'Strange Rendering:' Uncle Tom's Cabin in Yiddish and the Staging of Race at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.
As theater historian John Frick notes, Uncle Tom's Cabin was not just a popular piece of abolitionist fiction; rather, it became a "cultural, commercial, ideological, and theatrical phenomenon," arguably super intending representations of racial difference and racial justice for a full century to come. (5) For this reason, seemingly narrow considerations of Uncle Tom's Cabin can, in fact, open up broader histories of racialization, racial representations and interracial interactions in American culture. Yiddish performances of Uncle Tom's Cabin at the turn of the twentieth century received increased attention from drama critics in English, because they coincided with a large-scale theatrical revival of the original 1853 melodrama in Anglophone American theaters, even as bowdlerized Uncle Tom's Cabin shows were ubiquitous. Even African American newspapers took note of Uncle Tom's Cabin in Yiddish, with the Freeman noting in 1902: '"Uncle Tom's Cabin' in Yiddish again last Saturday at the People's Theatre. Big hit." (6) And again, a few weeks later: "Uncle Tom's Cabin was produced in Yiddish again Saturday 19, at the People's Theatre. Sherman H. Dudley was in charge of the colored contingent." (7)
In this essay, I begin the work of situating the Yiddish versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin in the context first of the publication history of Stowe's novel and the many plays that were adapted from it, and then in the context of the broader history of racial performances on the popular stage at the turn of the twentieth century. Taken together, the Yiddish translations and adaptations of Uncle Tom's Cabin (particularly the discourse in English around Uncle Tom's Cabin in Yiddish), and black performances of Jewish voices and bodies further illuminate Jewish engagements with American national mythmaking, the positioning of Jews and blacks, and the relationship of language to bodies, in the turn-of-the-century racial imagination.
Literary Translations of Uncle Tom's Cabin
While Yiddish literary scholars often cite Yiddish translations of the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin as evidence of Jews' "special interest" in the fate of African Americans, the truth is that these translations were belated in comparison to the translation history of Stowe's novel. In its first year of book publication, translations appeared in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Danish, Swedish, Flemish, Polish, and Magyar. These translations weren't meant only for an overseas readership; in the 1850s, both Stowe and her publishers understood that the novel would have to be translated for the roughly 15 percent of American readers who were foreign-born. (8) Stowe herself commissioned the first German translation in 1852, understanding that for the novel to wield its full political power, even within the nation, she would have to rely on translation. By 1860, Uncle Tom's Cabin had been translated into twenty languages and was the most widely circulated work of American literature. (9) In fact, American literary scholar Colleen Boggs argues that Stowe's efforts to control the rapidly proliferating translations and adaptations of her novel helped to form the basis for international copyright law. (10)
Eastern European Jewish readers may very well have read Uncle Tom's Cabin in its 1857 Russian translation or its German versions several years before best-selling Yiddish author Isaac Meyer Dik published his free adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin in Vilna in 1868. Dik's adaptation is substantially shortened, and he notably "Judaizes" the novel, with major characters like the Shelbys, Eliza, and Tom himself now pious Jews instead of Christians and resettled in a Jewish colony at the novel's finale. Tom is reunited with the Shelbys to live out his days, presumably in happy servitude rather than enslavement, which leads Rosenblatt to observe that the text's ideological orientation seems to be "ameliorist" rather than "abolitionist." (11) Niger notes that Dik wrote frequently about America, as part of a larger program of counseling Eastern European Jews to emigrate to the United States rather than Palestine. (12) Niger also observes that in Dik's several "romances" about America, his protagonists are quite often Jewish plantation owners in the South. In Dik's version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, retitled Di sbklaferay oder di layb-eygnsbaft (translated as Slavery or Serfdom, denoting the terms of many responses to Stowe's novel that compared the conditions of slaves in America, for better or worse, to wage laborers or serfs elsewhere), Dik introduces the novel as a "true and wonderful story," and provides an idiosyncratic history of slavery in antiquity and early modernity, dwelling at great length on the brutal practices of slavery in the Americas. (13) In his afterword, Dik tells his readers about the recently concluded American Civil War, which has, "thank God," eradicated this "wretched condition" from America, though the "great President Lincoln lost his life" in conquering "the southern tyrants." (14) Dik continues by expressing his "loyalty to the Russian emperor," who "also liberated some forty thousand Jews who were slaves of the Circassian princes ... let us hope in time this blot of slavery will disappear from the entire world and that all peoples and all faiths will take each other's hands as friendly brothers descended from one father and mother, which we are in truth." (15)
But while, as Eh Rosenblatt argues, Dik's adaptation should be read as a central Haskalab (Jewish Enlightenment) text, a site to test out his ideas about universalism and emancipation vis-a-vis the Jews, his translation also reveals the ambivalent ways in which he engaged with issues of race in the Americas from his distant vantage point in the Russian Empire. On the one hand, as Rosenblatt asserts, "[Dik's] framework of allusions to the biblical and rabbinic texts, largely recognizable to a traditional reader, provides the linguistic hedge for the text's partition of Jewishness from whiteness." (16) On the other hand, as Rosenblatt notes, Dik "does not express clear political or cultural solidarity with oppressed African slaves or the abolitionist movement." (17)
In 1911, the Hebrew Publishing Company published a faithful translation by Jacob Jaffa of Uncle Tom's Cabin in the United States, with 105 accompanying illustrations copied from the 1888 Houghton Mifflin New Edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin (which were themselves taken from one of the many pirated British editions of the novel that were published at the height of its international popularity in 1853). (18) Jaffa's reviewer in Dos Naye Land castigated the Yiddish publishing world for waiting so long to properly translate Uncle Tom's Cabin, noting that the novel had already been translated into Hebrew in 1896, and that Yiddish readers should become as familiar with Stowe's work as with that of Gorky or Chekhov. (19) In a 1912 piece published in the Lodzer Tageblatt in response to Jaffa's translation and on the occasion of Stowe's 100th birthday, the author notes that the novel has been published "into nearly every language"--"afile Arabish"--and finally only now Yiddish. (20) While Jaffa's translation, published by the semi-reputable Hebrew Publishing Company, drew the attention of literary critics, Stowe's novel had, in fact, been translated and serialized by Yiddish journalist Bernard Gorin several years earlier in the socialist weekly Di Arbeter Tsaytung from December of 1900 through May of 1901, at the very moment when the People's Theatre was performing Uncle Tom's Cabin on stage. (21)
Novelist Charles Dudley Warner wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1896 that Uncle Tom's Cabin had even been translated into several "oriental" tongues, including Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Japanese, and Siamese. (22) According to literary critic David Reynolds, the Chinese translation of Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared in 1901 and was the first American novel to be translated into Chinese. (23) Reynolds argues that its translators meant for the Chinese Uncle Tom's Cabin to function as a protest against both the colonization of China by foreign powers and the mistreatment of Chinese immigrants in the United States. For Reynolds, nearly all translations and adaptations of Uncle Tom's Cabin--including the Yiddish stage performances, which he touts as exemplifying "the adaptability of Uncle Tom's Cabin to persecuted peoples"--were motivated by radical, political identification and should be read as protest literature. (24) However, it is difficult to find expressions of Jewish identification with (as distinct from sympathy for) African Americans in the Yiddish press in relation to Stowe's novel, though such claims would become more frequent throughout the 1920s. (25) I suggest alternatively that Yiddish translations of Uncle Tom's Cabin, both literary and performative, tended to emphasize the text's status as an important American novel, and to reveal more complex and multivalent interactions with race and racial performance. The theater offered physical and discursive spaces where Jewish and Black actors and audience members could interact and perform as one another, and as versions of themselves. I am equally interested in how these cross-racial performances were, in turn, viewed, consumed, and interpreted by white and/or non-Yiddish-speaking audiences.
In sum, Yiddish translations of Uncle Tom's Cabin in and of themselves were not at all exceptional, and rather must be considered in the context of multilingual and international engagements with Stowe's text, which was widely understood in the nineteenth century to be the most transformative and significant literary text of its moment. Writers described the novel as the "basic text of liberation for the Western Hemisphere," (26) and a novel that, in the words of one Yiddish hagiographer, "freed an entire people from slavery" (27) and arguably inspired revolutions abroad. Further, just as the novel immediately provoked a range of translations, adaptations, variations, and responsa in print, versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin were also staged in translation early on, certainly elsewhere in the world, but also in the United States, with the first German-language performance in New York in 1853. (28)
Stage Adaptations of Uncle Tom's Cabin
The first performances of the novel began in 1851, before it had even been completely serialized, even though Stowe herself, as a Calvinist, disapproved of theater and did not at first authorize an adaptation. Uncle Tom's Cabin on stage was an even more ambivalent and contradictory text than the novel upon which it was based. Stowe's "romantic racialism," use of minstrel types, and seeming preference for the martyred Tom over the militant George, all served as examples of the novel's complex stew of radical politics and conservative strategies. The success of Uncle Tom's Cabin on stage depended in large part on the success of blackface minstrelsy, already popular in the Northeast before the Civil War, even as the practice was transformed through its employment within melodrama. (29) Uncle Tom, Topsy, and other "comical" Black characters were played in blackface; George, Eliza, Harry, and Cassie were not, because they were meant to be able to "pass" as white. The earliest non-minstrel stage versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the plays for which scripts survive, were H. J. Conway's version, first performed in Boston in 1852, and George Aiken's adaptation, which premiered in Troy, New York in the same month. Both were later brought to New York City, where they ran in competing theaters and were publicized as embodying opposing views on slavery. (30) Aiken's dramatization shared Stowe's abolitionist message, even as it masculinized her narrative, muting her feminism and radical Christianity. (31) Conway's adaptation, which P.T. Barnum proudly advertised as representing "the Southern negro embracing all its abhorrent deformities, its cruelties, and barbarities," has been characterized as embracing a procompromise politics. (32) Stage adaptations were thus extraordinarily elastic and diverse: Drawing in complex ways upon minstrelsy, moral drama, and melodrama, and fueled by commercial interests before political ones, they appealed to more heterogeneous audiences than did Stowe's novel. (33) As Meer notes, "just as Stowe's novel was susceptible to multiple readings and rewritings, so the interpretation of these plays lay partly in the eyes of their beholders. Abolitionists persisted in seeing the power of Aiken's drama to convert, while some proslavery writers saw every dramatization of Stowe as an attack." (34)
The productions of Conway and Aiken were quickly revised, adapted, and joined by other versions, including Stowe's own 1856 dramatization, titled The Christian Slave: A Drama, Founded on a Portion of Uncle Tom's Cabin. (35) After the Civil War, especially in New York, dramas based on Uncle Tom's Cabin proliferated. The 1870s saw the introduction of Jubilee Singers (African American choruses specializing in African American spirituals), as well as many of the features we now associate with Uncle Tom's Cabin on stage and screen: dogs, double Topsies, Legrees and Marks, cakewalkers, even horses, donkeys, and elephants. Sophisticated effects and stunning "tableaux" were obligatory. Uncle Tom's Cabin toured widely in Europe in 1878, another possible point of contact with Yiddish-speaking writers, readers, and audiences. The 1870s also saw the first actor of color to play Uncle Tom--interestingly, in the Jewish Frohman Brothers production. Jewish theatrical impresario David Belasco played Uncle Tom. By the turn of the twentieth century, between 400 and 500 traveling Uncle Tom's Cabin shows were on the road, and one historian estimated that in 1902, one in thirty-five U.S. citizens would see one or more Uncle Tom's Cabin productions and the play would have been performed 250,000 times. (36) By 1915, the ubiquity of Uncle Tom's Cabin productions could be effectively parodied by black performers, as the following Freeman review demonstrates:
Tim Moore, the inimitable, proved a riot in his one man act of the whole Uncle Tom's Cabin business. The work is extremely farcical, but nevertheless entertaining because of well known characters of that noted play. Moore's success depends on that fact solely, that nearly every person has seen the real Uncle Tom's Cabin play. He starts out by making up as Legree and Uncle Tom at once; he daubed one side of his face white with a few touches from his powder box; the other side was already black--there you are. Legree, the cruelest of masters, and Uncle Tom, the best of slaves. When the ability of Moore is known as a comedian, one can easily imagine how he made this go by his dialogue and actions. He reached the climax of his fun-making when he meets little Eva in the other world. This is Moore's own arrangement, and he wants it known so there will be no infringement. (37)
The Yiddish performances of Uncle Tom's Cabin between 1900 and 1903 in New York and Chicago coincided with large-scale revivals of the original Aiken melodrama and with the first film versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and they also took place in the context of a Yiddish theater world that was transitioning into a source of mass entertainment. Given the ubiquity of Uncle Tom's Cabin performances in American and European culture, both serious and burlesque, it would be more surprising if Yiddish-speaking immigrants had not adapted Uncle Tom's Cabin. Little documentation of these performances survives. Yiddish newspapers like Dos Yidisbe Kol and the Forverts featured advertisements for Uncle Tom's Cabin at the People's Theatre in New York (1902) and Glickman's Theatre in Chicago (1901); Joel Berkowitz notes competing productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin at the People's Theatre and the Thalia Theatre on May 3, 1901. (38) But Jacob Mestel, in his 70 Yor Yidisber Teater-Repertuar, mentions only one translation of Uncle Tom's Cabin--Isidore Zolotarevski's, in 1905. (39) Bernard Gorin, who had translated Stowe's novel in 1901 in the Arbeter Tsaytung at the same time that the drama was being performed in two Yiddish theaters, nevertheless notes just one performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1907 in his Geshikhte fun yidishn teater. (40) Molly Picon famously starred as Topsy in a traveling Yiddish production of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1913, during which, in an example of the permeability of linguistic boundaries in such performances, she reported "speaking Yiddish in a southern accent"; singing Topsy's song in English, "Shoo Fly, Don't Bother Me, for I Belong to Company B;" and finishing with a "Yeah, man!" and even performing "Topsy" in German. (41) Pamela Brown Lavitt mentions a 1906 Yiddish vaudeville version, Uncle Thomashefsky's Cabin, which she describes as an "insincere Yiddish version of Harriet Beecher Stowe's race-melodrama." (42) Many more unsupported or anecdotal references to other Yiddish Uncle Tom's Cabin performances abound.
Given the scarcity of attention in the Yiddish-language press to what seems to have been omnipresent Yiddish theater based on Uncle Tom's Cabin, it is therefore remarkable to see a few lengthy reviews in the English-language press of the Yiddish performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin in Chicago's Glickman Theatre. Glickman's Yiddish version joined no fewer than three revivals of Uncle Tom's Cabin in Chicago in 1901. (43) For reviewers attending the Chicago production, the incomprehensible language spoken on stage came to mark the bodies of these Jewish performers--some, but not all, in blackface--as racial others. The spectacle of the familiar set pieces in translation--their "strange rendering," in the words of one reviewer--had an unsettling effect (Figure 1).
One review begins: "An Uncle Tom who talked to Eva in Yiddish, and a Miss Ophelia, who snapped out "O, how shiftless" in the same strange tongue, as well as a Topsy, whose "I nebber was borned" was spoken in the language of the Ghetto, played to a small audience in Glickman's Theater last evening." (44) The reviews are dominated by a sense of the play's, and its performers', newly discovered "strangeness," described in oriental terms: Marie St. Clair is a "Levantine beauty in hoopskirts"; little Eva is a "pretty child of an oriental cast of features"; Eliza and George look more like "new arrivals at Castle Garden than southern slaves," and "told their sufferings in a mix of German, Arabic, and English." Although the review begins with the assertion that "the members of one persecuted race portrayed the wrongs of another," it adds that it was still "odd to see the Israelitish countenance shining through the burnt cork of the negro or adorned with the rakish mustache of the revolver firing, whip cracking slave owner--odd to find the wide verandas of the southern mansion filled with types of Chicago's foreign population ..." (45)
The reviews are dominated by the terms "strange," "startling," "odd," and "curious" to describe the "spectacle" of Yiddish-speaking Jews performing the intimately familiar Uncle Tom's Cabin. Central to this estrangement was the reviewers' unsettled sense of language in/as translation: "Aunt Ophelia made her 'how shiftless' quite as effective in its strange rendering," (46) and "when Uncle Tom took little Eva upon his knee to tell her of the angels in heaven it was from the Talmud that he read." (47) The "plantation songs" were "sung to Hebrew melodies." (48) The reviewers represent the Yiddish Uncle Tom's Cabin performances, like Dik's fictive adaptation, as having translated the novel's religious Christian language and sensibility into a Jewish register, as was frequently done with Yiddish translations of Western plays. (49)
The reviewer concludes by quoting "a Jew" in the "sympathetic" audience who tells the writer: "The play is not so strange to us of Israelitish descent as its American setting may suggest ... Have not my people been enslaved and hunted and tortured? Who should be able to act Uncle Tom if not a Jew?" (50)
The charged terms of this cluster of reviews represent, writ small, the ambivalent positioning of Jews in the United States vis-a-vis both whiteness and blackness, both American identity and "Israelitishness," which, as Eric Goldstein has pointed out, was a term frequently wielded by Jews and non-Jews in the nineteenth century to signal a racial understanding of Jewishness. (51) I am interested in the ways Yiddish, crucially misread in the review as a "mix of German, Arabic and English," mediates the racial identities of the performers, making them legible as "oriental." Further, the notices and references in the Anglophone newspapers to Yiddish performances of Uncle Tom's Cabin blur and mystify the distinctions between Jewish languages and geographies, wondering if the "five-score colored persons who are to appear in this unique entertainment will be taught to speak classical Hebrew in order to fit themselves for this new ordeal," (52) and elsewhere reporting that the action had been moved to "the land of the Tsars." (53)
Orientalism and Racial Performance on the Yiddish Stage
The unstable representations of Yiddish (as Hebrew, Arabic, or, occasionally, German) in the Anglophone press thus invite us to further consider the "oriental" as a racial and cultural category in turn-of-the-century United States. As Derek Penslar and Ivan Davidson Kalmar argue, Jews were seen historically as both occidental and oriental, and it is especially their identification with "biblical lands" that allowed them to be seen in the Christian, Western-imperial imagination as an "oriental people." (54) Indeed, they argue: "Orientalist representations of Jews have always been at the very center of orientalist discourse (which we believe to be based historically on the Christian West's attempts to understand and to manage its relations with both of its monotheistic Others)." (55) Penslar and Kalmar exclude North America from their analysis, asserting that "Jews in North America have been perceived as white, hence European, and American anti-semitism has been relatively free of the European staple accusation that Jews were a nomadic desert people." (56) However, as Eric Goldstein argues, American Jews frequently drew upon a racial, orientalizing terminology to describe themselves. Further, as Jonathan Freedman has persuasively demonstrated, this orientalist lexicon was very quickly adjusted and extended, by Jews and non-Jews alike, to newly arrived Eastern European immigrants in the 1870s, which in many ways had the effect of obscuring their linguistic and cultural differences from actual "oriental" Jewish immigrants from the Ottoman Empire, the Middle East and the Maghreb. (57)
Jacob Riis wrote of the Lower East Side in 1890: "Men with queer skull caps, venerable beard, and the outlandish long-skirted kaftan of the Russian Jew, elbow the ugliest and the handsomest women in the land ... The old women are hags; the young, houris." (58) In the 1897 Polish language short story "The Tyrolean," by immigrant writer Julian Czupka, racial performance, Jews, and the oriental are explicitly linked: His Polish immigrant protagonists, in search of a "Tyrolean" costume in which to perform German songs for money, find themselves in an "Arabian Bazaar" in "downtown New York," whose Jewish owner is unmasked when it becomes clear he speaks Yiddish. "Fun vanen zayt ir?" asks our narrator. "Fun Kalusz," answers the "surprised Jew, posing as an Arab." (59) "'Hurray!' cried Jozef. 'This is one of our own Jews. Surely he trades in Tyroleans.'" (353).
In a telling example of how oriental performance at the turn of the century was often read as continuous with Jewishness, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett quotes Isidor Lewi in 1893, who notes that it was openly acknowledged that "about four-fifths of the inhabitants of the Turkish village on the Midway Plaisance at the Chicago World's Fair were Jews. Merchants, clerks, actors, servants, musicians, and even the dancing girls were of the mosaic faith, though their looks and garb would lead one to believe them Mohammedans." (60) Cyrus Adler, a Chicago educator and Jewish Studies scholar, had been contracted by the fair's organizers to arrange a number of "foreign villages" on the Midway Plaisance, including Turkey, Persia, Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco, and he imported "oriental Jews" to populate them. (61) Elsewhere at the fair, the Alliance Israelite Universelle organized a massive exhibition of Jewish artifacts and objects from its schools in the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, and the Levant, creating a "miniature Jewish World's Fair." (62) These representations of oriental Jewishness reigned at the Chicago World's Fair only a few years before the city hosted a Yiddish performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin, arguably influencing the orientalizing discourse of the play's reviewers.
No doubt, the most famous articulation of oriental Jewishness undergirded by blackface performance is in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer, alongside the 1922 short story by Sampson Raphaelson upon which it was based. In "The Day of Atonement," Jack Robin's "dark eyes" might have "been the ecstatic eyes of a poet in the days when the Chosen People lived sedately in the land of Canaan" (147), and he is attracted to the gentile dancer Amy Prentiss precisely because "she had none of the Oriental instinct for undulation which Jack had understood so easily and to which he was so casually indifferent (152). (63) In the short story, blackface is only alluded to when Jack is hired to sing the same song as "a certain blackface comedian." (151) In the film, blackface is explicit though the "oriental" has been generalized into references to the "cry" of Jack's "race" and the "tear" in his "voice."
Much scholarly attention has been paid to Jewish blackface performance, to a great extent focused on The Jazz Singer as exemplary text, provoked by Michael Paul Rogin's now canonical reading of that film and others, in which he argues that Jews and other immigrants Americanized and whitened themselves by putting on and then taking off blackface, thus "crossing and recrossing the racial line." (64) But not as much work has been done on blackface performances in a specifically Yiddish milieu, a linguistic context that I suggest racialized Jewish performers in particular ways.
The association of blackness, Jewishness, and "orientalness" was, in fact, not new on the Yiddish stage, nor was Uncle Tom's Cabin the first, or only, play featuring cross-racial performance in the Yiddish theater. Abraham Goldfaden's popular biblical and post-biblical dramas, Shulamis (1880), and Bar Kochba (1882), both introduced into American Yiddish repertoires in the 1880s, feature secondary "servant" characters who are specified to be black, and who were presumably frequently played in black make-up in these self-consciously auto-orientalizing melodramas. (65) These performances in their original Russian context, Seth Wolitz argues, "reflect the precarious condition of Jews in tsarist Russia," as they "mediated ... a 'performance of nationalism' appealing not only to the historical past but to biological continuity, past unity, and the power of nostalgia for an essentialist vision of itself." (66) While these productions did not originally draw upon the tradition of American blackface minstrelsy, in different historical and geographical contexts, these productions could acquire new meanings and referents.
For instance, Tsingitang, Avisholem's (the romantic protagonist's) servant in Shulamis, was traditionally played as a comic character. But in one radical production by Zygmunt Turkow in Lvov in 1938 and then in Cracow in 1939, Tsingitang becomes "an exponent of protest by coloured people against repression by the white race." Turkow had "adapted Shulamis to counter the spread of Nazi ideology." (67) However, in a 1939 theater review of Turkow's production of Sbulamis, a local student (who admits to not fully understanding Yiddish) writes: "In addition, there were funny scenes acted in such a way that only dead people could fail to appreciate them. We especially liked the Negro characters who seemed to have legs made of chewing gum and who danced as if they had no bones." (68) This young reviewer reveals the ways that, as in Uncle Tom's Cabin, the play's presumed anti-racist intentions operated in tension with a tradition of blackface minstrelsy that the play's creators apparently imported from the United States, which by the 1930s would have been widely accessible through films like The Jazz Singer. (69)
Examining American interpretations of Yiddish cross-racial performances throughout the early twentieth century reveals the ways in which the dialectic between Jewish self-fashioning and the wider culture's reading of Jewish languages and bodies produced a particular racial vocabulary vis-a-vis the Jews, particularly in the United States. In 1929, the New York Times, reviewing the New York Yiddish Art Theater's production of Othello, wrote: "The orthodox impression of the play is lost in something else--something which is nonetheless impressive because of its strangeness. If it is Shakespeare, it is Shakespeare with a new tempo, a color which is oriental and not Elizabethan." (70) Other Yiddish productions of Othello, in which the plot was transformed to take place among Jews in New York (thus becoming a play about jealousy rather than race) did not produce such "orientalist" language in reviews in the English press. What we might call the racio-linguistic spectacle of Yiddish-speaking actors "blacking up" to perform as African Americans seems to continually provoke in American, non-Yiddish-speaking viewers an orientalist response.
Hebrew Impersonators on the African American Stage
Considering turn-of-the-century Yiddish performances of Uncle Tom's Cabin in relation to that moment's diverse and intricate performance culture further illuminates the evolving narrative of Jews and race in the United States. As Esther Romeyn has demonstrated, by the early 1900s, dialect or "racial" comedy--in which, in a riot of cross-ethnic, class, and racial impersonation, Irish, Hebrew, Asian, Italian, and Negro "delineators" donned makeup, prosthetics, costumes, and accents and performed as both themselves and as "others"--dominated not just the vaudeville stage, but also popular culture in general. Songs and routines were circulated via sheet music, phonographs, and even dialect comedy "kits" for amateur use at home that consisted of, for instance, "a Hebrew mask with matching wig, mustache, and facial paints." (71) Blackface minstrelsy thus interacted, throughout the nineteenth and into the early-twentieth centuries, with a complex of masquerade and performance that crossed and recrossed multiple immigrant, ethnic, race, and gender lines.
When comic actress Fanny Brice performed Irving Berlin's "coon" song, "Sadie Salome (Go Home)" in "an exaggerated Jewish accent" in 1909, her Yiddish accent and "antics" were seen, Pamela Brown Lavitt argues, as "equivalent to the blackface mask she eschewed." (72) Brown Lavitt is particularly attentive to the Yiddish underpinnings of "coon shouting" (otherwise known as "Negro dialect songs") in vaudeville in the early-twentieth century, also noting that this was a "crucial time in American Jewish history," when Jews were still "tallied as 'black' and 'oriental' by the U.S. Census." (73) The racial inscription of Yiddish as both oriental and black (faced), as in "Sadie Salome," extended to the African American press as well; in 1898, the Cleveland Gazette reported that: "New York City has a Negro Hebrew population of 300 persons. Many of them can speak no other language. Most of them hail from Jerusalem and answer to such names as Markowitz and Janovitz." (74)
What we might call "Jewface" performance appears to have been a regular occurrence in African American vaudeville and musical theater, as a survey of the African American press's reviews of an emerging African American theater circuit suggests. (75) A notice in the Washington Bee for the famous "American Burlesquers" advertises their satirical number "The Hebrew Charity Ball," and notes that the celebrated comedic headliner, Billie Watson, is known as the "Klondyke Hebrew." (76) In 1899, the Freeman notes that "Mr. Harry Miller the Mimic" of the "Big Minstrels" continues "to make the audience roar with his Hebrew impersonation." (77) "Colored" Jewish impersonators were paid special attention: "D. Ireland Thomas, one of the few colored Jew impersonators, is having great success with his new up to date Jew monologue and musical conversation. He is one of the features with the Melroy-Chandler Minstrels." (78) The black comedy duo Cooper and Robinson debuted a new song, "Oiy, Oiy, Yoi" at the Grand Opera in 1905, which, the Freeman observed, "was rendered in Hebrew dialect, (which] left the people in spasms." (79) The following year, the Freeman notes, Cooper and Robinson's "finale is a burlesque of lower East side Jews. Their new Yiddish song by Scott [sic], is cleverly handled and highly pleases their audiences." (80) In another striking example, the Freeman reviewed the African-American performer Margie Crosby, "the girl with a Jew face," in this way: "The girl with a Jewish face is a reality. And she's good to see--a finished performer. She enters singing "Ephrarn Jones," which is done with dash and pleasing movement. She comes back with "In My Harem," done in a Yiddish--a Hebrew impersonation. She shines here as a performer, doing the stunt [work] equal to similar work seen on the best stages ..." (81) Essential to these impersonations was the role of Jewish dialect, variously described as Yiddish or Hebrew, and orientalized, at least in Margie Crosby's case, in its association with an eroticized East, as signaled through the song "In My Harem."
The African American press was also attuned to Jewish blackface performance. In 1909, Juli Jones reported visiting a Chicago dime theater with "a rich Jew audience and seven acts." The "feature" act was "Israel Lamanky, and the reading under his name was in Hebrew. I asked a gentleman what the reading was, and he said that the man could sing and tell jokes like a colored man ... When everybody straightened up, so did I, for 1 wanted to see a Jew that could imitate a real Negro, yet if anyone can it is a Jew. Matters were brought to an end, as far as for me looking for excitement, when plain Lue LaMar walked out." (82)
The author's amused realization that it is, in fact, a black performer convincingly masquerading as a Jewish blackface comedian in what seems to be a Yiddish theater, suggests the mutability of race that the stage made possible in the early twentieth century. The Freeman's review of Quallie and Leah Clarks's vaudeville act at the Crown Garden Theater in Indianapolis offers further insight into black-Jewish racial impersonation (see Figures 2 and 3):
Mr. Clark's impersonations were refreshingly new and he got away with some very difficult character stuff. I say "new" advisedly, for it is not only something new to see a performer in black face get away with an impersonation of a Jew, but is a distinct novelty as well.... His Hebrew song, "Rebecca," won him big acknowledgment. At times it was hard for one to believe that he was a colored man, so perfect was his accent and so realistically faithful were his portrayals of a real Jew. (83)
Leah Clark, not in blackface, offers another variety of drag performance, as the reviewer writes that her "voice was so strong that some in the audience were inclined to think that she was a man impersonating a woman." (84) While Jewish impersonations in African American vaudeville were commonplace enough, it seems a black performer doing them in blackface was not. The reviewer's resulting disorientation--was Quillie Clark white or "colored"? Was Leah Clark a man or a woman?--recalls that of the Anglophone reviewers of the Yiddish Uncle Tom's Cabin.
The Yiddish Uncle Tom's Cabin, like its original, was consumed in contradictory ways by its multiple audiences. The Yiddish press compared Yiddish translations of Uncle Tom's Cabin to Arabic and Hebrew translations rather than to German and Russian translations as a way to note their own belatedness. Was this a gesture of kinship with these so-called "oriental" languages or an effort to distance Yiddish from them? Translators and readers, as well as performers and audiences, might have seen the Yiddish Uncle Tom's Cabin as a way of participating in an important American national ritual, complete with "colored choruses" and burnt cork. As film historian Charles Musser writes, "Blackface" was about "putting on the mask of [American] theater, as much as the mask of race." (85) But, at the same time, for Yiddish theater audiences, the blackface of the Yiddish Uncle Tom's Cabin recalled other Yiddish blackface theatrical practices in popular oriental, biblical melodramas, in which Jewish actors donned black makeup not only to parody the "other" but to perform some (albeit historically distant) version of themselves.
The cultural and linguistic translation integral to Yiddish theater productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin was, for Yiddish-speaking audiences, domesticating and familiarizing. On the other hand, non-Yiddish speaking audiences experienced it as unsettling and disorienting. These "strange renderings," where Yiddish is read as alternatively, or both, oriental and European, worked to destabilize Jews' racial identities rather than to fix them; it is Yiddish, compounded by blackface, that marks the "Jewish countenance." For such an audience, the now excessively embodied performers and the uncomprehended language they speak are mutually orientalized, made over as racially, but as also nationally other.
This interplay of self-fashioned and assigned racial identities abounded on stages high and low. If on the Yiddish stage Jews in blackface played Blacks, on the African American vaudeville stage Black performers (occasionally in blackface) played Jews. These racial performances were crucially mediated by voice and accent, by Yiddish-inflected English or actual Yiddish, suggesting the important and often overlooked role of language in the work of racialization. The frequent mishearing of Yiddish (usually as Hebrew, but also as German, Arabic, or some combination of these) mimicked the misreading of bodies that racial performance often prompted. As theater and dance scholar Nadine George-Graves notes, theaters served as "interstitial sites where confrontations between binaries (black/white, male/female, etc.) could take place. Performers crossed the liminal space of theaters and were able to safely try on different identities and experiment with, rework, and resignify seeming norms." (86)
The Freeman's attentiveness to the presence of Sherman H. Dudley, the pioneering African American performer and theater entrepreneur, and the "colored contingent" he directed for Thomashevsky's production of Uncle Tom's Cabin in the People's Theatre, suggests the opportunities for cross-racial and linguistic collaboration the Yiddish Uncle Tom's Cabin might at once have represented, generated, and masked. Rather than an amusing footnote to the canon of Yiddish drama in America, Yiddish Uncle Tom's Cabin theater ought to be considered as signaling the dynamic interplay of languages, bodies, cultural referents, and performances in negotiating the shifting terrain of race at the turn of the twentieth century.
(1.) I would like to thank Joel Berkowitz, Jonathan Karp, Amanda Seigel, Eli Rosenblatt, Debra Caplan, Josh Lambert and the anonymous readers of this article for their generous help and feedback.
(2.) See Merle L. Bachman, Recovering Yiddishland: Threshold Moments in American Literature (Syracuse University Press, 2007); Eric L. Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton University Press, 2006); and Stephen Katz, Red, Black and Jew: New Frontiers in Hebrew Literature (University of Texas Press, 2009).
(3.) Important exceptions include Shmuel Niger Charney (Niger) writing in the YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science in 1954 on Isaac Meyer Dik's adaptation; a brief discussion of Dik's adaptation found in Eli Lederhandler's entry on "America" in the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe (2006); and a paper given at the 2013 Association for Jewish Studies proceedings by Eli Rosenblatt titled, "Enlightening the Skin: Reading Uncle Tom's Cabin in Yiddish" (also on Dik's adaptation).
(4.) Nina Warnke, "The Child Who Wouldn't Grow up: Yiddish Theater and Its Critics" in Joel Berkowitz, ed. Yiddish Theatre: New Approaches (Liftman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2008).
(5.) John W. Frick, Uncle Tom's Cabin on the American Stage and Screen (Palgrave McMillan, 2012), xi.
(6.) The Freeman: An Illustrated Colored Newspaper, April 12, 1902, 5.
(7.) The Freeman, April 26, 1902, 5. Sherman H. Dudley was a famous Black comedian and entrepreneur who, in 1913, also organized the first successful Black theater circuit. He remains one of the most notable figures in early-twentieth-century African-American theater history.
(8.) Colleen G. Boggs, Transnationalism and American Literature: Literary Translation 1773-1892 (New York: Routledge, 2010), 127.
(9.) Boggs, 134.
(10.) Boggs, 127-150.
(11.) S. Niger Charney, "America in the Works of I.M. Dick (YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science 9, 1954) 68-70. Also see Eli Rosenblatt's translation of Dik's introduction published in bilingual form by In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies (ingeveb.org/ texts-and-translations/slavery-or-serfdom), November 17, 2015.
(12.) Niger, 64.
(13.) Rosenblatt notes that Dik's sources for his "heart-rending" descriptions of the Middle Passage were likely from Shimshon Bloch's Hebrew text, Shvilei Ha-Olam (1822, 27), a maskilic anti-slavery text.
(14.) Niger, 69.
(15.) Quoted in Niger, 69.
(16.) Eli Rosenblatt, "Enlightening the Skin," 9.
(17.) Rosenblatt, 3.
(18.) See Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture: A Multimedia Archive (http://utc. iath.virginia.edu/uncletom/illustra/ydillf.html)
(19.) Dr. Y. Vartsmann, "Onkel Tom's Kebin, fun Harriet Beecher Stowe, iberzetst fun English fun Y. Yafa, New York, 1911," Dos Naye Land, 2, no. 29, March 29, 1912, 25-27. J. Jaffa's translation's full title is Onkel Tom's Kebin, Oder Di Sheartse Sbklaven in Amerike (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1911). The Hebrew translation of the novel was by Abraham Singer, Ohel Tom (See Alan Mintz, Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry (Stanford University Press, 2011), 503, n. 8).
(20.) Y. Uger, "Der Nitzokhn fun a bukh in di bafrayung fun di shvartse shklafen" ("The triumph of a book in the liberation of the black slaves"), the Lodzer Tageblatt 5, no. 126, June 1 (14), 1912, 3.
(21.) B. Gorin, Di Arbeter Tsaytung, December 16, 1900 to May 12, 1901. Given Gorin's involvement with the Yiddish theatre, we might presume that the Yiddish performances inspired his translation, though he doesn't acknowledge them at all in his later history of the Yiddish theater (Di geshikbte fun yidishn teater, 1918). His serialized translation consisted of excerpts, labeled in this way: 2, 22, 29, 36, 43, 50, 57, 64, 71, 78, 85, 92, 99, 100, 113, 120, 127, 133, 140, and 147. These do not correspond with the book chapters of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
(22.) The Atlantic Monthly, 1896. See Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture: A Multimedia Archive.
(23.) David S. Reynolds, Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America (New York: Norton, 2012), 175.
(24.) Reynolds, 176.
(25.) See Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness. Goldstein notes that between the wars, the Yiddish press came to read Jewish blackface performance as a means of identification. The Porverts, in its review of The Jazz Singer (1927), writes that Al Jolson "knew how to sing the songs of the most cruelly wronged people in the world's history" (154).
(26.) Reynolds, 176.
(27.) Uger, "Der nitzokhn fun a bukh," 3.
(28.) See Frick, 84. There were French and Spanish performances of Uncle Tom's Cabin in the 1850s, in Europe and in the New World (in, for instance, Mexico City and Brazil) that were understood to be participating in both sides of the abolitionist debates raging all over the Americas. See "The Spanish Origins of Uncle Tom's Cabin Theater in Nineteenth-Century Mexico City," Celso T. Castilho (Latin American Studies Association conference, 2016).
(29.) See Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (Oxford, 1993) on this. Many scholars agree that Stowe's novel drew upon some conventions of blackface minstrelsy in its literary representations of, for example, Sam and Topsy. See, for instance, Sarah Meer, Uncle Tom Mania: Slavery, Minstrelsy & Transatlantic Culture in the 1850s (University of Georgia Press, 2005).
(30.) Meer, 106. The turn of the century revivals of Uncle Tom's Cabin, including the Yiddish version, were of the Aiken melodrama.
(31.) As Meer notes, Aiken eliminates many of the novel's radical female characters and "intensifies Tom's and Eva's role and charges the slave and the child with a super-human religiosity" (114).
(32.) Quoted in Meer, 106; for mentions of Conway and Compromise politics, see Meer in and Frick, 84.
(33.) Frick cites P.T. Barnum's theater/museum, in whose egalitarian space "immigrants and native-born, working class and middle class, men and women, and city residents and tourists" all mingled from the 1840s onward (Frick, 99).
(34.) Meer, 129.
(35.) For a discussion of Stowe's version, which she wrote expressly for Mary Webb, an African American actress who performed the piece in a one-woman show, see Meer, 185-193.
(36.) Frick, 129, 147, 149.
(37.) Indianapolis Freeman, October 16, 1915, reprinted in Henry T. Sampson, Blacks in Blackface: A Sourcebook on Early Black Musical Shows (Scarecrow Press, Second Edition, 2014), 399-400.
(38.) Berkowitz also notes the influence of Aiken's melodrama on Zolotarevski's adaptation of Hamlet (1899) as he resolves the Yiddish version's action "in the world to come." One of Aiken's contributions to the iconography of Uncle Tom's Cabin was his concluding scene featuring his three departed protagonists, in which "Little Eva, robed in white, is discovered on the back of a milk-white dove, with expanded wings, as if just soaring upward. Her hands are extended in benediction over St. Clare and Uncle Tom, who are kneeling and gazing up to her. Impressive music--slow curtain." This is quoted in Joel Berkowitz, Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage (University of Iowa Press, 2002) 80, 95.
(39.) Jacob Mestel, 70 Yor Yidisher Teater-Repetuar (New York: YKUF Farlag, 1954), 30. Mestel notes that very few American plays were translated for the Yiddish stage because of the accompanying need to pay "royalties" to the original author. Uncle Tom's Cabin, Mestel writes, was one of the very few plays from the modern English-American repertoire to be performed on the Yiddish stage (30). Edna Nahshon, in New York's Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway (Museum of the City of New York) notes that the Thalia Spanish Theatre production used Zolotarevski's translation, thus dating his translation earlier than 1905. According to Nahshon, who does not provide a source for this assertion, the Thalia production also included performances of many of the songs in English (29).
(40.) Bernard Gorin, Di Geshikhte fun yidishn teater (New York: Literarishn Ferlag, 1918), 246.
(41.) Molly Picon, Molly! An Autobiography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980), 16-17.
(42.) Pamela Brown Lavitt, "Vaudeville," in Paul Buhle, ed. Jews and American Popular Culture, vol. 2 (Westport: Praeger, 2007), 27.
(43.) See the Chicago Daily Tribune, May 5, 1901. The production was also reviewed in the Los Angeles Times (July 7, 1901), C2.
(44.) Chicago Daily Tribune, June 21, 1901, 4.
(45.) Review, "Jewish Actors Present Uncle Tom's Cabin in Yiddish to a Ghetto Audience," Chicago Daily Tribune, February 28, 1903, 3. Illustrated article (see Figure 1).
(49.) See Berkowitz on this, Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage.
(50.) Chicago Daily Tribune, February 28, 1903, 3.
(51.) See Eric Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness, especially Chapter 1.
(52.) The Los Angeles Times, July 7, 1901, C2.
(53.) This was reputedly Thomashevsky's adaptation at the People's Theatre. I have not found confirming documentation of this.
(54.) Derek Penslar and Ivan Davidson Kalmar, eds., Orientalism and the Jews (Brandeis University Press, 2004), xiii. This is a perception that has only in the latter half of the twentieth century been challenged by that Jewish-Arab conflict in the Middle East (xiv).
(55.) Penslar and Kalmar, xiv.
(56.) Ibid., xxxix.
(57.) See Eric Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness, especially Chapter I, and Jonathan L. Freedman, Klezmer America: Jewishness, Ethnicity, Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press), 258-282.
(58.) Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, 70; also quoted in Freedman, 258.
(59.) Marc Shell and Werner Sollors, eds, The Multilingual Anthology of American Literature: A Reader of Original Texts with English Translations (New York University Press, 2000), 353.
(60.) Isidor Lewi, quoted in Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums and Heritage (University of California Press, 1998), 97.
(61.) See Alma Rachel Heckman and Frances Malino, "Packed in Twelve Cases: the Alliance Israelite Universelle and the 1893 Chicago World's Fair," Jewish Social Studies (19:1 Fall 2012), 56.
(62.) Ibid., 58.
(63.) The Jazz Singer, ed. Robert L. Carringer (University of Wisconsin Press, 1979), 147, 152, 151.
(64.) Michael Paul Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (University of California Press, 1998), 56.
(65.) Gorin reports that in his final years, spent in America, Goldfaden intended to dramatize George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, motivated by "nationalistic sentiments." Daniel Deronda, a novel that certainly draws on Jewish orientalism, was in many ways inspired by Uncle Tom's Cabin (Di geshikhte fun yidishn teater, 182).
(66.) Seth Wolitz, "Shulamis and Bar Kokhba: Renewed Jewish Role Models in Goldfaden and Halkin," Yiddish Theater: New Approaches, ed., Joel Berkowitz, 89.
(67.) Miroslawa M. Bulat, "From Goldfaden to Goldfaden in Cracow's Jewish Theatres," in Yiddish Theatre: New Approaches (Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2003), 150. In Warsaw's radical Yiddish Yung Teater, a dramatization of the Saccho and Vanzetti trials (1933) was followed by Mississippi, a critically praised drama based on the Scottsboro affair, marking another politically charged effort to represent race and racism on stage. See Jeffrey Veidlinger, "From Boston to Mississippi on the Warsaw Yiddish Stage," Inventing the Modern Yiddish Stage: Essays in Drama, Performance, and Show Business, eds., Joel Berkowitz and Barbara Henry (Wayne State University Press, 2012), 136-154.
(68.) Bulat, "'Cosmopolitan' or 'Purely Jewish?': Zygmunt Turkow and the Warsaw Yiddish Arts Theatre," Inventing the Modern Yiddish Stage: Essays in Drama, Performance, and Show Business, eds. Joel Berkowitz and Barbara Henry (Wayne State University Press, 2012), 132.
(69.) I have not been able to determine if American productions of Shulamis likewise might have called upon blackface minstrelsy performance conventions in playing Tsingitang.
(70.) Quoted in Berkowitz, Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage, 134; italics added.
(71.) Esther Romeyn, Street Scenes: Staging the Self in bnmigrant New York, 1880-1924 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 161.
(72.) Romeyn, 204-5; Pamela Brown Lavitt, "'Coon Shouting' and the Jewish Ziegfeld Girl," American Jewish History, vol. 87 no. 4 (1999), 261.
(73.) Brown Lavitt, 254.
(74.) The Cleveland Gazette, October 15, 1898, 4.
(75.) The African-American press reviewed white as well as black acts, and would note when musical revues featured mixed casts. Presumably, audiences for the shows they reviewed were primarily African American; most theaters were segregated spaces (although this varied by city) and white-owned and operated, until Dudley's successful efforts in 1913 to create a black-owned theater circuit and booking agency. See Blacks in Blackface as well as Nadine George-Graves, The Royalty of Negro Vaudeville: The Whitman Sisters and the Negotiation of Race, Gender and Class in African American Theater, 1900-1940.
(76.) Washington Bee, May 7, 1898, 5, and December 31, 1898, 5.
(77.) The Freeman, January 28, 1899, p. 5.
(78.) The Freeman, September 1, 1899, 5.
(79.) The Freeman, February 4, 1905, 5.
(80.) The Freeman, February 3, 1906, 5. As these theater reviews reveal and Romeyn confirms, black vaudeville performers not only donned blackface, but also did a host of cross-ethnic "impressions" as well as drag performances.
(81.) The Freeman, August 16, 1913, 5. Fascinatingly, Margie Crosby was in the early part of her career half of the duo "Scott & Crosby," with Tom Scott--possibly the author of that Yiddish burlesque so favorably reviewed in the Freeman in 1906.
(82.) Juli Jones, "Glorious Dehomey," the Freeman, June 12, 1909, y.
(83.) The Freeman, May 6, 1911, 5. Illustrated article (see figures 2 and 3).
(85.) Charles Musser, "Why did Negroes Love Al Jolson and The Jazz Singer?: Melodrama, Blackface, and Cosmopolitan Theatrical Culture," Film History: An International Journal (vol. 23, no. 2, 2011), 213.
(86.) George-Graves, 53.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
|Previous Article:||"A grave experiment": Emma Wolf's marriage plots and the Deghettoization of American Jewish Fiction.|
|Next Article:||Roth in the archives: 'Eli, the Fanatic' and the Nitra Yeshiva controversy of 1948.|