Page 136 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 40

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
money to see the performances. The theater gave them the free­
dom to laugh at others and at themselves while it provided them
with songs to sing and puns to repeat. Goldfaden made his spec­
tators laugh at the holiest traditions. He satirized the traditional
Jewish life of both rich and poor, the characters of religious
fanatics as well as of assimilated intellectuals. Neither the zaddik
with his devoted Hasidim nor the capricious bride, who read too
many romantic novels, were spared the barbs of irony. Continu­
ing the tradition of the
Purimspiel,
Goldfaden exposed his spec­
tators to parody, social satire and ridicule of national oddities. Still
their laughter only reaffirmed their identity, making them proud
of their own rich folklore and vitality.
However, not all sections of the Jewish population approved of
the success of the Yiddish theater. The religious elite felt
threatened, and considered any kind of theatrical performance as
an act of sacrilege. The intellectuals, too, were shocked by the
frivolous tone of Goldfaden’s comedies. They blamed him for
ridiculing national qualities, and thus providing new material for
anti-Semites. One of them asked the author to write his beautiful
folk songs instead of plays since there were already more than
enough Shmendriks, Witches and Kuni-Lemls. Another com­
plained that Goldfaden “exaggerated every Jewish weakness to
ne
plus ultra
” and filled his comedies with one-eyed cyclopes, lame
bridegrooms and stutterers. A third felt outrage that for this
vulgar entertainment, poor folk paid with their last money. Fi­
nally, they all criticized the crude form and immorality of most of
the comedies, which they saw as entertaining without evoking any
thought. Goldfaden’s plays, according to those intellectuals,
spoiled instead of elevated the taste of the audience.
Even those critics, however, admired the amazing growth of the
Yiddish theater, which in seven years — until it was banned by the
Tsarist authorities — had succeeded in giving birth and in de­
veloping quite a repertoire. Gradually, as the enterprise which
Goldfaden had pioneered in 1876 became the heart of Jewish
community life around the world, criticism of “the father of the
Yiddish theater” turned to tribute. After his death in 1908, he was
treated as a legendary figure.
His theater continued to grow. Before World War I, Yiddish
plays like David Pinsky’s
Treasure
and Sholem Asch’s
God of Ven­
geance
were translated into English, Russian and German. In the
twenties the Yiddish art theaters in Moscow, Warsaw and New