Book Reviews

Messiahs of 1933: How American Yiddish Theatre Survived Adversity Through Satire
By Joel Schechter

Book Review by Sarah Boslaugh

Messiahs of 1933The history of the American theatre that most are familiar with concerns people like Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller, Richard Rogers and Jule Styne, Laurette Taylor and Ethel Merman. I certainly don't want to belittle the achievements of those luminaries, but that version of American theatrical history leaves out a lot. One of the largest omissions is ethnic theatre, in particular theatre performed in languages other than English.

Given the homogenization of American theatre today, it's worth reflecting on the fact that less than 100 years ago, ethnic theatre was a thriving business. Many well-known actors worked in ethnic theatre: Vincent Gardenia in the Italian theatre in New York City, for instance, and Paul Muni in the Yiddish theatre in Chicago. In the early 20th century, there were more than 20 Yiddish theatres New York City alone. These theatres, and the plays performed in them, are an important part of our American theatrical heritage.

Joel Schechter's Messiahs of 1933 aims to illuminate one of these lesser-known aspects of American theatre: Yiddish political theatre. Not the Yiddish art theatre of Maurice Schwartz, but satires and comedies and what was known as shund or literary trash: formulaic plays with stock characters which audiences loved and critics decried. Messiahs consists of a succession of chapters which gives every appearance of being a collection of free-standing articles rather than a true history of the subject. But there's some fascinating material within, and the topics in question are sufficiently neglected in standard histories that people interested in 20th-century American Yiddish culture, or in popular theatre outside the English-speaking mainstream, will want to take a look at this book.

The book takes its title from the 1928 play Messiah in America by Moshe Nadir, whose story involves two rival theatrical producers attempting to boost ticket sales by presenting the arrival of the Messiah onstage. Subsequent chapters are devoted to: Nadir's poem Rivington Street; Avrom Veviorka's play Diamonds; Yiddish plays within the Federal Theatre Project; Yiddish and English theatrical adaptations of Sinclair Lewis' novel It Can't Happen Here; David Pinski's play The Tailor Becomes a Shopkeeper; shund; the puppeteers Yosl Cutler and Zuni Maud; the actors Leo Fuchs and Yetta Zwerling; Sholem Aleichem; and Yiddish anti-war plays. That's a lot of territory to cover, and the quality of the individual chapters varies considerably. Overall, the best aspect about Messiahs of 1933 is the attention it brings to this material. Much of it was new to me, and I'm guessing it will be new to most people as well.

Given the potential interest of the subject material, it's a shame Messiahs of 1933 isn't better written: stylistic infelicities throughout often make reading more of a chore than a pleasure. Dr. Schechter has a disconcerting tendency to hop from topic to topic, and the text often resembles an accretion of somewhat related facts rather than a selection and integration of information in order to make a point. He also has a tendency to introduce topics repeatedly, as if they had never been mentioned before, suggesting that one more run through the copy editing department would have improved the final product.

Schechter has a tendency to ride his hobbyhorses a little too hard: just when you think there can't possibly be any more references to Walter Benjamin, up pops another one. And his "what if?" speculation quickly grows wearying, as in: what if everyone in America spoke Yiddish? What if Walter Benjamin wrote about the Yiddish theatre? (Answer: who cares?) He also tends to exaggerate the virtues of works best be described as ephemera. As far I can determine, Messiah in America has received only two productions: a limited run in 1933 at the East New York Worker's Club, and a 2001 student production at San Francisco State University, where Dr. Schechter is a faculty member. Nothing wrong with that, but it does suggest that the play is more interesting as a historical specimen than as a work of art.

One bonus in Messiahs of 1933 is the inclusion of comic strips created by Dr. Schechter and the artist Spain Rodriguez. Originally published in "Jewish Currents," they give a quick overview of many of the topics covered in the book's chapters.

Messiahs of 1933: How American Yiddish Theatre Survived Adversity Through Satire
By Joel Schechter.
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008.
304 pp, 25 b/w illustrations
Hardcover $39.50
ISBN: 978-1-59213-872-2

Messiahs of 1933Messiahs of 1933: How American Yiddish Theatre Survived Adversity Through Satire
By Joel Schechter
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008
Hardcover, 304 pages $39.50 list
ISBN-13: 978-1-59213-872-2