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A lively examination of Yiddish theatre during the Great Depression

Messiahs of 1933

How American Yiddish Theatre Survived Adversity through Satire

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Joel Schechter

Outstanding Academic Title, Choice, 2008

"One of the most interesting, lively and informative books that I have ever had the pleasure to read on subjects of Jewish-American culture and its connections with American popular culture."
Paul Buhle, Brown University

Joel Schechter has rediscovered the funny and often politically-charged plays of the American Yiddish theatre of the 1930s. In Messiahs of 1933 he 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 1933 greatly 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.

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Excerpt

Read Chapter 1 (pdf).

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Reviews

"Played during the Great Depression, the last act of the American Yiddish theater saw a populist form turn wildly vanguard, aesthetically as well as politically. It's a terrific story—teeming with all manner of clowns, tummlers, and visionaries—and Professor Schechter's telling is as fanciful and fascinating as the theater itself."
J. Hoberman, author of Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film between Two Worlds

"A stylish, wry, and in-depth study of its subject. A very well-balanced blend of summary, excerpt, commentary, and reportage about critical responses of the day."
Lawrence Bush, Editor, Jewish Currents

"Schechter’s passion for these long-forgotten works of Yiddish radicalism is contagious. Readers will be inspired to find out more about the rich tradition of Yiddish leftist theatre."
The Jewish Daily Forward

"[Schechter] has a wonderfully intuitive feeling for the material that only someone who has directed Yiddish plays (albeit in English) is likely to possess.... [N]o review can do justice to Schechter’s analysis of the plays and their meaning, but suffice it to say, a close reading of his book will prove delightful."
Towards Freedom

"Schechter tells the whole story of [Moise] Nadir and Artef (Arbeter Teater Farband, the collective of the workers' theater movement) with verve and elegance while never sacrificing scholarly standards.... The book's photographs, cartoons, and illustrations are important references, and the bibliography is complete. This volume makes a significant contribution to the documentation of immigrant American culture. Summing Up: Highly recommended."
Choice

"Messiahs is well worth a perusal; the author writes with vigor and enthusiasm throughout, and his history is accompanied by witty comic strips, photographs and posters. Moreover, we can never have enough books about plays written in a tongue Isaac Bashevis Singer described as 'the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of a frightened and hopeful humanity.'"
Moment

"[Schechter] is at his best when describing individual plays and locating them in a social context...these [are] lively accounts."
Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter

"It is rare that one reads an academic book telling a story that took place almost eighty years ago with a gasp of recognition at its relevance to contemporary experience.... One of the book's undeniable strengths is its comparative nature. The author discusses parallels among Communist Yiddish theatres in the Soviet Union, England, and the United States, and he analyses the differences in the seemingly similar repertoires and even ideologies of Gosset, the Federal Theater Project, and Anglo-Jewish theatres.... Schechter's study is the first of its kind to look carefully at the texts of the shund plays, now stored at the Rare Documents department of the Library of Congress. Looking at the content of these plays, he sees undeniable parallels with developments on Broadway and in Hollywood.... I think that the main significance of the book is in its analysis of how an impoverished immigrant population used humour and satire in its mother tongue to cope with difficult economic circumstances in its new home. Time will tell whether the story told by Schechter repeats itself a hundred years later."
Modern Drama

"As a seasoned historian of politically subversive clowning and popular theatre, Schechter brings a unique perspective to Yiddish performance, filled as that story has been with tummlers, clowns, puppeteers, knockabout artists and other outrageous purveyors of sharply barbed satire. He succeeds in introducing readers to a side of Yiddish theatre they may not have been aware of."
Theatre Research International

"Messiahs of 1933 stakes out new ground in its appraisal of Yiddish-language political satire in America, exploring a wide range of plays and playwrights whose work has been almost entirely unexplored in English-language scholarship.... Schechter’s most important contribution is in bringing to light new material, previously neglected by scholars, to make a compelling argument for the necessity of including the Yiddish theatre in any appraisal of twentieth-century American theatre history. Messiahs of 1933 also includes the first English language publication of excerpts from many of the plays, providing an invaluable resource for the theatre historian seeking to gain insight into the Yiddish theatre of this period. Schechter provides the reader with a highly readable and anecdotal account of an important period in Yiddish theatre history that has garnered scant attention from scholars."
Theatre Survey

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Contents


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
2. Nadir's Rivington Street: The Lower East Side Arises
3. Prayer Boxes as Precious Diamonds: How Soviet Yiddish Satire Fared in America
4. The Federal Theatre Project in Yiddish: "The Society of the Sorely Perplexed" Takes the Stage
5. The Messiah of 1936: It Can't Happen Here in Yiddish
6. Pinski's Prelude to a Golden Age: The Tailor Becomes a Storekeeper
7. Menasha Skulnik Becomes a Bridegroom: Popular Yiddish Theatre Reconsidered
8. Prosperity's Crisis on Stage: The Yiddish Puppetry of Maud and Cutler
9. Leo Fuchs, Yiddish Vaudevillian in "Trouble"
10. Yetta Zwerling's Comic Dybbuk
11. Menachem Mendel's False Profits: Sholem Aleichem and the Communists
12. The Anti-Milkhome Zamlung of 1937: The Yiddish Anti-War Catalogue Reconsidered
13. Conclusion: Still Waiting for the Messiah
Appendix
Acknowledgements
Notes
Bibliography
Index

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About the Author(s)

Joel Schechter is Professor of Theatre Arts at San Francisco State University. He has written a number of books about satirists and circus clowns, and served as Editor of the Yale School of Drama's magazine, Theater. He also created a series of comic strips with the illustrator Spain, and currently writes a column, "Radical Yiddish," for the journal Jewish Currents.

Subject Categories

Jewish Studies
American Studies
Literature and Drama

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