Page 50 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 34

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40
JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
here. Twenty years ago
Variety
carried a story captioned “Yiddish
Theater Barely Alive” (October 24, 1956, p. 74), noting that
there were only five Yiddish companies playing. (Of these, one
was a Hebrew company from Israel). During the past five years
at least, four Yiddish companies have appeared each season.13
These are, of course, not the twenty theaters that operated
during the heyday of the Yiddish theater, but they reflect a
condition far from terminal. Indeed, it is the persistence and
vitality of the Yiddish theater that is impressive,14 not only for
the dedication of its actors but for the hold the theater exercises
on a Jewish community struggling to define an identity in
cultural as well as religious and territorial terms and searching
its recent past for the ingredients.
The
Variety
reporter was not the first to spice a story about
things Yiddish with the art of prophecy. Leo Wiener probably
began it in 1899 in his
History of Yiddish L iterature in the X IX
Century,
though he did so with obvious sadness. Since then,
there have been observers, critics, and historians of all sorts who
have vied with one another to predict the demise of Yiddish, of
Yiddish literature, of the Yiddish theater, as though breathless
to be the first to announce the “glad” tidings that the end has
at last arrived. If there are so many pious pallbearers waiting in
the wings, the prediction is surely a minor achievement. Indeed,
there is scarcely an aspect of Jewish life—if not Jewish life itself—
that has not had its premature unctuous eulogists. What service
they perform is best left to their own judgments. It is difficult
not to share Jacob Glatstein’s exasperation: “There are over
3,000 languages in the world, among them some that are spoken
by as few as 150,000 persons. Yet no one has either heard or read
of one of them being singled out and kept under constant ob­
servation to see whether it is dying or about to die . . . The only
language . . . that has been chosen for tender care, for vigilant
13
One might add to the total of the current season
Yentl
by I. B. Singer
and
Zalmen
by Eli Wiesel, both of which, though English language produc­
tions, are by Yiddish writers and have a significant bearing on the
Jewish concern with Yiddish creativity. Off-off-Broadway also saw
productions of
Th e Thea ter of Peretz
and
Th e World of Sholem Aleichem .
14 At the present writing, there are some 200 members of the Hebrew
Actors Union (the name of the Yiddish actors union). Of the active
performers, about a fifth are native born, and twenty-one are under the
age of twenty-eight.