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The Yiddish Stage as a Temporary Home

Updated: Sep 2, 2022

Book in review: The Satirical Theater of Dzigan and Schumacher (1927 - 1980)", Diego Rothman

//Svetlana Pohomova//

Diego Rothman, the author of "The Yiddish Stage as a Temporary Home. The Satirical Theater of Dzigan and Schumacher (1927 - 1980)" is a remarkable example of both the artist and the academic researcher. The history of Yiddish theater is reimagined in Rothman's art projects, while his experience curating and staging performances is grounded in a deep knowledge of linguistics, theater studies, and art history. His doctoral dissertation was the basis for a monograph published in Jerusalem in 2017 on the theatrical duo of Shimen Dzigan and Yisroel Schumacher. An English translation of Diego Rothman's book appeared in 2021, which was able to introduce the phenomenon of this satirical theater to a wider audience. Dzigan and Schumacher often changed countries on their way of life, but they remained faithful to their native Yiddish of Lodz through their carrier. It was this conscious choice made by Dzigan and Schumacher in favor of the dialect of Lodz that created a parallel cultural and linguistic context for the audience, who, like the actors themselves, were an oppressed minority, refugees or migrants, during their performances.

Rothman worked extensively in the archives of Israel, conducted interviews with family members and colleagues of the artistic duo, and actively analyzed the press in the countries where Dzigan and Schumacher performed. He created a detailed reconstruction of the duo's creative path, arranging the chapters of the book in chronological order, recreating the logic of internal transformations of the theater, its artistic means and language. The first chapter is devoted to the Lodz period, when the actors became part of first the cabaret and then of Moyshe Broderzon's "Ararat" theater. The second chapter can safely be called the Warsaw chapter. It was after moving to Warsaw that the union of Dzigan and Schumacher transformed into a self-sufficient theatrical company, which became famous primarily for its satirical sketches on acutely political topics. The third and most dramatic part focuses on the difficult period from 1939 to 1949. The occupation of Poland, work in the Soviet Union, four years in Soviet camps, and the postwar return to the place that had once been their home. The fourth chapter is as detailed as possible about Dzigan's and Schumacher's contradictory relationship with Israeli reality, which, on the one hand, was not at all comfortable or accepting for the Yiddish-speaking artists, but, on the other, became an inexhaustible source for their satirical work. In chapter five Diego Rothman elaborates on the analysis of a number of high-profile performances by the duo and then by Dzigan's solo theater, which openly criticized and parodied Israel's leaders, Zionist ideas, and aggressive state policies toward Yiddish and diaspora culture bearers.

Shimen Dzigan and Yisroel Schumacher began their acting careers in the "Ararat" theater troupe under the direction of the Yiddish poet Moyshe Broderzon in 1927. An encounter with Broderzon prompted Dzigan to abandon his career as a soccer player and concentrate on acting, fully immersed in the world of Yiddish literature and art. He also had to leave his family, who did not accept such an extravagant choice. For Dzigan, this was the first, but not the only loss of a real and symbolic home. The biography of Schumacher, who died quite early, is less well researched. He came from a bourgeois family, and in their duet with Dzigan he often played the role of Jewish intellectuals, as he himself was. Dzigan, on the other hand, played the roles of funny, uneducated, rude or simply cranky characters.

Rothman examines the duo's work at the “Ararat” theater and beyond not only in the context of Jewish theater, but also in connection with kleynkunst (theater of miniatures), the European, Russian and Polish cabaret tradition, and humorous forms such as the genre of comic duets. Broderzon, Dzigan and Schumacher were also influenced by the Hebrew-language theater HaBima, which toured Poland extensively. However, it was the cabaret, with its special atmosphere of experimentation, piquancy and freedom, that became the attraction for the Jewish creative intelligentsia of Lodz and later Warsaw. The combination of "high" and "low" culture in the cabaret was driven not only by aesthetic quests, but also became a means of expressing social and political criticism. Many of the principles of the Broderson Theater remained relevant to the activities of the comic duo Dzigan and Schumacher, and later to the Dzigan Theater.

The idea of a renewed Yiddish theater, a theater in search, a theater that rejected the old, commercial forms in favor of meaning and idea - this was the declared task of "Ararat" by its participants. The name "Ararat" was a strange combination of European modernist ideas and Jewish traditions. The abbreviation of Artistisher revolutsyonerer teater also referred to the legendary biblical mountain on which Noah's ark ran aground. This name immediately transformed the theater into a real and mythological place. Broderson, like the Noah of the twentieth century, sought to create Jewish artistic autonomy in Poland, a "wandering" territory of Yiddish cultural space. And this space was fundamentally extra-institutional. These ideas of Broderzon were to play a decisive role in the post-war work of Dzigan and Schumacher.

"A dictatorship is when the people have nothing to say and the government does

what they want, and democracy is when the people can say what they want and the

government still does whatever it wants."

Financial difficulties and creative disagreements led to the split of “Ararat” in 1929. The theater that emerged from it, Dzigan and Schumacher, emphasized acting, dialogue with the local audience. This led, among other things, to the decision to play in the Lodz dialect of Yiddish rather than in teater-loshn (or Volhynian dialectof Yiddish), the standardized Yiddish used in the theater scene. Following literary scholar Dan Miron, who used the concepts of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to analyze the works of Sholom Aleichem, Diego Rothman calls the uniqueness of the actor's duet, expressed in spoken language, accent and body movements, "the deterritorialization of language”.

In the mid-1930s, censorship in Poland tightened and anti-Semitic sentiments intensified. Then Dzigan and Schumacher turned to satire and parody. They were not afraid of inserting sharp political satire on the first persons of Germany and Poland, for example, Hermann Goering or Hitler himself into their performances. The satire of the duo allowed the artists and their audiences to perform a kind of collective rite of symbolic revenge against the oppressing authorities. Dzigan and Schumacher began to explore the subversive and at the same time therapeutic potential of humor. After all, the Jewish comedian, as Shimen Dzigan believed, should not only entertain, but also be a doctor, treating the sadness of Jewish souls.

"If they (the Russians and Americans) spent as much money on showing that you could live on Earth as they spent on showing that people could live on the moon? Who would need to seek their happiness on the moon... I'm off. I will not wait. What am I waiting for? For an atomic bomb to crack my head open? ...What do the Russians want to do up there? I know... maybe they want to show the world that there is some other place besides Russia where it is impossible to live... I'm off. I want to get rid of this world once and for all, of wars, of peace conferences... Farewell! Goodbye! I'm off..."

With the German invasion of Poland, Dzigan and Schumacher fled to Białystok, which had been ceded to the USSR under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. There they continued their theatrical activities, but their unsuccessful attempt to leave the USSR cost them four years of their lives in the Aktyubinsk camp. After their liberation in 1946, they returned to Poland, where, among other things, they took part in the production of the poignant Yiddish film "Our Children" (Undzere Kinder, 1949). In fact, Dzigan and Schumacher played themselves in it - two pre-war clowns who must perform for Jewish orphans who had survived the horrors of war. The difficult experience their young audience members went through at first paralyzes the creative will of Dzigan and Schumacher's characters and poses them sharp ethical questions about the appropriateness of their craft in a catastrophic reality. But in the finale, the characters realize that their ability to make children laugh, to make them forget at least for the duration of the performance about the nightmare they have suffered, is the only way to help their audience return to life.

Dzigan and Schumacher began their post-war performances in Poland with silence, a special Yiddish silence that became an aesthetic expression of the impossibility of words to describe the Shoah. However, as soon as words in Yiddish began to be spoken from the stage, it was as if they revived the lost Yiddishland for the duration of their sound.

In 1949, Dzigan and Schumacher left for a tour of Western Europe, and in 1950 they staged their first performance in Israel. However, for many years they had to live and work in Israel as "guest actors". This status allowed Dzigan and Schumacher to circumvent the government-imposed ban on Israeli artists performing in Yiddish, which had been in effect for several years since 1949. Here again, the duo's stubbornness and principle showed itself - to perform in Yiddish in a country that rejects its legitimacy both as a language of communication and as a language of culture. The activities of Dzigan and Schumacher sometimes turned into "acts of linguistic confrontation”.

"When a child is born, an angel kisses him. If he kisses him on the top of his head, he will grow up to be a thinker. If he kisses him on the lips, he will grow up to be a good speaker. If the kiss falls on his hands, he will be a pianist. Where did the angel kiss Ben-Gurion that he held on to his position so long?"

In the conclusion, Rothman returns to the core concept of his monograph, "de-territorialization." An important and complex element of Deleuze and Guattari's nomadology may seem somewhat redundant, but the vector of reflection on the place and role of Yiddish in the twentieth century set forth in Diego Rothman's study has great potential, especially in relation to the Soviet-Jewish material.

I would like to highlight the second, third, and fifth chapters of the monograph, which seamlessly combine factual material with theoretical concepts; quotations from the press, memoirs, and speeches with comments and interpretations. This immerses the reader in the political and social context of the era, in parallel, as if giving a taste of humor duo. The reader is gradually transformed into a spectator of the imaginary performances of Schumacher and Dzigan, unfolding in time and space, which brings him unexpectedly closer to the real audience of this unique satirical theater.

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