir hot geredt oyf der bine.  Ekskyuz mi
{read:  antshuldikt mir}, lomir redn english un hoykh oysrufn:  "Lebn
zol italye, undzer gemaynzam balibt foterland!"
"Shmendrik in Italian" [English Translation  by Leonard Prager]

The playwright Arn Nager(1) told me this story(2):  "It happened a
quarter of a century ago. 
We were a troupe of Yiddish actors stranded
in England where we had hoped to play Yiddish theatre.  However, a large
troupe was already settled in London and we had no choice but to head
for the provincial towns.  But where were we to find Jewish audiences?

In the small towns of England there live Englishmen, Irishmen, Scotsmen-
in a word, all sorts of people who have actually been identified as
descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, but who nevertheless do not understand a word of Yiddish.

In the course of wandering from town to town and village to village,
we ended up one day in a small mining-town(3).

After pondering long and hard we decided that we simply had to put on a
show here, or else just die in the street together with our wives and

But how do you play in Yiddish for an Irish(4) audience?  Well, our
performance then would have to be in Italian.  What is the advantage
of Italian?  Neither we nor the Irish understood it, but Italian theatre
has the advantage of being known as one of song and dance.  You don't
have to know a language to like song and dance.  We will speak Yiddish,
but we will somehow make it sound Italian.  And since the Irish gentiles
don't know either Yiddish or Italian, they'll think we are playing in

We circulated a poster announcing a performance of the world-famous gala
operetta Shmendrikus, which was actually our Avroml Goldfaden's
Shmendrik.  We cut out almost all the prose and put in songs wherever
we could.  It wasn't one Goldfaden operetta-it was the whole
Goldfaden repertoire.

If one of us knew a song from a Goldfaden piece, we threw it in,
regardless of any criteria of appropriateness.  We italianized the
heroes of the operetta.  The Yiddish Breyne became Signorina Breyna.
Shmendrik himself was called Signore Shmendrikus.

The theatre was packed, for it was Saturday night when most of the Irish
[sic] coalminers did not work.  The laughter and applause in the theatre
were deafening.  The audience was especially amused by Signore Shmendrikus
and we were amused by the Shmendriks(5) in the audience.

Right after the first act we noticed a certain little Jew poking about
backstage.  As they used to say in the old Yiddish theatre, "As I live
and breathe, a Jew" [the humor here is based on the Germanized Yiddish
used].  Somehow this 'Litvak', a miserable little peddler, had fallen
into this Irish [sic] village and out of boredom or lack of anything
better to do had wound up at the "Italian" theatre.  On seeing the
characters on the stage and hearing a Yiddish word from time to time, he
imagined he was dreaming and came behind the curtains to talk to the
actors and find out if they couldn't, perhaps, be Jews [note expression
== zaynen nisht amol ka yidn  --LP].

In any case, we were soon playing the scene of Joseph and His Brothers,
the part where they reveal their identity...  But we managed to get the
peddler to promise not to breathe a word.  His silence would allow us to
continue safely as Italians.

And so we went ahead with the whole performance.

But just as the show was ending, we were approached by the policeman
who had been standing backstage, and he announced he had good news
for us: there was a fellow countryman of ours in the audience, an Italian,
who wanted to talk to us.

This news did not much please us.  We had begun to think we had passed
our Italian "test", but it was still ahead of us with the danger of being
caught red-handed in our deception.  For surely the Italian spoke Italian and not
one of us did.  Besides which, who knew what sort of a scandal he would
make over the Italian we pretended to speak on stage.

But there was nothing to do but talk to the Italian, who was standing
waiting just behind us.  As the leader of the troupe, it was to me
that the policeman brought the Italian.  I saw before me a man of forty.
Very bad!  But at that instant I had a thought:  I was born in Lithuania
and in my childhood I spoke Lithuanian-not Lithuanian Yiddish, but
Lithuanian, the language of the true gentile Lithuanians-and I
started babbling to the Italian in Lithuanian.

The Italian was obviously distraught, as though I had poured hot
water over him.

He smiled feebly and in an apologetic voice said in English: "Please
understand, signore, that I have been living in this region for forty
years, having arrived here as a child.  In Italy I lived in a small
village and spoke the local dialect.  You know, of course, that there
are a great many dialects in Italian.  I have had no opportunities to
speak Italian since my childhood.  It seems that you speak a big-city
Italian, like the language of Venice, and I don't understand a word of
that, just as I didn't understand a word you spoke on stage.  Excuse me,
let us speak English and let us call out together 'Long live Italy, our
common beloved fatherland!'"(6)



1. See Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, 6:126; Leonard Prager,
Yiddish Culture in Britain (1990), 478; Zalmen Zylbercweig, Leksikon
fun yidishn teater
, 2:1384-1386.

2.  Cited from Zalmen Zilbercweig, Teater mozaik (New York, 1941),
278-280, who retells the story as told to him by Arn Nager, the speaker

3. In Standard Yiddish the word would be grubn rather than the anglicism mayns 'mines'.

4.  The teller does not have a clear picture of the ethnic makeup
of the United Kingdom and appears to be confusing the Welsh with the
Irish; perhaps there were also Irish miners in the Welsh town.

5. The character Shmendrik of Goldfaden's play has given the Yiddish
language a word meaning 'an inept, luckless, awkward fellow'.

6. It is difficult to determine who owns the copyright of the "Italian"
anecdote here given.  Zalmen Zylbercweig died in 1972 and his estate is represented
by his daughter Shirley Fair.  The translation is mine. [L.P.]

Date: 24 April 2006
From: Barbara Henry and Joel Berkowitz
Subject: Conference Program

Yiddish Theatre Revisited: New Perspectives on Drama and Performance

May 7-9, 2006, University of Washington, Seattle, WA

An international conference devoted to the history, repertoire, and
legacies of the Yiddish theatre. Begins May 7 with a special presentation
by the
National Center for Jewish Film, Between Two Worlds: Yiddish
Followed by a two-day conference, May 8-9, held at the UW Club and
UW Hillel.


Sunday, May 7
7:00 PM
, Smith Hall, room 120
Between Two Worlds: Yiddish Cinema

An illustrated presentation by Sharon Pucker Rivo (National Center for
Jewish Film, Brandeis University). Yiddish cinema is a direct offshoot of
Yiddish theatre. This presentation will focus on the origins of Yiddish
film-how it was created in Russia, Poland, Austria and America in the
early years of the 20th century. Excerpts from Yiddish feature
films-including Yidishe Glikn (Jewish Luck), East and West, Mamele, Uncle
Moses, Green Fields, Tevye, The Dybbuk, and I Want to Be A Border-will be
screened and discussed. The films showcase actors including Maurice
Schwartz, Molly Picon, Solomon Mikhoels, Herschel Bernardi, and Leo Fuchs.
All film excerpts have complete English subtitles.

Monday, May 8
University of Washington Club, Conference Room,  East Stevens Way, (206)

9:30 - 9:45 AM  Welcome

9:45 - 11:15 AM Origins
Chair: Nahma Sandrow
Jeremy Dauber (Columbia University) "Between Two 'Worlds': The Deceived
World, The Topsy-Turvy World, and 19th Century Yiddish Drama"
Alyssa Quint (Princeton University), Theatre and Theatricality in
Goldfaden's Kuni-Leml
Donny Inbar (Graduate Theological Union), No Raisins and Almonds in the
Land of Milk and Honey: Goldfaden Productions in Israel

11:15 - 11:45 AM COFFEE BREAK

11:45 AM - 1:15 PM Yiddish Theatre in America
Chair: Julia Niebuhr Eulenberg (University of Washington)
Nina Warnke (University of Texas, Austin), Unruly Audiences in the Early
American Yiddish Theatre
Judith Thissen (Universiteit Utrecht), Leisure & Liquor: the Business of
Yiddish Vaudeville
Nahma Sandrow (City University of New York), Mirele Efros Meets My
Yiddishe Mama: High Art and Low on the Yiddish Stage

1:15 - 2:45 PM  LUNCH BREAK

2:45 - 4:15 PM  Yiddish Theatre in Russia
Chair: Sarah A. Stein (University of Washington)
Barbara Henry (University of Washington), Jacob Gordin in Russia
Jeffrey Veidlinger (Indiana University), Amateur Yiddish Theatre & Drama
Circles in Early 20th-century Russia
Gabriella Safran (Stanford University), The Dybbuk and Jewish-Siberian

Monday Evening, May 8

8:00 PM Keynote address: UW Hillel House, 4745 17th Ave NE, Seattle (tel:
Seth Wolitz (University of Texas, Austin), Yiddish Theatre and the
National Ideal
Refreshments to follow

Tuesday, May 9
University of Washington Club, Conference Room

9:30 - 11:00 AM  Drama, Theatre, and Society
Chair : Jess Olson (University of Washington)
Joel Berkowitz (SUNY Albany), Messiahs in Yiddish Historical Drama
Zachary Baker (Stanford), The Streets of Buenos Aires: Jevel Katz and
Yiddish Popular Culture in the Argentine Metropolis
David Mazower (Independent scholar), An Art Theatre in Whitechapel: the
Rise and Fall of the Faynman Yidish Folks- teater

11:00 - 11:45 AM  COFFEE BREAK

11:45 AM - 1:15 PM Pre- and Post-war Yiddish Theatre
Chair: David Mazower
Miroslawa Bulat (Jagiellonian University), "Veltlekh" or "Reyn-yidish": Z.
Turkow's Productions in VYKTs (1924-1939) and the Problem of "Yidishkeyt"
in the Theatre
Annette Aronowicz (Franklin & Marshall College), Chaim Sloves's Homens
mapole: the Mingling of Communist and Jewish Aspirations in the Immediate
Postwar Period
Edna Nahshon (Jewish Theological Seminary), Contesting the Canon: Maurice
Schwartz's Shylock and His Daughter (1947) as Post-Holocaust Countertext.

1:15 - 2:45 PM  LUNCH BREAK

2:45 - 4:15 PM  Recoveries and Reconstructions
Chair: Jeffrey Veidlinger
Faith Jones (New York Public Library), Zalmen Zylbercweig: the Boswell of
the Yiddish Theatre
Ronald Robboy (Independent scholar), Reconstructing Yiddish Theatre
Scores: Giacomo Minkowski's Aleksander, oder der kroynprints fun
yerusholaim (1892)
Dov-Ber Kerler (Indiana University), Vestiges of Pre-war Purimshpil in
Living Memory

4:30 - 5:30 PM  Round-table discussion: the state of the field


7:00 PM  Brundibar  (for those with purchased tickets)
Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Third Avenue & Union Street, Seattle,

Music of Remembrance's Spring concert will include a performance of
Brundibar, a children's opera written by Hans Krasa, who died at
Auschwitz. This opera, composed in Prague in 1938, was rewritten in
Terezin by the composer and performed there 55 times. Music of
Remembrance's performances are conducted by Gerard Schwarz, music director
of the Seattle Symphony, and performed with a new English libretto by Tony
Kushner. Music of Remembrance is a Seattle-based non-profit organization
dedicated to remembering Holocaust musicians and their art through musical
performances, educational activities, musical recordings, and commissions
of new works.
For more information, see: http://www.musicofremembrance.org/index.htm

For more information about the conference, please contact: Rochelle
Roseman, UW Jewish Studies Program, roseman@u.washington.edu, (206)
For enquiries about the program, please contact: Dr. Barbara Henry, UW
Slavic Department, bjhenry@u.washington.edu

End of Yiddish Theatre Forum 05.004

Yiddish Theatre Forum

Joel Berkowitz, Editor

Leonard Prager, Senior Adviser

     Editorial Board

Zachary Baker, Barbara Henry, Miroslawa Bulat, David Mazower
Avrom Greenbaum, Nina Warnke, Seth Wolitz

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