Milwaukee scholar co-founded Digital Yiddish Theatre Project

In the beginning, the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project wasn’t digital, and it wasn’t a project. It was just a nameless concept and the topic of an ongoing discussion between friends Joel Berkowitz and Debra Caplan.

“Debra, at the time, was a Harvard graduate student writing her dissertation,” said Berkowitz, professor of foreign languages and literature and director of the Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin ­– Milwaukee.

This Thalia Theatre poster promotes King Solomon at the Thalia Theatre, New York, by Josef Kroger, 1897.

“We wanted to include people with complimentary skills and disciplines covering different languages where Yiddish theater was active,” Berkowitz said. By 2014, Caplan was an assistant professor in the theater department at Baruch College in New York, and the DYTP was a research consortium with more than a dozen members.

The DYTP website describes its members as including “theatre researchers, historians, literary scholars, musicologists, film scholars, librarians, archivists, performers, musicians, and independent scholars.”

The group met virtually until March of 2014, when Berkowitz hosted a three-day workshop at UWM. In addition to strategy sessions about what to do moving forward and how to get the project off the ground, there were two public events. One was a concert; the other a series of five-minute talks about different aspects of Yiddish theater.

“It was basically a cluster of Yiddish theater mini-TED talks,” Berkowitz said. “So we each gave those talks and then had a round-table discussion with the audience.”

By the end of the workshop, the group had decided to start a multi-author blog. In December, 2014, the site went live with its first blog post. Three years out, each new post attracts between 5,000 and 9,000 hits.

“We try to post something new every couple of weeks,” Berkowitz said, “and we’ve had guest contributors from all over the world write about various subjects.”

Bloggers write about anything that captures their interest. Topics include Yiddish vaudeville at the turn of the 20th century; Melbourne, Australia native David Sluki’s reflections about his late father’s lifelong involvement with that city’s Yiddish theater company; and Faith Jones’ story of Zalmen Zylbercweig’s seven-volume “Encyclopedia of Yiddish Theater.”

“He started publishing one volume at a time from the 1930s to the late 1960s,” Berkowitz said, “and had prepared most of a seventh volume but he died of heart attack in 1972 without having published the final volume.”

The mostly-completed galleys of Volume 7 were in the YIVO Archives, a massive Jewish library maintained by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. There was no way for general readers or scholars without resources to easily access the book.

This poster promotes Yiddish theater at a high school. By Federal Art Project via Wikimedia Commons.

Consortium members reached out to Zylbercweig’s heirs for written permission to publish Volume 7, and to YIVO, quickly getting a green light from both. Grant funding came from UWM and the City University of New York, where Caplan teaches. The group hired a web design firm to design a site that would house both the Encyclopedia, the blog and future projects.

The Encyclopedia is now live, although readers not fluent in Yiddish will mostly admire the illustrations and typography. The blog, however, is another matter.

“It’s designed for an intelligent lay audience,” Berkowitz said. “We try to avoid any specialized language – we’re not fans of academic jargon (anyway) and we want the blog to be lively, readable and fun.”

Along with lively prose, the blog includes plenty of still and video images, recordings and, Berkowitz said, both the blog and the site will continue to evolve.

“We’re open,” he said, “to enlivening it with any technology that’s going to bring these stories to life.”

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About this story

What is Yiddish theater?

It’s theater in Yiddish, a language spoken by many European Jews before World War II. The heyday of professional Yiddish theatre was from about 1880 to 1939, with performances in playhouses around the world. There’s no one theme in Yiddish plays. They have been varied, just like French, English and American plays have been.

Who are the people of the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project?

The members of the Digital Yiddish Theater Project are scholars from all over the world, including co-founders Professor Joel Berkowitz at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and Assistant Professor Debra Caplan of Baruch College, City University of New York. There are more than a dozen scholar-members in the project, in Israel, Europe and across North America.

What’s the website for?

The DYTP website is a resource — the only one of its kind — for anyone interested in the history and cultural legacy of Yiddish theatre. YiddishStage.org