My family is not Jewish and therefore I never celebrated Jewish holidays at home. However, I have celebrated them—Sabbath, Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah, Passover—in meaningful moments of my life with people who meant a lot to me: my academic teachers and mentors, Holocaust survivors and ghetto fighters, Soviet Jewish dissidents. In 2018, I celebrated the holiday of Sukkot in Kingston, Ontario with Diego Rotman, then the Rosen artist in residence at Queen’s University, and now the head of the Theatre department of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. While my celebrations with others were immersions into tradition and the past, my Sukkot experience with Diego was about the present and the future. We sat, ate, and drank in Diego’s sukkah, a traditional rendering of the ancient tent used by wandering Jews in the desert, but, at the same time, Diego’s own artistic rendering of that tent, framed by contemporary problems in Israeli society. I also took Diego’s seminar on Jewish Theatre in Europe at Queen’s University, and thus I learned about his work on Shimon Dzigan and Israel Shumacher, major stars in the interwar Polish-Yiddish theatre and cinema.
Diego’s book The Stage as a Temporary Home: On Dzigan and Shumacher’s Theater (1927-1980) (2017) was published in Hebrew by Magnes Press in Jerusalem. The English translation of the book has just been completed and will be published by De Gruyter in 2021. The book brings the half-forgotten figures of Dzigan and Shumacher to the fore as important 20th-century cultural producers, and analyzes their contribution to Jewish theatre and post-war art and culture at large. I am grateful to Diego, who agreed to answer my questions about Dzigan and Shumacher.
Please tell me about yourself. What you have done and are currently doing—in academia, art, and theatre—the projects which you consider your most important accomplishments and your works in progress?
My academic research started with a M.A. thesis on the discourse on the Yiddish theatre in Israel in the Hebrew and Yiddish press from 1948-2003. I continued this research, researching and writing my Ph.D. thesis, focusing on Shimon Dzigan and Israel Shumacher’s theatre (1927-1980). Today, I continue working on those topics, while also working on art-based research projects which connect my activities as an artist and curator with my academic research. The “Fragile Structures of Knowledge,” one of the main projects I am currently working on, reflects upon temporary dwelling, migration, landscape and territorial politics thorough a series of sukkah building projects. These projects connect ethnography, contemporary art, and performance studies and, as I mentioned, are based on practice.
Who are Shimon Dzigan and Israel Shumacher? Why did you write about them?
Dzigan and Shumacher formed one of the most interesting, talented, and critical comic and satirical duos of the Yiddish stage. They started their career in 1927 in the modernist and experimental kleynkunstbine (cabaret style theatre) Ararat in Lodz, Poland, founded and directed by the Yiddish modernist poet Moyshe Broderzon. In the beginning of the 1930s they left the collective and established their own theatre that became known as Dzigan and Shumacher’s theatre. They continued working and developing their particular and unique humoristic style, using their rich Yiddish dialect instead of the standardized theatrical Yiddish, and developing a unique political satire reacting to the social and political situation of the Jews in Poland. In 1939, they succeeded to escape the Nazis, fleeing to the Soviet Union where they were able to continue performing for a couple of years. Later they were arrested by the Soviet regime and spent four years in labor camps in Siberia. In the late 1940s, they came back to Poland and established a new Yiddish Kleynkunst Theatre in Lodz. Later, they moved to Israel but decided not to apply for Israeli citizenship and performed all around the globe. Shumacher passed away in 1961, Dzigan continued performing till his death in 1980.
I have decided to write about one of the most interesting chapters in the history of Yiddish theatre, a duo that was able to develop a critical practice that has no precedent in Yiddish and Israeli theatre. My grandfather used to listen to Dzigan and Shumacher’s recorded performances and laugh, but I didn’t understand what was so funny. It took me many years to share and appreciate my grandfather’s laughter.
Where exactly do they belong: theatre, cabaret, cinema, comedy?
I think that they could be related to the experimental theatre, extremely influenced by the Polish and Jewish cabaret, Habima’s [the National Jewish Theater performing in Hebrew] modernism, Jewish folk humor, and of course the famous duos of the cinema such as Laurel and Hardy, but also Charlie Chaplin. But if we talk about belonging, I think that they create their own territory, their own boundaries, that is the reason why I called their theatre a “Temporary Home.”
Should we classify them as “Yiddish culture” or a wider phenomenon with international impact? In my opinion, political cabaret, Nazism, and the Holocaust represented in Undzere kinder (Our Children), the 1948 film directed by Natan Gross, featuring Dzigan and Shumacher, anticipated and perhaps inspired, aesthetically and thematically, the iconic representations of the same phenomena in Cabaret and Schindler’s List.
I think that they do belong to Yiddish culture, and it is a Yiddish phenomenon. Also I would argue that they were also an Israeli phenomenon, despite the fact that they were struggling in Israel in order to be able to perform in their mother tongue [the use of Yiddish, as “diaspora language,” the opposite of Hebrew, the “national Jewish language,” was strongly discouraged in Israel until the 1970s]. They had an international impact but as a part of the transnational Yiddish culture. Famous artists apparently came to watch their performances, according to Dzigan’s memoirs, and of course Polish artists and Hebrew artists, including writers such as Ephraim Kishon [classical Israeli humorist], politicians, theatre critics, and others. They did have an influence on them, but I think that they had mostly an influence on the spectators, on their own community who loved to sing their songs, tell their jokes, actually performing the duo’s heritage. I would argue that they were without any doubt an international phenomenon in the Yiddish world.
Regarding the influence of Dzigan and Shumacher or, more specifically Nathan Gross’s Undzere Kinder, we should remember that the film was almost not screened (only two times in Poland in 1949, and a couple of times in Israel), disappearing from collective memory and academic research till the 1980s. I think that there are thematic connections but they have to do more with the fact that the 1930s-1940s were years in which their Kleynkunst theatre was extremely popular on the Yididsh stage and on German-speaking stages (as well as in other languages). Their style allowed them to approach very hard topics using humor and music. In those hard years, Dzigan and Shumacher-inspired kleynkunst projects were performed at Terezin/Theresienstadt [Czech Jewish “camp-ghetto” that existed in 1941-1945], but this is another topic. I can’t see a direct connection or influence from the film itself but yes, it has the same sources and influenced by the same “cultural climate” of those times.
As an academic and artist, how would you teach and/or perform the legacy of Dzigan and Shumacher?
You are asking the question in the right moment. This year I am going to teach, for the first time, a seminar on Dzigan and Shumacher for graduate students at the Yiddish Program of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Besides that, I am now working together with my partner Lea Mauas [in 2017 Diego and Lea already did a fascinating project, “reenacting” the 1920s-1930s Yiddish culture by screening/performing The Dybbuk, a classic masterpiece of Jewish theatre and cinema] on developing a series of short acts/performances with puppets—the figures of Dzigan and Shumacher—created these very days by the Argentinean sculptor Ayelen Coccoz, who is doing fascinating work. Their legacy will be revived through and performed with the help of those puppets, which are based not only on the images of Dzigan and Shumacher, but on the actual puppets of themselves which they used for some of their performances. So, I hope that my academic research and my artistic practice will meet in order to challenge each other.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.