Top 10 Queerest Moments in the Yiddish Theatre: An Illustrated List in Honor of Pride Month 2019
1. Got fun nekome (God of Vengeance)
Sholem Asch’s 1906 play features a love affair between Rivke, the pious daughter of a brothel owner, and Manke, a prostitute in the brothel downstairs. The play created controversy for its portrayal of lesbianism, prostitution, and its irreverent attitude towards religion; most famously, the Broadway cast was indicted for obscenity in 1923. Got fun nekome (God of Vengeance) also inspired the recent hit play Indecent (above), by Paula Vogel. Read more…
2. Yo a man, nit a man (Yes a Man, Not a Man)
This is the most fascinating gender-bending Yiddish drama you’ve never heard of, starring Samuel Goldenberg as Morris Green, a character with an ambiguous gender and sexuality who is not attracted to women. The play was written by “Dr. Charandai,” a (supposed) European author, and freely adapted in Yiddish by Rubin Fridman. Zachary Baker’s exploration of the play and its reception can be founds here.
3. Vaybershe roles (Female roles)
In the days of the Broder Singer and early days of the Yiddish theatre, men played all the roles, including female parts, such as in the sketch Grandmother and Granddaughter. Early “grandmothers” included Yankev Katsman (opposite Mendl Teplitski as the granddaughter) and Khone Shtrudler (who also played Bobe Yakhne in Goldfaden’s Kishefmakherin [Sorceress]). Other examples include Herman Weinberg (pictured), who had a high voice and played female roles such as Brayne in Goldfaden’s Shmendrik in 1884 (pictured with Yoyne Raysman in the title role).
4. Pepi Littman, “Yiddish Drag King”
Crowned a “Yiddish Drag King” by Forverts archivist Chana Pollack, Littman was a wildly popular performer whose Hasidic male roles ignited crowds in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She was known for her extraordinarily strong alto voice and her spirited, sometimes vulgar interpretations of songs; she was also one of few women to manage her own troupe in Europe. Early recordings preserve some of her repertoire, and have even inspired modern revivals.
5. Boy roles
A la Pepi Littman, the Yiddish stage is replete with women in male drag, perhaps most famously in Yidl mitn fidl (Yiddle with his Fiddle), the smash film of 1938 mined for queer subtext by Eve Sicular (Yiddish Celluloid Closet). Molly Picon portrays a young woman who joins a klezmer band in male disguise and falls in love with one of the male members of the band. In another such role, Bessie Thomashefsky portrayed a feminist who dons male clothing in Khantshe in Amerike. In a more serious vein, legendary actress Bertha Kalich beat out male competitors to play Hamlet, in the mold of Sarah Bernhardt, to whom she was often favorably compared.
6. Der dibuk (The Dybbuk)
Gay writer and ethnographer Sh. An-sky drew on his research to create this play, which rocketed the Vilner Troupe to fame in 1922. Michał Waszyński, a gay, Jewish convert to Catholicism, directed the 1937 film. The story concerns two young men who promise their future children to each other (perhaps in lieu of consummating their relationship with each other), but when the destined match is thwarted by the groom’s premature death due to dabbling in kabbalah, the bride becomes possessed by his spirit in the form of a dybbuk. The film includes a homoerotic scene in the mikve and the dance of death choreographed and performed by a wonderfully androgynous Judith Berg.
7. Di khazntes (Women cantors)
Stars such as Fraydele Oysher (pictured above with her daughter, actress and singer Marilyn Michaels) have long sung and performed cantorial repertoire in male religious wear on stage, appropriating a role Orthodox Judaism prohibits for women. Women also played boy cantors in stage characters expressly developed for this purpose. Female singers also presented cantorial repertoire in concert, radio and commercial recordings at a time before some denominations of Judaism accepted women as cantors. Check out Cantor Arianne Brown’s research on the khazntes, and listen to Perele Feig, a member of the Hebrew Actors’ Union known for her striking, androgynous voice.
8. Masoes Binyomen ha-shlisi (Travels of Benjamin the Third)
Mendele Moykher Sforim’s 1878 novel was dramatized by GOSET, the Moscow Yiddish Art Theatre, among others, starring Shloyme Mikhoels as Benjamin and and Benjamin Zuskin as Senderl. Scholars such as Warren Hoffman have noted the homoerotic overtones of their relationship. Senderl is called Senderl the yidene, a sometimes perjorative term for a Jewish woman or wife). The two leave their wives and set out on an unusual quest.
9. Mitzi Manna
Mitzi Manna, a drag character created by Yiddish actor Shane Baker, recites homoerotic poetry and sings a stunning rendition of Samet un zayd (Silk and Satin) in a performance that, according to Yiddish cultural critic Rokhl Kafrissen, reflects the influence of downtown camp as well as the women of the Yiddish stage. As a fellow out performer, I have myself enjoyed partnering with Baker onstage to perform various scenes including a queer parody of Rubin Doctor’s “Ikh bin a border bay mayn vayb” (I am a boarder at my wife’s); Doctor’s version was also popularized in recent times by out artist Josh Dolgin.
10. JFREJ Purimshpil: Binary-blurring
Inspired by Yiddish Purim shpiln, JFREJ (Jews for Racial and Economic Justice) presents a colorful annual performance, established by queer Yiddish artists extraordinaire Jenny Romaine and the late Adrienne Cooper. Focusing on contemporary social justice issues, these wildly creative JFREJ Purim spectacles draw on Yiddish language and radical political traditions. Replete with genre- and gender-bending revelry, they are full of “noisemaking, rule-breaking, binary-blurring and an end to business as usual.”
Finally, I’ll leave you with this clip from my Yiddish lesbian torch song, Di bahaltene libe (Hidden Love), courtesy of Christa Whitney at the Yiddish Book Center, wishing you a freylekhn nakhes-khoydesh (Happy Pride Month)!