Yiddish Shenanigans on Purim: The Winter Academy Sees “Marienbad” at the State Jewish Theater in Bucharest

by Amber N. Nickell

As a scholar interested in the Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe and a student of Yiddish, I had heard the stories of “Eastern” Europe and New York’s famed Yiddish theaters during their early twentieth century glory days. I had fawned over black and white reels of well-known productions, like GOSET’s infamous take on King Lear. However, I had never enjoyed a live performance, until now. As part of a large group of Winter Academy attendees, I relished a brief reprieve from thought provoking presentations, readings, and discussions at the State Jewish Theater in Bucharest.[1] The location of my first foray into Yiddish theater was, perhaps, the biggest treat. After all, the Winter Academy is hosted in Romania, the birthplace of the artform. The “father of Yiddish theater,” Avraham Goldfaden, founded the first Yiddish troupe in 1876, and their first performances took place against the backdrop of an Iaşi wine garden. Due to this long history of Yiddish theater in Romania and the tenacity of individuals across generations, the State Jewish Theater is one of the longest standing, fully functional Yiddish theaters in the world, will be celebrating its 142nd year in May.[2]

Hamantashen pastries served in the Jewish Theatre in Bucharest. Photo by the author

The timing could not have been more perfect. Sundown on Wednesday marked the start of Purim, a holiday commemorating the Jew’s escape from Haman’s murderous plot. Jews tend to celebrate the holiday with public celebrations, costumes, wine, and food (most notably the sweet triangular shaped treats called “Hamantashen”). The hostess did not disappoint. Wine and drinks awaited us in the reception hall, as a wildly expressive, vibrant, and engaging woman made her way to the front of the room. She immediately captured everyone’s attention. Speaking Romanian, a language I don’t understand, she described the story of Purim and the ways in which Jews commemorate the holiday (At least I think this was the case, given the parts I understood: Purim, Haman, Ester, Masquerade, Hamentash…). Shortly thereafter, silver platters of Hamentash appeared. Theater goers hesitantly gathered a few, until, in true fashion, the hostess demanded that others partake with a swift wave of her hand (One could tell that she had played many a Jewish grandmother on stage). The crowd descended on the treats, as nods and hums of approval swept across the room.

Yet, the State Jewish Theater saved the very best part of Purim, the costumes, for the stage, where the performed a theatrical adaptation of Sholom Aleichem’s early twentieth century novel, Marienbad.[3] A truly unique piece of literature, as was the case every time Aleichem put pen to paper, the novel traced the complicated, and, more often than not, scandalous interactions between a group of friends and travelers at a turn of the century sanatorium (resort) in Marienbad using a series of telegrams and letters. Dramatized by Andrei Munteanu, the State Jewish Theater’s production of Marienbad perfectly marries Aleichem’s distinctively Jewish humor; all the glitz, genderbending and musical innovation of 1920s and 30s Yiddish theater; and technological innovation (i.e., a projection screen and rotating stage), leaving the audience with a truly unforgettable experience. The Bucharest troupe spiritedly played on traditional Jewish stereotypes— over the top (sometimes drunk) gossiping old ladies, old men with a pessimistic outlook on pretty much everything, opportunistic mothers seeking good matches for their daughters, and a wise and benevolent Rebbe dotted on by even the most salacious of Jews. Yet, they added variation to this over the top, kitschy humor with catch musical numbers and modern dance routines.

There seemed to be one thing missing from this Purim celebration, the gragger (noisemakers used to drown out the name of Haman during the traditional Purim reading). The audience hung on every, beautiful, Yiddish word.

References

[1] I would like to extend special thanks to Annette Werberger for finding out about the theater, sharing the opportunity with attendees, and securing a block of seats.

[2] Yisroel Berkovitsh,  Hundert yor yidish teater in Rumenye, 1876–1976 (Bucharest, 1976); “Romanian State Yiddish Theater,” YIVO, accessed March 1, 2018, http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Romanian_State_Yiddish_Theater; Alyssa Pia Quint, Ruth R Wisse, and Harvard University, “The Botched Kiss: Abraham Goldfaden and the Literary Origins of the Yiddish Theatre.” 2002.

[3] Sholem Aleichem, Marienbad (Wideview Perigee Books, Published by Putnam Publishing Group, 1984).


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