Di Vilna Troupe: the Avangardist Reinvention of Marginalized Yiddish Tradition

Camelia Craciun

Palavras-chave: Ashkenazi ethnography; Yiddish theatre; Stanislavski; Di Vilna Troupe; Jewish press

Participação: presencial

Yiddish was perceived for centuries, especially within the Ashkenazi community, as a “Jewish jargon”, a “German dialect” or simply “broken German”, determining its ever inferior status compared with Biblical Hebrew; this was a paradox as the whole Eastern European Jewish population used Yiddish as a mother tongue (mameloshn), while Biblical Hebrew was the “holy language” (loshn koydesh) used strictly for religious and administrative purposes, accessible only to a select male elite. Together with the interdiction to create visual representations and the fear of moral corruption, this inferior status of Yiddish within the community prevented for centuries the emergence of a national literature and theatre in Yiddish (which happened only in the late 19th century), encouraging secular and acculturated individuals to gravitate towards Gentile literatures and theatres and sever ties with traditional Jewish culture. When, after the 1908 Czernowitz Conference, the critical situation of a waning culture was finally acknowledged by the Eastern European Jewish elite and efforts to record and stimulate cultural preservation were made, the situation was already declining. Ethnographical expeditions and cultural, literary and theatrical initiatives started to emerge, involving recordings, photographs, manuscripts in exhibitions and valorification of folklore in art and theatre. As a result, during the interwar period, we witness an upsurge of interest in Yiddish culture coming even from the acculturated or Zionist voices (who often found no contradiction in supporting Yiddish) and also among some Gentiles. Still, this interest would have remained rather nostalgic and marginal without a vigorous effort to reconnect traditional Yiddish culture to European modernism while also preserving its specificity.

Thus, the current presentation demonstrates how the revival of Yiddish theatre in the 20th century was stimulated by the change of perspective that the intellectuals and the community in general projected towards Yiddish culture and theatre, after its activists returned with modern European approaches (working with Stanislawski or Reinhardt) and reshaped Yiddish theatrical tradition on new modern grounds. Di Vilna Troupe, Di Kowno Troupe, directors Yankev Sternberg or David Herman, stars such as Baratoff, Kadison or Satz produced a transnational, transregional and even transcultural space and a glamourous Yiddish Hollywood in United States-Southern America-Eastern Europe, basically wherever Jewish communities lived. Modernization of the Yiddish stage did not bring only new artistic approaches, but also technology able to record and promote artistic performances; 1920s and 1930s left us a rich visual heritage through photographs and motion pictures in journals, newspapers, posters and created even star postcards. Basically, visual support became crucial in advertising and promoting the intriguing productions by “visual sampling”; today, it demonstrates the novelty and modernization of theatre productions, able to explain the emerging competition posed to Gentile productions, previously favored by secular Jews. As a result, my presentation presents a photographic documentation of the productions staged by Di Vilna Troupe during the 1920s and 1930, especially during their Romanian periods, highlighting the blending of modern and traditional elements, as well as the enormous impact they had among Jewish and Gentile audience, generating a fashionable interest for Yiddish theatre.


Camelia CRĂCIUN, Associate Professor in Jewish Studies, New Europe College Institute for Advanced Study / University of Bucharest. PhD in Jewish Studies. Interests: history of Jewish Romanian intellectuals, history of Yiddish theatre. In 2016 she founded the first Centre for Research and Preservation of Yiddish Culture in Romania at the Jewish State Theatre. Editor of the book series “Biblioteca de Literatură Idiș” (Library of Yiddish Literature, 8 titles, at Hasefer Publishing House). Monographs: Traduceri în limba română din literatura clasică idiș (Translations into Romanian language from Yiddish classic literature) (2015); 140 de ani de teatru idiș în România (140 years of Yiddish theatre in Romania) (2016); Scriitori evrei de limbă română: de la rebeli marginali la critici canonici (Jewish writers of Romanian language: from marginal rebels to canonical critics) (2018).