Warren Wood (University of California at Santa Barbara)

The Dybbuk and the Re-Imagination of American Jewish Identity

This is the story of how a Jewish community, split along lines of religious practice, class, and national origin, came together through the staging of S. Ansky’s play, The Dybbuk. The arrival in San Francisco of a wave of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the early twentieth century exacerbated a separation which had existed since the Gold Rush between Jews of Eastern European origin and Jews of Germanic origin.

Archival records, oral histories, and contemporary newspaper accounts reveal how, in 1928, Rabbi Lewis I. Newman of the Temple Emanu-el, which was the congregation founded by German Jews in 1851, decided to revive the sagging spirituality of his congregants by exposing them to the American virtues he saw inherent in the life of Eastern European Chasidism. His vehicle was to be the performance of The Dybbuk by Emanu-el’s amateur theater group. The hyper-ambitious Newman would engage Nachum Zemach, the world’s most famous director of Yiddish theater to stage the play. Zemach’s artistic drive forced the powers at Emanu-el to allow some young Jewish performers, recently emigrated from Eastern Europe, to be cast in the production. Their understanding of Yiddishkeit, the effulgent Yiddish-based literature and culture which had blossomed in Eastern Europe of which The Dybbuk was a supreme example, proved a key element of the play’s success.

The play never brought about the religious revival that Newman envisioned, but as might be predicted by the borderlands theories articulated by Fredrik Barth, Richard White, and others, the direct contact between the two groups of Jews through the staging and hearing of the play paved the way for a re-imagination of what it meant to be an American Jew in San Francisco. This new, re-imagined Jewishness prided itself in both the pioneer heritage of Jews of the American West and the Jewish culture and traditions that had flourished in Eastern Europe, and it contributed more than anything else to the erasing of the border between the two groups.

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