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Jews and the Making of Modern German Theatre, edited by Jeanette R. Malkin and Freddie Rokem.  Studies in Theatre History and Culture.  Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010.  304 pp. $49.95.


Historians and arts scholars have long discussed the rightful place of German-born Jews in German society and the tenuous relationship that they held historically vis-à-vis their non-Jewish-born fellow citizens. The curious paradigm of both belonging to German society and at the same time being apart from it distinguished Jews in Germany for centuries, despite the Enlightenment and subsequent freedoms for Jews within the unified Germany of 1871. During Wilhelmine Germany and in the Weimar Republic, Jews typically gravitated to occupations which reflected this trend. So it is not surprising that a majority of assimilated German Jews entered independent professions related to the arts, especially the theatre. What role did Jewish artists play in shaping modern German theatre during the late nineteenth- and twentieth centuries? What effect did avant-garde theatre trends have on German Jews and their self-identity? Jeanette R. Malkin and Freddie Rokem’s fascinating, edited collection of essays, Jews and the Making of Modern German Theatre, begins to address such long-neglected questions.

              With the expert collaboration of twelve scholars, the recent addition to editor Thomas E. Postlewait’s prize-winning series, Studies in Theatre History and Culture, offers an unusually varied palette of perspectives on the extent to which German Jews not only contributed to, but co-created modern German theatre. The editors, known for their scholarship in performance history, delimit their study as dating from 1871 to 1933 and encompassing non-traditional forms of theatre, known as “modernist.” The book’s organization devotes roughly the first half of the book to how theatre constituted Jewish identity in Germany. Many of the authors address the notion of Jewish modernization in terms of a remaking of self, acculturation, and self-transformation when Jewish actors performed their identity. In the book’s second chapter, for example, Steven E. Aschheim posits the theatre as an actual “physical and psychosymbolic site” within which the complexities of Jewish post-Enlightenment identity played out (p. 27). Other scholars like Bernhard Greiner and Peter M. Marx, in Chapters 6 and 7, respectively, reconsider Jewish identity and the theatre through the lens of Jewish philosopher Theodore Lessing and literary critic Arnold Zweig’s provocative twentieth-century writings on the Jewish actor’s propensity for mimicry and talent for physical expressiveness.

              The book’s thematic focus on Jewish theatre artists within the German theatre resonates in each chapter wherein authors emphasize the shaping force that Jews had on their Gentile theatre colleagues. Among the anthology’s strengths, in addition to excellent editing, are the thematic correspondences between the chapters. Many of the assembled essays inform one another from different points of view; and yet the separate essays also provide the reader with an overlay of topics, creating a dialogic discourse between chapters. In this way, Malkin, in her essay about Jewish actors on the German Expressionist Stage (Chapter 9), refers to the modernist director Leopold Jessner’s concept of transformation (1922) by which the German Jewish actor  “navigated” between being and impersonation, passing between the Jewish and the German identities enfolded within him (p. 168). Anat Feinberg (Chapter 13) offers a biography of Jessner and his influence on modernist German theatre. Feinberg’s chapter thus builds on Malkin’s analysis of the Jewish actor’s capacity for on-stage doubleness as a social strategy to hide his identity as a Jew, while revealing a specific Jewish expressive creativity. Read together, these chapters allow the reader to better assess theatre production by Jews during the 1920s, while understanding something about Jewish identity. So too do several authors provide essays on such theatre innovators and directors as Otto Brahm (born Abrahamsohn) and Max Reinhardt (born Goldmann) and their vital contribution to German theatre. Peter Jelavich (Chapter 3) situates these theatre impresarios and their artistic influence within Imperial Germany, while Lisa Silverman discusses Reinhardt’s personal metamorphosis and the impact of Yiddish theatre on his grand-scale theatre productions as part of the Catholic Salzburg Festival (Chapter 11). Erika Lichte-Fischer extends the notion of “theatre as festival” in her examination of Reinhardt’s environmentally-rich productions of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice which featured Renaissance Venice onstage in Berlin (1905) and in Venice in 1934 (Chapter 12).

              The impact of Yiddish theatre on the German and Austrian stage before 1933 cannot be discounted. Delphine Bechtel persuasively links the influence of a generation of young German-speaking Jewish intellectuals as cultural mediators during the Weimar years (Chapter 5). The cross-cultural “hybridization” that Bechtel refers to led to a transmission and popularization of Yiddish theatre for German audiences. In this way, assimilated Jews could more accept the character of the Ostjude or Eastern European Jew on stage. Shelly Zer-Zion’s fascinating biographical portrait of two East European Jewish actors from Galicia, Alexander Granach and Shimon Finkel, and their artistic integration into Weimar Berlin’s theatre milieu reveals the tenuous relationship that East and West European Jews had on and off stage (Chapter 10). Hans-Peter Bayerdörfer touches on this topic in his essay on Jewish cabaret writers and artists like Kurt Tucholsky and Walter Mehring and their strong impact on German theatre before 1933, especially regarding identity and political ideology (Chapter 8). Bayerdörfer sketches the tensions that curtailed the artists’ activities from an intra-German controversy over identity and acculturation to the economic crash of 1929 and the growing threat of National Socialism. As the cabaret artists fled the country or went into inner exile, a vibrant chapter in the Jewish co-creation of modern German theatre would come to an abrupt close in 1933. Malkin and Rokem’s deserving study of a truly compelling subject ought to have a broad appeal to theatre practitioners and cultural scholars.

Rebecca Rovit

Department of Theatre

University of Kansas