Australian Yiddish Theatre

The year 2005 marks the one hundreth anniversary of Yiddish theatre in Australia which began with the production of Abraham Goldfaden's "Shulamis" in Sydney in 1905. However, the true pioneer of Yiddish theatre was Samuel Weissberg, who arrived in Melbourne in November 1908, and within three months staged an opera entitled "Gabriel". Following the success of this venture, he established a dramatic circle of amateurs who undertook the production of Halevy's "La Juive" (the Jewess), which also was successful. The outbreak of World War I interrupted Australian Yiddish theatre till the 1920s, when Jews began arriving from Poland, most especially from Bialystok and Lodz, bringing to Ausralia the professional actor, Jacob Ginter, who founded Di Yiddishe Bineh and staged a number of the more prestigious works in Melbourne of Sholem Asch, H. Leivick, and Peretz Hirshbein.

Yiddish theatre was important in Melbourne cultural life, which is geographically so isolated from the wider Jewish world, and especially from the flourishing cultural centres of Poland before World War II. Yiddish theatre recreated the Jewish world that had been left behind in Europe and filled its audience with nostalgia.

In 1939, the imminent war caused two renowned and talented stars of Yiddish stage to become stranded in Australia. These were Jacob Weislitz and Rachel Holtzer, whose combined efforts raised local Yiddish theatre to greater heights and guided it to greater heights in the golden years of the 1950s.

After the death of the renowned Polish Jewish director, David Herman, Jacob Weislits renamed Di Yiddishe Bineh the David Herman theatre, after his former mentor. It became a model for fine Yiddish theatre. Rachel Holzer and Jacob Weislitz raised their troupe to a high theatrical standard. Each piece they staged was prepared with tremendous energy and verve, and even the smallest role was rehearsed to absolute perfection. Talented actors continued to arrive, and good quality classical works and new Yiddish plays were performed. Rachel Levita, a founding member credits Waislitz as her mentor. Waislitz was a perfectionist. Melbourne began to acquire the reputation as a new centre of cultural Jewish life.

In the late 1950s and early 60s, as the Jewish migrant community became more settled and prosperous, it began to shift from inner city Carlton to the leafier, more middle class suburbs of Melbourne, to St Kilda, Elwood, then to Caulfield, Brighton and Elsternwick. In 1970, with the rejuvenation of Australian theatre in general, a youth ensemble, the "Melbourne Yiddish Youth Theatre at the Kadimah" was founded and began perforing Yiddish translations of English language plays, as well as classics from the Yiddish theatrical repertoire. Whilst the older David Herman Theatre gradually wound down its hectic schedule, following the death of such key figures as Jacob Weisliz, Shiah Tigel and later Yasha Sher, the younger troupe continued with their ensemble productions of locally devised musicals until the late 1990s.

New challenges face the ageing post-war Jewish migrant population. One challenge is to pass on the heritage of rich Yiddish culture to the second and third generation of Australian born Jews, offspring of those migrants who made Australia a real "home away from the home" that was so cruelly destoyed. We note the recent passing of one such migrant, Selwyn Pesachowitz, the pioneer of SBS Yiddish radio in Sydney. Tapes from these early programmes(from the 1970s) are housed in the Archive.

The David Herman theatre

The David Herman theatre grew out of a long tradition, with cultural roots that can be raced back to the very beginnings of Yiddish theatre in Eastern Europe.

'They were wanderers and itinerants, troubadours and minstrels. They toured the world on board trains, on house-drawn carts, over dusty roads and byways. They boarded ships that took them to the remotest of lands, including Australia. And wherever they went they recreated their grand passion, a form of magic called Yiddish theatre.' (Page 1).

Jacob Rosenberg, an Australian yiddish poet and survivor of the Holoocaust speaks of Australia as a land of immigrants in the forward of Wanderers and Dreamers which tells the history of yiddish theatre in Australia.

Yiddish theatre has been performed in Melbourne continuously since 1908, when the travelling actor Samuel Weisberg arrived in Australia. Wanderers and Dreamers traces the extraordinary journeys of the many Yiddish performers, such as Yahkev Waislitz, who brought their rare talents and acting skills to Australia, a land far distant from the countries they had left. In the post war years, Yiddish theatre "down-under" experienced its golden years with an influx of actors and directors, among them some who had performed as an act of resistance in the ghettos and concentration camps. One person who should be mentioned was Yasha Sher (1914-1995), who edited the Yiddish section of the Australian Jewish News . His career with the David Herman Theatre spanned a fifty-three year period, and he performed in its last production in 1992. Wanderers and Dreamers is Zable's English language account of this extraordinary history. It includes photos, actors' biographies, and lists the plays that have been performed at the David Herman Theatre.

Further reading

  • More material on Yiddish theatre in Australia is included in the three volumes of Oistralilsch-Yidish Almanachs (Australian -Jewish Almanacs)) of 1937, 1942 and 1967, published in Yiddish by the Kadimah.
  • Also:

  • Itzhak Kahn, 70 Years Yiddish Theatre in Australia (in Yiddish), Die Yiddische Naies, Friday 26th September 1980.

  • Serge Liberman, Seventy Years of Yiddish theatre in Melbourne, 1909-1979. Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal, vol. 8, 437-450, 1979 (also published in the Melbourne Chronicle in two parts, in Nos 3(23), June-July 1980 and 1(25), January , 1981.

  • Serge Liberman, Yiddish theatre In Perth, Brisbane and Sydney. Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal, Vol. 9, 2528, 1981.

  • For a survey of world Yiddish theatre, see Nahma Sandrow's Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater . Philadelphia, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1977. This also has a section on Australia.

    Marianne Dacy
    University of Sydney