Art Against Fascism: Joshua Sobol on the Radical Possibilities of Yiddish Theater

Rachelle Grossman

I first encountered Yehoshua (Joshua) Sobol’s work while on an arts-based teen tour in Israel in the mid-2000s. Somewhere near the Kinneret after a day of visiting historical kibbutzim, we performed excerpts from Leil Haesrim (1976), one of Sobol’s early works that dramatizes a night of heated debate between teenage Halutzim at the beginning of the Third Aliyah. In the tense hours before leaving their makeshift camp the young characters—not much older than we were then—confront issues of identity, misogyny, and sexuality. Underneath it all, they, along with the audience, feel the palpable anxiety that, come morning, they will get swept up in a national mythology that will rewrite them to suit its own ends.

Sobol’s most well-known and critically-acclaimed piece, “Ghetto” (1984), depicts quotidian life within the Vilna Ghetto in 1941 and 1943. 1 1 Together with Adam (1989) and Underground (1991), the three plays form the Vilna Triptych. Drawing on primary archival materials and based on historical characters, the play focuses on the Jewish theater within the ghetto, problematizing the impulse towards art in times of oppression; the simultaneous moral imperative to create and witness alongside the fraught implications of art’s own frivolousness and futility.

When I heard that Sobol would be in residence at Israeli Stage in Boston and delivering a lecture titled “Theatre as a Form of Resistance to Oppression,” I was hopeful he would shed some light on the revolutionary potential within art that could speak to our contemporary political situation. While he admitted to me that he is “not pretending that art can replace the direct political struggle,” Sobol’s work, nevertheless, continues to provoke and inspire conversation. Sobol’s play David, King” ran at Israeli Stage in early April.

Rachelle Grossman: Tell me about David, King.

Joshua Sobol: It’s a play that I wrote some two, three years ago. I wrote it thinking about the kind of leaders that are now taking over in different countries around the world—now in the United States, what’s going to happen in France in a short while, and in other countries—and I thought about the character of King David as a counterexample, a king who was not at all eager to grab power and to stay in power. I looked to the biblical story of David, and I took certain ideas from that biblical story to portray a king who became king in spite of himself.

The question is if we should hand over the power to people who are very eager and greedy to grab it, or if we should choose people who are not so eager for power and elect people who are good philosophers, good artists, maybe good technicians, scientists and so on, but who are not professional politicians, so to speak.

RG: You’ve written three plays in Yiddish. What has the reception of your plays been like in Israel, and do you see your work as a revival of the Yiddish theatrical tradition or something else?

JS: I grew up with Yiddish and Hebrew because my grandmother came from Lithuania and she was very adamant about talking Yiddish to me and teaching me to read and write Yiddish, and so I really grew up with the two languages—I was born in Israel in 1939.

There is a Yiddish theater that is functioning in Tel Aviv called Yiddishpiel. They contacted me and asked me if I would like to write something for them, so I wrote a play based on the songs and lyrics of Yiddish songwriter, Mordechai Gebirtig, who was very famous in the 1920s and 1930s. The play premiered in 1999, and it is still running—for seventeen consecutive years! It is being shown now even to high school students.

I translated Waiting for Godot into Yiddish and I directed it myself at Yiddishpiel. My concept of the play was based on a study on the play done by the French Jewish scholar, Valentin Temkine, who suggests that Vladimir and Estragon, the two protagonists of Waiting for Godot, are two Jewish refugees running away from the Nazis in 1943 from occupied Paris, trying to cross the border to Spain. Godot is a border smuggler for whom they are waiting to take them over the Spanish border.

These days I am trying to organize and arrange a co-production of my play Ghetto in Yiddish, and I am trying to bring together Yiddishspiel from Tel Aviv with the National Yiddish Theater in New York and the State Jewish Theater in Bucharest to put on the production. This play was done all over the world and it was translated into some twenty-odd languages and had some hundred more performances in Europe, Turkey, Japan, and other countries. It was never done in Yiddish, which is very strange because Yiddish is the language that the characters in the play would have used. So I hope that maybe a year from now we will have a coproduction of the play in Yiddish, which will be shown in Israel and New York, and maybe in Bucharest and Warsaw. Then we shall see, maybe it will have a longer life than that.

RG: Do you think there is an audience expectation that theater in Yiddish will have a relationship to the Holocaust?

JS: I don’t think that it must by all means deal only with the Holocaust because there was a very active Yiddish theatrical scene before the Second World War, including groups like the Vilna Troupe, which staged modern drama. I think that it would be very interesting to revive Yiddish theater like that, but it is very difficult now because there is no community that is using Yiddish as a living language except for the Orthodox communities in Jerusalem or maybe in New York. I think it would be very interesting to see, but it depends on the interest and the passion of a younger generation to learn the language and produce things in Yiddish. I would be happy to contribute as much as I can to such a revival.

RG: I’ve heard your play, Ghetto, described as “Brechtian.” Brecht was concerned with disturbing audience members’ complacency and challenging them to be critically, politically engaged. I’m curious what you think about the artist’s obligation to the public, and if art must serve a civic purpose?

JS: Yes, well I don’t know if my play is very Brechtian. It wasn’t my main concern throughout the play to do anything in Brecht’s style. I do believe that art in general and theater in particular plays a very important part when society is threatened by oppression, by dictatorship, by fascism—all these forms of anti-human characteristics that power can take. I think that art by its nature and theater by its nature are very prone to fight against those tendencies in a society. They are the tools that can help us to keep our human values when they are threatened by government or by dictators or by fascist tendencies that threaten democracy or freedom of speech or all those values that Western civilization has defended and developed in the last few hundred years since the French Revolution. Art should fight against those tendencies and keep us alert when we are threatened in our country or other countries threatened by fascistic tendencies taking over the power. I am very concerned with what is happening now in Europe and what happened in the United States. This is a time when art should really mobilize its power to defend spiritual and moral human values.

RG: I’m curious what success looks like in that case. What kinds of outcomes do you look for when art is effective in mobilizing such a defense?

JS: Of course, the question is, “how effective can it be?” I don’t think that art can replace politics. It cannot. It cannot replace direct action. Therefore, I am not pretending that art can replace the direct political struggle. But I think that it is a means of keeping our awareness alive and alert to understand what’s going on around us. Shakespeare was the one who said that theater should place a mirror to the times and show us our real face, so to speak. I think the theater has always had the ability to assemble the community and confront the community with the aggression against its values, against its morals. Placing on the agenda questions checking our morality, seeing to what extent we have given up our values, or are we ready to defend our values and so on.

I think that theater and culture are very influential in feeding public discourse, public dialogue, the open dialogue between people, and putting certain themes and questions on the agenda so things cannot be wiped under the carpet or forgotten. This is what art can do and what theater mainly can do, and also nowadays of course cinema which is another form of dramatic art. So it’s not only theater, but theater has its own niche that can be very effective.

RG: What do you make of the cultural chasm between art that seeks to start a conversation and the proliferation of “internet culture,” where complex ideas are reduced to soundbites?

JS: Well this is a very hot question, so to speak, because I think that reality TV programs replace written drama. They usurp the place of written drama. People tend to refer to it as true drama, which is of course false. It is more a peep show. And a peep show—we know that people are very curious. If you offer them a peep show we know people will fight for a few minutes in front of the porthole to see what’s going on on the other side of the door. But, it feeds only our primitive curiosity. It has nothing to do with real culture. Therefore I believe that reality TV programs and what the internet is offering 2 2 Surely including digital publications like In geveb! is a replacement of higher forms of culture. I think it is noxious. It is dangerous. It develops the kind of human being who becomes very lazy, whose thought is very lazy. The culture of monobites is something we’re getting so used to by using text messages and abbreviations, I “like” it, I don’t “like” it, I have 20,000 “likes” and so on. It is dangerous. As I said before it may bring forth a generation that will not be able even to think seriously about its own future, and it’s a future that is at stake.

RG: Are you an optimist, then?

JS: An optimist? (laughs) After so many years of writing plays, I don’t know to what extent my plays have played any part in the Israeli reality, but I am simply not able to give up. I am not really optimistic. We should be aware of the danger that our future will be hijacked by great interests and the robotization of our life.

RG: Tell me about how your work has been received by audiences in different countries.

JS: I consider myself very lucky as a playwright because I have had my plays translated into many languages, and I have been very successful with a few of them, winning awards in England and also in Japan. I also have a good dialogue with German audiences. My play, Bloody Money, is about the German compensations paid to Israel by Germany in the 1950s and the controversy that took place in Israel at that time. It premiered in Stuttgart, Germany, and I had very interesting contact with the audience after.

RG: I heard there was controversy surrounding the play iWitness?

JS: iWitness? Yes, well there was a controversy. It was at the time of the Second Intifada when Israel used very violent means to trample down this upheaval, and at a certain point there were soldiers and officers and even pilots that refused to serve as oppressors. I wrote this play that deals with a conscientious objector in Austria at the time of the Second World War who refuses to serve in the Wehrmacht, and I brought it as an example of the limits of civil obedience. I put it as a question to confront the audience: should there be a limit to civil obedience? And I think that civil disobedience is necessary in a democracy when the government or rulers try to use the military power in an immoral way. Then of course it is the duty of the citizen to say there is a limit, “I’m not willing to serve as a tool to carry out immoral policy or practice or anything against other civilians.” That was an open debate that followed the presentation of the play in Tel Aviv. It was quite successful. It was on for two seasons.

RG: I suppose that’s the goal of your work then, to spark those kinds of conversations.

JS: I think that theater should, from time to time, raise a controversy. It is good for the theater, it is good for the audience not only to be flattered and entertained—of course I am for entertainment, I think theater is, of course, entertainment—but at the same time you can also tackle hot questions and confront the audience with the questions that people tend to avoid or suppress.

Grossman, Rachelle. “Art Against Fascism: Joshua Sobol on the Radical Possibilities of Yiddish Theater.” In geveb, May 2017:
Grossman, Rachelle. “Art Against Fascism: Joshua Sobol on the Radical Possibilities of Yiddish Theater.” In geveb (May 2017): Accessed Jun 14, 2024.


Rachelle Grossman

Rachelle Grossman is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at Harvard University.