Jewish Theater: Digital Yiddish Theatre Project

Nothing in America is ever really dead. I feel like I need to say that at the start, because Yiddish theater is constantly treated as a moribund thing, once vital, now to be discussed in a darkened room with covered mirrors while friends bring chafing dishes with hot meals and express their condolences.

But culture doesn't work like that, especially not in America, and especially not for Jews, who never let anything go. You've probably seen old images of children rolling hoops with sticks, which seems like something that could only happen in an America that didn't have any other form of entertainment. Well, they still do it at Wellesley College. Those bicycles with the big front tire called a penny farthing, which must have existed at a time when people had not yet figured out how to make tires the same size? People still race them.

So when writers speak of the Yiddish language, or Yiddish theater, as being dead or dying, they're hardly right. It has, of course, fallen from its once great heights, when 2nd Avenue in New York was a Yiddish Broadway, when there were as many as 20 performances per night at various venues. But Yiddish never stopped being a language of dramatic expression, and there continues to be American companies that specialize in Yiddish theater.

This is a long way to introduce my topic for today, which is the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project, but I feel it important to establish that we are discussing an ongoing concern, not antiquity. This is a project that concerns itself with both the past and the present of Yiddish theater, as demonstrated by the fact that one of their categories of article is "21st Century," and includes an interview with playwright Paula Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman, who recently created a play about the making of the classic Yiddish drama "God of Vengeance," (Vogel is also on the Project's board). Also in the section: A story about a pedagogic performance at the Yiddish Book Center based on the Wise Men of Chelm stories.

The Digital Yiddish Theatre Project concerns itself with a dazzling variety of topics about past and present Yiddish theater, and, since that is an interest of mine, I contacted two of the Project's founders to find out more. What follows is an edited email interview with Debra Caplan, Assistant Professor of Theatre at Baruch College, and Joel Berkowitz, Professor of Foreign Languages & Literature at the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee.

My first question is about the origin of the project. I am very curious about how this came about, especially as you have such a physically disconnected board and membership who draw from so many disciplines. I see that it started as a conversation at the Association for Jewish Studies. How does this turn into a website?

Joel Berkowitz: The seeds of the project were indeed sown in a conversation Debra and I had at the AJS annual conference in 2012. Debra had just given a paper on the movements of the different incarnations of the Vilna Troupe, the company that was the subject of her Harvard doctoral dissertation. For her paper, she used GIS technology to illustrate those movements on a world map, and as we talked after her session, we started daydreaming aloud about what we might accomplish by simultaneously harnessing two resources: digital technology (mapping, coding, scanning, etc.) and the collective expertise and experience of a team of leading scholars of Yiddish theatre and drama.

Debra Caplan:  I presented a paper that applied data visualization to the Vilna Troupe (which ultimately resulted in this project:, and Joel suggested that we gather a group of scholars together to brainstorm how to bring the study and preservation of Yiddish theater into the digital age.

Joel Berkowitz: That discussion led to others, where we talked about who might be on our “dream team.” To keep things manageable, we’d have to be selective, based not just on expertise, but on carefully building the group to cover various languages, subject areas, and skill sets. The group we assembled collectively commands fluency in not just Yiddish and English, but Hebrew, Russian, Polish, German, Spanish, French, and other languages. The group includes scholars who work on theatre history, Jewish history, film studies, musicology, and other related fields—and significantly, includes several librarians and archivists, including a digital archivist. So we balance each other quite nicely. And just as important, we really like each other, and we’ve found that camaraderie not just fun, but conducive to getting a lot of good work done.

We assembled a team of scholars and librarians with divergent and complementary skills, languages, and interests. As you've seen, our members come from three countries and across the United States.

Debra Caplan: You’re right that we are, as the Sholem Aleichem title goes, tsezeyt un tseshpreyt—scattered and dispersed. Most of our core group is based in the US, but spread across the country. We also have team members in Canada, the UK, and the Netherlands. And our advisory board goes even farther afield, to other parts of Europe, Israel, and Argentina. We therefore do a lot of our work online: mainly email and a fair number of video conferences. Crucially, though, we’ve held two workshops in Milwaukee, each of which was attended by most of the group members. As useful as all of those online tools are, there’s of course no substitute for sitting in the same room, for hours at a time within a concentrated period, and exchanging ideas and mapping out how to execute them.

Joel Berkowitz: We then gathered together in person in Milwaukee in two workshops, one in 2014 and one in 2015, and developed our ideas for the site during those meetings.

The first of those workshops, in March 2014, gave us a chance to articulate our identity more clearly than we had before, and to figure out our first significant steps. Our main conclusion then was to launch a blog, which we rolled out about six months later. At that point, our focus was content rather than design: we wanted to start telling the story of the Yiddish theatre, collectively and in non-linear fashion, and that’s what we started at that point. By the time of the second workshop, we had gotten a certain amount of material up on the blog, and it was starting to get some attention. We also had (and have) a Facebook page with hundreds of followers (approaching 1000), and an active Twitter account, @yiddishstage. We also started planning grant applications at that workshop, which led to our getting seed funding from both Debra’s and my universities, the City University of New York and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. That in turn funded the second workshop, in October 2015, and the design of our new website, That design is still under way, but the site went live in August, and the blog has migrated to its beautiful new home, created by the fabulous people at Familiar Studio in NYC.

How do you do it? What is your process for soliciting articles, how often do you try to publish, etc.?

Debra Caplan: We strive to have new posts approximately every two weeks or less. We solicit articles from our members, and from others who have projects or skills that we find of interest, or who have something to say about contemporary happenings in Yiddish theater. We work with contributors to develop their ideas before submission, then there is an editing phase before articles are posted. Our project manager, Nick Underwood, is instrumental in keeping this entire process running and in scheduling posts.

Joel Berkowitz: A few core principles drive the blog. I’ve never laid them out like this, but here are the ones that come to mind, off the top of my head:

1. The blog is for everyone: that is, we want every post to offer something meaningful to both scholars and to the intelligent, interested lay person. Some posts contain new scholarship and some don’t, but all of them have to say something new about Yiddish theatre and drama, and all of them have to be written in lively, readable prose.

2. Authorship is fairly open too, so we’ve invited guest posts from a variety of colleagues. To many of our colleagues we’ve extended open invitations. At other times, specific posts have bubbled up organically. For example, a stream of really smart tweets from Rokhl Kafrissen that were sparked by the passing of actor Fyvush Finkel led me to encourage her to expand them into a blog post. The result was a moving an important commentary on Finkel’s legacy that we were really proud to run.

3. While contributions from colleagues—which doesn’t necessarily mean academics, I hasten to add—have greatly enriched the blog, we feel that it’s important for our core group to generate at least half of the blog content.

4. We want to publish frequently enough to keep the blog fresh and keep readers coming back for more. On average, we feel that a new post every two weeks or so is about right.

Is there a specific definition of Yiddish Theater you are working with? I guess I'm asking this question because, in my own writing, I keep coming across Jews representing themselves almost clandestinely, and so stuff that feels Jewish pop up in unlikely and surprising places. But I also am always curious about how people define theater, since there are so many sorts of performance that are theatrical.

Joel Berkowitz: We’ve never tried as a group, as far as I can recall, to define Yiddish theatre, and if we ever did, I certainly wouldn’t want the boundaries to be too rigid. As you suggest, theatre and performance can take a lot of forms, and on the blog we’ve made forays into film, amateur performance, and for that matter, manifestations of Yiddish theatrical culture that take us some distance from the theatre building itself, such as depictions of theatre personnel and performances in visual culture. But the Yiddish side of “What is Yiddish theatre?” can be just as fluid. One of the things that all of us love about Yiddish theatre is the many complex ways in which it intersects with other art forms and with other cultures—for example, in blog posts about a long-lost film that’s not in Yiddish at all, or contemporary theatre that incorporates Yiddish, but is performed mostly in other languages.

Debra Caplan: Well, I would say that Yiddish theater encompasses any theatrical performance in Yiddish. Joel, do you agree? As far as theater goes, I'd say the field includes all kinds of performance, from vaudeville to "legitimate" theater and everything in between. That being said, we're not a performance studies venue -- that is to say, we're not writing about performance that happens in everyday life or outside of performance venues. But we are interested in virtually anything in Yiddish that calls itself performance or theater. 

Joel Berkowitz: I would just add a couple of things. First, while the blog does focus on performance, it can also touch on analysis of dramas, whether as performed or simply as texts. The best of those texts include some of the great masterpieces of Yiddish literature; one fascinating feature of Yiddish drama is that so many of the writers who may be best known as fiction writers or poets had significant careers as playwrights (including Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, Peretz, Asch, Bergelson, Molodowsky, and on and on and on…). And numerous Yiddish dramas, whether they were ever performed or not, are worth getting to know, and introducing to our readers.

The other point worth adding is that discussions of Yiddish theatre can also be about what happens offstage. There are the often juicy, backstage dramas in the lives of theatre personnel, but also other areas of culture and society that theatre touches upon. We’ve had blog posts about film, for example, since the Yiddish film industry (like Hollywood in its early years) was populated almost entirely by people whose careers were primarily in the theatre. The blog has also taken us to visual arts, like photography and illustration, since such imagery infinitely enriches our understanding of what Yiddish productions, and the people in them, looked like.

I find the phrase "digital humanities tools" pop up on the site, and wonder if you could explain this further, and give examples of what you mean.

Debra Caplan: Digital humanities indicates a body of methodologies that apply computing to humanities subjects. We're interested in digital publication about Yiddish theater, as well as the kinds of digital conversations and connections that a website enables. But we're also pursuing several projects that will use more kinds of digital tools, including digital publication of archival documents, databases, text encoding, and data visualization we're also looking into expanding the mapping feature on our current website.

There is some discussion on your site about the benefits of digital technology, such as being able to scan through massive amounts of scanned text for keywords. How much of the world of Yiddish theater exists in a digital form just now?

Debra Caplan: There is a good bit of digitized archival material out there, but there's no central repository yet where one can find it. We see our role as curatorial -- our goal is to curate content about Yiddish theater (including digitized texts and archival documents) and generate new material that explains and contextualizes it.