Yiddish drama The literature, productions, and acting style of the professional Yiddish theater, which developed in Europe beginning in the mid-19th century.
European Jewish drama had its origin in the Middle Ages, when dancers, mimics, and professional jesters entertained at weddings and Purim celebrations with songs and monologues. Purim, the holiday celebrating the downfall of Haman, a persecutor of the Jews in the Bible, became the occasion for increasingly elaborate plays, some of which continue to the present day. By the 16th century these plays, with their interpolated songs and free use of improvisation, were being performed in Yiddish, the language of the majority of central and eastern European Jews.
The beginning of professional Yiddish theater is usually dated to 1876, when Abraham Goldfaden, a former schoolteacher and journalist, joined forces with two traveling musicians to present his own two-act musical sketch in a tavern in Romania. Goldfaden went on to organize a full-time professional troupe, for which he eventually wrote full-length plays.
Goldfaden and newer Yiddish dramatists, such as Joseph Judah Lerner, became well established in Russia, but the anti-Semitic laws promulgated in 1883 expressly forbade Yiddish plays, and the playwrights and many of their actors immigrated to England and the United States. New York, with its vast immigrant population, became the center of Yiddish drama at the turn of the century.
In the early 1880s Boris Tomashevsky and others went to New York from London and presented the first Yiddish play in the United States. Jacob Gordin is credited with bringing new material and new life into the American Yiddish theater with free adaptations of the works of major European dramatists, such as his The Jewish King Lear (1892). Other notable authors are Sholem Asch, Sholem Aleichem, and H. Leivick (pseudonym of Leivick Halpern).
In 1918 Maurice Schwartz founded the Yiddish Art Theatre, in which he served as director and leading actor.
World War II and the Nazi concentration camps destroyed most of the Yiddish culture of Germany and eastern Europe, and the language is rapidly dying out elsewhere, as the children of immigrants are assimilated into new cultures. All of these factors combined have had a devastating impact on the Yiddish theater. In the second half of the 20th century only a few Yiddish theaters of uncertain future survived in New York City, London, Bucharest, Buenos Aires, and Warsaw.