The Origins of Jewish Performance

From Prohibition to Precedent.

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Changing Attitudes under Hellenism

Jewish attitudes towards theatre changed as the stage came to symbolize the oppressive Hellenistic and Roman cultures and regimes. Vulgar comedy and violence personified Roman theatre. Prisoners awaiting execution, including Jews, were often killed as part of Roman plays. 

It is not surprising, therefore, that the rabbis in the Talmud considered theatre a sinful waste of time. This attitude was expressed in a prayer composed during the talmudic period: "You did not cast my lot among those who frequent theatres and circuses... For I will inherit the world to come; and they, the pit of destruction." Israeli theatre scholar Shimon Levy explains in his Theatre and Holy Script that theatre was deplored because it "presents a real religious threat: the power to transform matter into spirit and vice versa. In traditional rabbinic Judaism, this remains the exclusive prerogative of God."

Jewish tradition did not oppose all theatricality per se. Performance with spiritual potential was sanctioned within the confines of the Temple. For example, Simhat Beit Hasho'eva (The Water Drawing Festival) was a carnivalesque celebration held in the Temple during Sukkot. Following the destruction of the Temple, the Talmud describes this event in nostalgic terms, yearning for a return to the exuberant atmosphere of singing and dancing, of rabbis juggling fire and performing strange acrobatics.

Despite the bans on pagan theatre, Hellenized Jews in both the Greek and Roman worlds could be found in theatre audiences. In ancient Turkey, according to a surviving inscription, prime theatre seating was reserved for pious Jews. There were also famous Jewish actors in the Roman theatre, such as the actress Faustina and the actor Aliturus, Nero's favorite mime.

Amid the rabbinic aversion and brewing anti-Jewish sentiment there is just one known Jewish playwright, a dramatist named Ezekiel who lived in Alexandria around the second century B.C.E. He wrote Exagogue, a Greek tragedy about Moses. Only a fragment of the script has survived, but it is the earliest recorded biblical drama. In Alexandria, it is likely that Jews and Greeks both attended performances of this biblical adaptation. It probably served a political purpose in allowing Jews to present themselves as a law-abiding people with a philosophical understanding of God, at a time when the persecution of Jews was an emerging threat.

Jewish Theatre

Wedding and holiday celebrations functioned as a natural stage for Jewish performance. A particularly Jewish entertainment tradition began with the badhanim, professional wedding jesters, mentioned in Jewish literature from the Talmud to medieval rabbinic writings.

The holiday of Purim also lends itself to theatre. Actors have a story, audience, and performance space built into the tradition of reading the Book of Esther. The Purimspiel, a folk performance developed in the 12th century, gave the poor access to the rich and a more dignified manner to beg: "Today Purim has come in, tomorrow it goes out. Give me then my single groschen and kindly throw me out!"

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Yoni Oppenheim is a theatre director living in New York and the associate editor of the Jewish Play Catalogue. He holds a B.F.A. in Drama from NYU and is a candidate for an M. Ph. in Ibsen Studies at the University of Oslo.