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We will not be silent: I. L. Peretz's "Bontshe the Silent" vs. 1950s McCarthyism in America and the story of the staging of The World of Sholom Aleichem.


On May Day 1953, a group of actors and a production crew staged the premiere of an Off-Broadway play called The World of Sholom Aleichem. What made this production unique was that all of the people involved in it were blacklisted. They were all victims of McCarthy's assault on the entertainment industry, part of his campaign to defeat "the red enemies from within." But this group of people refused to be silent victims, and they--the vast majority of whom were Jewish--produced this play in defiance of the authorities, proving the vitality of their artistic talents. The play was based on the English dramatic adaptations by Arnold Perl of three classic Yiddish short stories: two by Sholem Aleichem ("The High School" and "The Enchanted Tailor") separated by one famous short story by I. L. Peretz entitled "Bontshe Shvayg" (Bontshe the Silent). In this paper, I discuss the social, political, and historical significance of this play with a special emphasis on the story by Peretz, which I believe stands out between the three acts.

KEYWORDS: I. L. Peretz, blacklist, social protest theater, McCarthy, Yiddish literature


On May Day of 1953 in New York City, a group of actors staged the premiere of an Off-Broadway play called The World of Sholom Aleichem. It was described as a recreation of "a closed chapter in the history of East European Jewry" and as "a series of vivid, episodic tableaux which spells Jewish theatre at its best." (1) But what made this production unique was that nearly all of the people involved in it, from cast to crew, were blacklisted; the few who were not initially blacklisted were immediately put on the blacklist due to their involvement in the production. They were all victims of Senator Joseph McCarthy's assault on the American entertainment industry, part of his broader campaign to defeat "the red enemies from within." Yet this group of artists, the vast majority of whom were Jewish, refused to be silent victims. In bold defiance of the authorities, they produced this play, proving their commitment to radical politics as well as the vitality of their artistic talents.

The play was based on the dramatic adaptations in English by Arnold Perl of three classic Yiddish short stories. Perl was an American-born writer for television and radio, until he was blacklisted, causing him to switch to writing for the theater instead. Two of the stories, "The High School" and "The Enchanted Tailor," were by Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916), probably the world's best-known Yiddish writer. Staged between those two stories was a well-known short story entitled "Bontshe Shvayg" (Bontshe the Silent), (2) by the canonical Yiddish and Hebrew writer Isaac Leib Peretz (1852-1915).

According to the widely respected New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson, this play instantly became "the focal point of McCarthyists all over the nation." (3) He couldn't have been more accurate. Right-wing critics such as Midge Decter (b. 1927), who later became a leading figure in the neoconservative movement, viewed the play as a "hatchet job" that reduced the Jewish ghetto to "easy sentiment"; worst of all, from these critics' point of view, it gave every story a progressive moral bent. (4) But Decter's view ignores the subversive elements that abound in the modern Yiddish literature on which this play was based. (5)

Drama critic Alisa Solomon acknowledges the subversiveness of the original text in her study of the cultural history of the musical Fiddler on the Roof. However, she severely underestimates the subversive quality of The World of Sholom Aleichem. Solomon argues that Perl's writing style was "too blunt to be sneaky" in injecting radical Communist propaganda into a play that became loved by the mainstream liberal Jewish community. "If there was any Marxism behind the project," writes Solomon, "it was in Perl's and Da Silvas understanding the relationship among production, distribution, and consumption." She is referring both to the way Perl, along with the play's director, producer, and cast member, Howard Da Silva, supposedly tapped into a market of American Jews "eager for positive public portrayals of their heritage" and to the way they assisted in inventing that heritage in the first place. (6)

Solomon is correct in the sense that The World of Sholom Aleichem was a box office success, reaching an audience that extended way beyond the organized left. What started off as a modest Off-Off-Broadway production by blacklisted creators, performers, and staff ended up being staged over three hundred times in its original production, together with numerous additional performances in other cities with different casts and ending up on public television Channel 13 as the "Play of the Week." I will show, however, that even within what was supposedly the sweetest of folktales there lies in this production a deep criticism of American society. That its message is communicated through the popular means of humor and sentimentality strengthens the impact of this critique rather than diminishing it.

In his recent biography of Sholem Aleichem, Jeremy Dauber labels the style of The World of Sholom Aleichem as "mixing politics and sentimentality" and attributes its success to the fact that it pleased the middle-class theatergoers' "desires for folk simplicity, mixed with their sentiment for reverent elegy," rather than with their "discovery of ideological kinship." (7) Dauber is correct in regard to the "sentimentality" that is to be found in the play, as well as with regard to the "political" element, which I view as central. But I argue that there is no inherent contradiction between these two components as Dauber suggests there is. In fact, sentimentalism can possess effective political power.

Cecilia Feilla, in her book The Sentimental Theater of the French Revolution, argues that during the revolutionary period in France, most plays performed were in fact "sweet and sentimental" rather than brutally polemic, but that this does not mean they were not also "political." Feilla writes that "sentimentality cannot be neatly separated from the political theater as mere backdrop to the political mainstage; rather, it was the very cloth from which Revolutionary theater, and Revolutionary culture more generally, was cut." (8) I argue in a similar vein that The World of Sholom Aleichem was social protest theater at its finest and that its politics expresses itself exactly through these non-elitist, "folkloric" artistic means. As Fredric Jameson points out, folktales tend to voice a silenced, counter-hegemonic sentiment, which is by definition missing from the cultural monuments that have survived. (9)

In this article, I discuss the social, political, and historical counter-hegemonic significance of this play. My analysis of the play and its production lays special emphasis on the story by Peretz, which stands out as the centerpiece of the three source stories. Da Silva observed in the production notes how the play moves through its three acts from "fantasy" (the adaptation of "The Enchanted Tailor," entitled "A Tale of Chelm") to "mild criticism" (in "Bontche Schweig," as the sketch adapted from the Peretz story was spelled in the production) and then to the "statement" of the last act ("The High School"). (10) However, I will go on to show that in a deeper sense, the "criticism" of the dramatic adaptation of "Bontche," in the time and place it was produced, was anything but "mild." Rather, it carried within it a strong and powerful statement in favor of speaking out against political persecution in America and a warning that the United States was in danger of following in the footsteps of the worst example of persecution in recent European history.


First, we need to step back and discuss the text of Peretz's original Yiddish "Bontshe Shvayg" before we delve into its 1950s American dramatic production in English. The story was originally published in an American newspaper Arbeter tsaytung (Workers' Paper), in 1894, during a time--roughly from 1893 till the end of the decade--which is considered Peretz's radical period. (11) During those years, Peretz gave higher priority to the ideal of class conflict than to that of national unity. "Bontshe Shvayg" deals with the perpetually downtrodden yet silent and passive character of Bontshe (who was "silent even when his benefactor went bankrupt and did not pay him his salary"), (12) who dies and goes to heaven, where he is received with great honor. The dramatic action unfolds in the heavenly courts, where Bontshe's sorrowful life is judged favorably by the angels and he is ultimately granted his every wish. After being reassured that yes, he really can have whatever he wants, he famously responds: "'Nu, oyb azoy--shmeykhelt Bontshe--vil ikh take ale tog, inderfri a heyse bulke mit frisher puter" (13) ("Well, in that case"--smiles Bontshe--"I actually want every day, in the morning, a hot roll with fresh butter!")

This story, as Ruth Wisse explains, was initially written with a revolutionary message, and thus appealed to radical Jewish groups. In it, all the descriptions of poverty and misery collected in Peretz's urban reportage came together and came to life in the figure of this poor, wretched, passive character, "a Job without even the impulse of rebellion." (14) Indeed, this story was used by early Jewish socialist revolutionary groups hoping that it would make workers recognize the flaw of Bontshe-like passivity within themselves as a first step toward fighting for their rights. The leader of the Jewish socialist Bund, Vladimir Medem, wrote that "the great poet [Peretz] gave us the treasures of his rich, warm, stormy heart.. .. And as our heads rise higher and our awakened hearts pound stronger, so does the crooked, hunched back of 'Bontshe' become straighter, firmer, and prouder." (15) However, Wisse goes on to claim that "the familiar Jewish cast of the story," which depicted Bontshe as a suffering saint and a model of humility, "seemed to contradict its revolutionary theme," an interpretation which became almost irresistible after World War II. (16)

The post-Holocaust glorification of passivity can also be viewed as a competing narrative with the Zionist story in the context of the post-1948 reality, and with the narrative of earlier Zionism. The Zionist leader Berl Katznelson in 1928 viewed Bontshe as "the epitome of the small town Jewish poor and the Jewish apprentice," (17) even though an important aspect of the story is modern urbanization and the state of social anonymity of the character. For many, the figure of Bontshe Shvayg, like Isaac Bashevis Singer's famous character Gimpel Tam (from the story "Gimpel the Fool," published in English in 1952), represented the epitome of the passive Diaspora Jew. This perception became common even though Singer had originally parodied Peretz's text: he portrayed a passive character in order show the meritorious side of passivity, in contrast to Peretz's critique of Bontshe's passive stance. (18)

This post-1948 perception was perhaps best captured in Dr. Israel Rubin's Yiddish article from 1948 entitled "Bontshe Shvayg oder Bontshe Shlog" (Bontshe the Silent or Bontshe the Slugger), in which he claimed that
   Bontshe-the-silent became Bontshe-the-slugger.... The coward
   Bontshe-the-silent suddenly became an example of the highest
   heroism.... This phenomenon happened in the ghetto revolts and
   appears now in the general struggle for the Land of Israel. The
   Bontshe Shvaygui&t once represented the Jewish masses is already
   almost non-existent. He is dead to me, and none of us, not even his
   great-great-grandchildren, would say kaddish for him. (19)

Rubin also claims that already before Hitler, revolutionary figures of the Bontshe-shlog (Bontshe the Slugger) type, such as Jewish socialists and Jewish anarchists, were appearing in Jewish life and that "their actions were the revolt against the Bontshe-Shvayg tradition." (20)

The spirit of revolt and protest was quite apparent in the work of the persecuted and blacklisted entertainers when they performed "Bontshe Shvayg" on stage at the Barbizon Theatre (located in the Barbizon Hotel) in New York in 1953. Their performance included subtle glimpses of sympathy toward the passive underdog, and references to Jewish suffering in particular (as opposed to universal class protest) are also present. In fact, as Wisse claims, such sympathies may have become unavoidable in the post-Holocaust reality. The result is a synthesis of a universalist revolutionary spirit with a post-Holocaust sympathy for the plight of the Jews. Or, in other words, it is a clear revolt against Bontshe but one that allows sparks of compassion toward the character and enables us to identify with him. In this way, the sbloger (slugger) attitude is directed more against the powers that be than against the passivity of the powerless.


The discussion of the theater production of The World of Sholom Aleichem starts not on Broadway but in Hollywood, where its creators, Howard Da Silva (born Silverblatt, 1935-1984), Arnold Perl (1914-1971), Morris Carnovsky (1897-1992), and his wife, Phoebe Brand (1907-2004), were among the first blacklisted entertainers. They were named as being active members of the Communist Party by people who testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Established in November 1946, HUAC was created to investigate subversive Communist activities in the United States. The Cold War was just beginning. Winston Churchill had given his "Iron Curtain" speech just a few months earlier, and President Truman had issued loyalty oath requirements for federal employees soon after, in March 1947. In this witch-hunting atmosphere, HUAC opened hearings on Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry in October 1947, calling on Hollywood writers and directors to testify about their connections to Communist organizations. When the artists who became known as the "Hollywood Ten" were cited for contempt of Congress for failing to testify before the committee in October-November of 1947, they became the first to be blacklisted by industry executives. (21) The film industry voluntarily--and effectively--blocked them from employment.

McCarthy's Senate hearings culminated in 1951 and 1952, when the real blacklist began. Carnovsky had already been secretly blacklisted in 1950 for refusing to name names. Da Silva, of whom it was famously said that he "always had something to say at the wrong time," (22) in 1951 became the first person to invoke Fifth Amendment protections (choosing not to incriminate himself) in the Hollywood hearings. (23) After his performance was spliced out of the movie Slaughter Trail in 1951, he embarked on a personal crusade against the blacklist. A friend remarked that "even when he was talking to a group of Hadassah ladies he would work in a pitch against the blacklist." (24)

Television and radio screenwriter Perl (25) and actors Carnovsky, (26) Brand, and Da Silva all lived in New York City, where they found escape in the theater. In a system run on an older entrepreneurial capitalist model, theater producers, unlike their counterparts in Hollywood, were independent from corporations and banks and thus were free to hire blacklisted talents. (27) The press agent for the show, Merle Debuskey, expressed this common understanding, stating, "Theater and Broadway, unlike film, radio, and TV, was not subject to the blacklist. It was a last refuge for blacklisted people who could not work. All [the people] in the production said: We will work somewhere to show that we are not dead." (28)

Carnovsky, Brand, and Da Silva had been a part of the legendary 1930s left-leaning Group Theatre. (29) Along with Will Lee (1908-1982, who would later become well-known for playing the role of Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street), they founded their own little theater, which also served as an acting school that taught the psychological realism method of Constantin Stanislavsky. Morris Carnovsky described the Stanislavsky method and the specifically Jewish and American meaning it took on for him in an interview he gave in 1960:
   An experience which leaves its vibrations in depths, so to speak,
   in the life of a person, what happens to those things? We've all
   had them. What do you do with them? The artists recreate them, as
   Heine says, in poems. And the actuality of these experiences are
   what the actor must preserve. I must never, never forget that the
   Jews were persecuted by Hitler in the way that they were. I must
   never forget that. I must not forget the fact that I saw Ku Klux
   Klan crosses on the hill one night when I was playing in a
   Chatauqua tent. I must not forget that the Un-American Committee
   and certain "highly respected people" in the theater--I don't
   respect them--made it necessary for me to be blacklisted for
   several years. I must not forget these things. (30)

From Carnovsky's words one can understand his point of artistic departure, blending Jewish persecution in Europe, the civil rights struggle in America, and McCarthyism in order to create truthful, believable characters. Carnovsky, Brand, and Da Silva's small theater group toured the Catskills resorts in order to keep working. And they ended up performing The World of Sholom Aleichem.


The "charming Yiddish stories"--as Phoebe Brand later described them (31)--were very cleverly chosen for the production and crafted to fit the stage. The choice to turn to Yiddish literature for dramatic material came at a time when there was a growing market for Yiddish works in translation, a trend that had begun in the late 1940s as American Jews, according to Hasia Diner, were developing a strong fascination with the lost world of Eastern European Jewry. (32) Maurice Samuel (1895-1972) was a Jewish American intellectual, Zionist activist, and independent scholar who became an established interpreter for American Jewry of Eastern European Jewish life (der alter heym). (33) A The World of Sholom Aleichem first appeared as the tide of Samuel's book from 1944. This was not a translation of Sholem Aleichem's work into English per se but rather, in Jeffrey Shandler's words, "a hybrid work that presents biographical material about Sholem Aleichem, historical and cultural background of East European Jewry at the turn of the twentieth century, and retellings of parts of Sholem Aleichem writings, all fused into a highly synthetic text that defies any classification," and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett called it "an early example of the popular arts of ethnography" undertaken by American Jews in the mid-twentieth century in an effort to reanimate the Vanished world' of prewar East European Jewry." (34) Samuel's anthology of Peretz's essays in English translation appeared in 1948, four years after his World of Sholom Aleichem. No fewer than five popular English translations of various I. B. Singer writings came out during the years 1950-1961. (35) Peretz's work was released in a bilingual Yiddish-English edition edited by Saul Liptzin by YIVO in 1947, in Maurice Samuel's Prince of the Ghetto in 1948, and in the collection As Once We Were by Emily Margolis in 1951; the last two included a translation of "Bontshe Shvayg." By 1953 there were already a handful of translations of Peretz's "Bontshe" available in English, as well as of works by Sholem Aleichem. (36)

But beyond their charm and their ability to ride the wave of nostalgia for the "old world"--a wave that peaked a decade later with Fiddler on the Roof (37)--the dramatized stories in The World of Sholom Aleichem were faithful to the idea of a socially relevant theater. They served as an effective tool of protest and self-expression that went far beyond any notion of Yiddish as merely a funny language, good for jokes and curses--which is not to say that the play falls short with respect to either of those.

The blacklisted actors cast themselves for roles in the play: Howard Da Silva played Mendele with the Book Seller, a character who functioned as the chain that linked the three stories together. The Mendele character was the creation of the Yiddish and Hebrew writer Sholem Yankev Abramovitch (1836-1917), who is considered a pivotal figure in the development of a modern literature in both these languages; his presence also completes (with Sholem Aleichem and Peretz) the trio of classic Yiddish writers in the play. (38) Morris Carnovsky played the leading role of the father, Aaron Katz, in the third and longest story of the three segments, Sholem Aleichem's "The High School" (Gimnazye in Yiddish). This story, like the two other stories that make up the play, was not chosen accidentally. It concerns the desperate attempts of Jewish parents to register their son Moyshe in a public high school in Russia, where they encounter the discriminatory and anti-Semitic Czarist system. The landmark legal battle known as Brown v. Board of Education began in 1951, and its historic verdict was reached in 1954, declaring that state laws that establish separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional. Meanwhile, Jewish quotas in North American universities were still a reality, or at least still a fresh memory; it seemed like the right time to adapt for the stage this Yiddish story that was originally published in 1902 and is considered to be one of Sholem Aleichem's monological masterpieces. (39) In the original text, the story is narrated by the father, who complains to his listener about his domineering wife in a somewhat misogynistic way. (40) This element is slightly toned down in Perl's adaptation. The original story ends after Moyshe finally is admitted into a school and he and his fellow students decide to go on a strike from school to the dismay of his father. "We are all free," he tells his father, who responds with bitterness and anger. (41) In the play, the father first sees striking as an absurd solution to society's ills; "Strike! ... Of course, strike! You don't have enough to eat, strike! The draft is taking your sons, strike! You don't like the ghetto, strike! They make a decree that you can't own a certain business, strike!" (42) The scene ends with the father, Aaron, realizing that "there is no other way to achieve these [goals]," (43) a realization that he communicates to the audience non-verbally. Thus, in both versions, the political and radical course of action is present and is supported first by Moyshe and then by his mother. The play suggests that perhaps Aaron the father is also slowly won over to the side of the strike, while in the original, he remains steadfastly against it.

The first act of the play, "A Tale of Chelm," is in fact an adaptation of Sholem Aleichem's "The Enchanted Tailor" (Der Farkishefter Shnayder), though there was an ongoing error crediting it to an anonymous folk source. This error dares back to Nathan Ausubel, whose A Treasury of Jewish Folklore (1948) was the first to place Sholem Aleichem's original dark stylized folk-story involving insanity and violence in Chelm. The error lived on even though Mendele's character mentions in his opening bit the story "The Enchanted Tailor." Sholem Aleichem, Mendele says, got the idea for the story "Like all great artists, from the people--a folk story." And thus, Sholem Aleichem's story became a "folk story." (44) The Sholem Aleichem adaptation is mixed with a few short comic bits that were constructed out of Chelm jokes, Chelm being the Polish town known in Eastern European Jewish folklore as "the town of fools." Two of these comic bits seem to be taken directly from Uriel Weinreich's canonic Yiddish language instruction book College Yiddish (first published in 1949), and other examples can be traced to various collections of Yiddish jokes, not all of them related to "Chelm." (45)

The main characters were played by Phoebe Brand as the Melamed's wife and Will Lee as the Melamed (melamed means a traditional teacher of Hebrew). Will Lee was then a part of the small theater group with Phoebe Brand and Morris Carnovsky. He opposed the idea of the group's performing the Western classics on stage on the grounds that the group was not yet ready for them, though apparently he did not disapprove of their producing Yiddish classics.

The stage adaptation holds strong social commentary, implying that contemporary American society has become a kind of Chelm with its own upside-down logic. In the play Chelm is a place where the highest legal authority, the rabbi of Chelm, has the idea of narrowing the gaps between the rich and the poor by simply switching the names of sour milk and cream, thus allowing poor people to enjoy "cream" while the rich will have to make do with "sour milk." (His policy proposal is in fact not so different from claims that lowering taxes on the rich will help the poor.) That same Chelm rabbi is very impressed by the "legal document" signed by three witnesses, including the rabbi from the next village, which states that their billy goat is actually a nanny goat, (46) a perfect allusion to McCarthy's farcical approach to the legal process. (47)


"Bontshe Shvayg" consists mostly of the eponymous main character's trial before the heavenly court following his death. Perl's stage adaptation eliminates the first two pages in the original story about Bontshe before he arrives at the pearly gates, thus transforming the story into purely a court drama and rendering it highly compatible with the contemporary social and political climate, which was heavily characterized by ongoing committee hearings (not only entertainers, but doctors, lawyers, teachers, and academics were also being blacklisted). But the stage adaptations heavenly court provides an ironic twist on McCarthy and HUAC's earthly court.

One of the most important roles in the play, the defending angel who advocates for Bontshe, was played by the talented young African-American actress Ruby Dee (1924-2014). As a result, The World of Sholom Aleichem was also a pioneering production in terms of the way it integrated white and black performers on a single stage. The story of the casting of Ruby Dee in the play is significant in and of itself. It starts with the Rosenbergs' case, which polarized American society in those years. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were arrested in July 1950, charged with providing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, and convicted in March 29,1951, of treason. In April of that year, they were both scheduled to be executed in June 1953, a month after the play was set to have its premiere. At the end of March 1953, two months before the execution was to occur, a large rally took place in Carnegie Hall in support of the Rosenbergs. Howard Da Silva and Morris Carnovsky were in the audience; they were then in the process of casting for The World of Shohm Aleichem. Ossie Davis (1917-2005), Ruby Dee's husband and a young aspiring actor at the time, writes in their shared memoir about their participation in the rally:
   We identified with the Rosenbergs because they were of the left,
   they were obvious targets for the FBI, and they were Jews.... Even
   so, their case was only one of many in our orbit--until that rally
   at Carnegie Hall.... It also happens that in the audience were
   Howard Da Silva and Morris Carnovsky, who were in the process of
   casting a play, The World of Sholom Aleichem. What they saw and
   heard on stage from Ruby Dee that night changed our lives forever.

Ruby Dee herself elaborates on this life-changing experience in their memoir regarding the circumstances that led her to speak at the rally and what happened immediately afterward:
   Everybody knew about Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.... When the case
   first appeared in the news in 1950, I felt no special interest,
   accustomed as I was to stories of witch hunts, blacklisting,
   persecution, and discrimination. To those people newly exposed to
   the victimization system, I thought, "Welcome to the club. That is
   what black people have suffered, and continue to suffer, in varying
   degrees, all the time...".

      Ossie and I were disturbed and saddened by what was happening to
   the country. At best, we felt we were barely on the periphery of
   the Hollywood/Broadway scene. Why should we be nervous about our
   association with people accused of being Communist?

      I don't remember how I happened to be asked to speak at a rally
   to secure clemency for the Rosenbergs on March 29th, 1953, at
   Carnegie Hall.... I was tremendously moved by the fact that two
   small children might be left without their parents. I was aware of
   so many instances when Jews had joined in our struggle for justice,
   protesting the persecution and the murder of blacks. My deeper self
   felt an obligation here....

      Ignoring my reticence to make political pronouncements, I agreed
   to speak. I profoundly believed that, no matter what, the Rosenbergs
   would not be killed.

      That night ... I came upon Howard Da Silva in the hall outside
   arguing heatedly with a newspaperman, who implied I must have been
   coerced into making the speech.... "The decision to speak was
   mine," I said, and hurried off. The next day my name appeared in Ed
   Sullivan's newspaper column as a "fellow traveler." I was now a
   "pinko," a Communist sympathizer. (49)

Ruby Dee's selfless public speech in defense of the Rosenbergs earned her the role of the defending angel in Da Silva's play. The 1950s American Bontshe needed Dee's defense just as much as the Rosenbergs did. The Carnegie Hall rally was like a true heavenly court (as opposed to the ludicrous Congressional committees), a court where people from different backgrounds stood up in defense of each other in solidarity for the sake of common ideals. Ruby Dee's performance in the play is considered to be the milestone of integration of black actors on Broadway, marking the first appearance of an African-American actor in a role that did not carry any racial designation whatsoever in its content. (50) The audiences and the newspapers not only accepted her but lauded her performance.

In the play, she was part of a group of angels, all of whom, besides her, were played by white actors. But still, there was no reference whatsoever to color. In the words of Robert L. Hilliard in 1956, "She was part of an integrated 'heavenly society.' In the newspaper reviews, there was not one mention of race." (51) Ruby Dee told Hilliard that only rarely did the occasional surprised whisper reach the stage: "She's a colored girl." These kinds of whispers, she related, disappeared as soon as she had established her place on the stage. She believed that the audience accepted her as the character she portrayed, with no other qualifications: "It's the most natural thing for herself, a Negro, to play the part of an angel. After all," she demanded, "why shouldn't there be a Negro in heaven?" (52)

The title role of Bontshe was given to comic actor Jack Gilford (1908-1990); it was his first dramatic role. Known mostly as a standup comic, Gilford was never a part of the Group Theatre and had never had any formal training. But he was at home in the same New York Jewish milieu as most of the other actors who were involved in the production and for most of whom Yiddish was a familiar language. Only a few, like Perl, did not know the language at all. (53) The press was unanimous in praise of Gilford's performance. The New York Times wrote that "Jack Gilford's acting of the dazed and weary Bontche Schweig ends on a note of great delicacy." (54) And the Herald-Tribune agreed, writing, "In his gentle and generous forbearance, Mr. Gilford is deeply touching." (55) The role of Bontshe became closely identified with Gilford, and it is said that for years after the play had closed, Gilford and his wife, actress and activist Madeline Lee (1923-2008), would frequently be interrupted when dining out because someone at another table would have asked the waiter to send over a hot roll with butter. (56)

The rest of the cast were all blacklisted actors who were happy to get meager pay. Madeline Lee tells the story that, being both blacklisted and in a terrible financial situation as a result, Jack came up with the theory that with him making $109 a week doing The World of Sholem Aleichem, they could survive financially if they cut out dentistry and dry cleaning. (57) The other actors included Sarah Cunningham (58) and Gilbert Green, with costumes by Aline Bernstein (1880-1955; cofounder of the Museum of Costume Art, which became part of the Metropolitan in 1937) and music by Serge Hovey. (59) Da Silva directed. The press agent for the show, who was just starting his career with this play, was Merle Debuskey. He wrote that the title page of the program would read like a page out of "Red Channels," which was essentially a blacklist of alleged Communist influences published by the right-wing periodical Counterattack.


Da Silva and Perl had raised just enough money to put the play on for a limited number of performances on an irregular schedule in the auditorium of the Barbizon Plaza Hotel on Central Park South, a space that had been used as a theater only a few times before. According to Demos Eitzer, who worked in the Yiddish theater as a stage manager at the time, the Barbizon had previously hosted two Yiddish plays. (60) Ossie Davis, who served as the stage manager for The World of Sholom Aleichem, used the term basement to describe the venue. Debuskey relates that he and other crew members had to set up the box office, act as stagehands, arrange for the signing of contracts for actors and other creative contributors, in short, do everything. Because it was not a real theater but a hotel that was sometimes booked for conventions, they couldn't get the place for eight consecutive shows. And they had to work with the hotel manager to obtain house personnel. (61) The venue made for an odd Off-Broadway production. Ossie Davis describes the unique conditions of the show:
   Production did not rely on sets or upon scenery, but rather on
   lighting and music. The magic of the show depended much on a very
   delicate touch, on timing, and on tempo from the stagehands, as if
   they, too, were musicians, and I, their watchful conductor. The
   music was lilting, modest, brave--and Yiddish.... The stage was
   small; there was never enough space backstage or enough dressing
   rooms for the actors. Nevertheless we opened to good notices, and
   business was brisk at the box office. Once more, Broadway, or more
   precisely, off-Broadway, had thumbed its nose at the blacklist.

But at first, things were not exactly as smooth as Davis described when it came to the logistical details. According to Debuskey, none of the people involved had any idea how to put on a Broadway play. Debuskey mentions that he and Bernard Gersten, who was in charge of lighting for the show, assumed many of the producer and general manager functions because Da Silva and Perl had no theater experience. But, like its main creators, all of the other contributors to the production were well aware that it was being presented in a manner outside the norm for a theater production. The political environment, a non-theatrical theater, rarely tapped cultural material, a brief and scattered schedule of performances, and skeletal financing led rational thinking to mark it unlikely to succeed. "The attitude of all involved," writes Debuskey, "was that despite the unpredictable outcome it would be an important moment in our lives." And yet he adds that all of the show's artistic elements came together extremely well from the start, way beyond their expectations. (63)

Nonetheless, the team had a tough time marketing the play at the trial shows in the spring of 1953. It didn't belong to any distinct genre. The first audience was made up of the politically aware, who understood and supported the effort. Some papers did not want to write about the show because they thought it was in Yiddish, and others avoided it to varying degrees because they were suspicious of its political motivations. By the end of the previews, the challenges involved in promoting the play as well as the logistical problems of this off-Broadway production seemed to mean that the show was likely to fade for good.

Instead, a series of critical reviews in the New York Times ensured the play's future and made it a sellout hit. How did this dramatic turn come about? The key was convincing Brooks Atkinson, the famous New York Times theater critic, to see the show. At first he was reluctant to review it, because he was afraid that by the time the review was published the play would no longer be playing. But eventually he did write several pieces praising the show, following an outstanding effort by the press agent, Debuskey, to convince him to review it. In one Sunday piece he praised it as "a jewel," and from then on, the show really took off. It became such a success that all the major papers wrote about it. And it received positive reviews in the minor American Yiddish press, which covered the play even before Atkinson got to it. In the previews, the Yiddish press was divided between those who liked it and those from the antisocialist Yiddish press, who did not. The most respected American Hebrew journal of the time, the weekly Hadoar (The Mail), featured a rave review of the play and its actors while it was in performance at the Barbizon. However, the reviewer, like many others, ignored the political significance of the play, emphasizing its superb artistic value and commending its "revival of a world, which became extinct in body and soul by war and revolution." (64) When the show reopened on September 11, 1953, after a few weeks' break, it had become a legitimate Off-Broadway production, and it was hard to get tickets for it.

All the Who's Who of Jewish theater, including Mel Brooks and Sid Caesar, came to see the play once it had good press and gained some momentum. Atkinson wrote about the play again, declaring the reopening a "time for rejoicing" and "fine theater and splendid humanity." He stressed that "it is the middle play"--that is, "Bontche Schweig"--"that emerges as the masterpiece of the evening.... The simplicity of style is what distinguishes it the most.... As the play moves along, Mr. Da Silva introduces a little counterpoint in the direction that gradually makes something profoundly moving out of an innocent, charming fairy story." (65) Atkinson's impression is revealing. He also calls Bontche "a radiant symbol of purity," avoiding any possibility of identifying with the court's frustration with his passive character. For Atkinson there is more identification with Bontche than with any revolutionary anger and revolt against him. This impression is consistent with one gleaned from conversations with people who saw the original production. According to personal interviews I conducted mainly during the summer of 2011 with various individuals, including with Jack and Madeline Gilford's children, Joe, Sam, and Lisa (who all remember seeing the film on television), everyone remembers the sadness and the sympathy they felt watching Jack Gilford as Bontche utter his only line at the end of the play.

Interviews and writings from contemporaries stress that the political mood was very much a part of the theatrical experience. On the social level, you could have guessed who was willing to visit the cast backstage and who was too scared of being labeled a "fellow traveler," fearing "guilt by association" charges. Some nights the audience included those who in fact created the blacklists, including writers from "Red Channels." Debuskey notes that he and the cast "enjoyed the irony of these 'devils' having to buy their way into a further pursuit of their nefarious activity." (66)


The show infuriated the people who supported the blacklist. Vincent Hartnett, the principal of Counterattack, a journal that chronicled the professional and personal lives of those in the entertainment industry, labeled The World of Sholom Aleichem "subversive" and became obsessed with it. He was extremely frustrated by the fact that he did not know how to destroy the show, since everyone involved in it was already blacklisted. Hartnett made numerous attempts to stifle the play through the pages of Counterattack, including appeals to the owner of the Barbizon to shut down the production. On September 25, 1953, drawing on "intelligence work" he had done on The World of Sholom Aleichem, he wrote a scathing call for action:

      SHOLEM ALEICHEM was a writer of widely-read stories of Orthodox
   Jewish life under the repressive regime of the Czars. He was an
   anti-Communist. "The World of Sholom Aleichem" is a dramatization
   of three Yiddish folk tales (only one written by SHOLOM ALEICHEM)
   (67) now playing a return seven-week engagement at the Barbizon
   Plaza Theatre in New York City (it had a three-week run there in
   May). It is being staged by Rachel Productions.

      The NY press has given the production a tremendous build up
   through theater critics and theater news writers such as BROOKS
   ATKINSON of the NY Times, WALTER KERR and BERT McCORD of the NY
   Herald Tribune, WARD MOOREHOUSE of the NY World Telegram and Sun
   and ROBERT COLEMAN of the Daily Mirror.

      MAXINE KEITH, who is featured on ... radio station WMCA on
   Sundays, has plugged the production and had several members of the
   cast on the program.

      The result? In a recent NY Times ad for "The World of Sholom
   Aleichem" it was announced that 18 of the production's remaining
   evening performances were completely sold out. The show is
   obviously going over big.

      Now look at the people who are cashing in on the current run of
   "The World of Sholom Aleichem." [68]

From this point on, Hartnett goes over the people involved in the production one by one: He dubs Arnold Perl the "top cultural front of the Communist Party (CP)" and says that the composer, Serge Hovey, "has written music for productions staged at the CP's Jefferson School of Social Science and is a backer of fronts"; that the costume designer, Aline Bernstein, "has been a backer of at least 15 of the Communist Party's major fronts and causes"; that Bernard Gersten, in charge of the show's lighting, "was a member of the US Initiating Committee for the 1951 Communist youth rally in East Berlin"; that Howard Da Silva, Morris Carnovsky, and Phoebe Brand are each "identified as a Communist Party member in the film industry hearings," while Will Lee refused to say whether he was a member; that Jack Gilford "has been supporting top CP fronts for 14 years--the American Peace Mobilization, Civil Rights Congress, Nat'l Council of Arts, Sciences and Professions, etc. GILFORD spent most of this summer entertaining at White Lake Lodge, a Communist mountain resort in NY." He goes on to say that Ruby Dee "has had roles in several Communist front theatrical productions, has been billed as a speaker at a forum staged by PAUL ROBESON's Communist Periodical, 'Freedom', and has joined in CP-inspired appeals for clemency for the Rosenbergs.... Her husband OSSIE DAVIS, is very active in Communist fronts and party-line theatrical productions." After mentioning the rest of the cast in a similar fashion, Hartnett sums up his findings by stating that "88% of the cast is made up of identified CP members or supporters of fronts." (69) Hartnett carries on, questioning the Jewishness of the actors and the production and quoting right-wing Jews sympathetic to his cause. Then he dedicates many lines to trying to convince his readers how awful the theater critic Brooks Atkinson is for praising the play and for failing to "reveal" to his readers the subversive political convictions of the people involved in it. Hartnett asks his readers, "Why don't YOU drop a line to Atkinson and try to wake him up to the fact that many people who truly appreciate the theater do not want to subsidize active Communists and fronters.... Make it clear to him that anti-Communists ... feel it is his responsibility to let the public know the FULL truth." (70) Barbizon Theater owner Jacob Schroeder was also targeted. Hartnett gave readers Schroeder's mailing address and, under the heading "WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP FIGHT COMMUNISM?" he encouraged readers to write to Schroeder and "ask him why the Barbizon Plaza Theatre was turned over" to this production. (71) Schroeder himself, though, did not mind the implied threats. He was pleased to have the production and supportive of it, since it was fully rented to the same people for a long consecutive time. Debuskey writes: "I do remember that the manager of the Barbizon-Plazas auditorium did receive a nasty letter from someone who objected to his having rented the space to those persons involved in the presentation. I cannot remember his [the manager's] name. He was a very decent fellow, pleased to have the production in that space if [for] no other reason than it was fully rented to the same persons for many, many weeks. No gaps. He was supportive and not dissuaded by the implied threats." (72)

In order to try to reassure Brooks Atkinson, who became a target due to his rave reviews of the play, Howard Da Silva and Arnold Perl, the play's producers, wrote a letter to Atkinson dated October 7, 1953. In it they thank him dearly for his reviews; they assure him that the owner of the Barbizon Theatre has decided to ignore the letters he has received and has signed a long-term contract with the production; and they describe their status and feelings in all of this:
   Until recently we never asked any pre-condition for judging our
   work. But with the intrusion of lists and oaths, of fealty and
   genuflexion [sic] into the entertainment arts, we assert a single
   pre-condition. As artists and performers today we ask that we be
   judged solely on our achievement, on what is best for the material,
   on what is best for the play and the performance. We feel that an
   atmosphere of free inquiry is essential to creativity. In our view,
   anything less [than] that full freedom to think and ask, to explore
   and cast, to question and stage and illuminate, is not freedom and
   cannot produce honest work.

      We believe the vast theatre-going public will welcome a
   reaffirmation of this simple truth about the theatre: that it is
   hard enough to put on a decent play, and if someone manages to do
   it, more power to them. (73)

In a Counterattack issue from March 26, 1954, Hartnett tries to discredit another rave review the play received, this time from none other than First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt called "Bontche" "most unforgettable. The last line will linger on in the memory of anyone who sees it." Regarding the character of Mendele the Book Seller, "who trundles his books down the theater aisle in a baby carriage, with the bell ringing as he trudges along," Roosevelt added that he took her back "to the days of my girlhood when I was much more familiar with the Lower East Side than I am now." (74) In a piece entitled "MRS ELEANOR ROOSEVELT PLUGS PARTY-LINE THEATRICAL PRODUCTION," Hartnett tries to make the argument that Perl had dramatized the play "in a manner designed to promote Moscow's line." As an example, he repeats the error that Sholem Aleichem "the anti-communist" (75) has only one sketch in the production. He accuses Perl of "twisting the entire theme of the story" by giving it "social and political preachment." According to the McCarthyists, Perl committed a crime by making Yiddish literature relevant to his own social-political reality. Hartnett writes that Sholem Aleichem's "original short story was a mildly ironic tale [emphasis added] of how a couple worked to get their son into a school in Russia in the Nineteenth Century." (76) In fact, the story is anything but "mildly ironic." Hartnett's downplaying of the strike ("quite common in those days," he writes) highlights a deep misunderstanding of Sholem Aleichem's original text. Hartnett accuses Perl of turning the sketch into "an appeal for strikes," noting the last speech by the father in the play. True, the father in the original does not experience a moment of recognition or anagnorisis, as does the father in the play. But this difference could be attributed to the change in form from a monological story told by the father (who might be hiding details from his listener for various reasons) to a dialogical drama. In any case, the fact is that Sholem Aleichem's original story is about the injustice of the Czarist anti-Semitic laws and the struggle to defeat them, including elements of subversive political activism by the son that displease the father. Obviously, the theme of a minority fighting against discrimination is applicable to numerous other times and places. However, at the end of the piece, perhaps out of respect for the former first lady (or perhaps he was simply patronizing her), Hartnett implores his readers: "Mrs ROOSEVELT should not be judged too harshly for her ignorance of the fact that what she saw on the stage was anything but an excellent dramatization of three innocent Jewish folk tales. The drama critics of the 'best' newspapers, who have far greater responsibility than she on this matter, praised the production even more highly than she did." (77)

But notwithstanding this relentless series of attacks, the show ended up running for two more years, until 1955. In addition, a touring production of the play was produced, starring Jacob Ben-Ami and Celia Adler (1890-1977 and 1889-1979 respectively), both prominent figures of Yiddish theatre and film, who also played in English. Da Silva and Perl now formally established "Rachel Productions." This company later produced another dramatic rendition of a Sholem Aleichem story, Tevya and His Daughters--which opened on September 16,1957, and was received with far less enthusiasm than their previous show (78)--as well as The Best of Burlesque and Sandhog. Perl went on to make a fortune when his Tevya became Fiddler on the Roof (1964), which was termed by Joseph Litvak "the last blacklist musical." Fiddler on the Roof contained a radical Jewish voice, but in general it promoted the mainstream liberalism of the time and was the first musical to make the Jewishness of the genre itself explicit. (79)


The Mendele character introduces Peretz's story before the "Bontche Schweig" segment, emphasizing the period during which Peretz was close to Jewish labor groups and explaining that Peretz wrote the story
   in the language of the working people--in Yiddish--to working
   people. And because this was not very popular with the Czar
   (reading in Yiddish to working people)--Isaac Loeb Peretz spent a
   little time in jail.... And later, nearly fifty years later, in
   another terrible time for the Jews--in the Hitler time--in Warsaw,
   in the Ghetto itself, this story was read--at the risk of your
   life. And still people read it. (80)

By emphasizing Peretz's radicalism in this opening passage, the stage production left no room for doubt: this play is about radical left politics, it is about fighting against oppression by the authorities, it is about the class struggle, but it is also about Yiddish. It is deeply and directly connected to Jewish suffering in particular. The McCarthy era, with its strong anti-Semitic undertones, is yet another station in the painful history of the Jews. As shown by Hasia Diner, the idea of comparing McCarthyism to Hitlerism was shared by many Jews at the time. As in the postwar era, "all participants in [Jewish] communal debates over the implications of extreme anti-Communism heard the echoes of the Holocaust all around them in America." (81)

Da Silva's production notes strengthen the "Jewishness" appeal they were trying to instill in the production. The original stage production's goal in staging Bontche, according to those notes, was to create a setting that would be a "variation on an Eastern European synagogue on Yom Kippur," (82) where "Heaven is a heavenly synagogue." (83) This Jewish tone is also apparent in the 1959 made-for-television film version of the play, which is the closest surviving video representation of the original stage production. Unfortunately, there is no video recording of the original stage production of The World of Sholom Aleichem.

By the late 1950s, when work on the TV movie version began, the McCarthyist campaign had subsided enough to allow blacklisted writers like Edward Chodorov to get full credit for their work. (84) However, enough blacklisting was still in effect, and since nearly everybody in the TV movie cast was blacklisted, TV executives had to be persuaded to employ these actors. Lee Grant was an actress in the original TV movie cast. In my interview with her, she confirmed that as in the original theater production, the group's combat strategy was to hire a massive number of blacklisted actors (herself included), thus making it impossible to film without them. (85)

The film The World ofSholom Aleichem was aired on select public broadcasting stations as part of the "Play of the Week" series on December 14,1959, during the early years of educational television, and not by the major networks. The same series, which focused on filmed adaptations of works of Western theater, also showed a version of S. An-ski's The Dybbuk, which aired on May 1, 1961, and featured the actor Theodore Bikel. Some cast changes were made, primarily because the executives wanted big names to appear in the TV version. The blacklisted actor Zero Mostel, who used to say, "I am a man of a thousand faces, all of them blacklisted," (86) saw the stage version and wanted very much to be a part of the production. Mostel was cast as the Melamed (in the first story), a part originally played by Will Lee, and also had small roles in the other two acts. Solomon writes that Mostel "was the only actor cast in all three of the playlets that make up The World of Sholom Aleichem!'*7 But in fact Morris Carnovsky not only reprised his roles as the father in "The High School" and as the Presiding Angel in "Bontche Schweig" but also replaced Gilbert Green from the stage version as Rabbi David in "A Tale of Chelm." Blacklisted white actress Lee Grant played the defending angel, replacing Ruby Dee. Replacing Phoebe Brand in the role of the Melamed's wife was the comedian Nancy Walker, who, being non-Jewish, felt that Mostel, by telling her Yiddish stories nonstop with a very thick accent, was trying to give her a crash course in Yiddishkayt during their lunch breaks. (88) She was also one of the few cast members who was not blacklisted. Other big names who came into the television version included the young Charlotte Rae (b. 1926; later known for her TV roles in The Facts of Life and in Different Strokes), Gertrude Berg (from the radio and TV series The Goldbergs), and Sam Levene (1905-1980; Guys and Dolls, Dinner at Eight) as Mendele.

In the first segment of the TV movie, you see Bontche, again played by Jack Gilford, enter the stage. He is a pale and downtrodden character in black and white, dressed in shmates (rags), accompanied by sad violin music. His walk is slow and transmits profound existential insecurity. You can't help but associate him with World War II images of Jews in death camps, and it seems that this association was an obvious intention of the program's creators. (89) The final shot of the story clearly confirms this assumption about the creators' intent. On stage, where the significance of the use of light was great, a halo of light accompanied Bontche while he was uttering his line (giving him the last light of the scene, so to speak). This was not the case in the film production, which had a more sophisticated set and thus did not rely as much on lighting. In the film, after Bontche utters his single line, the camera zooms out away from him through a symbol of a Jewish star, leaving the viewer with an image that profoundly strengthens the particularly Jewish message. In contrast, Peretz's original text ends with the prosecuting angel bursting out in laughter. Both the stage and the film versions omit this ending. This omission further weakens the critical view toward Bontche. (90)

Does strengthening the particular Jewishness of the message upset the balance achieved in Peretz's original text, which Nahum Sokolow correctly described as reflecting a "general idea but with a local Jewish hue" (91)? Sokolow's interpretation opposes the idea--incorrectly held by many--that Peretz intended Bontche to be purely a representative of the Jewish people, and that therefore his tale becomes a mere particular protest against Jewish passivity. (92) Similarly, one of the reviews of the television version, after opening by emphasizing the universality of the characters, stated that "a feeling of the Jewish religious heritage is remarkably conveyed" in this "poignant allegorical fantasy by Peretz." (93) But in fact, Peretz himself was dismissive of a reader who was sure that the Bontche character in this allegorical story represented "the Jewish people." The censor of Vilna, in Peretz's time, apparently understood very well who Peretz meant and as a result did not permit him to publish the story as a separate book. (94)

In the film version, a white actress, Lee Grant, played the role of the defending angel, following the need for bigger names on the cast but also due to conflicts in Ms. Dee's schedule. In February 2013, I contacted Ms. Dee, then almost ninety years old, regarding her replacement, asking whether she knew who made this casting decision, and about whether the fact that Lee Grant was a white actress played any role in the decision. Her official archival and literary consultant, Arminda Thomas, conveyed the following answer via e-mail: "Ms. Dee can't recall whether she was approached about the televised production of World of Sholom Aleichem, but she believes that her schedule might have been the deciding factor. She spent all of 1959 working on the original production of A Raisin in the Sun, and her three children were all under 10."

The film thus lost the onstage black-Jewish alliance that mirrored the offstage alliance of Jews and blacks in the civil rights movement, an alliance and a movement that American Jews explained in reference to--and bundled with--the European Jewish tragedy, not separately from it, throughout the postwar years. (95) There is no evidence that Ruby Dee's skin color played any role in this decision. However, one can speculate that the producers preferred to play it safe, believing American television audiences would find it easier, after the Holocaust, to sympathize with Jewish suffering but less easy to identify with the general need to revolt against an oppressive and discriminatory governing system. In later decades, as the Holocaust became increasingly injected into Jewish American identity politics, Jews stopped viewing the Holocaust as a rationale for civil rights activism or opposition to McCarthyism. (96)

In America during the 1950s, while the radical spirit of protest clearly resonated in the work of these predominantly Jewish and blacklisted artists, their performances also contained within them glimpses of sympathy toward the passive and submissive Jewish character. The result is a synthesis of the desire to revolt against Bontche as a passive figure with sparks of compassion and sympathy toward him. But not withstanding those sparks, the moral choice of these artists, as in Peretz's time, was clear: to use their talents in order to resist oppression. Albert Camus believed that "no artist can give up reality," and in fact that one of the basic roles of the artist is to uncover the hidden structure of reality and to suggest an appropriate course of action to take within that given structure. (97) And that is exactly what the McCarthyists fear: art's demand for change toward an egalitarian society, free from oppression.

This story could be easily adapted to many languages and cultures, and its message would remain: people whose dignity as human beings has been shattered, oppressed people, those who do not know how to claim their rights and to ask to better their condition--all of them should take a good look in the provocative mirror that Peretz lays before them. For even the finest heavenly court lawyer cannot assist those who remain passive, lacking any consciousness of their condition. The play The World of Sholom Aleichem should not only be seen as a unique exploration of Yiddish culture, as it certainly was, but also be viewed as an act of defiance. The brave act of producing this play pitted Yiddish culture against McCarthyist political persecution. And, like Peretz and the Jewish radical circles of his time, it uses the powerful image of Bontshe the Silent to clearly say: We will not be silent!--a message that remains powerful to this day.



(1.) Samuel Kreiter, "Delightful Jewish Theatre," Congress Weekly, June 1, 1953.

(2.) A word-for-word translation would be "Bontshe Shut Up." The origin and the meaning of the name Bontshe are unclear, as concluded by Dov Sadan. See Dov Sadan, "Bontshe Shvayg un zaynegilgulim (Yiddish), Folk un Tsiyon 24 (1978).

(3.) Brooks Atkinson, Broadway (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1970), 426.

(4.) Quotes taken from Midge Decter's essay entitled "Belittling Sholem Aleichem's Jews: Folk Falsification of the Ghetto," published in the then mainstream liberal, later turned neoconservative, Jewish journal Commentary (vol. 17, 1954): 389-92. See also discussion of Midge Decter's essay in Jeremy Dauber's recent biography of Sholem Aleichem: Jeremy Dauber, The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye (New York: Schocken Books, 2013), 347-49.

(5.) Decter's poor analysis of Sholem Aleichem's story "The High School" can serve as an example in this regard. See Midge Decter, "Belittling Sholem Aleichem's Jews: Folk Falsification of the Ghetto," in Dauber, The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem, 391-92.

(6.) Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013), 70-71.

(7.) Dauber, The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem, 349-50.

(8.) Cecilia Feilla, The Sentimental Theater of the French Revolution (Epub) (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2013), 1787.

(9.) Quoted in Jose Limon, Mexican Ballads, Chicano Poems: History and Influence in Mexican-American Social Poetry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 156.

(10.) See Howard Da Silva, "Production Notes," in Arnold Perl, The World of Sholom Aleichem (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1956), 51.

(11.) The story appeared only later that year, in one of Peretz's almanacs of that period, Literatur un lebn (Literature and Life). The quotes from the original text are taken from Y. L. Peretz, Ale verk, vol. 2 (New York: CYCO, 1947), 412-20. The view of the 1890s as Peretzs "radical years" was established and developed by Soviet literary critic Isaac Rozentsvayg in The Radical Period of Peretzs Creation (The "Holiday Pages")-, see Der radikaler peryodfun Peretses shaft (di "Yontev hletlekh") (Yiddish) (Kiev: Melukhe farlagfar di natsionale minderhaytn, 1934). This radical period of Peretz is the theme of my dissertation, titled "The Radical Years of I. L. Peretz," which was completed at Columbia University in Spring 2014.

(12.) Peretz, Ale verk, vol. 2, 418. All translations from Yiddish and Hebrew are mine.

(13.) Ibid., 420.

(14.) Ruth Wisse, I. L. Peretz and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991), 47-51. In fact, Peretzs "urban reportages" were based on his encounters with the small Jewish towns he visited during a statistical fact-finding expedition in the Jewish Pale of Settlement and not from urban settings like Warsaw, where he lived. Peretz was likely to have encountered poverty in Warsaw, but he had not explicitly reported about it before writing the story Bontshe Shvayg. For a full but somewhat problematic discussion of the Job-Bontshe parallel, see: Bruce E. Zuckerman, Job the Silent (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

(15.) Vladimir Medern, "Perets un mir" (Peretz and Us), in Vladimir Medem tsum tsvantsikstn yortsayt (Vladimir Medem to his Twentieth Anniversary) (Yiddish) (New York: Amerikaner reprezentants fun Algemeynem Yidishn arbeter-bund in Poyln, 1:943), 344-45- Originally written in April 1916, in commemoration of the first anniversary of Peretzs death.

(16.) Wisse, I. L. Peretz and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture, 47-51.

(17.) Hartsaot Berl Katsanelson (The Lectures of Berl Katznelson), (Hebrew) (Israel: Am Oved, 1990), 35.

(18.) Furthermore, while Bontshe was so socially and psychologically crushed that even in heaven he couldn't ask for much, Singer's Gimpel did manage to climb the social ladder at least a little. Gimpel owned a successful bakery, the kind bulkes (rolls) could be made in, and was considered by his fellow villagers to be "a shtikl nogidj or "somewhat of a rich man" (Yitskhok Bashevis-Singer, " Gimpl Tam) in Der shpigl un andere dertseylungen [The Mirror and Other Stories] [Yiddish] [Yerushalayim: Hebreisher Universitet, 1975], 33-47).

(19.) Israel Rubin, "Bontshe Shvayg oder Bontshe Shlog (Yiddish), reprinted in Problemen (May 1973). Quoted in Sadan, "Bontshe Shvayg un zayne gilgulim," 18.

(20.) Rubin specifically mentions Hirsh Lekert, a member of the Bund who assassinated the governor of Vilna, which Rubin considers an act of active heroism against the enemy; Pinkhas Dashevsky, who raised a vengeful hand after the Kishinev pogrom and wounded a publisher of an anti-Semitic newspaper; and the anarchist Shloyme Shvartsbard, who shot the Ukrainian nationalist leader named Symon Petliura, who Shvartsbard believed was responsible for anti-Jewish pogroms {idem).

(21.) William T. Walker, McCarthyism and the Red Scare (California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2011), xx-xxi.

(22.) Robert Taylor, of the Screen Actors' Guild, was the one who named Howard Da Silva. The actual film clip of his accusation can be seen in the documentary film Hollywood on Trial (1976).

(23.) "How the Film and Television Blacklists Worked," Richard A. Schwartz, In Hollywood on Trial Da Silva explains his testimony and his choice to plead the Fifth Amendment, saying, "I believe that in order to preserve the Bill of Rights, you have to maintain it."

(24.) Victor S. Navasky, Naming Names (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003), 147.

(25.) Arnold Perl wrote for the TV and radio crime series The Big Story, which lasted for a decade on radio (1947-1955), and on TV (1949-1958). See John Dunning, On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old- Time Radio (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 87-88.

(26.) Carnovsky even had a very brief career in the Yiddish theater and during the 1930s was a supporter of the Yiddish Communist theater the Artef (Edna Nahshon, Yiddish Proletarian Theatre: The Art and Politics of the Artef 192$--1940 [Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1998], 188).

(27.) Joseph Litvak, The Un-Americans: jews, the Blacklist, and Stoolpigeon Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 182-83.

(28.) More about Debuskey can be found in his biography by Robert Simonson, The Gentleman Press Agent: Fifty Years in the Theatrical Trenches with Merle Debuskey (New York: Applause Theatre &c Cinema Books, 2010). I had the pleasure of speaking with Debuskey during the summer of 2011, when he was eighty-eight years old. He shared with me the expanded draft he wrote for Simonsons biography concerning his work on the play.

(29.) On the many people from the Group Theatre who ended up in Hollywood, see Paul Buhle and David Wagner, Hide in Plain Sight: The Hollywood Blacklistees in Film and Television, 1990-2002 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 12-14.

(30.) This description appears in Reminiscences of the Theater, Popular Arts Series V, vol. 2 (Oral History Research Office, Columbia University, 1961), 12.

(31.) "We toured all summer long and into the winter and we kept going and ended up doing The World of Sholom Aleichem, which was a beautiful affair, a lovely play about charming Yiddish stories" (1996 interview recording with Phoebe Brand, available at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center).

(32.) Hasia Diner, We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence After the Holocaust 1949-1962 (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 333-38.

(33.) See Ilan Stavans, "Thinking Aloud: The Education of Maurice Samuel," in Ilan Stavans, Singer's Typewriter and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture (Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), 91-105.

(34.) Jeffrey Shandler, Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 106; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is quoted on 107.

(35.) Diner, We Remember with Reverence and Love, 336.

(36.) The Field of Yiddish: Studies in Yiddish Language, Folklore, and Literature, ed. Uriel Weinreich (New York: Publications of the Linguistic Circle of New York, 1954), 285-99. See also Dauber, The Worlds of Sholom Aleichem, 340-53.

(37.) Diner lumps together The World of Sholom Aleichem and the later Fiddler on the Roof and writes that "the appeal of these performances reflected the sentimental valorization of Yiddish and the emergence of a culture of nostalgia for the lost Jews of Eastern Europe" (Diner, We Remember with Reverence and Love, 336). Strictly in terms of appeal, she might have a point, but The World of Sholom Aleichem must not be reduced to its nostalgia appeal. It was politically charged social-protest theater at its finest, something that cannot easily be said in regard to Fiddler on the Roof.

(38.) On the Mendele character, see Dan Miron, A Traveler Disguised: The Rise of Modern Yiddish Fiction in the Nineteenth Century (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996), 130-248. Later this role was played by Herschel Bernardi, the former Yiddish theater and film actor, who was Da Silvas understudy and used to give out the programs for the play while his wife Teri played the tape of the show's music. He too was blacklisted.

(39.) Dan Miron, Ha-tsad ha-afel be-tskhoko shel Shalom Aleichem (Hebrew) ("The Dark Side of Sholom Aleichem's Laughter") (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2004), 25-26.

(40.) Ibid., 54.

(41.) Sholem Aleichem, "Gimnazye," (High School) (Yiddish) in Ale verk 26 (New York: Morgn frahayt, 1937), 173-93.

(42.) Perl, The World of Sholom Aleichem, 46. (All quotes from the play are taken from the 1956 publication.) In the original story Moyshe tells his father: "Mir hobn gemakht yad-akhes, mir zoln nit geyn (We agreed together, that we should not go) (Sholem Aleichem, "Gimnazye" 191-92).

(43.) Perl, The World of Sholom Aleichem, 46.

(44.) Ibid., 5. See also Solomon, Wonder of Wonders, 68.

(45.) The jokes "7 + 7 = 11" and "water is better than oil" were taken from Weinreich's book. Another joke is a short version of a Menakhem Mendl letter (also by Sholem Aleichem). The joke "Why does the dog wag his tail? Because he is stronger" can be found in a collection of Yiddish "Hershele Ostropolyer" jokes (Hershele is a generic Eastern European Jewish character who appears in many jokes), first published in Kiev, 1941. In the common English version of this joke, the dog is smarter than its tail--in the Yiddish counter-hegemonic version there is no question the wits belong to the subordinated tail.

(46.) All quotes are taken from Perl, The World of Sholom Aleichem. The "sour milk" story is from p. 7, the "legal document" story from p. 13.

(47.) Famously, Arthur Miller's The Crucible, which debuted on Broadway only a few months before the premiere of The World of Sholom Aleichem, also focused on the perversion of the legal process.

(48.) Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1998), 238.

(49.) Ibid., 232-33. Vince Hartnett noted in the McCarthyist journal Counterattack that "when the CP staged a big rally in defense of the since-executed atom spies last November, CARNOVSKY, Da SILVA, PHOEBE BRAND, and MARJORIE NELSON had roles in a dramatization put on at the affair--and RUBY DEE was one of the sponsors of it." (Counterattack: Facts to Combat Communism 7, no. 39 [September 25, 1953]: 2).

(50.) This kind of "colorless" appearance for an African-American actor also included Frederick O'Neal, as a judge in The Winner, and Frank Silvera, as the innkeeper-narrator in Camino Real and as a theatrical producer in Mademoiselle Colombe (Robert L. Hilliard, "The Integration of the Negro Actor on the New York Stage," Educational Theatre Journal 8, no. 2 [May 1956]: 97).

(51.) Walter Kerr's rave review in the New York Herald Tribune stated in its very last sentence, "Ruby Dee is an excellent defending angel," with no reference to her race. (Walter Kerr, New York Herald Tribune, September 12,1953. Also quoted in Hilliard, "The Integration of the Negro Actor on the New York Stage," 105-6). "The audience," wrote Hilliard, "seemed to react in the same [enthusiastic] way." (ibid., 106).

(52.) Hilliard, "The Integration of the Negro Actor on the New York Stage," 97-108.

(53.) Yiddish was Jack Gilford's first language and his only language until the age of about eight. Carnovsky, Da Silva, and others in the cast knew Yiddish to varying degrees.

(54.) Brooks Atkinson, "At the Theatre: Group of Short Plays About Jewish Life, Entitled 'The World of Sholom Aleichem,' Returns to Town," New York Times, September 12, 1953

(55.) Walter F. Kerr, "'World of Sholom Aleichem' Opens at Barbizon-Plaza," New York Herald-Tribune, September 15,1953.

(56.) Mostel et al., 170 Years of Show Business, 164.

(57.) Ibid., 128.

(58.) Sarah Cunningham (1918-1986) was blacklisted from the early 1950s, as were her husband, John Randolph (1915-2004), and the Gilfords. While testifying in front of HUAC in 1955, Cunningham answered about her participation in the play that it was "one of the proudest acting experiences of her life" (ibid., 163).

(59.) Serge Hovey (1920--1989) was an accomplished "series" composer who studied under such modernists as Arnold Schoenberg and Hanns Eisler. He was the musical director for Bertolt Brecht's Galileo (1948) amongst others. His fascination with Jewish music during the 1950s (he also wrote the music for Perl's Tevya in 1957) led to his lifelong interest in "ethnic" music, and in Scottish folk music in particular (see Esther Hovey, "The Genesis of Serge Hovey's The Robert Burns Song Book," Studies in Scottish Literature 30, no. 1. [1998]; available at vol30/iss1/29).

(60.) Phone conversation with Demos Eitzer, conducted during March 2013. Eitzer was a stage manager in the Yiddish theater.

(61.) Personal interview with Merle Debuskey; see note 28.

(62.) Davis and Dee, With Ossie and Ruby, 241.

(63.) Personal interview with Merle Debuskey and draft for his biography; see note 28.

(64.) M. M. Shudofsky, "Olamo shel Shalom-Aleichem" (The World of Sholom-Aleichem), Hadoar 33, no. 2 (1953).

(65.) Atkinson wrote about the play, "The three little plays in English that Arnold Perl has culled out of Jewish lore are original and beautiful and they are acted with remarkable sensitivity," and "a lot of skill in theatre and native understanding of people has transmuted simple things into humor, pathos, wisdom and beauty" (Atkinson, New York Times, September 12, 1953).

(66.) Draff text by Debuskey; see note 28.

(67.) To see the origin in folklore was a common error at the time; Atkinson also failed to recognize the Sholom Aleichem story that is the source for the first act.

(68.) Counterattack 7, no. 39 (September 25, 1953): 1.

(69.) Ibid., 1-2.

(70.) Ibid., 4.

(71.) Ibid., 3-4.

(72.) Personal correspondence with Debuskey, June 12, 2011; see note 28.

(73.) A letter from Arnold Perl to Brooks Atkinson, October 7, 1953. Copies of the letter were also sent to Walter Kerr, Robert Coleman, Bert McCord, Ward Morehouse, and Jacob Shroeder (Brooks Atkinson's collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center).

(74.) Eleanor Roosevelt, "Artistic Treat in Theater," Chicago Sun-Times, January 29, 1954.

(75.) It is interesting to note that at the same time Sholem Aleichem was being hailed in the Soviet Union for being a true people's writer. The bulk of the critical appraisals of Sholem Aleichem that appeared after his death in 1916 throughout the Jewish world were written by Soviet scholars and critics (Miron, Dan. "Sholem Aleichem." YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. October 15, 2010, accessed January 6, 2012, In 1948 an acclaimed Soviet (partial) edition of his collected work was published.

(76.) Counterattack 8, no. 13 (March 26, 1954): 3.

(77.) Ibid., 3-4.

(78.) According to Seth Wolitz, Perl's Tevya was "unabashedly sentimentalized" but nevertheless "hints at a mild defense of the old Jewish socialist and revolutionary inheritance as a legitimate political perspective." See Seth Wolitz, "The Americanization of Tevye or Boarding the Jewish Mayflower," American Quarterly 40 (December 1988); 523-25. See also Solomon, Wonder of Wonders, 73-76. Gilbert Green was the only actor who played both in The World of Sholom Aleichem and in Tevya and His Daughters.

(79.) According to Litvak, the use of the term "blacklist musical" coincides with the "golden age" of Broadway musicals that began with Call Me Madam (1950). This was because Broadway never had a blacklist. Fiddler on the Roof was the last of its kind; the success of its star (Zero Mostel) testifies "to the triumph of the blacklist itself, which has done such a good job of turning Jews into Americans." For an elaboration on the term "blacklist musical," see the chapter 6 in Litvak's The Un-Americans (182-222). And for the most comprehensive study of Fiddler on the Roof, see Solomon, Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof.

(80.) Perl, The World of Sholom Aleichem, 15.

(81.) Diner, We Remember with Reverence and Love, 293.

(82.) Perl, The World of Sholom Aleichem, 53.

(83.) A "heavenly synagogue" where "white yarmolkas and kaftans, gold chairs, dazzlingly clean, with pillows for reclining as on Passover.... Except for the first moments of excited anticipation, the piece is played in hushes, waits, silences, pauses.... As in Chelm wonder is the key element: what will be revealed? What will he ask for?... Bontche's wonder: where am I? who? what?... His life on earth made him unaware as a human being can become..." (ibid., 49).

(84.) Buhle and Wagner, Hide in Plain Sight, 30-31. Edward Chodorov (1904-1988) was a playwright and screenwriter.

(85.) This information came from a phone interview I conducted during the summer of 2011 with actress Lee Grant, who replaced Ruby Dee as the defending angel in the TV film version. Lee Grant was herself blacklisted for twelve years after she spoke at the memorial service of Joe Bromberg (a blacklisted actor who committed suicide). She too was called out and quoted in "Red Channels." For more on the subject, see Grants memoirs I Said Yes to Everything: A Memoir (New York: Blue Rider Press, 2014).

(86.) Navasky, Naming Names, 178. For more about Mostel and the blacklist, see Litvak, The Un-Americans, 210-22.

(87.) Solomon, Wonder of Wonders, 79.

(88.) Arthur Sainer, Zero Dances: A Biography of Zero Mostel (New York: Limelight Editions, 1998), 162-63.

(89.) It should be noted that Perl himself served in World War II, and at the end of the war his unit entered the Dachau concentration camp. See Solomon, Wonder of Wonders, 63.

(90.) The omission of the laughter was not invented by Perl. Zuckerman claims it began with the oral transmission of the story (Zuckerman, Job the Silent, 77-81).

(91.) "Le-Bontche Shvaygyesh rayon klali, aval yesh lo gavan mekomij in Nahum Sokolow, Ishim (Personalities) (Hebrew) (Tel Aviv: Stybl, 1935).

(92.) Miron, for example, sees Bontshe as a representation of the Jewish people. See Dan Miron, The Image of the Shtetl: And Other Studies of Modern Jewish Literary Imagination (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2000), 340.

(93.) Barbara Delatiner, "On Television," Newsday, 1959. New York Times critic Jack Gould acknowledged its political significance, labeling the film "theatre of gende beauty, compassion, and social protest." (Jack Gould, "Aleichem's 'World': 'Play of the Week' Offers 3 One-Acters of Beauty, Compassion and Protest," New York Times, December 15. 1959

(94.) Yankev Dinezon's memoir tells us, "When Peretz published 'Bontshe Shvayg,' he received a letter from one of his readers, with warm thanks for the pleasure and, by the way, explains that he, the reader, soon understood that in 'Bontshe Shvayg Peretz meant the 'Jewish people,' which becomes so hunted and tormented, the poor thing.... Peretz then handed me the letter with the words: That's litvakes for you! (Peretz was a Polish Jew, while litvakes meant Jews from the 'north,' a.m.) It's good that I still live and can swear to your litvak that I didn't even have in mind the Jewish people; whom I did have in mind, you obviously know" (Alef Kletskin, 1916, "Y.L. Peretz Tsum Yortsayt," [I.L. Peretz to his Anniversary] Vilner Farlagfun Bes, p. 19; quoted in: Rozentsvayg, Der radikalerperyodfun Peretses shaft, 75). Rozentsvayg also adds that like the censor, the worker-reader understood well whom Peretz meant (idem).

(95.) Diner, We Remember with Reverence and Love, 296-302.

(96.) Deborah Dash Moore, "Introduction," in American Jewish Identity Politics, ed. Deborah Dash Moore (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008), 12.

(97.) Quoted in: Moshe Zimerman, Ha-sratim ha-smuim min ha-ayin (The Israeli Invisible Movies) (Hebrew) (Tel Aviv: Resling, 2007), 52.
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Author:Mahalel, Adi
Publication:Studies in American Jewish Literature
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Date:Sep 22, 2015
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