The Origins of Jewish Performance

From Prohibition to Precedent.

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By the 16th century the Purimspiel grew more structured and resembled a Fastnachtspiel, a German carnival play. In the late 17th century, other biblical stories were adapted for the Purimspiel including the sale of Joseph by his brothers, and David's defeat of Goliath. These formed the basis for what would become Yiddish theatre in Europe. Though most rules relaxed on Purim, as cross-dressing and inebriation become permissible, German rabbis at times cracked down on lewdness in many Purimspiels, and banned their practice.

Theatre in Hebrew sprang from the seeds Yehuda Sommo planted. This 16th century theatrical producer in Mantua, Italy authored the oldest existing Hebrew play, Tzachut Bedichuta de Kiddushin ("The Comedy of Betrothal"). A farcical comedy written in the popular Italian style, it is based on a talmudic passage in Tractate Gittin (8b and 9a) concerning a master bequeathing all his possessions, except one, to his slave. While amusingly critiquing the Jewish community's dealings surrounding betrothal and marriage, this play proved the literary potential of the Hebrew language and marks the beginning of Hebrew theatre.

In Mantua, the center of new Italian drama, Sommo's Jewish community had its own theatre company. Though it operated in a ghetto, this theatre company performed annually for Mantua’s dukes. Its Friday performances started early to ensure they did not conflict with the Sabbath, and its success was largely a credit to the vision of Sommo. 

Having earned acclaim beyond Jewish circles as a theatrical authority and innovator in Europe, Sommo was the only Jewish writer admitted into Mantua's Accademia degli Invaghiti (Academy of the Infatuated Ones--a society for noblemen and scholars). In 1580 Sommo was exempted from wearing the yellow badge required of Jews, and in 1585 he was allowed to purchase property on which the community's synagogue was built.

Sommo bridged worlds. He argued in both his plays and theoretical writings that the idea of Jewish theatre is no paradox.  According to his Comedy of Betrothal, Jewish theatre’s lofty aim is “to glorify the Torah, to study and to teach and do what is good and right in the eyes of the Lord and Man." In his Dialogues on the Art of the Stage he asserted that the biblical Book of Job, written in mostly dialogue, was the first dramatic text in recorded history--and that this form was appropriated by the Greek playwrights.

The Book of Job, his argument went, granted precedent and legitimacy for Jewish involvement in theatre. By dissociating Jewish theatre from the Hellenistic pagan tradition, Sommo opened the door for Jewish theatre of subsequent generations.

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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.