Yiddish theatre is a fascinating and under-celebrated cultural tradition. Dating from the late 19th century, Yiddish theatre spread around the world as a by-product of mass global migration from Europe, helping displaced groups continue to feel connections with the homelands they had fled.
Into the twentieth century, Yiddish theatre could be found in many of the world’s capital cities, providing traditionally-based fare for their audiences.
Yiddish theatre productions often revolved around the central themes of identity, immigration, poverty, integration and deep cultural ties to tradition. Yiddish theatre was embracing of other works, often performing Yiddish versions of plays from Shakespeare and other notable important playwrights. It also embraced a wide range of styles – musical comedy, revue, operetta, drama and melodrama, also embracing new and traditional playwrights’ works.
Yiddish theatre, its exponents and expressions, were devastated by the impact of World War Two and the Holocaust , after which its influence waned, although still practiced by a few loyal defenders of the tradition.
I recently came across this engaging 35 minute documentary which was produced in 1987 and tells the story of the movement in London through some of its exponents.
Interestingly, actress Anna Tzelniker who features in this film is the daughter of well-known actor Meier Tzelniker who had a long and successful career in the UK in Yiddish theatre as well as films and non-Yiddish theatre. He was the co-founder of the UK’s Jewish National Theatre with Fanny Waxman, a well-known Yiddish actress, in 1936.
I am very grateful to the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives for posting this video on their YouTube channel so that it can be more widely appreciated.
Documentary Copyright: The London Museum of Jewish Life, 1987. Reproduced with permission of Jewish Museum London.
EXTRA: Here’s an extract from a US PBS series on Jewish Americans which talks about Yiddish theatre in America Thanks to YouTube poster Leora Hatchwell for posting this: