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Nomadic Chutzpah: The Vilna Troupe's Transnational Yiddish Theatre Paradigm, 1915–1935

  • Debra Caplan

Consider an unlikely scenario. In the midst of World War I, a motley group of Jewish refugees in their teens and early twenties becomes obsessed with the idea of creating a “Yiddish art theatre” modeled upon Stanislavski's famous Russian company. By day they work as laborers, storekeepers, housepainters, and wartime smugglers; by night they teach themselves the basics of acting and stagecraft from outdated Russian and German books. The only theatre building where they can afford to perform is a dilapidated former circus on the outskirts of town, repurposed by the German army as a military stable. The roof leaks, and the stage reeks of horse dung. It is a bitterly cold winter, and since there is no money for heat, the actors rehearse with frozen limbs and thaw their stage makeup over the footlights. They eat one meal a day—a single boiled potato—and rehearsals are routinely interrupted when actors faint from hunger.

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1. Mukdoyni, Alexander, “Zikhroynes fun a yidishn teater-kritiker: Yidisher teater in Poyln fun 1909 biz 1915,” in Arkhiv far der geshikhte fun yidishn teater un drame, ed. Shatzky, Jacob (Vilna and New York: YIVO, 1930), 341421, at 354. These and other translations from Yiddish sources, unless otherwise noted, are my own.

2. Chybowska, Halina, “David Herman and the Jewish Theatre in Poland,” Polish Review 4.17 (3 May 1944): 1112, at 12.

3. Joseph Buloff, “How the Yiddish Theatre Invented Theatre of the Absurd,” Folder BG22, Papers: Collection 5, Joseph Buloff Jewish Theater Collection, Harvard Library, Judaica Division, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

4. Chybowska, 12.

5. Ibid.

6. On Clurman's abiding interest in Yiddish theatre, see his retrospective article Ida Kaminska and the Yiddish Theater,” Midstream: A Monthly Jewish Review 14.1 (January 1968): 53–7.

7. “Dovid Belasko shraybt tsu der ‘Vilner trupe,’” Forverts, 7 March 1924, 7.

8. Shaw wrote to the troupe: “In the name of art, I wish the Vilna Troupe every success.” Israel Zangwill, the famous English playwright and author of The Melting Pot, was also reportedly awed by the Vilna Troupe. “I took a very experienced English manager to see the Vilna Troupe,” Zangwill told reporters in 1922. “He was as full of admiration as of envy. ‘If only I could get such actors,’ he said, ‘for the British drama.’ What cleanness of attack! What vitality! What a Romeo and Juliet I could get from them! They are not afraid of feeling or making the audience feel.” Program, The Dybbuk (1936), Program 175267A/4298, Box 60, RG 8: Esther-Rachel Kaminska Theater Museum Collection, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Center for Jewish History, New York, NY. On the Vilna Troupe's royal performances, see Joseph Buloff, “A briv vegn der Vilner trupe in Rumenien,” Literarishe bleter 59, 19 June 1925, 5.

9. The extant English-language scholarship on the Vilna Troupe includes a master's thesis on the company's wartime origins and a few dozen pages in scholarly books and articles. These include Sandrow, Nahma, Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996), 213–21; Shane Baker, “Beginnings of the Vilna Troupe: Jewish and German Politics in the Formation of a Yiddish Art Theater” (M.A. thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 2002); and Zer-Zion, Shelly, “The Birth of Habima and the Yiddish Art Theatre Movement,” in Jewish Theatre: Tradition in Transition and Intercultural Vistas, ed. Belkin, Ahuva (Tel Aviv: Assaph, Tel Aviv University, 2008), 7388.

10. Guarnizo, Luis Eduardo and Smith, Michael Peter, “The Locations of Transnationalism,” in Transnationalism from Below, ed. Smith, Michael Peter and Guarnizo, Luis Eduardo (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1998), 334, at 3.

11. Vertovec, Steven, “Conceiving and Researching Transnationalism,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 22.2 (1999): 447–62.

12. Vertovec, Steven, “Migration and Other Modes of Transnationalism: Towards Conceptual Cross-Fertilization,” International Migration Review 37.3 (2003): 641–65, at 642.

13. See de Toro, Fernando, Theatre Semiotics: Text and Staging in Modern Theatre, trans. Lewis, John, rev. and ed. Hubbard, Carole (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), 8690; and Elam, Keir, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama (New York: Routledge, 2002), 2.

14. See Fishman, David E., The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005).

15. Kobrin, Rebecca, Jewish Bialystok and Its Diaspora (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 56.

16. On diaspora nationalism, see Rabinovitch, Simon, “Diaspora, Nation, and Messiah: An Introductory Essay,” in Jews & Diaspora Nationalism: Writings on Jewish Peoplehood in Europe and the United States, ed. Rabinovitch, Simon (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2012), xvxli.

17. Among Eastern European cities during this period, Vilna was particularly subject to political instability as a result of rapidly changing borders. In a single eight-year period (1914–22), Vilna changed hands nine times as the city was variously occupied by Tsarist Russia, Germany, Poland, the Soviet Union, and Lithuanian independence fighters. On Vilna during World War I, see Cohen, Israel, Vilna (1943; repr., Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1992), 358–88; and Wygodski, Jacob, In shturm: Zikhroynes fun di okupatsye tsaytn (Vilna: B. Kletskin, 1926). On Vilna during the Polish–Soviet War and the Lithuanian Wars of Independence, see Senn, Alfred E., The Great Powers, Lithuania, and the Vilna Question, 1920–1928 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1966); and Alfonsas Eidintas and Vytautas Žalys, with Senn, Alfred Erich, Lithuania in European Politics: The Years of the First Republic, 1918–1940, ed. Tuskenis, Edvardas (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998).

18. Waldinger, Roger and Fitzgerald, David, “Transnationalism in Question,” American Journal of Sociology 109.5 (2004): 1177–95.

19. On transatlantic performers and producers in the early twentieth century, see Woods, Leigh, Transatlantic Stage Stars in Vaudeville and Variety (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006); and Schweitzer, Marlis, “Networking the Waves: Ocean Liners, Impresarios, and Broadway's Atlantic Expansion,” Theatre Survey 53.2 (2012): 241–67.

20. On Maurice Bandmann, see “Mapping Global Theater Histories,” accessed May 1, 2014; and Christopher Balme, “Maurice Bandmann and the Beginnings of a Global Theatre Trade,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Theatre Research, Montreal, Quebec, 17–20 November 2011.

21. David Savran, “Trafficking in National Brands: Notes on the Political Economy of Theater,” lecture at the Mellon School of Theater and Performance Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 4 June 2013.

22. For example, when Polish lawmakers imposed a draconian 10 percent tax on productions of all plays by “foreign” writers, which included all Yiddish playwrights regardless of their country of origin, the branch of the Vilna Troupe that frequented Warsaw responded by leaving the city, to the acute disappointment of its Polish fans. See “Rekhtlozikayt un negishes fartrayben di Vilner trupe fun Varshe,” Haynt, 10 May 1929, 10.

23. Yiddish theatre historian Michael Steinlauf has made a similar claim about the inventiveness of Polish Yiddish theatre at large, which he attributes to its “permanent economic crisis.” Michael C. Steinlauf, “Polish-Jewish Theater: The Case of Mark Arnshteyn. A Study of the Interplay among Yiddish, Polish, and Polish-Language Jewish Culture in the Modern Period” (Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 1988), 263–4.

24. Notes for Buloff's 1979 keynote speech at an unidentified Jewish culture festival, Folder BG31, Papers: Collection 4, Joseph Buloff Jewish Theater Collection.

25. For digital maps documenting the proliferation and global presence of actors and branches of the Vilna Troupe from 1915 to 1935, visit

26. Actress Luba Kadison recalls poor Jews coming to the theatre and saying, “I'll give you this chicken if you let us into the theatre. We want to see The Dybbuk!” Luba Kadison, interview with Leah Shlanger for Kol Yisrael, 1987, Tape Recording JSCRC 236 (1), Joseph Buloff Jewish Theater Collection.

27. Luba Kadison and Joseph Buloff, with Genn, Irving, On Stage, Off Stage: Memories of a Lifetime in the Yiddish Theatre (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Library, Judaica Division, 1992), 33.

28. Mikhl Weichert, “Di shefe fun Vilner trupes,” Literarishe bleter, 25 July 1930, 560–561 at 560.

29. Chaim Geler, “Di ‘Vilner’ in Yerusholayim d'Rumenie,” Literarishe bleter, 7 August 1925, 9.

30. See Mayzel, Nakhman, Geven a mol a lebn: Dos yidishe kultur-lebn in Poyln tsvishn beyde velt milkhomes (Buenos Aires: Tsentral-Farband fun Poylishe Yidn in Argentine, 1951), 118–23; Ben Zion [B. Khilinovitsh], “Der dibek in a nayer geshtalt,” Der moment, 18 January 1921, 2; Steinlauf, Michael C., “‘Fardibekt!’: An-sky's Polish Legacy,” in The Worlds of S. An-sky: A Russian Jewish Intellectual at the Turn of the Century, ed. Safran, Gabriella and Zipperstein, Steven J. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 232–51; B. Karlinius, “Dos ekho: tsum 50-ter offirung fun dibek,” Der moment, 28 January 1921, 6.

31. A digital map showing the geographical trajectories of the Vilna Troupe branches is available at

32. These programs can be found in Box 16292, Theater: Series B, Collection 3, Eastern Europe, Judaica Ephemera Collection, Harvard Library, Judaica Division, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

33. Although the transnational orientation of the Vilna Troupe provided it with distinct advantages compared to other theatre companies, many of its artists still longed for a permanent home. “We remain artistically uncongealed, for all of our energy goes towards finding cities and countries where we can perform,” lamented Vilna Troupe member Alexander Azro in 1924. “When we carry walking sticks in our hands, we cannot devote ourselves as we wish to our artistic development.” Alef Alef, “Dos naye in der Vilner trupe,” Morgn zhurnal, 18 January 1924, 6.

34. For example, Osterwa's 1926 production of Juliusz Słowacki's The Constant Prince (adapted from Calderón) framed the entire play as a sacrificial ritual with the tragic hero as a Christ-like martyr. See Braun, Kazimierz, “Religious Theatre in a Totalitarian Atheistic State: The Polish Experience,” in Theatre and Holy Script, ed. Levy, Shimon (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 1999), 111–27. As Braun describes, “In the collective consciousness of the Poles a link and an analogy were forged between the Catholic Church and the Polish theatre,” and Polish stage productions thus always had a “peculiar, semi-religious character” (115).

35. Luba Kadison, interview by Louise Cleveland, 1980, Tape Recording JSCRC 236 (6), Joseph Buloff and Luba Kadison Buloff: Recordings of Interviews, Readings, Lectures; 1960's–1980's, Joseph Buloff Jewish Theater Collection.

36. Y. B., “Hinter di kulisn fun der Kidush-hashem oyffirung: A shmues mit Mikhl Vaykhert,” Literarishe bleter, 25 May 1928, 410–411 at 410. Critics compared this production favorably with Polish director Leon Schiller's acclaimed expressionist adaptation of Stefan Żeromski's novel Dzieje grzechu (The Story of Sin) at Teatr Polski in 1926. See also “Gdzie byłam, co widziałam,” Ewa: pismo tygodniowe, 13 May 1928, 6; and Jakób Appenszlak, “Scena Żydowska,” Nasz Przegląd, 4 May 1928, 5.

37. Buloff, “How the Yiddish Theatre ” (written after attending an unidentified production of two short Beckett plays directed by Jack Garfein at the Clurman Theatre, probably in the early 1980s).

38. Ibid. On Czarist spies trying to determine the language of Jewish theatre productions during the Russian Empire's ban on Yiddish theatre, see Sandrow, 57–8.

39. Birnbaum, Salomo A., Yiddish: A Survey and a Grammar (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1979), 41.

40. Holt, Douglas B., How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2004), 23.

41. Ibid., 3.

42. Steenkamp, Jan-Benedict E. M., Batra, Rajeev, and Alden, Dana L., “How Perceived Brand Globalness Creates Brand Value,” Journal of International Business Studies 34.1 (2003): 5365.

43. Holt, 2.

44. Yitskhok Katznelzon, “Der koyekh fun di Vilner,” Literarishe bleter, 20 February 1931, 15–16 at 15.

45. On the global dimensions of Yiddish newspaper readership, see Kobrin, 189–90. It was also not uncommon for Yiddish newspapers to migrate between cities or countries due to political pressures and censorship issues. See Fishman, 21–4.

46. Letter from Mordkhe-Yosif Huberman, quoted in Finkelstein, Chaim, Haynt: A tsaytung bay yidn, 1908–1939 (Tel Aviv: I. L. Peretz Publishing House, 1978), 5.

47. Cahan traveled to Europe to attend Vilna Troupe productions in 1919 (Warsaw), 1921 (Berlin), and 1923 (London).

48. Pinkhes Katz, “Di barimte Vilner teater trupe—oder beyde kuni-lemels,” Forverts, 30 December 1922, 3.

49. Katznelzon, 15.

50. The union was officially registered with the Polish government as Związek Artystów Scen Żydowskich (ZASŻ). See Marek Web, “Yiddish Actors Union,” in Gershon David Hundert, YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 2:2058–9. Online at (accessed 24 May 2014).

51. The only other exception was the Union des Artistes de la Langue Française, which had one branch for French actors and another for Belgian actors. Correspondence with the International Union of Theater Artists, 1927–1929, Box 1, Folder 240, Yidisher Artistn Fareyn Papers (RG 26), YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

52. Ibid.

53. “Di Vilner in Nyuyork un di Nyuyorker in London,” Forverts, 22 February 1924, 3; my emphasis.

54. The Vilna Troupe's Yiddish-language production of Desire under the Elms opened in Warsaw in October 1928. Just over a year later, in November 1929, a production of O'Neill's Anna Christie opened at Teatr Nowy in Warsaw, where it was falsely advertised in the Polish press as “O'Neill's first play in Poland.” Polish productions of Desire under the Elms and All God's Chillun Got Wings soon followed. See Helena Griess, “Święto teatru żydowskiego,” Ewa: Pismo tygodniowe, 21 October 1928, 4; and Halina Filipowicz-Findlay, “O'Neill's Plays in Poland,” Eugene O'Neill Newsletter 3.1 (1979),, accessed 18 November 2012 (which also inaccurately calls Anna Christie “O'Neill's first play to be produced in Poland”).

55. According to linguist Salamo Birnbaum, “the territory of Yiddish, to express it paradoxically, consists of borderlines.” Birnbaum, 40.

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