Page 43 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 34

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tions was, of course, Shloyme Ettinger’s
in the Zhitomir
school for Russian government rabbis, in which Goldfaden him­
self had starred as Serkele. In fact, though the oldest manuscript
of a Purim play dates only from 1697,2 that play is clearly much
older; and there is evidence of productions of Purim plays in
eastern Europe as far back as 1577. In central Europe, Yiddish
Purim plays were regularly performed during the sixteenth
century. As for plays unassociated with Purim themes, in Hungary
in 1820, there was a production of Moritz Sapir’s
Der Falsher
(“The False Chestnut”) , a satire against the despotism
of Jewish community officials (a complaint that was to be heard
again and again in nineteenth century Yiddish literature) .3
With so much evidence of theatrical activity in Yiddish
before 1876,4 why is the laurel awarded to Goldfaden? Because
when all is said and done, pre-Goldfaden productions were
predominantly Purim plays and because there is no evidence
that theatrical performances were given at times other than two
weeks before and two weeks after Purim. (Chanukah perfor­
mances were also staged, but these were relatively infrequent.)
What Goldfaden did was not because he was approached by a
group of
broder zinger
seeking to improve their lot, nor be­
cause he was looking for an opportunity to turn a quick profit.
His was a serious effort to bring to fruition his lifelong dream
of creating a Yiddish theater, specifically Yiddish opera.5 It was
to present a play—not a Purim play but a play, more precisely
a musical, patched together though it was, not using Purim
2 A
small number of other Purim plays has also survived dealing not only
with the Purim story but also with such other biblical subjects as the
sale of Joseph and David and Goliath, most having been written in
Germany. The only contemporary records pertaining to seventeenth and
early eighteenth century Purim plays are in Johann Schudt’s
3 vols., 1714.
3 This seems to be the only one of the many nineteenth century Maskilic
plays other than Serkele that was actually performed.
A valuable brief survey of the Yiddish theater to the time of Goldfaden
is to be found in Jacob Shatsky’s “Di Geshikhte fun Yidishn Teater,”
Algemeyne Entsiklopedie,
“Yidn,” Band Beyz (N.Y., CYCO, 1940). The
modern theater is covered by A. Mukdoyni, “Der Moderner Yidishei
Shatsky’s brief English “The History of Purim Plays” is to
be found in that excellent compendium
The Purim Anthology,
ed. Philip
Goodman (Phila., 1949, pp. 357-367).
5 See especially the account of S. L. Tsitron, “Tsu der Geshikhte fun
Yidishn Teater/'
I (September, 1920) 41-52, based on his conversation
with Goldfaden, although admittedly long after the event.