Sweden’s National Theater is staging its first ever Yiddish production – J.
Actors in a new production of “Waiting for Godot” at Dramaten in Stockholm performed neither in the classic play’s original English nor in Swedish translation.
Rather, they spoke Yiddish, a language spoken by few Swedes but increasingly cherished by many.
The Yiddish version of Samuel Beckett’s classic absurdist play, translated by Shane Baker, premiered in 2013 through New Yiddish Rep, a theater company in New York City, led by Moshe Yassur, a Holocaust survivor whose career in Yiddish theater dates back to his pre-war childhood in Romania. It has toured as far away as Paris and Enniskillen in Northern Ireland.
The performances marked their debut in Sweden, and for the first time ever as a play in Yiddish was staged at Sweden’s national theater company – the only home that its local supporters considered.
“I did not want it anywhere else but in Dramaten,” says Lizzie Oved Scheja, CEO of Jewish culture in Sweden, one of the institutions responsible for bringing the show to Stockholm, about the choice of venue.
– We believe that Jewish culture should be part of Swedish culture and that it should be presented on all major stages in Sweden, she says.
The three performances were almost full and drew prominent audiences, including the Swedish Minister of Culture, which led Oved Scheja to characterize the staging as “a triumph for a culture that would be wiped out” during the Holocaust.
In Sweden today, no more than 3,000 people out of a Jewish population of about 25,000 can speak Yiddish, according to the country’s Society for Yiddish (Yiddish Society). Even that figure may well be an overestimation, given the country’s small number of Haredi Orthodox Jews, the population that most often speaks Yiddish in their ordinary lives and high assimilation rates.
But the language has a long history in the country, dating back to the 18th century, when Jews were first allowed to settle in the country. The population of Yiddish speakers increased further in the early 20th century, with a new wave of Jewish emigration, mainly from Russia, and after World War II, when thousands of Holocaust survivors arrived in Sweden, who had protected their own Jewish population. from the Nazis.
In 2000, Yiddish became one of Sweden’s official minority languages (together with Finnish, Sami, meänkieli and Romani). The status “cultural heritage” provided state funding for initiatives aimed at preserving the language in Sweden for the past 20 years.
At the same time, some younger Swedes have begun to reconnect with their Jewish heritage, in line with a trend that has taken place throughout Europe.
“There is a generation of people who are now in their 30s, 40s, 50s and find out that they are Jews,” said Oved Scheja. Their interest in Yiddish means that it is taught at universities in Lund and Uppsala, and at Paideia, a 20-year-old Jewish institute in Stockholm.
Swedish Radio has a program dedicated to Yiddish called “Yiddish far alle“Or” Yiddish for everyone “, and two years ago a Swedish publisher, Nikolaj Olniansky, released, Yiddish translation of “Harry Potter.” The publication was partly financed by the Swedish government, as well as many other initiatives aimed at preserving minority languages.
An active The Society for Yiddish (The Yiddish Society) – which has its own amateur theater and puts on classic plays in the language – is the foremost Swedish organization dedicated to preserving Yiddish’s cultural heritage. The society helped to produce Beckett’s play, with the support of J! Jewish Culture in Sweden, which has more experience of identifying Jewish artists, writers and artists who will most likely engage the wider Swedish public.
In recent years, the two organizations have collaborated on several other projects linked to Yiddish, such as a Yiddish film series. Last month, it launched a Yiddish-language podcast, “Yiddish Talks”. First episode is a conversation with Baker, the translator and actor in “Waiting for Godot” – who is not a Jew.
The play’s connection to Jewish culture precedes the translation into Yiddish. Beckett’s cinema wrote about how a Jewish friend who was captured by the Nazis and died shortly after liberation was an inspiration to the playwright, who in an early draft christened a character Levy, a traditional Jewish name. And Beckett’s nephew, who saw the play a few years ago, reportedly said it could have been written in Yiddish because the language fit so well with its themes.
“Waiting is Jewish,” Yassur told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency after one of Stockholm’s performances. “‘Godot’ is very much a part of the Jewish tradition of waiting. Jews have been waiting for the Messiah for 2,000 years. He will not come, but they are still waiting.”
Yassur was born in the 1930s in Iași, Romania, the same working-class city where Avraham Goldfaden had established what became known as the first professional Yiddish theater in the world decades earlier, speaking Yiddish and performing in Yiddish theater as a child. After surviving a major pogrom in his city in 1941 and since the Holocaust, he moved to Israel in 1950 and later to New York.
It was only years later that he returned to work in his first language at the New Yiddish Rep, a decision he said was “natural” to him. But he said he does not see himself as a patron of Yiddish or has a mission to bring Yiddish theater to life.
“Yiddish will survive and protect itself. As long as the Jewish people survive, the Yiddish language will also survive,” Yassur said.
While the play was written as millions of displaced people, including Yassur, wandered across devastated Europe, it resonates with today’s migration problems. Sweden has in recent years received an influx of refugees, then addressed challenges related to their absorption and an increase in right-wing extremist political activity aimed at rejecting immigrants.
– The notion of displacement, cultural and linguistic, is a pan-European issue and Sweden has also been affected by it, says playwright Beata Hein Bennett. “There’s a line in ‘Waiting for Godot’ where Estragon asks, ‘Where do we get in?’ Vladimir replies: ‘On our hands and knees’. “
The disputed status of immigrants in Swedish society, where Jews were not so long ago a large refugee population, made a Yiddish performance of the play at the Royal Dramatic Theater even more resonant.
“It is extremely important that a play in Yiddish was played on the national stage,” said Oved Sheja. – It shows the theater’s willingness to open up, to have diversity. And what is the essence of diversity if not this language, this play itself, the fact that it is performed by an ensemble from New York? ”