Sep 18, 2023
Diego Rotman, The Yiddish Stage as a Temporary Home: Dzigan and Shumacher’s Satirical Theater (1927−1980). Translated from the Hebrew by Rebecca Wolpe. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2021. 330 pp. $21.99.
For decades, Dzigan and Shumacher’s names were virtually synonymous with Yiddish comedy. Famous for their comedic charisma and pointed political satire, Dzigan and Shumacher were central figures in the history of Yiddish performance and modern Jewish humor. And yet, as is the case for so many major figures in Yiddish theater, there has not been a comprehensive study of their careers, works, or impact – until now.
Diego Rotman’s The Yiddish Stage as a Temporary Home, in a thoughtful English translation from the original Hebrew by Rebecca Wolpe, offers a rigorous, richly detailed, and theoretically grounded account of Dzigan and Shumacher’s extraordinary lives and performances. Ambitious in its scope and fully realized in its execution, this book is a monumental contribution to our understanding of Jewish comedic theater and its significant political and social impacts.
Following the careers of Shimen Dzigan (1908-1980) and Yisroel Shumacher (1908-1961) is like tracing a roadmap through the progression of twentieth century subversive Yiddish comedy. The duo began their careers in the experimental Yiddish art theater scene in Łódź as members of the Ararat collective, under the direction of visionary Yiddish author and director Moyshe Broderzon. In and of itself, Rotman’s detailed analysis of Ararat’s revolutionary innovations is a significant contribution to Yiddish theater historiography in English, as this critically important avant-garde theater company has been woefully understudied.
In the mid-1930s, with Ararat on the verge of financial collapse, Dzigan and Shumacher moved to Warsaw, established their own company, and began performing as a comedic duo specializing in political satire. After the Nazis invaded Poland, the pair fled to Bialystok and became Soviet Yiddish theater performers, in a challenging period that included four years of imprisonment in a labor camp for “anti-Soviet activity.”
After the war, Dzigan and Shumacher moved to Israel and entered the final phase of their career, as subversive Yiddish comedy performers. In a country where Yiddish theater was perceived as a particularly insidious threat, Dzigan and Shumacher’s Yiddish comedy broke Israeli box office records and became a central component of Israeli popular culture. In spite of numerous government efforts to curtail their success, Dzigan and Shumacher continued to exert remarkable staying power. When the Israeli government decreed that performances in Yiddish were only permitted if at least one-third of the show was in Hebrew, Dzigan and Shumacher skirted around the requirement by keeping their skits entirely in Yiddish and hiring a singer to perform Hebrew songs in the interludes between skits. Ultimately, Dzigan and Shumacher compelled the Israeli authorities to repeal prohibitions on local actors appearing in Yiddish. Across a wide range of national, linguistic, and cultural contexts, this was the classic Dzigan and Shumacher playbook: make people laugh while subverting the existing political or social system, cleverly evade any attempts to censor their work, and satirize everything. Nothing was off limits.
Ultimately, in 1960, Dzigan and Shumacher quarreled and split. A year later, Shumacher died. For the next two decades, Dzigan continued their longstanding tradition of subversive, satirical performance alone, as a solo comedian. Rotman briefly considers Dzigan’s solo career, preferring to focus on the more impactful duo performances. Indeed, in the years after Shumacher’s death, Dzigan often lamented that his satire had lost its political power.
Thankfully, Rotman does not end The Yiddish Stage as a Temporary Home with the long, steady decline of Dzigan’s status, financial position, and social and political influence. Instead, the final chapter offers detailed comparative analysis of iconic Dzigan and Shumacher jokes and performances, including “Der nayer dibek” (The New Dybbuk, 1957), a parody of Sh. An-sky’s The Dybbuk where Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, played by Shumacher, is the Hasidic Rebbe exorcising the dybbuk of a new immigrant who can’t make a living in Israel. After much negotiation, Ben-Gurion suggests that the dybbuk move to Eilat, where residents were exempt from paying taxes. Meanwhile, Ben-Gurion’s daughter Medinele (a diminutive for medina [state], played by Dzigan) falls madly in love with the immigrant-dybbuk. The chapter concludes with an examination of the body vis-à-vis representations of Israel and Zionism in Dzigan and Shumacher’s Israeli satire.
Reading The Yiddish Stage as a Temporary Home, I was struck by Rotman’s decision to ground his analysis of Dzigan and Shumacher in the discourse of theater and performance studies. Many scholars of Yiddish theater come to the subject from Jewish and Yiddish Studies. But Rotman, who is the Head of the Department of Theater Studies at the Hebrew University, has one foot squarely in the world of theater and performance studies, and his knowledge of the field adds marvelously to his analysis of Dzigan and Shumacher’s comedic sketches. Philip Auslander, Joseph Roach, Susan Bennett, Judith Butler, Richard Schechner, and other theoreticians make regular appearances throughout the book, as Rotman examines Dzigan and Shumacher’s comedic output through the lens of contemporary theater studies theory and discourse. Rotman’s engagement with this wider theoretical field offers valuable insight into how Dzigan and Shumacher’s humor functioned vis-à-vis gender, politics, embodiment, acting style, and societal impact.
The book is also meticulously organized. Each chapter includes detailed sub-headings that point the reader towards what is about to be discussed. These detailed sub-headings are also included in the table of contents, a wonderful addition that allows the reader to easily find specific information that is of interest. Since Dzigan and Shumacher’s careers encompassed numerous artistic styles, countries, cultural contexts, and more than five decades, many scholars may be particularly interested only in certain sections of this book, like Rotman’s analysis of avant-garde language in the theater of Ararat, or the duo’s tumultuous years in the Soviet Union, or a comparison of Dzigan’s Yiddish satire in Israel versus Hebrew satire in the 1970s. The detailed information in the table of contents allows the reader to choose whether to read The Yiddish Stage as a Temporary Home as a whole or to enter at a particular area of interest. This is enormously valuable for the researcher who may be looking for particular information on a singular touchpoint of Dzigan and Shumacher’s long and wide-ranging careers.
Throughout their careers, Dzigan and Shumacher were remarkably adept at leveraging humor as a form of pointed societal and political critique while creatively evading the grasp of censors, lawmakers, and critics. Rotman traces their identity as subversive performers by continuously drawing our attention towards Dzigan and Shumacher’s decisions to evade conformity and chart their own path. In their earliest performances as a duo in interwar Warsaw, the duo chose to perform in their Łódź dialect, rather than using conventional Yiddish theater dialect (Voliner). In the late 1930s, when censors tried to curtail their commentary on current events, Dzigan and Shumacher responded by raising the price of tickets for the first three performances of a new show to five times the price. This would prevent the censors from attending the initial performances, allowing theatergoers who could afford the high ticket prices to see the show before the censors had a chance to insist on changes. When specific jokes were, inevitably, censored, Dzigan and Shumacher would simply come up with more jokes along similar lines. As Rotman writes, these subversive moves allowed audience members watching these shows to create “a discourse of opposition in the face of the oppressive reality, not only in the theater but also outside it, when people repeated the jokes, songs, and skits that they had heard in the theater” (79). In doing so, Dzigan and Shumacher helped their audiences transform feelings of passivity into creative rebellion.
Humor, as Rotman shows us, isn’t ever really “just” jokes. At the right time, from the right performers, humor can be a major catalyst for identity formation, social change, and subversive resistance. Time and time again, in interwar Poland, in the Soviet Union, and in the early years of the Israeli state, Dzigan and Shumacher’s unique brand of Yiddish satirical comedy created what Rotman calls a “temporary deterritorialization” for their audiences, allowing viewers to be transported for two or three hours to an alternate reality that “was ruled by artistic culture in Yiddish, despite the political, economic, and ideological repression” – a “temporary alternative to the reigning cultural and linguistic order” (260). In doing so, Dzigan and Shumacher helped audiences to be able to imagine an alternate reality – and to drive the world of the present towards it. Their work was certainly entertaining, as Rotman makes clear in a series of skit excerpts and close-readings that are still laugh-at-loud funny, even on the page, even half a century or more later. But to their audiences, Dzigan and Shumacher’s humor was so much more than just a funny night out at the theater. It offered visions of an alternate, better world for Jewish audiences caught up in the trials of the twentieth century – an alternate reality where Eastern European Jews could truly be at home.