Pedagogy

Shulamis from the Stage to the Classroom

Nahma Sandrow

INTRODUCTION

Libret­tist and the­ater his­to­ri­an; trans­la­tor and life­long fan of Yid­dish the­ater; pro­fes­sor and teacher Nah­ma Sandrow has recent­ly pub­lished her full trans­la­tion of 
Shu­lamis; or The Daugh­ter of Jerusalem (1881) by Avrom Gold­fadn – a foun­da­tion­al text for Yid­dish the­ater – on her per­son­al web­site. Shu­lamis was the most famous, most often per­formed operetta in the Yid­dish reper­to­ry, and although it has been trans­lat­ed over the years into Russ­ian, Ukrain­ian, Span­ish, and oth­er lan­guages, this is like­ly the first Eng­lish trans­la­tion. The trans­la­tion is free and open access, and any­one is wel­come to read, copy and assign the trans­la­tion at will – though the trans­la­tor asks to be con­tact­ed before any staged pro­duc­tion. On her web­site, Sandrow offers an intro­duc­tion with a plot syn­op­sis and a translator’s note.

To mark the occa­sion of this pub­li­ca­tion – and to spread the news about this resource – In geveb asked Sandrow to offer some sug­ges­tions for instruc­tors who might want to teach the text in their Jew­ish his­to­ry, cul­ture, or lit­er­a­ture class­rooms. The guid­ing ques­tions were writ­ten by the edi­tors of In geveb.

You can find the full text of the trans­la­tion, with Sandrow’s intro­duc­tion, here.

A course or at least a unit cen­tered around Avram Goldfadn’s operetta Shu­lamis; or, The Daugh­ter of Jerusalem is a good way to teach mod­ern Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­al cul­tur­al his­to­ry. Below, in sketchy group­ings, are a few sug­ges­tions a teacher might want to explore.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

The circumstances of late nineteenth century eastern Europe and Russia enabled the emergence of Shulamis in 1880. Industrialization, together with a brief period of liberalization under Czar Alexander II, brought more freedom for Jews to move around in the larger world, including going to the theater. Secular Yiddish printing presses and admission of Jews to university encouraged haskole in general and a blooming of Yiddish literature, including Yiddish drama. Conversely, the point should be made that Jews were never in total isolation; Shulamis incorporates a number of European stage conventions, such as the mad scene of nineteenth-century opera, as well as a wide variety of musical modes.

Guiding Questions:

1) The play is a romanticized, exoticized version of ancient Jewish history. In what ways does it reflect on its particular historical context? What can we learn about East European Jewish life in the 1880s from this play that is so emphatically not about that subject?

2) What is the role of nationalism in this text?

3) What contemporaneous European stage conventions can students identify? What other plays could this one be productively compared to, outside of Yiddish?

ENLIGHTENMENT

Analyzing Shulamis facilitates discussion of key elements of haskole. Free-thinking Eastern European Jews who embraced Enlightenment developed some acquaintance with European theater and with theatergoing. Shulamis is part of the emergence of modern Yiddish literature. It can also be related to a contemporaneous romantic Hebrew-language novel, itself representative of haskole attitudes and tastes. The dialogue is heavily daytshmersh; in translation, I tried through formal diction to suggest that, but a teacher could at the least read some of the original aloud for the sound and to point out Germanic cognates and borrowings.

Guiding Questions:

1) For students who can understand the Yiddish original: How would you describe the quality of the language? What might be the aesthetic or ideological purposes for Germanic cognates and borrowings?

2) How do you understand this play as emerging from a Haskole environment? Is it about the substance of the play itself, or about integrating Jewish subjects — and audiences — into European pastimes such as theatergoing?

3) To what extent do you see this play as an extension of earlier Jewish folk theater, such as Purim shpils, and to what extent do you see it as an extension of European theatrical traditions?

SECULAR LITERARY USES OF RELIGIOUS TRADITION

Shulamis illustrates a characteristic use of religious tradition for modern secular purposes, both thematic and aesthetic. The story derives in part from a Talmudic legend. Setting in the Second Temple period evokes a glorious ancient past, as do the scenes of pilgrimage and worship. The script is full of references, in Hebrew, to religious practice and liturgy, in dialogue and notably in lyrics, such as Shulamis’ biblical tales of martyrdom when lost in the desert and her lovelorn lamentations that she compares to kadish. Shulamis’ suitors even present themselves in folky Purim shpil form.

Guiding Questions:

1) Identify several references to religious practice and liturgy. How are they repurposed for the secular theater?

2) Would you describe this as a “religious” play? Why, or why not?

SHULAMIS AS THEATER

Of course, Shulamis was written not for the classroom but for the stage. The music is a primary delight. High emotion, with calculated release through musical numbers and comedy, suspense, spectacle – all these have been perennial favorites since the Greeks.

In particular, Shulamis includes elements that are congenial for our times: The plot involves two strong female characters, one of them the title role. Although in Goldfadn’s mind the male protagonist seems to be the hero, probably to many of today’s audiences he is appealing precisely because he is not heroic.

This plot is disturbing in a way that seems more contemporary than nineteenth-century – dark fantasy is a popular mode in our current moment. Not only is the simple happy ending normal for operettas and musical comedies complicated in an unusual way in this script; Avigail’s thread is actually dropped. Directors might well feel the need to deal with that, maybe by keeping her physically onstage somehow, brooding darkly right through the jubilant last act, or maybe by uniting her, perhaps in pantomime, with the suitor who wanted her in Act II. Dara Horn has suggested that redemptive resolutions reflect an essentially Christian worldview, whereas ambiguous conclusions are characteristically Jewish; on the other hand, Goldfadn clearly means us to recognize Avsholem’s return to Shulamis as redemptive.

1) Would you describe this as a “dark” play? Explain your reasoning.

2) How would you describe the emotional arc of the play, and how does the play convey emotion?

3) Ask students to experiment with staging a scene of the play in the classroom. Different students can take turns playing the role of the director, and can direct the scene according to varied interpretations. How do decisions like intonation, movement, etc. change the meaning or experience of the scene?

Extension Activity: Tracing the many productions of Shulamis around the world since 1880 is a way to picture the diffusion of Yiddish-speaking communities and their various situations over time. It also is an opportunity to make vivid the many stars who played the title role. The operetta’s great popularity is interesting in itself: why has it been performed over and over again? Invite students to research one or more historic performances of this play and present their findings to one another.

MLA STYLE
Sandrow, Nahma. “Shulamis from the Stage to the Classroom.” In geveb, February 2024: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/shulamis.
CHICAGO STYLE
Sandrow, Nahma. “Shulamis from the Stage to the Classroom.” In geveb (February 2024): Accessed Jun 19, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nahma Sandrow

Nahma Sandrow is a librettist and a scholar of theater and cultural history. She is author of Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater and two volumes of translations of Yiddish plays.